A Month in Tonga
The Islands of Vava’u, Tonga
Six months ago, Tonga was a far, faint idea, not even beginning to take up space in my mind, except for maybe when dusting and reorganizing our bookshelves. Three months ago, Tonga became a dull worry: another long ocean passage separating us, with weather concerns. One month ago, I finally pulled the Tonga guidebook off the shelf…
and for the past three weeks, we’ve been studying the pages, and making our Tonga experience some of the most relaxing and fun days of our South Pacific season.
The guidebooks we had did a poor job of capturing the beauty of Vava’u, one of the northern group of islands, and the most popular for cruisers. As one guide states, “For some cruisers, Vava’u IS Tonga,” because very few travel outside. We are falling into that large percentage group the longer we stay here, and it’s hard not to when you experience the sailing and anchorages that lie within this small space. The distance between anchorages is the most alluring. Everything is within easy access and in protected waters— so no swell, and very little wind chop, making the sailing between anchorages similar to sailing on a large lake, OR like being in the Inside Passage. Sometimes when I squint at the jungle covered islets, I can almost imagine being in Southeast Alaska, up inside Sitka Sound, surrounded by all the volcanic islands… but then I see the turquoise water, hear the tropical birds, feel my skin burning a bit and am reminded of my tropical dwelling.
The other reason for sticking around Vava’u: the humpback whales! This southern contingent of their northern brothers (of whom Clif and I are very familiar with from our work on the Mist Cove), come to the protected, warm waters of Vava’u to birth their young and mate. The high concentration of whales makes them the leading tourist attraction of the area, and if you’re lucky, you can possibly get some underwater swim time with this big, beautiful creatures. Every time we’ve gone snorkeling I’ve said, “It’s like fishing rod hours: The more underwater time I put in, the more likely I am to get a fly-by” (from a whale that is…) In the mean time, while we snorkel and free-dive, we are serenaded by the songs, grunts and squeals of the mothers, babies and mates, all communing in this beautiful place. As our friend Dane on Oso exclaimed the other day, after surfacing from a dive: “It’s like Free Willy down here!!” The whale noises were so loud that day, they reverberated through the hull. We could actually hear the whale songs while sitting on the deck of Sedna, sailing slowly along.
Another focus we’ve had in Tonga is spending time with good cruising friends— as this is a separation point for those headed to Australia, versus those of us headed to New Zealand. The Australia boats are on a bit more of an escalated schedule, still having Fiji and New Caledonia to cruise before ending their season in the Outback. We’ve been participating in Friday afternoon yacht races in the main town of Neiafu, going out on day-sails with friends just for fun (what a novel idea!), and even taking Sedna out on full-day snorkel expeditions with buddy boaters. The close proximity of everything and the consistent trade winds make the day adventures a pleasure, and stress-free, especially with friends on board and beers in hand! We haven’t had a fun day-sail with a bunch of friends aboard, just for the sake of sailing, since we were in Juneau.
Neiafu Harbor (Port of Refuge) is neatly situated in the heart of the Vava’u Island group. It’s very well protected and littered with moorings, which makes it an easy place to stop, provision, do laundry, and regroup as we prepare for more time among the uninhabited islands. The provisioning in Neiafu is a weird mix, as the locals really only sell goods at one central produce market, and the rest of the stores around town are owned by Chinese families. These small Chinese stores have very little, but all different, so you’re almost forced to walk in and out of every one to collect the goods you’re seeking. Cruisers will stop each other on the street and ask, “Have you found cheese?” “Where did you get that beer?” “Any luck finding eggs?” And we do our best to share knowledge and instruct each other around.
Coming into Neiafu from French Polynesia and Niue was a, “Clif, we’re not in Kansas anymore…” moment. Tonga is not subsidized like French Polynesia, and doesn’t have the lovely tourism infrastructure like Niue. The poverty is very apparent. Many of the older generation make their small amount of income by selling root vegetables or woven baskets at the central market. On occasion, Vava’u receives a large cruise ship, and the entire family will set up several stands around town to sell wares. There are quite a few fishermen, with one small market (more like a small tent) down by the wharf to purchase fresh fish. THIS is the bustling metropolis of Neiafu, and you don’t see a lot of locals selling goods or owning stores. There is a significant expat community here, many who have started some kind of store, restaurant, or cruiser amenity. The waterfront is lined with several bars and cafes that offer cruisers a dinghy dock, internet, happy hour beers… etc.
The highlight of our stay in the “Port of Refuge” was the Friday afternoon yacht race. We managed to get quite a few friends and boats involved, 10 boats in all, to race up and down the Bay. We crewed aboard S/V Bravo with Andy and Mel. The race brought out Andy’s competitive side as a captain, and we managed to score third place— which equated to a free round of beers at the local bar hosting the event. In the spirit of racing on other boats, Clif decided to host a fun day sail on Sedna the following day, something we hadn’t done fore quite some time! What a novelty.. sailing to go nowhere, just enjoy the boat and the company. After the race day and our day sail, most of our cruising buddy boaters packed up, finished in town chores, and headed out for some real cruising out among the smaller islands and anchorages.
Vaku’eitu (Or, anchorage #16)
We met up again with our merry band of Juneau boats (Merrion, Oso and ourselves) at Vaku’eitu. With several beautiful beaches, a small hike and good snorkeling close by, we had plenty to keep us around the anchorage for a good period of time. We also met a new addition to our Juneau fleet: S/V Danika, a Westsail 42 owned by former AK ferry captain and Juneauite John Larsen. He completed the puddle jump last year and has spent the past off-season in New Zealand sprucing up the interior of his boat—now spending an entire season in Tonga! Cruising is fill with “small world” moments, and meeting John was one of them. (Apparently, Mom and Dad did his business cards quite a while ago).
We spent a bunch of time diving while with Merrion and Oso, including a day-snorkel-trip aboard Sedna, out of the anchorage. We visited several islands that are fairly exposed and listed as “day-anchorages” in the cruising guidebooks. A highlight of diving around the southern island group was not necessarily the coral, or even the diversity of fish, but the whale songs! This particular afternoon of our day-trip, was the day I mentioned previously: hearing the whale songs through through the hull… while sailing! We also jumped in the water for a snorkel and felt the vibrations of the lower notes in our bodies. The visibility was low that day, but just the feeling of those vibrations let us know whales were near.
Hunga Haven and the Whales
Among buddy boating friends, we discovered the lovely island of Hunga, which includes a small, almost totally enclosed lagoon. Inside the lagoon we found some excellent snorkeling, and spectacular free-diving/spearfishing outside of the lagoon pass. We were able to spend several days diving here— one particular sessions where the whale songs we so loud, they vibrated our bodies (again). We knew the whales were close, by no fly-bys. Clif and I kept one eye on the coral and one eye on the open ocean just in case a whale decided to come check us out.
While moored in Hunga, we paid to go on a whale swim excursion with a boat of New Zealand guides who ran a very private resort near by. We were picked up early in the morning, and spent the whole day observing whales from the boat, judging their behavior, and occasionally slipping into the water and being able to view the whales from below the surface. The experience was an adventure to say the least, and almost too overwhelming at times to see these large beautiful beasts swimming so gracefully around you. To watch a whale swim next to the boat can be stomach-dropping itself… and then putting your even tinier self in the water makes that feeling more enhanced.
Man, if you want to feel small in this world… go swim next to a whale.
So I was able to complete my goal of viewing humpbacks above and below the surface in Vava’u… not only adult whales, but several babies! Another diving experience we will always remember from this season.
Rest In Peace, little Walker Bay…Lost at Sea
On Saturday, August 11th, 2018, our little Walker Bay rowing dinghy, affectionately known as Walker Texas Ranger, decided to exit our lives the same way he entered. We have owned that dinghy since we were in Seattle, Fall 2013. It was given to us my Father Thomas, a good friend and Catholic Priest who was at the time, based out of Petersburg, Alaska. He had found the small dinghy washed up on some beach in Juneau, and upon seeing our small wooden pram when we stopped in Petersburg on our way south to Mexico, he insisted we have the Walker Bay. Little Walker drew many an eye and several giggles, being excellent to row side-by-side. There are quite a few photos on strangers cameras of Clif and I “double-rowing” in Walker Bay just because of the novelty and cuteness.
Around Vava’u we have been towing the Walker Bay behind the boat without a care in the world, but coming around the south of Hunga Island, he managed to loosen his cleat and float gracefully away offshore in a stiff easterly breeze… We were watching humpback whales and steering towards flocks of bird at the time, with all of our fishing gear out, and took no notice of the dinghy’s disappearance. So by the time we recognized that Walker was gone, it was too late. We spent an hour motoring downwind to try and spot the dinghy, but it grew dark, and we knew that Walker was probably well on his way to Fiji.
Unfortunately, we have done this before in Puerto Vallarta. We almost lost the dinghy in the same manner this last February, but Puerto Vallarta being a Bay, and the wind light, we quickly retraced our steps and found Walker.
Once turned around, calling the search… sun already down, growing dark, Clif sang to cheer me up:
Walker was a rolling stone,
Wherever the wind did blow was his home,
He slipped his cleat… and so forth.
Over the next several days after the dinghy disappearance, the wind shifted from the east, to the west and then southwest… so it gave us hope that someday soon, (instead of joining the giant Pacific Trash Gyre) Walker will show up back on a Tongan beach, and make a great play toy for some children in a worthy Tongan family.
Photos from the top: Walker Bay the last day we saw him in Tonga on the beautiful beach of Sisia Island; Walker Bay on one of his first Mexican adventures in Turtle Bay, coming down the coast of Baja; and Clifton driving "Tony Danza" our borrowed wooden dinghy for the time being.
Quest for a New Dink…
Our incident with the dinghy lead to another great example of cruiser generosity! Our friends aboard Merrion lent us a second paddle board, and another set of friends aboard Ripple, were gracious enough to lend their pretty little rowing dinghy, Tiny Dancer (aka Tony Danza), while we have Clif’s Dad aboard, passage to Fiji and sort out a plan for a new one. Clif is already making plans to build a wooden rowing/sailing dinghy in New Zealand, but we will be keeping our eyes and ears open for opportunities to pick up used inflatables or otherwise.
Tonga on a Sunday
Tonga is a deeply religious country with great revere for the Day of Rest. On Sundays, no one is allowed to fish, travel, sell goods, farm… it is all about church and family. Many Tongans, especially those who are apart of a protestant sect, attend up to three or more church services a day. During the afternoon, many families prepare a large Sunday meal using a pit fire with coconut husk coals— this meal is called an umu. We tend to think of roasting pits for pigs (which they do frequently), but they slow cook many other dishes including root vegetables, green papayas, fish and other meats wrapped in taro leaves.
When Rob (Clif’s Dad) arrived in Tonga, I had a surprise for his first full day. I had arranged a Sunday visit to a small village outside of Neiafu, complete with a Tongan church service and a meal. The woman preparing the meal also sold baskets at the town market, which is how we connected in the first place. We all dressed up in out Sunday best, were picked up by a local and brought to church where the music and volume of the hymns were larger than life, and certainly didn’t equate to the amount of people in the pews (maybe 30 in total— including us). Some of the men singing made my chest vibrate. Betty, my basket weaving friend, lent me a ta’ovala (also known as a kiekie) to wear for the day, which is traditionally wore by most Tongan women on Sundays or for formal occasions. Betty also made us a lovely meal of roasted taro, papaya in coconut cream, cooked bananas, cola juice (lemonade), and local fish with tomatoes and onions wrapped in taro leaves and cooked inside tinfoil over the umu. We felt the entire visit to be very giving and special— a cultural experience that will be remembered.
So Rob arrived, and will be with us for two weeks, exploring more of Vava’u and hitting the highlights before starting to look at weather windows for the passage to Fiji. The passage to Fiji should take us around 3-4 days, depending on wind and route to the port of Savusavu, where we will check in through customs. We are tentatively planning on staying on the island of Taveuni for several weeks to complete our Dive Master training at the Paradise Taveuni Resort.
More great cultural to come!