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.

Hip jiggling induced mental trauma

Alex mentioned in his last blog post that we’d been terrible tourists over the past few months due to the fact that we’d spent many of our days on Bob and not explored the sites of Nuku Hiva. I think this statement is a little unfair, given that Alex was doing a fair bit of boat work and I spent many hours a day finishing my statistical work for the research station in Galapagos. Which, I’m very pleased to report after all this time, is now finally finished! Even though our time in Nuku Hiva was largely spent doing productive jobs, we still managed to find time to see the local sights. I suppose I was a slightly better tourist than Alex given that he had to cower in the shade for three weeks to protect his beautiful new tattoo from sun damage. Despite this, we still found time to rent a car to see the sites around Nuku Hiva, hiked to archeological sites and various viewpoints, visited a local waterfall, sailed to another bay, did loads of snorkelling and even managed to fit in a scuba dive. In fact, I would go as far as to say that in some ways we were far better than your average tourist. Having spent almost 6 weeks in one place, we got to know the area really well. We know all the local shops and the best times to buy cheap fruit, vegetables, wine and rum. Alex’s French has improved so much that he can now have decent two-way conversations with the locals*. We’ve established close friendships with many of the other cruisers and now recognise numerous sailboats in and around the Marquesas. During my hike to the local waterfall, I got a little lost and had to ask a local for directions. The lady was adamant that there was no waterfall nearby and that the closest was in the next bay, a 3 hour sail away. Less than half an hour later I had found my way to the local waterfall, so you see, we got to know the place even better than the residents. Well, one of them at least.

A beautiful photo by David from s/v El Nido showing Bob anchored in Taiohae Bay, next to the main town in Nuku Hiva

We made it to the top! The viewpoint overlooking Taiohae, after my hike with Olivia and her kids

An archaeological site with wooden tikis, about an hours walk from the main town in Nuku Hiva

The local waterfall in Taiohae. Not the most scenic I’ve ever seen but I like how they’ve diverted the water to be utilised by local small holdings.

We joined a group of other sailors in a car trip. We rented 4 cars between us and explored various parts of the island. This is just one of many idyllic viewpoints we visited that day

Alex with Gaya at the highest point of the day – another photo taken during our car trip around Nuku Hiva

Another tiki – this one is very old. Again seen at one of the sites visited during our car trip

One of the ways I got involved in the native Polynesian culture was to attend local dance classes with some of the other cruisers. For just over a month I attended classes in Polynesian dance about twice a week. I have always enjoyed dancing. In the past I have taken a few classes in seroc, salsa and ballroom; I even took regular classes in Argentine tango for about 6 months in my early twenties. Also, my grandparents were excellent dancers and spent much of their youth doing Latin and ballroom at their local dancehall. My Nana used to proudly announce that many of the other dancers preferred to learn from her and my Grandad instead of the professional and fully-trained dance teacher. However, even with my genetics and dancing experience, the local Polynesian style is very difficult to master. Here, the idea is to jiggle your hips at the speed of light whilst keeping the rest of your body as still as rock – a little like belly dancing I suppose. This technique is not at all easy for a skinny Caucasian girl with small hips and not a whole lot of fat to ‘jiggle’ around.

Still, my dancing can’t have been too terrible because (to my absolute astonishment) the other cruisers and I were asked to participate in a local performance. Anyone who knows me will understand just how much I dread doing public performances of any kind! So this request was not taken lightly, especially considering I was only asked to participate two days before the performance. On top of that, I had to learn an intricate and complicated 4-minute dance from scratch as well as perfect the one that I had already been practising. The thought of performing was putting me into a severe state of panic. I spent most of the next two days shaking in a cold sweat while doing one dance practise after another. Even during my sleep I was dreaming about the routine.

I’m very happy to say that I decided to go ahead with the performance, along with 4 other sailing ladies as well as the local Polynesians. It was a truly amazing experience and a fantastic opportunity that I might never get again in my life. We performed in front of 200 paying guests to raise money for the local school. The guests enjoyed about 10 different dances by local men, women and children (I was part of two of them) as well as a local Polynesian barbeque – with pork, fish, goat and local vegetables cooked in a ground oven. Similar to the barbeques we had on Taravai in the Gambier Islands.

One of the local dancers. (photo by David from El Nido)

Another local dancer. The photos don’t do them justice – their dancing is just amazing! (photo by David from El Nido)

Me during the performance dressed in locally-made dance regalia. Thank you David for such a lovely photo! The next 3 are also by him.

Me and the other sailor ladies dancing with the local Polynesians during our first dance – it was a fast one!

…and again.

Even Kali and Gaya were able to get involved with the performance and they did their own dance with some of the local children. They were so adorable!

Another photo of me, this time taken by Mariusz from s/v An Cailleach

Generally, people don’t have regrets about the things they do in their lives, the regrets people have are about what they don’t do. This performance is definitely one of the more terrifying things I’ve done, but I’m so glad I got over myself and got involved – it’s an opportunity that I would have genuinely regretted missing.

The whole sailing gang – from left to right: Kelly, Cammie, Olivia, Julie and me 🙂 Photo by Mariusz

After a short stop in Tahuata we’re now back in Hiva Oa waiting to haul Bob out of the water to do some work on the bottom. I hope we can get the work done as quickly as possible so we can swiftly leave. Tahauku Bay in Hiva Oa is probably my least favourite place in the Marquesas . The anchorage is pretty rolly despite having the protection of a breakwater. The river runs straight into the bay causing the water to be a disgusting brown colour with a visibility of about an inch. The dinghy dock is very sketchy and a stern anchor is needed to dock without risking destroying your dinghy. It’s an hour walk to town and the friendliness of the locals seems to be very hit or miss. However, a new boat yard has recently opened up here and it’s the only place available to haul out a sailboat within 500 miles – and certainly the only place safe from cyclones at this time of year. Maintenance Marquises Services is the new company, owned by a Frenchman and his Polynesian wife, who run this pleasant and laid back boat yard. The prices are very reasonable for French Polynesia, although we’ve been waned that they tend to add on charges for ‘extras’ which should be budgeted for if you use this boat yard. They use a modern tractor with a fancy hydraulic trailer to haul boats out of the water from a slip. As much as I would rather avoid Hiva Oa, we couldn’t miss this opportunity to do some much-needed work to Bob. And who knows, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised by my visit this time.

Maintenance Marquises Services, the boat yard in Hiva Oa

The local dog adopted by the yard – named very appropriately ‘MMS’.

*Alex wishes it to be made clear that he feels this statement is entirely false and unfounded. He is merely semi-talented at smiling and nodding, thereby giving the illusion of linguistic competence.