Revisiting Tonga after 22 years.
We have now been in Tonga a month, time seems to have flown past. Time spent revisiting places we anchored and cruised as a family in 1991 on our yacht Sousa. The kids have grown and are well into grown up lives of their own, the size of our yacht has increased and there have been some changes in the Kingdom but there are still many things the same.
We arrived in Nuiatoputapu after an overnight sail from Samoa. Nuiatoputapu is one of the most northern Tongan islands 170 miles north of Vavau . The island is flat and difficult to see however the neighbouring island, Tafahi, is a high profile volcano with its steep slopes easy to spot from miles away. The pass into Nuiatoputapu was eventually spotted, the two outer markers a little bent and rusty marked the way. The electronic chart a little out, gave our friend Kevin a fright, he was looking at us going over reef. We called him out on deck to see us eyeballing our way in past markers and reef into the calm anchorage outside Falehau village.
Looking ashore we soon spotted some changes there was some newish housing and there where vehicles moving around the village also our VHF crackled into life and we were asked to identify ourselves. In 91 there were only a couple of tractors on the island the main transport was horse and cart, there was no VHF contact from ashore and the village houses along the shore was a bit dilapidated. The modern world had come to the island. When we cleared out of Nuiatoptapu on Sousa to sail north to Wallis we waited a day for the officials to turn up eventually we gave up waiting and Alan borrowed a push bike to go the few miles into "town" to do the paper work. Unfortunately the bike only had one pedal, he eventually mastered the one pedal bike, paper work done we set off to Wallis after taking two days to clear out.
This time we were clearing in and we arrived at 11 am, plenty of time to get our clearance done on the same day...well you would think so but no. Sia our VHF contact ashore said she would contact the officials. By 3pm we were pretty sure we weren't going to get ashore or see officials that day. We filled in the day with a swim, snoozing and chatting to Bruce and Dinah on the NZ Cat, Margarita. They had left Apia before us so filled us in on all we needed to know about the modern Nuiatoputapu. We also scanned the shore with binoculars spotting the changes.
The next morning Sia called early and told us to watch out for the white ute on the wharf which would hold the officials.
"come in and pick them up with your dinghy''
Eventually the vehicle was spotted and officials transported out to Tuatara. A lovely lady from Immigration and a polite gentleman from Quarantine arrived , the Health man was sick! There was a small fee to pay, we could not pay these people direct we had to go into the office and pay. This was when we started to find out how much had changed on the island and why. The main catalyst for change had been the 2009 tsunami which destroyed many houses, official offices and the schools. There were even two new villages built closer to the hill. Luckily the tsunami struck at 7 am so there was minimal loss of life. Government offices and schools were empty. Later in the day when we walked the hot 4km into pay our money we passed the empty place where the school had been. I remember as a family we caused quite a stir as we passed the school, the teachers lost control as the kids rushed to the open windows to say hello to the palangi family as we walked past. All the government buildings in Hihifo had been destroyed so now the new school and government buildings are all a little more inland and grouped together. Here we paid our fees and met Sia the yachtie contact.
Sia offered us a ride back to Falehau which we gratefully accepted it was a long hot walk back. We didn't mind the slight detour to her in laws where a lunch time umu was just being uncovered and a small pig was roasting over an open fire.
"We will have lunch and then I will take you back, it is my sons 18th birthday."
A hot walk back or sit in shade and have an interesting lunch...no choice really. We also soon learnt Sia commanded rather than requested, in a nice way.
I had already heard from Sia , in a roundabout way, while still in Apia. Knowing yachts called in on their way from Samoa to Vavau, Sia had emailed Claire in the marina office at Apia with a shopping list. Could some of the boats bring these things.... a longish list. Apparently the supply ship had not been for several weeks and was not due for several more. That was a familiar story. In 91 "the Kings Ship" as it was called then had not been for about 2 months. The island was desperately short of everything. We met a woman who had come from Tafahi to have her baby and could not get back because there was no petrol or diesel left. The village lights went out early or rather never came on, nothing to run the generator. The baker was having an enforced holiday as his flour had run out.
It seemed 22 years later things hadn't changed too much the supplies were late again. Although there was obviously still lots of fuel left this time seeing all the vehicles running around. Sia wanted less essential items but still important. The high school had a seventh form for the first time ever , Sia's son was in line to be dux. A grand graduation ceremony and party was being planned and the shopping list was for this celebration just in case the cargo boat didn't come in time. We bought the material needed for the celebration lava lavas. Sia was in a good position to get/ ask for bits and pieces from the yachts when they arrive. She and her family lived in the anchorage village of Falehau with a clear view of the yachts coming and goings along with working in the Immigration office Sia almost knew what we were doing before we did it! It was hard to by pass her to talk to and help some of the other people. I think I managed a little bit but she still managed to know everything that was going on.
Somewhere in storage at home I have photos of ladies soaking the long thin pandanus leaves in the sea before putting them on the washing line to dry and sitting in the afternoon shade weaving the dry white leaves into mats and baskets. I now have similar photos, digital this time. The process is the same, the place in the sea, in front of the village, where the leaves are soaked has not changed.
The pandanus leaves are tied together in bunches and put in the sea with rocks holding them down and left to soak until they turn from green to white. Each lady somehow remembers where their leaves are, at low tide they check their bunches, turning and rearranging the rocks. When they are happy with the whiteness the water laden bunches are hauled home and put on the washing line to dry. One morning I took my camera ashore and asked if I could take photos. Everyone was happy and also happy to see the results, they laughed at the videos between sloshing their leaves around.
I got talking to two young ladies about their families , they had a sister in Auckland who the youngest had visited. They giggled when I asked if they were married.
"No not yet.''
I think I got the gist from the following conversation that there weren't enough young men to choose from on the island and like young people all over the world the big city was the place to go. In this case Nukualofa or if dreams came true, Auckland.
The oldest sister asked if they could come out to the boat, so we hopped into the dinghy arriving back at Tuatara to find Alan and Kevin doing the breakfast dishes. A surprising domestic activity for young Tongan ladies to see men doing! We had a nice visit, a hot chocolate breakfast for them and a guided tour of Tuatara I then found some bits and pieces for them, some frivolous and some practical before I took them back ashore.
That afternoon we chatted to Sia on the VHF.
"You had visitors to the boat this morning."
"Yes a nice way to say thank you for the photos I took."
Sia knows everything!!!!
After a few days it was time to sail down to Vavau the wind was easterly promising a good trip, unfortunately 36 miles from Vavau the wind changed to a strong SE, right on the nose. We eventually motored in past islands melting into the dark night and anchored in Port Maurelle where we stayed two nights before going up to the shops and internet at Neiafu.
Neiafu has changed, bars and restaurants have sprouted up along the water front servicing the vastly increased yachtie visitors. Years ago we anchored Sousa down below the Paradise Hotel, the kids swam in its pool and we walked to town. These days the Paradise is silent, left to deteriorate. There are lots of moorings and dinghy docks closer to town and the internet reaches out into the harbour. A new Hotel dominates the waterfront but it has been poorly built with Chinese money , what could be a asset to Vavau is an empty blot on the picturesque harbour. The habour is a good place to come to for supplies, internet and social activities. We took part in the Vavau regatta which was fun and have been out and about in the anchorages. Nothing much has changed in the anchorages they are still referred to by number something started years ago by the Moorings guide for their yacht charterers. Number13, the Hunga anchorage is in a huge crater lagoon the narrow pass is shallow and ..well narrow. A nervous few minutes of "have we got the tide right" and you pop into a calm anchorage.
Number 8, Nuku, has a couple of gorgeous beaches which are the picnic beaches for visiting dignitaries and royalty, most of the time enjoyed by the crews of a few yachts. There are 41 anchorages in the Moorings guide even opposition guides quote the Moorings numbers.
Tuatara and crew have enjoyed the anchorages we have visited but it is time to head back to Opua. Yachts are steadily leaving for places south and west the moorings in Neiafu are easier to come by now, the restaurants are starting to work shorter hours and weather forecasts dominate the conversation. We have to avoid what John from Island Cruising Assn calls, "analyses paralyses". Too many different weather window opinions and you can get frozen in the headlights. So we have decided tomorrow is the day, Jim Pasco our crew has arrived no need to delay. One last big passage to go and Tuatara will soon be cruising past the Nine Pins, waving to Paihia and Russell before tying up in familiar Opua.