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.

Poised to Pounce

We set sail from VaVa’U on October 14th and have spent the last couple of weeks slowly working our way South, hopping from island to island following the ridge of volcanic activity that spawned some of the Tongan islands many years ago and which continues to spawn new ones to this day. Every now and then a spurt of activity yields a new one. Many break apart and sink (or even float off into the pacific!) but some are more firmly rooted to the seabed and look set to endure for millennia to come. The most recent was ejected from the bowels of the Earth in March 2015. It’s about 2 square kilometres in area and of course does not appear on our old charts. We know it’s there though, and don’t worry – we won’t hit it!

 

Here we have the volcano island of Kao (on the right!), which we sailed past at a distance. Sarah managed to snap this shot as the haze lifted and I think it looks quite striking. Most of the volcanoes here underwater but some, like this one, project well above it:

We day-sailed down to the Ha’apai Group and spent a little over a week there before making the final hop to Nukualofa, the administrative and commercial capital of Tonga. Being also the closest point to New Zealand (a mere 1020 miles as the whale swims) it’s a good spot to gather ourselves while waiting for the right mix of weather to present itself. Once that opportunity arises we intend to pounce on it to set sail for the Minerva Reefs, followed by the final leg to the North Island of New Zealand.

We are expecting it to be bitter-sweet. We’re leaving behind several friends who have decided to either head for different ports or stay here for the cyclone season. Gone will be the soft-sand beaches bathed in golden sunlight, coconut palms lining every shoreline, warm Polynesian welcomes and wonderful swimming, diving and fishing. On the other hand we are looking forward to supermarkets, open landscapes (other than watery ones) and tucking Bob away on a mooring for a little while and exploring by land for a few months. Sarah’s family recently moved to Thailand, so we intend to fly there for two months. My brother recently moved to Australia so I’ll take the opportunity to visit him over Christmas. New Zealand will be cold and rainy, and we have a lot of work to do on Bob before she’ll be ready for the Torres Straits, Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope back into the Atlantic. We’ve a long way yet to sail and she’s showing her age. There’s some work to do.

We also intend to spend a good deal of time exploring New Zealand. We’ve bought a camper van (here’s a link to an old add for our van: https://www.facebook.com/groups/480823782015631/permalink/1197657770332225/?sale_post_id=1197657770332225 ) and are really looking forward to travelling by land for a bit. I am particularly looking forward to it because it means I can take a back seat (literally as well as figuratively) and allow Sarah to take over the planning and scheduling of our travels. It’ll be quite a treat to have minimal responsibilities. I have aspirations of lounging in bed reading a book and sipping on a beer while being chauffeured around New Zealand from picturesque spot to picturesque spot……….. perhaps it’s more of a fantasy than an aspiration, but regardless it’ll be great.

As I write this we are experiencing a bit of a blow – 25 knots sustained with gusts up to 30 or 35. Bob is neatly lying to her anchor, protected from the seas by a reef half a mile to windward and a motu (island) just off the port bow. Such weather is not unusual at this time of year, when strong high-pressure systems between us and New Zealand reinforce the trade winds along their Northern edges. There are quite a few boats here with us – perhaps 20 – and we all have the same agenda. Some people have light-displacement modern boats and are looking for 12 to 15 knots of wind for their onward journey. Others have heavily-built steel or fibreglass ‘tanks’ which do better in 25 knots. Bob is somewhere in the middle – we like 15 to 20 knots aft of the beam – but all 20 of us are waiting for our chance. Traditionally, the later in the season one departs for New Zealand the more comfortable the passage and the lower the chance of being caught out in a strong low-pressure system. But, the later you leave it the greater the chance (though still small) of encountering a tropical cyclone. The first tropical low (not a cyclone, or even a tropical storm, just a tropical low) of the season looks to be forming over the next week about 800 miles to our WSW. Some forecasts are predicting 60-knot gusts at Minerva, so we’re all watching the development of that with a close eye. If it fails to materialise then early next week looks like it might be a good opportunity to launch. Otherwise it might be another week from now. As always, our lives are managed by ourselves but dictated by the weather. Battling the elements doesn’t really enter into it. If they choose to take up arms, we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.

 

Here’s the view forward, taken just after I finished writing this post. The island on the left is Pangaimotu, and houses the famous (for cruisers!) ‘Big Momma’s Restaurant and Bar’. Like many other places that cater to yachts they also do laundry, sell water, take trash, fill cooking gas cylinders, sell diesel and generally provide a host of esoteric services just for us.

 

 

And here’s the view aft, showing some of the other boats in the anchorage. The big catamaran on the right is ‘Prati’ with Magdalena and Carlos on board, whom we first met way back in the Gambier Islands. Far right is ‘Local Talent’ with Gail and Dean on board – two new friends whom we have enjoyed spending a good bit of time with recently. The fourth boat from the right (quite far away) is our very good friends Herbert, Asma and their two boys Adam and Sammy on board ‘Maya’. We first ‘met’ them by radio as they passed by Pitcairn Island in August 2016 and have since spent many enjoyable hours with them at various points along our voyage, as our paths have often crossed. It really is a small world.