We’re finally on our way to New Zealand (again)!

We ended up staying at the Minerva Reefs for much longer than expected (9 days in North Minerva and 3 days in South Minerva) waiting for a suitable weather window to New Zealand, but we’re now finally on our way (again)! We set sail from South Minerva yesterday afternoon and have been enjoying wonderful sailing conditions since then. As I write this we have just crossed over into the Eastern Hemisphere, which is quite exciting. Alex tells me he has never sailed in this half of the world before.

I think we made the right decision not to leave in the potential weather window last week. The low pressure system that everyone was trying to beat sped up and hit New Zealand a day and a half earlier than forecasted. Two boats were lost in the heavy winds and whilst we don’t know the exact details, we heard all the people on board were rescued and there was no loss of life. Unfortunately, our late departure means that we’ll miss out on the various events of the All Points Rally which are held in mid November in Opua. But most unfortunately it means we’ll miss out on seeing our friends, Eileen and Alex, who were visiting New Zealand recently. Sorry guys, I really hope our paths cross in the not-too-distant future and we hope you had an amazing time exploring New Zealand.

The current weather window is being described by meteorologists as ‘as good as it gets’. So hopefully it’ll be pleasant sailing from here to Opua where we expect to arrive in just under a weeks time.

We’ve made it to Minerva!

We’ve made it to North Minerva Reef and amazingly there are 17 other yachts here! So much for minimal human interference, but at least we have plenty of company. The sun is shining and the waters are crystal clear – I can’t wait to go for a dive and see what’s around. I wonder if the resident tiger shark will make an appearance…?

Some visual impressions of Tonga

Tonga has been a lovely home for us over the last two and a half months but now it’s time to say goodbye. We’re heading even further south, first to another submerged atoll called Minerva Reef, then onto New Zealand. We’ll probably be at sea for at least two weeks but we’ll use the new blog feature to make posts during that time via the satellite phone. If you don’t hear from us in the next couple of weeks, it’s probably because that new feature isn’t working properly. But then again, it may be because the boat has sunk and we’re drifting around the Pacific in a bright orange floating bouncy castle.

They say “a picture tells a thousand words”. So before we go, I thought I’d leave you with some visual impressions of Tonga from the many photos I’ve taken over the past few months.

Vava’u Island Group

We spent over 2 months enjoying the Vava’u islands. They are a collection of one large island and many smaller ones in the northern part of Tonga. Polynesian legend explains that the islands were created by the god ‘Maui’ who used his magical hook to fish the islands from the depths of the ocean. The reality is just as cool – the islands are raised atolls formed through tectonic forces which have sculpted the Earth’s landscape to elevate land above sea level along the Tongan Trench.

Neiafu

The administrative capital of Vava’u is called Neiafu and it’s also the second largest town in the whole of Tonga. Here we were able to enjoy a number of shops, boutiques, bars, restaurants and a large produce market. There’s even a fine meats deli and of course we can’t forget about the infamous ‘Tropicana’ internet cafe, which provides a whole host of yacht services, but best of all is owned and run by Hugh Laurie.

It’s really him!….. Isn’t it?

Village life

A number of small rustic villages lie around the various islands of Vava’u, each with their own distinctive character. As with many of the islands throughout Polynesia, religion is taken very seriously and every community gathers for the Sunday morning church service.

Blue Water Festival

Each year various companies in New Zealand and local businesses in Tonga fund the ‘Blue Water Festival’. This amazing festival is all about having fun with fellow sailors, exploring the local cultures and learning about how to make a safe passage to New Zealand.

  1. The Race

We teamed up with fellow cruisers Rick and Jasna from s/v Calypso for the annual Blue Water Festival regatta in which we raced their beautiful, but rather heavy, 36-foot Hans Christian cutter. As expected, we weren’t very fast and despite being given a 2 minute head-start, most of the other boats overtook us rather quickly. Still, we had a very special tactic to discourage the other boats from overtaking us by attempting to blind them with the white glare from our… ehem… posteriors. We didn’t win the race, but we did win $100 worth of vouchers for the ‘most naked’ crew 🙂 You might not want to look too closely at the next photo. 

2. The School Show

Part of the local cultural experience was a trip to the local school to see a dance performance by the children. The costumes were as vibrant as the dancing and they even got the audience involved. It was great fun.

3. Kava

Also part of the local culture is an intoxicating drink made from the ground roots of the kava plant. The drink is supposed to have sedative, anesthetic, euphoriant and entheogenic properties but despite making kava at twice the recommended strength, we experienced nothing but a slightly numb tongue.  No amount of photo editing can make this drink look appetising and believe me, it tastes even worse than it looks.

Wildlife

The wildlife in Tonga is really impressive, particularly in Vava’u. The sprightly insular flying fox (aka fruit bat) is highly abundant in this part of the world and can often be seen languishing in the tree branches or flying overhead in the late afternoon.

 

Maninita is one of the islands in the south of Vava’u and is one of few places where the invasive Pacific rat has been completely eradicated. It’s now a haven for breeding sea birds. The abundance and diversity of species at this newly acclaimed bird reserve is really wonderful to see.

Mount Talau National Park

The highest point in Vava’u and the most spectacular views can be found at the top of Mount Talau. Alex and I took the short hike to reach the peak of the mountain – although I’m not sure that 669 feet can really be classed as a mountain! Still, we took great pleasure in walking through the rural villages, immersing ourselves in the tropical flora and fauna of the national park and enjoying the magnificent views of Neiafu from the summit of Mt Talau.

Diving

The diving here is spectacular. I’m recording more diversity on my fish surveys than ever before and I’m seeing soft corals and fan corals in reasonable numbers for the first time on this trip. The underwater caves here are magical. The colours created by the lighting in Mariners Cave and Swallows Cave are really stunning.

Ha’apai

We made our way south to the Ha’apai island group in central Tonga where we spent about a week. It’s the quietest and least developed area of Tonga and is brimming with unspoilt coastline and diverse turquoise waters.

Happy Halloween in Tongatapu

Our final destination in Tonga is the island group known as Tongatapu, home to the main capital of Nukualofa. This is the most developed part of Tonga but although there are many shops here it is by no means a metropolis. The town centre is vibrant and busy, but there’s a lack of chain superstores and the place has a very rustic feel to it. It’s very different from London, Paris, Madrid and other capital cities that we’re more familiar with. It’s the perfect place to stock up for the long sea passage to New Zealand and also to find some hidden treats such as Camembert and baguette – which I enjoyed all to myself as a birthday breakfast on the 1st of November. The weather was misreble, I made pumpkin soup out of the Halloween jack o lantern from the night before and we even had some boat trick or treaters! All in all it was a great birthday that reminded me a little of home.

The joys of filing a UK tax return

Of course the lifestyle of any ocean vagabond such as ourselves is fraught with various complications, dangers and difficulties – it’s not all about tropical islands, sunshine and frolicking with fishes! The most pressing difficulty for us over the previous 6 weeks has been how to fill in our UK tax return.

I, having submitted self assessment tax returns in the UK many times before, thought I was quite familiar with the system and knew exactly what I needed to do to comply with the rules and regulations of Her Majesties Revenue & Customs. Bah! How naive of me. It turns out that I am, in fact, no longer a UK resident at all despite having no residency in any other country. This means that instead of filing the online tax return by the 30th January 2018, HMRC are requesting I send them ORIGINAL paper copies in the post by 31st October 2017 or risk a hefty fine. Is this not a little backwards? Surely being out of the country means there’s a good chance that I don’t have access to a reliable postal service that will successfully deliver documents to the UK, such as in our current location – the northern islands of Tonga. Still, it was nice of them to tell me about this new deadline when I registered myself as overseas back in February 2016. Oh! Wait a second….. no they didn’t! Moreover, Alex’s overseas registration documents apparently never reached the HMRC, despite being sent at exactly the same time and from the exact same post box as mine.

Ah, the joys of HMRC and British bureaucracy. For a very meagre profit (so meagre, in fact, that we’re a long way from being liable to pay any tax in the first place), Alex and I have had to make about 4 Skype calls (in the middle of the night because of the time difference between the UK and Tonga) which has required us to borrow other peoples phones as we don’t own a long-distance-capable one ourselves, after sailing for half a day to reach an island where the phone signal is good enough to make the call in the first place. Of course it’s not as simple as just filling in our tax return, we first had to fill in a form that issues us with a ‘magic number’ that will then allow us to fill in our tax return. We wait. One week goes by, then two…. still no ‘magic number’ and the deadline is looming ever closer. We make another Skype call to find out where it is.

“Good morning Miss Brooks” (it’s actually almost midnight here)

“You can sign up for an online account which will show you your [magic number] and allow you to fill in your tax return”

The next day we make our way to the internet cafe to sign up for our online account. The webpage reads:

“Please provide a phone number so that we can send you a [magic code] so that you can log into your online account” (We have no phone).

“Otherwise, please download our ‘app’ which will generate a [magic code] so that you can log into your online account” (luckily, this is something we can do on our tablet).

45 minutes later and the ‘app’ has finally managed to download itself onto our tablet through the frustratingly slow internet connection. So, let’s log on to our new online account. We bring up the login page, enter our details and use the ‘app’ to generate a magic code that will allow us to enter our online account so that we can retrieve our elusive ‘magic number’ so that we can then, finally, file our tax return. We enter the code shown in the app…

“Sorry, the [magic code] you have entered is incorrect” (You’re fricking kidding me! It IS the correct code)

We do this 10 more times, still no luck.

We tried to use the online help function, but it didn’t work. We tried to speak to someone using their online ‘chat’ service, but it didn’t work. Eventually, we did manage to logon using the magic code from the ‘app’ and guess what! Our long awaited ‘magic number’ that will actually allow us to file a tax return is NOWHERE TO BE SEEN! At this point Alex slits his wrists and throws himself from the top window of the internet cafe. Only kidding, but I will say that he may have uttered one or two choice phrases that had the rest of the customers either smirking or covering their children’s ears.

After another midnight Skype call we are eventually given the fantastical ‘magic number’ that allows us to actually fill in our tax return. Finally, after a frustrating and painful 6 weeks, our forms are ready to go. We’ve had to fill in a total of 8 forms between us and many of the seemingly straight forward questions were in fact rather difficult for us to answer. For example, “Do you have a home abroad?” Is our boat classed as a home? If so, what’s the address?

We filled in the forms in the most accurate way we possibly could, structuring our answers in a style that HMRC should be very familiar with. Now we just have to figure out how to get them to the UK by the worryingly close deadline in 20 days’ time.

Alex is near suicidal as he desperately tries to make sense of all the HMRC tax forms

 

Do you think these answers will suffice…?