The Kingdom of Tonga, Vava'u to Tongutapu
09 December 2013
The Kingdom of Tonga, Vava’u, Ha’apai, and Tongatapu groups
September 26 – October 16
Ok, I know that I am out of order here, but hey we have been busy living this adventure, and we had issues with the internet so it was not easy to get these posts up, and yea, I was a little lazy. Now I will play catch up. This blog will be about the rest of our time in the Kingdom of Tonga, a place we have fallen in love with.
We say good-bye to Niuatoputapu raising anchor in a light rain. As we work our way around the island to head south we have our first whale sighting. I have been surprised by not seeing more whales; in fact these are the first we have seen since Mexico.
We have a pleasant overnight sail and arrive late morning to the Vava’u group. For most cruisers, Vava’u is Tonga. Here is where Moorings keeps a fleet of boats for charter. A cruising mecca for sure, there are dozens of islands to explore all within is a short sail of each other and I mean short just a couple of hours to most. Once inside the group you are protected by the surrounding reef, so it is almost always calm waters. With over 40 anchorages listed in the Moorings chart you will have plenty to explore.
We anchor out in front of the Neiafu, the capital village to get the lay of the land, set our dink in the water and head to customs to clear in. It is a rather simple process as we already checked into the country, so we just hand in our exit papers from Niuatoputapu. Then off to explore. We are happy to see a well-stocked fruit and veggie market, lots of restaurants etc. There are also many expats here along with all the cruisers.
We then dingy over to the Aquarium Café (a major cruiser hang-out, with cold beer and free wi-fi) for a well- deserved beer. Here we catch up with our friends, Tom and Kim from Exit Strategy, Melody and Jeff from Double Diamond and more. We make plans to meet up the next evening for dinner to celebrate my birthday. We dingy back to Mazu and the water is like glass. We sleep like babies.
The next day we raise anchor and head across the bay to pick up a mooring ball. Here we will be closer to the dingy dock and town. We also go to the fruit and veggie market where there is a great selection of lettuce, tomatoes, the best looking pineapples. We buy too much, including a big watermelon. Having access to such a selection of produce is a big deal for us after being in places with such a limited selection. That evening we celebrate my birthday with a nice dinner at the Mango Restaurant. It was a fun night.
We are anxious to see more of Vava’u so we are off to anchorage number 8. Everyone uses the Moorings chart here and they number the anchorages so it is easier just to say what number you are going to rather than what island. Number 8 is Kapa island. We meet up with Brett and Stacey of Bella Vita and have a nice dinner on their boat.
Monday, Sept. 30th. It is so peaceful here, flat, calm gin-clear water. We are still in number 8 and have it to ourselves for now. As it is calm we take the opportunity to do some repair on our jib sail. Some of the stitching on the UV cover has come out so I do a temporary fix with sticky back Dacron to hold it until we get to New Zealand where it can be repaired correctly.
We reward ourselves with a dingy exploration trip. We find a great snorkel spot, very pretty coral, lots of interesting fish, and huge purple starfish. We also explore the little “picnic island” near buy. I find some great shells (and my best one to date).
Our next day finds us still in number 8. I notice some whale spouts off in the distance, so we jump in the dingy and head towards them. Soon we see what we think is a mother and baby. We are pretty close but not too close. There is a whale watching boat nearby also, they are licensed to let you swim with the whales, and boy this group is getting their monies worth. The pair stays for over ten minutes. What a great experience!
We decide to go ashore and walk to the village. There is a nice concrete dock so we tie up there. We see an older couple with a young girl on the beach. As it is polite to ask permission to walk around I ask this couple. They say yes of course.
We start up the trail towards what we assume will be the village. There is no road, just a trail. Soon we see a church (there are two in this very small village) and some houses. We are discovered by some children and run over to greet us. School is out this week except those who are sitting for exams. They are very playful with us and are quick with their big smiles. They ask our names and if we have a lollie, I do. I also give out pencils. Soon one of the Mother’s comes up and asks if you would like some papaya, we do not refuse this offer. She leads us to her small home and proceeds to load us up, I accept 2. She also gives us some bananas. She does not expect anything in return. But it is polite to offer a small gift in return, so I give her some pencils and hair ties for her children. As we continue with our walk we meet a boy in his clean, pressed school uniform on and lei around his neck. His name is William and later that day he will “sit for his exams”. These exams determine if he advances to the next level of schooling. He insists on taking us to see his school. We follow the trail that leads to a 4 room school. We meet his teacher and talk with her for a while. I am impressed on the well organized and neat class room she has, and I complement her on it. These teachers have so little to work with. We give her a donation for her to purchase school supplies. William then walks us back to the dock, showing us his home and cow along the way.
We stop to talk with the older couple on the beach again, and find out that it is their daughter who is the teacher that we just met. They are down at the beach cooking bread fruit for the graduation celebration to take place that night. Now we understand why William looked so nice today. It is a big day for him, good luck William.
It is early afternoon when we get back to Mazu, raise anchor to head back to Neiafu as we have booked a sail on the beautiful catamaran Hine Moana for tomorrow.
Wow what a day, the Hine Moana is a replica of the double canoe boats that the Polynesians used to explore and populate the South Pacific. She is beautiful. Take a look at the pictures I posted or go to their web site: pacificvoyaging.org This replica along with several others made a journey through the South Pacific, to Hawaii, then over to the U.S. and back again. There is a movie due out about this, called My Blue Canoe.
The Captain is a Tongan woman, Aunofo. With her team of Tongan young men they make this boat sail, and it is a site to see. The tour takes us to Kings island where we have time to snorkel before we have a hearty lunch on the boat (prepared by Aunofo). On the return trip I take a turn at the tiller, and I find it is a lot of work to hold it on course. Before we return to port we make a stop at Swallows Cave, where you can swim into this large cave. The water color is unbelievable; the pictures do not do it justice. Swimming at Swallows Cave is worth the trip to Vava’u alone. Our day is soon over, we are exhausted. Aunofo is an incredible woman and Captain. She is giving back to her people, teaching these young men (and women) traditional navigation and sailing skills. Who would have thought that after living 24-7 on a sailboat that we could have such fun paying to go on another sail boat for the day. But we did, and I will do it again. If you are ever in Vava’u take this trip.
Later in the week we again play tourist and take a 4wheel buggy trip. Our friends on Double Diamond told us about it so we are all going together. You ride in a 2 seat buggy and follow a guide. He takes us to some incredible lookouts and through the jungle interior of the island. Check out the pictures you will see what I mean.
We have just enough time after our buggy trip to clean up and change to go to our next event. We catch a boat at the dock to take us across the bay to the village of Utulei, where we are welcomed to a lovely home and garden by the shore. The evening is called, Utulei, my island home. The home belongs to our host who after living overseas for many years has returned. She inherited this home and property and she wanted to do something to enrich the lives of the people of her village. She came up with the idea of creating this tour that showcases the Tongan culture and customs. The people in the village learn business skills and more importantly re-learn the traditional customs, crafts, and culture of their past.
The evening starts with a welcome Kava Ceremony. You then are shown demonstrations on Tongan tappa cloth making, weaving, and the many uses of the mighty coconut tree. Before dinner you are invited to browse the various crafts for sale, made by the women of the village. All the while you are serenaded by Tongan musicians, playing Tongan music. Everyone gets involved, babies, small children and the elderly. Dinner was the best feast I have eaten yet.
After dinner the fun really starts. They have various age children, toddlers to young adults perform Tongan dances. As is their tradition if you are moved by the dance you go up and “stick” paper money on the oiled skin of the dancer. Also if you are moved by the dance you are more than welcome to dance, and/or yelp out. The last dance we all get up to dance. The dancer’s then take off their lei’s and put them on you. It was one of our greatest experiences of local culture. A wonderful evening that I wish you all could see.
The next day finds off again to explore another island. This time we will head to anchorage number 16, Vada’eitu island. We have been told that there is exceptional snorkeling here in what they call the coral gardens. We hope to have sunny weather for good visibility; iffy though as there is a weather front due in. This anchorage provides for good protection from prevailing weather and is reported to have good holding. Our anchor seems to set well but as usual I like to get in the water to check it out. It is too deep to see the anchor so I cannot tell if we are set well. We also can tell that there is coral here so we decide to “float” the anchor chain. To float the chain I am in the water with a large orange fender ball, Mel raises the anchor rode up about half way. I then attach the ball to the rode (which is a chain). Mel then lowers the anchor rode to the correct scope. The float then holds the chain over the coral so we cannot wrap around it as we swing at anchor giving us peace of mind. With all this done we settle down for a relaxing afternoon and evening.
Our next day is Sunday, Mel is under the weather today so he naps and takes it easy. I finish a book, and wait for high tide to snorkel at the coral gardens (high tide is needed to dingy over the reef to get to the good spots). At high tide it is very cloudy and cool so the trip is called off. I blow up the kayak and go for a paddle around the little bay. A Tongan man is on the beach, I had been watching him and others earlier in the day, calls me over so I paddle to shore. He introduces himself, David, and explains that he lives there with his wife and children. He has 12 children, only the 2 youngest are there now along with his wife, Hava. Now I must explain. There is no house here. They live under this enormous Banyan Tree. He is busy talking with another cruiser who is there visiting so I promise to come and see him tomorrow.
Monday and Mel is feeling much better. The weather has not improved but it is high tide and we are here and I do not want to miss the coral gardens as I have heard they are amazing. I know the colors will be muted but we proceed anyway. Mel stays in the dinghy while I swim over the reef, to see the colorful coral. While I know it would be better in the sun it is still VERY pretty. I snorkel around but the seas get a bit choppy so I make way back over the reef. It is a tough swim but I am soon back in the dinghy and we decide to explore a bit. We take a wet ride (it is choppy) around the bay. I then pick up some food items I have readied and we head to shore to visit David and Hava.
The pictures show how they are living but I will describe it here. There is a very large Banyan Tree near the shore. It provides shelter from most of the weather. They have a very primitive structure with a tarp for a roof, this is where they sleep. There is a cooking fire and a couple of other small structures. There are pigs, chickens roaming free and a couple of cute puppies for the kids. They are living here by choice and are happy here. They use to live in the capital of Neiafu in a regular house but have chosen to live here. They live off what they gather from the island and sea. Once a week or so someone will pick them up to go to town for other supplies as needed (if they have any money or things to trade), and someone on the next island picks them up on Sundays for church. The older children go to school in the Neiafu where they live most of the time with family members, the oldest are married. The younger two live with them on the island. Again, they are very happy. I brought them a gift (sugar, flour, yeast, and some canned goods) to thank them for letting us anchor in “their” bay. Hava then goes and gets her weaving supplies and a mat to sit on. She says she is making me a bracelet and a book mark. She invites me to sit and watch (picture in the gallery). She also offers us some sweet bread “balls” that she just made, they taste like doughnuts. We visit about our families, our lives and normal chit-chat. Soon she has finished a bracelet and two bookmarks.
We say our good-byes and we promise to visit them again next season. Later Mel and I were reflecting on our visit with them and other experiences with the Tongans and most other Polynesians we have met, and simply we have not met more people who have so little but are willing to share anything they have. We are constantly offered fruit, vegetables, help in any way they can. It is just there way, it is what they do. They always have time for you. It has made a big impression on us through our travels here. It is truly remarkable. I hope I can embrace this giving way into my own life. I will never forget the “Banyan Tree Family”, who are truly happy living under a tree.
Each year the business’ here in Vava’u sponsor a cruisers rally. It is a several day event with events, a race and a party on Saturday night. The first night there was a pub crawl. A truck with a DJ in the back is hired to lead the parade down the streets, visiting several pubs along the way. It is also a costume party so many participants are dressed up. The music plays and we dance along to the next stop. Along the way the local come out to watch and the kids dance along. Everyone likes a parade.
At the end of the night I am walking back to the dinghy dock with Brett and Stacey (Mel returned early to Mazu) when an incredible weather incident happened. As we were getting into the dink, it started to rain, by the time we were off the dock and part way out to Mazu the wind picked up fast! The waves were coming over the bow of the dinghy. I would say the wind was blowing at least 25 knots. By the time we got to Mazu (a short distance from the dock) we were drenched. It was all I could do just to get out and onto the transom. Mel is up and we start the engine in case we break our mooring. It continues to blow 30 to 37 knots with sheets of rain for about 3 hours. It is over after a couple of hours. Luckily no boats lost their moorings and just a few of them bumped in the night.
The “Almost Full Moon” party is held at a small resort on one of the outer islands. We won’t return to Neiafu so one more trip to the fruit and veggie place and then we head over. The island is a picture perfect tropical island and they have it set up for a great party, there is a bar, food and a flat spot in the sand for dancing. The party goes on into the wee hours, we find ourselves back on Mazu before that.
Our time in Vava’u is winding down, our last anchorage is number 22 on the small uninhabited island of Taunga. We have the anchorage to ourselves and it is a perfect place to spend our last day and night in Vava’a, great snorkeling and a beach that begs for you to comb. We both wish we had discovered this place sooner. As we sit in the cockpit enjoying the sunset we ask know that we need more time in Tonga. We resolve to return next season prior to going to Fiji, so we will return to Taunga again.
It is a short overnight sail to the Ha’apai group. The Ha’apai group is the least visited group of islands in Tonga. Most of the islands are what they call low islands, similar to the Tuamotus. There are hundreds of reefs and few totally protected anchorages. Our cruising guide boasts that this group has some of the best snorkeling in Tonga. He also states that the few islands that are inhabited are home to Tongans living like they have for centuries. In traditional Tongan life, the women weave and the men fish. The pigs and goats run free through the village. The plantations, outside of the village is where they grow the traditional foods of, Taro, Bananas, Papayas, Breadfruit, along with the new comers of tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. Of course churches are everywhere. It is not unusual for even the smallest village to have several churches, Mormon, Catholic and Free Tongan seem to dominate here. Nearly all Tongans go to church on Sunday. After church they then usually have a large mid-day meal together. Sundays, by law here are a day of rest, family and church.
Our first stop is the “capital” Pangai on Lifuka Island. A very small town with not much there but a few food stores that seem to sell the same meager offerings of canned goods, rice and imported Chinese food items. There little in the way of fresh food, but as all the villagers grow their own and by the abundance of pigs roaming free, I doubt they go hungry.
We had gone ashore in hopes of connecting to the internet. The Mariners café, run by an ex-cruiser was reported to have wifi available. Well they did but it was so incredibly slow we could only just check emails, but nothing else. We will have just a week or so to explore this group of islands, no way to see it all in that short time so we plan to see just a few islands as we make our way south. Another issue is that the weather predictions are for high winds and maybe some rain, so this will determine where we can go. No reason to stay here so we make plans to visit some of the other islands here as we make our way to Tongatapu.
We are heading to Uiha Island, as we want to visit the village reported to have a huge burial mound and dramatic churches. It is a rough ride, all up wind and into the sea. We are exhausted when we arrive so we stay on the boat. The visit to the village will have to be another time.
We continue to experience high winds and choppy conditions, and we are not really able to explore the Ha’apai as we would like. We get to our next island of Ha’afeva in the late afternoon. This is a well protected anchorage with a large decrepit commercial wharf that we are sure has not been used in years. Tomorrow is Sunday so we hope that the weather will cooperate for us to make a trek to shore.
Sunday, a beautiful day. We head to shore to comb the beach and walk to the village. We are shocked to see a sign by the wharf saying that it was built in 1998, as a “gift” from the Chinese Government. It looks 100 years old, already rusty and parts of it have fallen into the water, some gift. We later learn that this dock is still used regularly, as it is the only wharf they have. The supply boat comes once a week (the only source for supplies and for transportation off the island), wow.
We arrive at the village and I see a man in his yard, so I ask if it is ok for us to walk around the village. Soon we are greeted by a young woman and two small boys in front of their home. One of the boys gives me a bag full of lemons as a gift. I ask him if I can give them something in return. I give them pencils and a candy. They are dressed in their Sunday clothes and are walking to church and invite us to go with them, and we except. After church Pollo (her name, the boys are her nephews who she cares for while her sister works in Neiafu) insists that we return to her house to meet her father (who she is devoted to, giving up her schooling in Nuku’alofa to care for him) and have some papaya and milk. We can’t refuse.
Their home is a simple two room single wall construction (see pictures). There is no furniture as they sit and sleep on woven mats. Cooking is done with wood fired earthen oven. We sit on benches in front of the house and eat our papaya and milk, which is pureed papaya mixed with coconut milk, it is very good. We are offered lemon aid (only one mug is brought out so we share). Her Father is in his 70’s and tired and sore from all his years of diving for clams, mussels and other seafood, his job for years and it has taken a toll on his body. He leaves us for a while and returns with a large bunch of bananas to give us. We could never eat that many but we accept them along with 2 papaya. We are continually impressed on the giving nature of the Tongans. Here they are with so little but willing to give so much. I describe what we consider meager living conditions not to put them down but to demonstrate how giving they are. Life is simple here, they are happy, they don’t need a big house, pre-made foods, and “things” (although Pollo has a cell phone, those seem to be everywhere) people here are satisfied with their island life.
Pollo and her nephews insist on walking us back to the wharf. The boys carry our fruit for us. They lead us along a trail through the plantation. There is lots of laughing and joking by the boys. Soon we are on the wharf saying goodbye. I leave them with some fishing gear, nail polish, pencils, and as Pollo talked of having headaches and we know her father is in pain we run out to the boat and get a bottle of advil and take it to her. This was such a fun day, with a wonderful insight into Tongan life, we kind of felt “Tongan” for the day.
If we thought Ha’afeva was traditional the epitome of traditional Tongan life our next island proved us wrong. Kelefesia is the southernmost island of this group and our last stop prior to our passage to Tongutapu.
When we arrive it is late in the afternoon and threating to rain. We enjoy the beauty of the colorful sandstone cliffs, and white beach and clear blue water from the boat. Our guide indicated that this island was uninhabited, but soon we see smoke coming from the shore, a man, woman and small boy are on the beach playing with their dog. We watch them for a while thinking they must be visiting the island, using it as a fishing camp. The next morning we spot the man in a very primitive outrigger canoe poking along the reef. Mel gets his attention and he paddles over to us. His English is not very good but we understand that he is living there with his wife and son. In the canoe I can see what he was gathering on the reef. There are several small octopuses, come sort of shell fish and sea urchins, dinner tonight I think. I put together a bag of food and other items for him as a gift for letting us anchor in the bay. I can see he is very thankful for the gift. No supply boats come to this island, they are on their own. As we did not get to shore I can only imagine what their house was like, simple I am sure. Again, he chose to be there and live a traditional life, he looked healthy and happy. Unfortunately we cannot stay and explore the island today, our weather window is now and we need to get to Tongutapu to check out of the country and prepare for our passage to New Zealand. I cannot wait to go back next season. I hope he is there and we can meet again.
Tongutapu is the most southern group in Tonga, here is the capital and largest town in Tonga, Nuku’alofa. The King and his family also live here. We are here to check out of the country, provision, prepair the boat for our passage to New Zealand.
It takes us a couple of days in Nuku’alofa to get things done. We do not do much sight-seeing but my impressions of Nuku’alofa are: good place to provision, good internet (important), lots of expats living here, not much else. Perhaps with a proper tour of the island my impression will improve. With our business done here we move over to the small motu just a mile away and anchor with everyone else in front of “Big Mama’s” a cruiser friendly bar and restaurant on a pretty little beach. This is a perfect place to ready for the trip. Everyone here is doing the same thing so there is lots of talk around the tables of Big Mama’s .
The weather window is looking promising in a few days and many of the boats here plan on leaving with it. We too expect to leave with this window. In preparation I am cooking meals to heat along the way, Mel is busy plotting the course and we are battening down the hatches. We are both nervous and excited at the same time. With this passage we will be saying goodbye to the tropics and island way of life, and returning to our civilization. We both reflect on our adventures so far, we have experienced so much and seen such beautiful sites, and the people, wow, the people we have met have touched our heart and soul.