Tonga Part ll
08 October 2019
To get to Vava’u was a 28 hour sail and we were certainly glad to get the anchor down in Refuge Bay. It was a good sail, with an E/ENE, force 5 most of the way but the swell is never gentle and our cast-iron stomachs are letting us down more and more these days. You would think after sailing more than half way around the world we would be a couple of hardened old salty by dogs by now!
Neiafu is the main town of Vava’u with a small harbour and sheltered waters known as Refuge Bay. The town is dominated by the white Catholic Church that looks down on the rather shabby high street. The town caters for the many yachties (including those that charter the Sunsail and Moorings boats) and for the tourists that book into the basic guest houses to experience a swim with the Humpback whales.
Facilities are reasonably good with several small Chinese supermarkets, a good fruit and veg market, banks, pharmacy, tourist shops, bars and restaurants mostly owned by New Zealand and Australian expats, a meat /deli run by a Canadian couple and even a Spanish Tapas bar.
Vava’u is the main touristy area and as we sailed south through the Ha’apai group to Tongatapu we just enjoyed the lovely rural islands and peaceful anchorages.
Booking a trip to snorkel with the whales was definitely a priority for us although some take the view they are being harassed and altering natural behaviour. The Humpback whales migrate to these warmer waters from the Antarctic between June and October to calf and mate. Humpback populations have declined worldwide from estimated numbers of 150,000 in the early 1800s to 12,000 today and Tonga was the first country in the world to declare their waters a sanctuary for whales. Royal Proclamation by the King banned hunting and killing of whales in 1978 when the whales in Tonga came close to extinction with less than 50 whales remaining here, but numbers are thought to have recovered since then to around 2000.
Only licensed boats are able to approach the whales, and once in the water only five people at a time can swim within five meters, although I was happy to keep further aback. We had an amazing experience having three fantastic dives with a male and female that were just resting below the surface. Until you are in the water you have no idea how big they really are. It was surreal and my heart was thumping when 40 tons decided to be curious and surface right in front of us. We were all trying to swim away as fast as we could but just as we thought we were going to be railroaded they gently dived beneath us.
They seemed relaxed in our presence and could easily have dived and disappeared if not. At least protecting them, albeit making a tourist industry, has allowed numbers to increase.
Worryingly there seems to be a big injection of aid in Tonga from Japan and I can’t help being cynical in thinking in return, one day, the Japanese will want to recommence whale hunting in Tongan waters!
Tonga is one of the poorest countries in the South Pacific. Income for the islanders is from agriculture, fishing and from the underdeveloped tourist industry on some of the main islands. There is foreign aid from China and Japan but as Tonga was never colonised it doesn’t receive as much aid as other Polynesian islands.
We found that most of the bars, restaurants and beach resorts were owned by by expats and the Chinese had the monopoly when it came to supermarkets.
In Tongatapu, Big Mamas yacht club is owned by a Tongan couple. It is the closest anchorage to the capital of Nuka’alofa and Big Mamas sits on a beautiful little island. We were one of at least twenty yachts anchored and the bar at night should be heaving. Why wasn’t it? Well all I can say is everything about it lacked imagination, for example the menu for lunch and dinner, EVERY DAY, was tuna and chips or hamburger and chips. In our opinion they were sitting on a little goldmine.
It’s unclear why the Tongans don’t have more ownership whether it’s lack of entrepreneurial skills, capital or they just don’t really care. Tongan life is incredibly laid back and perhaps they’re just content with what they’ve got?
Many families depend on remittances being sent from family members living abroad mainly New Zealand, Australia or America. A taxi driver was telling us that he has eight children, most living abroad and he considered himself to be rich as his family now support him and his wife by sending not only money but crates of good quality second hand clothes and household goods. What they don’t use they sell. He felt sorry for those who didn’t have large families.
The Kingdom of Tonga has had a king or queen since the 10th century AD. King Tupou IV became ruler in 1965 and achieved renown as the world’s heaviest monarch, weighing 210kg before becoming a role model for Tongans when he lost over 75kg in weight. The Tongans as many Polynesian have a significant weight problem and diabetes is a major health concern. The current King Tupou VI has ruled since 2012.
Tonga is also known as the ‘Friendly Islands’, named by Captain James Cook when he visited in 1773 and he and his men were treated to lavish feasting and entertainment by the local chief, Finau. What Cook didn’t realise at the time was that there had been a conspiracy to kill him and his crew and raid his two ships Resolution and Discovery, but he left before the plot was carried out and the Friendly Islands they have remained
As the Rugby World Cup in Japan is currently taking place it’s hard not to notice that Rugby Union is the national sport and the national team (Ikale Tahi or Sea Eagles) has played in seven Rugby World Cup tournaments.
We arrived in Tongatapu a week ago now waiting for the right weather window to sail to New Zealand. As good practice before a long sail, Bill likes to inspect the rigging and I have the the job of winching him up the mast.
I suddenly hear a few expletives and Bill declaring we have a disaster, one of the stainless steel shroud swages has a crack. The shrouds are twisted lengths of stainless steel wire that are rigged between mast and decking and give the mast its strength. The swage is the fitting that the wire is crimped to and then bolts to the mast. If one of the shrouds breaks then the mast is severely weakened.
We didn’t actually have a disaster, that would have been at sea if the shroud broke and then been at severe risk of losing the mast. The situation in Tongatapu is there are no marinas or riggers and so repairs must be done ourselves. To replace the shroud would mean waiting weeks for new parts to be shipped out.
Fortunately Bill and Julian (sailing buddies A’Capella) are pretty ingenious at problem solving and managed to rig dynema line to give strength to the mast. They also managed to get the broken shroud off and repaired (although still a temporary fix) by a welder in Nuka’alofa. We have sent photos to Dan the Malö agent in the UK who has talked it over with our riggers in the UK and the consensus is that we should be safe to sail to New Zealand.
So today Wednesday 9th October we say goodbye to Tonga and the South Pacific. We have our thermal clothes looked out as the further south we go the colder it will be. New Zealand’s had a cold winter and October is just the beginning of Spring.
05 October 2019
We entered Tongan waters on a lovely day of the 28th August after a 32 hour sail from Samoa. Our landfall was the small remote island of Nuiatoputapu, its only visible neighbour being a high conical shaped volcano in the distance.
Tonga is an archipelago of 176 islands with four main groups known as Nuia, Vava'u, Ha'apai and Tongatapu spread from north to south by over 500 miles. Only 52 of the islands are inhabited with a total population approaching 105,000 with 70% of the population living on Tongatapu.
The word tonga comes from fakatonga which means "southwards" as the archipelago is the southernmost group of islands of central Polynesia.
Nuiatoputapu is hard to pronounce (Newya-toepoo-tapoo) it's a bit of a tongue twister so a few yachties refer to this island as New Potatoes.
Nuiatoputapu is a port of entry and contacting customs/immigration is usually by radio but in Nuiatoputapu it was a dingy ride or a 3 kilometres walk to the office. We sailed from Samoa with A'Capella and the advantage of being the slower boat is that Julian had already done the dingy ride and organised for the officials to come the next morning. There were four boats needing to be checked in.
The following morning Bill dingy'd ashore to collect the officials, two ladies and a gentleman waiting on the wharf. We were the first boat to be cleared in and I offered our guests a drink (as you do), meaning tea/coffee or a soft drink. The ladies took a cola but the gentleman asked for a beer. A little later he had no hesitation in asking for another. I put aside my disapproval, not wanting to upset these guys,so dutifully fetched another cold beer out of the fridge. All paperwork and inspection completed, Bill took the officials over to the next boat. Our Tongan official, obviously being very thirsty that morning, brazenly asked for beer and even bottles of wine (as a gift!) on each of the following boats and was rather drunk by the end of his official duties. Was this typical of Tongan culture or just this man?
To be fair our friend (sorry never did catch his name) redeemed himself a bit by turning up the next day with enough bananas, coconuts, tapioca, papayas etc to share amongst the boats and announced he would organise a beach bbq to welcome the eight yachts now anchored in Nuiatoputapu. There was only a total of twenty-five visiting yachts last year. We felt perhaps we had misjudged him as he would be providing two suckling pigs, freshly caught fish and other Tongan food.
The bbq was a fun social gathering but the one tiny roasted suckling pig (no sign of the other or the fish) was a mere morsel when divided between sixteen people and we couldn't help but feel our Tongan friend had yet another boozy event at the sailors expense!
Life on this remote island is very sleepy. Nuiatoputapu has a small population divided between two villages. There is no tourist industry, the one small beach resort never reopened after the extensive tsunami that followed the Samoan earthquake in 2009. There is one shop with little stock, a police station with only one police officer, a post office, school, hospital and a small airport.
There is subsistence farming, lots of pigs and the women make the mats from the pandanus leaves. We were free to wander/bike around the island. A happy five days later we lifted the anchor to head south to the Vava'u group.
26 August 2019
We arrived in Apia, on the main Island of Upolu in Samoa after a four day sail from Suwarrow passing American Samoa along the way.
Apia is the main city (although we would probably see it as a large town) which is modern, with many restaurants, shops and markets. After paying extortionate prices for food and eating out in French Polynesia it was great to be back in a country where the purse didn't take such a hammering. The bill in the local Indian restaurant was only £33 per couple which included beers and a bottle of wine-it was very good too.
Apia was very sociable, enjoying happy hour in the marina in the company of other sailors although a dangerous practice as it never turned out to be just one quick drink!. We also enjoyed a Fiafia evening of Samoan dancing including the very impressive fire dancers.
The Samoan people are delightful, welcoming, hospitable and friendly.
English is spoken, often with a New Zealand twang as many Samoans, can and do work in New Zealand. Many families are dependent on the income from relatives working away. New Zealand used to administer Samoa but independence was given in 1959.
The Chinese and Japanese are sponsoring development of infra structure and are certainly getting a foot in the door.
Rugby is the national sport and for such a small nation it's great the Samoan rugby team are known worldwide.
All Polynesian islands were heavily influenced by the Europeans since the arrival of the missionaries in the 18th century. The Samoans accepted Christianity due to a similar creation belief in Samoan legend and also because of a prophecy by a war goddess that a new religion would take root in the islands. And once you step ashore you can't help but notice the vast number of churches. Even the smallest of villages have a disproportionately large church. We can't believe there is a big enough population to have enough parishioners to fill each and every one. There are many different denominations; Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, Mormon, Later Day Saints, London Missionary Society and even a Baha'i Temple. It must be borne in mind that there is a very conservative attitude to dress and Samoans strictly observe Sunday as a day of rest.
Despite the Christian influence the Samoans live their lives the Fa'a Samoa (Samoan Way) which is a strict code of traditional etiquette which plays a vital role in village and community life. It is an interesting culture with three key elements to it - the matai (chief), agia (the extended family) and the church. The larger the family group the more powerful with four family groups today that have an almost royal status. The Fa'a Samoa is about supporting this extended family and is rigorously upheld. Traditionally there was little room for individualism but I'm not so sure this is strictly true today as young people are well educated and many choose to work abroad.
The Samoans believe that they are the heart of Polynesian life and their ancestors migrated hundreds of years ago to other South Pacific islands.
Traditional tattooing is still widely practiced and the male tattoo covers the body from the waist down to his knees. We watched a male tattoo being done and it looked excruciatingly painful. The tattoo pattern is dense and the same pattern is given to each man. It takes twelve days of five hour sessions to complete and is considered a shame on the whole family if not completed. Enduring the tattooing is considered a maturing and rebirth and a higher status within the family is certainly gained. It is not compulsory nor is a man belittled for not choosing to be tattooed. We were not allowed to photograph but privileged to be able to see.
For a very different experience our friends Patricia and Julian organised a four day cycle ride for us all on the neighbouring island of Savai'i. We felt like we were going on a holiday from a holiday!
Savai'i is more rural with a quieter pace of life than Apia. With less vehicles on the road it was enjoyable cycling and at a pace that allows you to observe the countryside and village life. Every village we passed through, little children where excitedly shouting bye-bye, sometimes we could only hear them but couldn't see who was calling. The villages are kept pristinely clean and tidy and great effort is put into their gardens. In July this year Samoa hosted the Pacific Games and colourful bunting still decorates the houses and road. Vanuatu won this years games but Samoa very proudly came second. New Zealand and Australia were also game participants.
We stayed overnight in a beach resort fale (pronounced fa-lay) which is the traditional elongated open-air huts (on stilts if on the beach). There is a mattress, sheets, pillow and mosquito net but nothing else. For privacy you pull down the palm weaved louvres. It was sleeping with the stars and the sound of the sea and felt a little like camping. Most families still live in these traditional fales, just larger ones with maybe a separate fale for cooking. Nowadays most are built from bricks and concrete but we still saw many wooden traditional fales with resident families inside. The beach resorts served us Samoan food which was tasty but I'm still not a lover of the starchy Taro root. The Taro leaves are cooked in coconut cream and is delicious and very like having spinach.
We didn't cycle the whole island as it was too far to do in just four days so had a support driver and van following us. It was also great jumping in the van when the hills got too hard!
Our driver and guide Welau was a great guy and he explained much of Samoan life. Welau was one Samoan that found the pressure of the church and Fa'a Samoa a little too meddling. He explained that the village chief can impose a penalty if it is considered a misdemeanor has been committed. A person may have to pay the penalty in pigs or you can be forced to live elsewhere perhaps with a relative in another village. We had a little chuckle as at sometime we think Welau had to pay in pigs as he was a little aggrieved and considered it was his business how he chooses to live his life. So perhaps it is hard to get away from Fa'a Samoa after all.
This cycling trip was educational as well as great fun and a big thanks you to Patricia for organising this.
It just amazes me how everywhere we go there is always something different to see and tell.
Our time here is over and we move to Tonga in the morning. Tonga just 180 miles away.
Do check out our photos in the gallery.
Suwarrow, Cook Islands
18 August 2019
After sailing for five days 700 miles we arrive at the the barely visible, low lying atoll of Suwarrow. Suwarrow belongs to the Cook Islands and is literally hundreds of miles from anywhere. It is a National Park and Marine Reserve and every year two Park Rangers set up home for six months to protect this 5 mile wide lagoon and its tiny islands. It's so isolated no other people live here apart from the rangers and visiting yachts taking a break before venturing the next 500 miles to Samoa or Tonga.
The pass entrance was straight forward, the anchorage just a short distance away but still a vigilant eye was needed to avoid any coral heads lurking to catch us unaware. It's always a relief once the anchor is safely down.
We now sat patiently for the wardens to arrive to complete the numerous official forms required for checking in to the Cook Islands.
While waiting we noticed that the noise of the sea breaking on the reef was for once being drowned out by the thousands of sea birds, mainly Sooty Terns, that were swirling overhead. With the nesting season beginning the birds were in full courtship.
The wardens Harry and John arrived and after completing the paperwork and explaining the park rules they soon revealed their passion for looking after this tiny atoll in this vast Pacific Ocean. There is no regular supply ship for these guys. They are dropped off with six months of supplies which they carefully have to manage, collect rain water for drinking and rely on a generator and solar panels for electricity. Just the week before their freezer broke and they lost their supply of meat, John was particularly upset at losing his New Zealand lamb. They now have only tins, dried goods and must fish for protein.
The Rangers return home to their families at the beginning of the cyclone season in October but last year the ship which was to collect them decided it didn't have enough fuel to come so they were abandoned until a passing yacht took them to one of the main Cook Islands. But still they return for another season the pull of Suwarrow is so strong.
All eight boats in the anchorage participated in a pot luck evening on the beach hosted by our lovely Rangers who provided the freshly caught fish for the barbecue. We stayed late into the night enjoying everyone's company and singing along with Harry and John who competently played an array of songs on the guitar. It was a very special evening in a magical place, only accessible with a yacht and one reason why we enjoy sailing.
We had yet to swim with the magnificent Manta Rays so were very excited to hear just a short distance from the anchorage was a cleaning station for the Mantas. The Manta Rays come into shallower water to visit the little Wrasses that live amongst the corals. It is a win win relationship as the Wrasse like to feed on the parasites that the Mantas pick up.
At last we got to see these graceful giants which seemed unperturbed with our presence as we followed them through the water. The largest Manta we saw was the rare pure black, 3 meters from wing tip to tip which is affectionately known to the Rangers as Black Joe.
Suwarrow is also home to a variety of sharks but it was too rough to drift snorkel the pass so we had to be content with the many harmless reef sharks that swim around the boat.
Time to lift the anchor and as we sailed away we certainly understood the pull of Suwarrow.
22 July 2019
We cast the fishing line on our crossing to Bora Bora and when we heard the reel whizzing away we knew we had caught something big. We had to first slow the boat, so quickly furled the genoa and with great effort managed to reel the line in so that the fish was within a few feet of our boat. It was a magnificent green/blue male Mahi Mahi. I was determined to get this beast on board and was shouting to Bill to get the gaff. Then we saw its smaller female mate swimming along side and suddenly we all felt bad! What to do? It had a hook in its mouth and I didn't want to lose my expensive lure, we love eating Mahi Mahi but not being hardened fisherman were now feeling sentimental and sorry for it. In our quandary and dithering about, the poor thing was still thrashing about in the water and fortunately for him (and us), managed to unhook itself.
Excitement over we relaxed to take in the view of Bora Bora's peaks and the waves crashing up against its surrounding reef. The lagoon was a dazzling hue of green, turquoise and blue. Bora Bora, the honeymooners paradise really is all about the splendid colour of it's waters. It is hugely expensive to stay in a resort and you would expect to pay between £11,000 to £15,000 a week for one of the bungalows sitting over the water. If you can easily afford that then perhaps the deluxe bungalow would be your choice at £10,000 a night and that apparently doesn't include meals!
We picked up a mooring buoy just outside of Vaitape the main town.
We were delighted to find the Heiva, the traditional Polynesian festival held in July was still in full swing and easy to dingy to in the evening. The Heiva is mainly a dance and singing competition (Tahiti also holds its own) but includes other events such as the fruit carrying strongest man competition, a race around the island and the orchestra competition (actually just lots of fantastic drumming) to name but a few. The Heiva involves everyone from the young to the old and is definitely a carnival event.
We booked tickets to watch the dancing which began gracefully emphasising the beauty of the Polynesian women. The costumes were spectacular with elaborate headdresses and the grass skirts certainly accentuated the fantastic hip movements which kept in rhythm to the drumming. The male dancers donned as warriors did a lot of knee knocking. It was a fantastic show and definitely a great time to be in Bora Bora.
However despite being in paradise domestic problems still pop up and this time it was the windlass that decided to break. This is the motor that drops and lifts the anchor. Of course it broke when the anchor was down and Bill and Alex had the unenviable job of pulling the heavy anchor and chain up by hand.
Fortunately there are lots of mooring buoys so it didn't stop us moving around the island. It did though, take a lot of emails and phone calls to Tahiti to get a new one shipped out to us.
We've had lots of fun in Bora Bora exploring the land as well as it's wonderful waters especially with our crew Neil and Alex on board. Sadly their 3 weeks had come to an end and we had to wave bye bye at the airport.
We are still here just chilling........
Time to hunker down, the Mara'amu is coming!
19 July 2019
With our new crew Neil and Alex onboard, we were eager start the next 3 weeks island hopping all the way to Bora Bora.
Mo'orea was just a few hours sail from Tahiti. Here we enjoyed snorkelling, horse riding through the pineapple plantations and we had a unforgettable experience swimming with Sting Rays and Black Tipped Sharks that were literally around our ankles!
Best laid plans are often marred by the weather and unfortunately the forecast was now showing very strong winds to come. We had already seen a change in the wind strength and the sky was no longer clear but overcast with heavy rain clouds.
We made the decision to move onto Hauhine, just a night sail before being stuck in Mo'orea. The forecast was 20 knots of wind and the sea conditions good enough to have a reasonably comfortable passage.
We wanted Neil and Alex to experience a calm passage, to enjoy star gazing without light pollution and the magic of phosphorescence that sparkles as the boat moves through the water BUT of course we had the complete opposite and with a horrible swell hitting us on the beam we all ended up feeling queasy! We were glad when daylight came and Hauhine was on the horizon.
We anchored near the main town and waited for the Mara'amu to come. The Mara'amu are strong winds caused by a massive high pressure coming from New Zealand accelerating the normal trade winds. And sure enough it arrived that night. With a constant 30 knots and gusts of over 40 knots howling through we were having to constantly check that the anchor wasn't dragging. The winds sound twice as bad at night meaning Bill and I were up and down like yoyo's and then bleary eyed in the morning. It's a little disconcerting to think that 10 tonnes is secured by a 25 kilo anchor dug into the sand but Bill tells me there is much more to the equation than just that, and sure enough our sturdy Rocnor anchor kept us safe. We had one day with a lull but basically were hunkered down for five days. Trips ashore were wet, swimming off the boat not recommended but our hardy crew weren't put off and still enjoyed a dip holding tightly onto hand ropes. It was a time for reading and games and we're now all pretty shrewd Monopoly Card players!
We hired bikes on our one dry day and discovered the charm of Hauhine holding onto it's Polynesian heritage and if the sun had shone would probably have been my favourite Society island.
At last the winds abated and we quickly lifted the anchor to make the short sail to Tahaa skipping Raiatea. We had one of our best snorkels in Tahaa at the Coral Gardens off the very exclusive resort on the Tautau motu. Unfortunately the day we planned to hike on Tahaa it poured and we decided there was no point in going if you can't see the view! Twice we tried to eat out but the restaurants were closed and the exclusive resort was fully booked. Tahaa turned out to be just too sleepy but Chez Krabat managed to muster up yet another tasty meal. Neil and Alex proved to be brilliant in the galley, sharing the cooking and baking us some heavenly cake.
Hooray at last the sun was back, time to up anchor. Bora Bora here we come.....