Kingdom of Tonga: September 15 2007
It feels great to be here! We have crossed the dateline...Sept 1 became Sept 2...which wraps around Tonga such that the King of Tonga is the first sovereign to see the dawn each day. Tonga has never been ruled by an outside power...allowing it to maintain its Polynesian culture...and it is the sole remaining Polynesian kingdom retaining the family-subsistence basis of its culture (King, Nobles, royal court, etc.). Tonga is made up of approx 170 islands and 101,000 people. The islands are in three groups; Vava'u group in the North, Ha'api group in the Center and Tongatapu group in the South. We are in the Vava'u group which has 34 islands (total land area of 45 square miles) and 16,000 people. This means an ideal cruising paradise of protected waters with sheltered anchorages not more than half a day sail from each other...kinda like a small Narragansett Bay...filled with humpback whales teaching their young to swim, amazingly diverse coral gardens, plentiful fish and a gracious, friendly population.
Fishing has always been a part of the Tongan way of life and myth...including the creation of the islands of Vava'u. It is said that Maui, the great Polynesian God, threw his line into the sparkling ocean and soon felt a tug which spells excitement. He gave a mighty pull, another mighty pull, then another, and there were all the islands of Vava'u. The inhabitants have always felt at home with the sea and a deep love for the place. In an act of devotion for his island, Chief Finau of Vava'u made, possibly, one of the greatest historical lies of all time. Chief Finau was a good friend of Captain Cook and when he was returning home (1777) he discouraged Captain Cook from joining him. Captain Cook sadly recorded in his journal that Chief Finau had told him, "there was neither harbor nor anchorage." Needless to say, Captain Cook never visited Vava'u...clever Chief.
We started in Neiafu (the only real town in the Vava'u group) where we did the officialdom thing. We left the dinghy tied to our mooring ball (picked up the night before thanks to help from Ems off s/v Serai) so we would have a spot to return to when we were all checked in...it is filling up in town because lots of folks are ducking in as strong winds are due to pass through the area. Checking-in requires pulling up to the main wharf...a solid concrete structure with big, black, rubber bumpers... sporadically spaced. Officials then come aboard representing customs, quarantine and health...they often request coffee or juice for the transactions...happy to oblige and keep smiles all around. Our cockpit did get quite full and even became the impromptu office for others...a big, double master that was too large (120 feet) to pull alongside the wharf checked-in on Barefeet with our bevy of officials. Barefeet returned to the mooring ball and Jan (s/v Silene) helped with the dinghy/big boat/mooring ball dance. Then it was into town for a stop at the immigration office. Phew - all set! We celebrated with french fries and a cocktail at the Bounty Bar where we met some local folks and learned more about the area. The rain picked up in the afternoon so instead of going back to Barefeet we stayed in town having cocktails before meeting for a fun pizza dinner with s/v Silene, s/v Serai and s/v Jade.
This is an easy place to settle into...with a handful of friendly bars and restaurants such as Dancing Rooster (with a delicious weekly all you can eat BBQ), Mermaid Bar (free beer upon arrival for all cruisers), Bounty Bar (great fries), Aquarium Cafe (great evening tapas overlooking the harbor...and one of the owners is an SC grad)...bakeries such as Crow's Nest (homemade cinnamon rolls and multi-grain bread)...a few supermarkets (alas, corned beef is the dominant item)...fresh veggies at the outdoor market...all within walking distance of each other and the dinghy dock. There is even a daily cruiser's net with info galore. Similar to French Polynesia there are chickens, roosters and dogs wandering the streets...but Tonga adds pigs to the wandering farm of critters. Artisans are also prevalent with nice wood carvings, tapas and jewelry carvings (bone and shell). We stayed in town for a few days then headed out to the islands with s/v Serai.
Sept 6 we headed to Port Maurelle anchorage off of Kapa Island...#7 in the Moorings Guide. Moorings charters has a base here and has printed a map that numbers each anchorage...so most folks simply refer to their destinations by number...kinda handy. Despite being an easy place to cruise the electronic charts on everyone's chart plotters are all off target (we are no exception)...and we again see that we are anchored ON LAND, tee, hee, hee. Good thing the eyeballs are still in working order. Just a bit of R&R...reading in the shade on the beach, great snorkeling with blue starfish and coconut gathering for evening sundowners. Also made a quick buzz over to Swallows Cave...accessed by dinghy...cool!
Sept 8 we moved a short distance to Nuku Island (picnic island)...#8 in the Moorings Guide. We took the long way and sailed slowly through the channel with jib alone and looked for whales. We got lucky and saw a few spouts and a few arched backs gracefully breaking the surface. They are massive! However, sometimes we get so focused looking for whales that we forget to look around at the beautiful islands that dot these sheltered waters. Densely covered with green and topped with palm trees they almost "sprout" like mushrooms from the ocean on their dug out coral bases.
Anchored and it was more snorkeling off the boat...but we wore wetsuits this time. Seems our blood is thinner and we can stay in the water for longer with an added layer of warmth. Whales sang throughout the night...wow! Just before hopping into the kayak Sept 9 we heard s/v Barraveigh on the radio...they are coming in from Nuie in the Cook Islands (approx 2 day passage). It is Sunday which means no checking-in...so Chris and Erin hopped into Trouble and buzzed out to show them the way to our anchorage. Tonga has become a fun reunion spot for us...hung out today with old friends...shelling, swimming and a bit of ultimate frisbee...and a few tales told over sundowners.
Another great night of whale songs then, in the morning, pulled up the anchor Sept 10. We took a few more slow turns through the channel and were again rewarded with whales...one even gracefully surfaced 15 feet from Barefeet...holy cow! Arrived about Noon and were the sole boat in Vaka'eitu anchorage...#16 in the Moorings Guide. This spot is also referred to as the Coral Gardens and is often described as the measuring stick for all coral you will ever see. S/v Serai also took it slow and arrived shortly after us...also rewarded with whale sightings. When they arrived Chris was out trolling in Trouble...and caught a barracuda! Fantastic! Erin cleaned and filleted the fish and Ems provided a lesson on breading...a tasty appetizer with sundowners. Breaded fish appetizer: fillet and trim to "fish tender" size pieces; whip one egg and juice of half a lime together; dredge fish tenders through egg mixture; dredge and coat with bread crumbs; quickly fry in small bit of veggie oil until browned on both sides; blot on paper towel; serve warm with dipping sauce or salsa. Later, a local family motored past with some amazing lemons the size of baseballs and coconuts - never one to let fresh stuff pass by we bought a few and gave the kids some lollipops.
Vaka'eitu anchorage is one of the most tranquil we have ever visited. We woke to a calm morning Sept 11 and dinghied around to the Coral Garden with Jason and Ems. The photos do not due the spot justice but we had to at least try and show the amazing views. We saw clown fish (remember little Nemo) and whales sang in the distance...magical. The coral was so diverse and abundant with a quick drop deep into an ocean trench. It was just the four of us and we took our time. Returning later for a peaceful swim off of Barefeet. Sitting on the deck watching the sun go down also allows a clear view of the wakening bats flying above the palm trees. Holy cow, these bats are huge and look to be about the size of raccoons...with clearly identifiable ruffled wings.
Sept 12 we hauled up the anchor and headed to Tapana anchorage...#11 in the Moorings Guide. We picked up a mooring ball managed by the Ark Gallery...a floating two room art gallery. At just $7 panga wangas per night (approx US$3.50). Okay, "panga wanga" is not the official currency but it was coined by a friend and has stuck like glue. More great snorkeling just off the boat where a sting ray was spotted and cowry (sp?) shells the size of apples lie under coral heads.
Our provisions are dwindling so we headed to a Spanish restaurant for dinner...La Paella...making reservations via VHF. What a hoot of an evening we had. Dinghied over with Jason and Ems at 7pm...yes, a bit beyond our usual...but there is only one seating for this set menu spot, originally opened in 1989. The room is a charming island shack perched on a hill overlooking the bay. Just a handful of tables and an open, brick oven for cooking...dinner was salad and gazpacho, fried creamy/cheesy potato balls the size of hushpuppies, fish on toast with creamy/herbed sauce, seafood paella and dessert of fresh fruit. After chatting with the other dozen or so diners over sangria (yes, banana can also be used as an ingredient) we settled in for the multi-course meal. After dinner, full and content we sat back for the show (actually, you are not given your bill until AFTER the performance, tee, hee, hee). The gold lame curtain comes up to reveal driftwood microphone stand and Edouardo singing from a stool, playing the guitar and humming on the harmonica...accompanied by his wife, Maria, on the marachas and Miti on the drums. Not to be left out, pet goat and dog ambled onto the stage for a bit of the action. Oh, and it seems the pickin's are slim for companionship on the islands (even for the animals). During a particular ballad the goat became quite amorous of the dog...in the middle of the restaurant! Ah, memories are made of this. Not sure the last time we laughed so hard that we cried.