17 September 2008 | Vava'u, Tonga
After two weeks of eating, drinking and socializing in Neiafu we finally decided it was time to get off the ball (mooring ball, that is) and get out and see some of the beautiful anchorages that make the Vava'u group a premier cruising destination.
There are 42 separate anchorages described in our guidebook. Keeping these straight could be a challenge for charter companies trying to locate lost or distressed vessels. To make life easier (?) the anchorages have been assigned numbers. As a result, when referring to a specific anchorage you can use its number name or its Tongan name. And to make things even more fun, some even have an English name. For example, the anchorage we went to after Neiafu can be correctly referred to as "#7", or "Fangakima", or "Port Maurelle". Much easier, right?
Port Maurelle (or #7, or Fangakima) is a beautiful cove tucked into a bight on Kapa Island. Besides the clear water and white sand beach there is excellent snorkeling and fairly easy access to Swallows Cave and Mariner's Cave. We spent the first day letting the girls get reacquainted with their snorkels and beach toys. On the second day we dinghied over to Swallows Cave, about a mile away.
Swallows Cave is a huge cavernous cave that opens up to the water at the point of Kapa Island. It's large enough to drive your dinghy into and the effect of the sunlight on the coral formations beneath the water is magical. (What's less magical is the graffiti that covers most of the walls, but what are you gonna do?)
According to our guide book there is a separate cave attached to Swallows that you can access by climbing over a rocky wall at the back of the cave. It's supposed to be a "great kiln-like room" with a circular opening at the top through which you can see trees. Supposedly at the turn of the century VIP's were entertained here. We hadn't brought appropriate shoes for such adventure so when Blue Plains Drifter headed for the cave the next day I instructed them to bring shoes, check out the back cave and report back. Guess what? There IS another cave back there. It's littered with dirty diapers someone has thrown in from the opening above. Nice.
The next day we decided to venture over to Mariner's Cave, another popular snorkel spot, located near the NE tip of Nuapau. It's really too far to dinghy to from even the closest anchorage (#7) so we decided to take the big boat (Meridian for those of you just tuning in).The water near the cave is too deep to anchor in but we had the crews of Blue Plains Drifter and Island Time with us so our plan was to leave half of the swimmers on board Meridian, letting her drift responsibly, while the other half swam in and out of the cave.
Now here's the thing about Mariner's: it's a bit of a freak-out. Well, not for John- he's a stud. But the cave's entrance is UNDERWATER! To get in you have to dive down about 2 meters and swim horizontally another 4 meters before you come up into the cave. I'm sure some of you are saying, "Yeah, so what's the big deal?" Of course, only those lucky few of you without a tiny shred of claustrophobia would be saying this.
The guide book suggests that if you can swim under your boat from one side to the other- under the keel, mind you- you can do this. I personally hate swimming under the boat (or under anything for that matter, because I get a bit claustrophobic) but I'll do it sometimes to help John clean the bottom. So the whole thing didn't seem impossible to me, but I definitely felt some trepidation.
Fortunately I wasn't alone. Tiffany and Mary Ellen- both very strong swimmers- were also getting a bit wigged by the idea. They decided to practice in the morning by swimming under their boats. I'm a bit lazier than they so I figured I could accomplish the same thing without getting wet. I would watch them and when they went under I would hold my breath. When they came up the other side I would exhale. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Doesn't it? Sadly I neglected to take into account the amount of effort one must exert to propel one's body 6 and a half feet under water and swim at that depth while in stark raving terror mode. I've discovered that when panicked you really need a bit more air than you otherwise would.
Well, since I'm here writing this you know it has a happy ending. Tiffany, Mary Ellen and I waited tensely aboard Meridian while John, Jim and Ron took the first go. Of course they made it look easy. In fact they went in and out a couple of times. (Show offs.)
Then it was time for Mary Ellen and I to go. (Tiffany decided to take a pass as she was concerned about the pressure on her ears- for good reason as it turned out.) We made it clear when we jumped in the water that we weren't committing to anything we were just, you know, going to check it out. We swam over to the opening, which is nearly impossible to see unless you're on top of it (we were given GPS coordinates) and put our faces in the water. The good news was the opening was HUGE and didn't seem very deep. (I guess I'd been picturing some little tunnel without enough room to turn around if you changed your mind.) You still had to get to- and stay at- a depth of over 6 feet to avoid scraping your back, something that's not easy for me because I'm freakishly buoyant. Nice guy (and show-off) Ron agreed to lead us each in, so with him to follow we felt confident enough to give it a go.
Once inside the cave the relief for me was so great (I'd really done a number on my mental state with this) that I had to remind myself to look around and really see the cave. It's quite big inside, and although there are no above water openings to the outside there was enough light coming in from the underwater entrance to see by. An interesting phenomenon is the fog that forms when the waves compress the air within the cave. It's foggy, it's clear, it's foggy, it's clear. Of course that same compression was a bit uncomfortable on our ears so we wouldn't have wanted to spend the whole day in there.
Note to grandmothers: we never even considered allowing Maddie and Sophie to swim into the cave. Although they are excellent, strong swimmers and more than likely would have made it without a fuss (because neither is the headcase their mom is) we just didn't want to take a chance that they might get hurt.