11 November 2016 | Tonga
Jane, warm and sunny
Our last stop before heading for New Zealand was the Kingdom of Tonga. The oldest and last remaining Polynesian monarchy and the only Pacific nation never brought under foreign rule. Tonga has 171 coral and volcanic islands, although only 36 are inhabited. Tonga is one of the few absolute monarchies in the world, and Tongans revere their King. All land is owned by the monarchy and no foreigner can own land. However with approval one can lease land up to 50 years, which thankfully discourages huge hotel development. The king gives Tongans two plots of land, one to live on and one to grow food on.
We started our visit in the archpelago of Vava'u, considered Tonga's sailing center. Our plan was to join the Blue Water Festival, but first we wanted to join friends for a traditional Tongan Feast in one of the anchorages and have a day out together to swim with the Humpback Whales. The anchorages in Vava'u are all numbered as their names are pretty longwinded, so it was at number #16 that David put on an amazing dinner on the beach for us. Tongan's love feasts (they are big people) and a whole pig is roasted over an open fire as the main dish, although there were lots of fish, chicken, beef and vegetable dishes too. It was a wonderful night, shared with a delightful family and other cruisers.
Our day with the whales was also fantastic. The morning was spent trying to swim with a mother and calf, but every time we went in the water she swam away - I think she was teasing us. She would breach, put her tail up, etc.. but in the end we gave up and went in search for another mother and calf. The next ones we found was much more friendly and we had a magical few swims with them. At one stage I thought we were a bit close as it looked like the mum was coming straight at us, but even with her bad eyesight I think she must have seen us and turned away at the last minute. Exhilarating for sure as they are HUGE.
We then went into Neiafu, the capital of Vava'u, situated in a large protected harbour where the rally was being held. Our friend Tony from Tactical Directions had asked us to crew for him in the race being held on the Wednesday. However, sadly by Tuesday I was suffering from a very bad stomach bug. In the end I was sick for 11 days and ended up seeing the Doctor and going on antibiotics. Aparently the local water now has bacteria in it. Quite a few of the cruisers got sick. I was lucky as I have heard that in 2012 there was no Doctor in town and a fellow cruiser died of blood poisoning, that could have been prevented with medical help. So I was not in party mode and in bed for most of the rally. Russ did crew for our friend and they came first which they were thrilled about. Tony won a terrific prize of a free haul out and seven days on the hard, so he was a very happy camper.
Neiafu is a lovely village, with a great market and lots of bars and restaurants. What I found interesting was the Tongan's traditions. The pace is slow, dress is conservative and church, family and friends form the society's core. Tongans wear distintive waistmats, called ta'ovala, wrapped around their waists. They are made from woven pandanus and in Tonga are the equivalent to a coat and tie. We noticed that some schools wear them as part of their uniform over long skirts, for both boys and girls. On formal occasions they are always worn.
Like all of the islanders across the Pacific the Tongans are happy, relaxed and welcoming. They love singing and dancing. Their homes can be very simple as they do not value material wealth. We understand that there is very low crime, we saw no begging and no one goes hungry as there is plenty of food. Family and the community looks after each other. Nearly everyone goes to church and the Sabbath is a sacred day of rest with most places closed.
The sailing around Vava'u is gorgeous. With 42 anchorages to chose from you often have a bay to yourself. You can walk beaches for hours, snorkel some stunning locations, dive or just chill out with friends. Sundowners and pot lucks by a beach fire, became a regular event. A favorite spot for us to snorkel was Swallows Cave. We visited the huge cave by tender in the late afternoon. It was magical with shoals and shoals of small fish, and coloured coral on the walls. The sunlight made the crystal clear water a wonderful turquois blue colour. Quite spectacular.
It was soon time to head south as we wanted to make sure we were ready for a weather window to get to New Zealand. We wanted to visit the Ha'apai group, the Happy Islands as we nicknamed them on our way to Tongatapu to check out. However we decided to stay in transit and just stop off at some of the western islands which are mostly uninhabited. The snorkeling was excellent and the islands stunning. We did visit one island with gifts and we were amazed at how many pigs there were. Like all the islands, pigs wander freely around the town or village, but here there were more pigs than people and some were huge. Apparently they can bite too, so we kept our distance. Sadly there were a lot of mal nourished dogs and puppies, not sure what that was about and did not want to ask. Most islanders do not speak much english and they never say the word "no" so conversation can get interesting.
Getting down to Tongapatu was not easy as the weather turned on us and the wind went south, the direction we were going in. We were told in Vava'u that we could not check out of the Ha'apais, which we have since found out is not true. Could have made our lives a lot easier, but we did enjoy visiting some beautiful anchorages, so all good.
On arriving in Tongapatu we spent a day checking out, provisioning, topping up with fuel and making water, before we went to the bar for a sundowner to say goodbye to various friends. Quite a few boats had left that day and four others were leaving with us, all of us trying to catch the perfect weather window that was ready for us. We look forward to returning to Tonga next May and spending more time getting to know this fascinating country's culture and again visiting its gorgeous islands. Thanks to Sonrisa, Echo Echo and Russell for some of the pictures that are in the gallery of photos on the right hand side of this site. Enjoy