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.

All good things must come to an end

After five months in the Marquesas Islands our time here is coming to an end. We’re currently in Nuku Hiva organising a multitude of things so that we can go to sea tomorrow and head to the Tuamotus. We have exactly 26 days to explore some of the atolls before arriving in Tahiti for the 3rd of May for a much anticipated visit from Alex’s mum (Paulina we can’t wait to see you).

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by our return visit to Nuku Hiva. I was expecting to spend most of our time here doing jobs in preparation for our next voyage. As well as being super productive, we’ve also had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves. About a week after we got here, 45 boats from the ARC rally arrived as Nuku Hiva was their next rendezvous point. Although it made for a crowded anchorage, it was nice to make some new friends and the locals were prepared with fully stocked shops, markets and craft fairs. We also had time to re-visit the waterfall that Alex missed out on last time when he was trying to keep out of the sun to protect his new tattoo. We seemed to switch roles for a moment and Alex also found time to take a hike while I stayed on board to do some boat work.

We had a lovely surprise when we heard that the Hokule’a was arriving to the island and the locals were holding a ceremony to commemorate the occasion. The Hokule’a is a traditional Polynesian pirogue (in this case, two canoes joined together with a crab claw sailing rig) with no engine – the only means of propulsion is through either sailing or rowing. The vessel is based in Hawaii and was designed to test a theory regarding historic navigation techniques. The traditional wayfinding techniques were learned from elders in Micronesia. These techniques use the position of the stars and sea-swell analysis (amongst other things) to determine position and course. No instruments are needed whatsoever – no electronic equipment, no GPS, no sextant, not even a compass. A crew sailed the Hokule’a using these ancient methods on various voyages around the Pacific since being launched in the 1970s, thus proving the theory of how ancient Polynesians migrated through the islands and their ancestral descent, which has since been confirmed by genetic analysis. More recently, in 2014 the vessel set sail from Hawaii for a circumnavigation which is now coming to an end. Their stop in Marquesas is only two stops before their final destination in Hawaii after successfully sailing around the world. The arrival of the crew on shore was really spectacular. Many of the locals were dressed in traditional attire and were singing, blowing horns, dancing and beckoning the new arrivals to land. The crew were brought to shore in smaller pirogues and greeted by a parade through the street then a ceremony performed in front of the entire village. It was a wonderful sight. For the crew (who had just arrived from a long journey from Pitcairn Island over 1000 miles away) it must have been truly magnificent, if not a little overwhelming.

The Hokule’a anchored in the main harbour in Nuku Hiva. It’s a spectacular boat, it looks stunning and is a true testament to Polynesian heritage. Although, does anyone know what that weird British flag is? Neither Alex or I have ever seen it before.
If you’re interested, you can read more about the Hokule’a here: http://www.hokulea.com/voyages/our-story/

The crew being greeted by the village chief in Taiohae. This and the next few photos are from Marc from s/v Scallywag (thanks Marc!)

During the ceremony. Many local Marquisians dressed in traditional attire, proudly displaying their expressive tattoos.

Many Westerners would cross the street to avoid someone who looks like this. Here, facial and body tattoos are not just accepted but are embraced. In fact, this gentleman is called Farah and was involved in the organisation of the music festival we attended here last November. He’s a really nice guy and even got involved in our silly coconut game that we mentioned in a previous blog.

Another high point was swimming with manta rays on three separate occasions. The last time was absolutely amazing! We swam with about 10 reef mantas for about half an hour as they were feeding. They were very happy to play nearby and often swam within about 30cm of us – they were bigger than Alex. It was one of the most awesome wildlife experiences I’ve ever had and I’d really recommend it if you ever get the chance.

Manta ray photo taken with the GoPro

I also managed to fit in one final dance session with my local friends and introduced a few new cruising ladies to the joys of the Polynesian dance classes. Hopefully they will continue to go after I’ve left.

All good things must come to an end and although I’ve really enjoyed my time here, I must admit I’m okay at the thought of leaving. It’s the first time that I’ve not gotten sentimental about leaving an area. I suppose we have been here for 5 months now and there are so many exciting places ahead of us this year, I’m ready to leave.