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.

When inception becomes reality

We’re currently on day 12 of our journey from Galapagos to Pitcairn Island and today is the first day I’ve not felt sea sick – woohoo! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not been unmanageable and I’ve not even been physically sick, but I’ve had vague, underlying nausea and a general lack of enthusiasm to do anything particularly active for fear of feeling even worse. Today, I have a new spring in my step. The day is splendid with decent wind for the most part, glorious sunshine and the sea seems a little calmer. Now that my underlying sickness has disappeared I feel like I actually want to get up and do stuff. So far it’s been a very productive day – the galley has been cleaned, a cupboard has been fixed, a cup holder has been mounted on the wall, the washing up has been done, I’ve showered and now I’m writing a blog. Fingers crossed I stay feeling this way for the rest of the journey!

It’s hard to believe that after all this time at sea, we’re only about half way through the voyage. It’s very different from your run-of-the-mill long haul journey in a plane or by car or train. Firstly, we’re travelling at the speed of a fast jog towards our destination. Secondly, gravity is all wrong here. It reminds me a little of the film ‘Inception’, when gravity in the dream world becomes abnormal if the dreamer is, for example, falling in the real world. For those who have not sailed a small boat (or seen Inception), the closest thing I can relate it to is one of those simulator rides you find in theme parks. Your whole world is constantly moving in sporadic and unpredictable ways, never going up-side-down (hopefully), but often picked up and lifted, then dropped back down into the waves, or brutally jolted from one side to another. Now imagine trying to live your life in those conditions – sleeping, cooking, washing, going to the toilet etc. when the room you’re in is being jerked and shoved in unpredictable directions. Not surprisingly, everything becomes much more difficult. Everything takes about 5 times more effort and about 5 times as long to do. It’s even more difficult when you have sea sickness to contend with as well.

There have not been any major hurdles to overcome and overall this trip has been relatively easy going. We’ve had rough seas for the last couple of days which are finally starting to abate, the wind vane had a problem a few nights ago which was fixed within the hour and probably the worst thing to happen was the freezer breaking, which happened to be crammed full of frozen food. Luckily we’ve manage to save pretty much all of it by some clever space management and by turning our fridge down to act as a freezer instead. I’ve particularly enjoyed coming up with new and interesting dishes to eat as some of our food items have been gradually going over. For example, our sliced bread started going stale and mouldy and we needed to figure out a way to eat a lot of it quickly. Bread and butter pudding I thought seemed like a good way to use it up. Whilst I’ve eaten bread and butter pudding numerous times in my life, unfortunately I have never actually made it myself. I know that you layer bread in a pan with raisins and other fruit (we used bananas) then cover with some sort of custard and bake it. I’ve never made custard from scratch in my life and come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever even made the powdered stuff. With no recipe books on board and no internet access, I turned to a dictionary for help. Custard is defined as ‘a dessert made of eggs, sugar and milk, either baked, boiled or frozen’. Well that was good enough to give it a go and luckily we had all the ingredients, including some powdered vanilla stuff that you’re supposed to mix with milk to make a vanilla drink.  So, armed with my dictionary definition of custard and some mouldy stale bread – I began the pudding. Amazingly, it turned out pretty good!

Out here, in the middle of the Pacific and over a thousand miles away from the nearest land, we’re essentially trapped in our little 36 foot boat because immediately surrounding us is an incredibly hostile environment. Having said that, I don’t feel particular trapped out here. Our little boat is a bubble of comfort which is well equipped to keep us alive and well, even in this difficult terrain. There’s also something quite liberating about being so far from civilisation, we’re free to go wherever we want, behave however we want and are not bound by the trivial rules and bureaucracy of modern society. It doesn’t even feel lonely in this seemingly barren place. We get visits from birds at least once a day – what they’re doing in the middle of the Pacific over a thousand miles away from land is beyond me! Dolphins, porpoises, sharks, squid and flying fish have also put in an appearance.

Right, I think it’s time for some lunch followed by some episodes of game of thrones. I introduced Alex to the series last week and now he’s hooked – I think we’ve watched about 24 hours’ worth so far!

Pitcairn Bound! (We Hope)

As I write this we are at position 04 degrees 04 minutes S, 092 degrees 05 minutes west, sailing SSW at approximately 5.5 knots. We’ve slowed down a bit and come off the wind a touch because the wind and seas built last night to the point that Bob was launching off the tops of waves and slamming down hard on the other side. We took 2 reefs into the mainsail and perhaps 1/3 of our large (140%) genoa is unfurled. In conjunction with bearing off the wind a touch (now about 55 degrees apparent) things are much more comfortable.

We are bound vaguely for a point about 20 degrees South, 120 degrees West at which point we will exit the wonderful belt of trade winds and, for the last week of our voyage, pick our way through the variable winds toward our destination of Pitcairn Island, which is located at about 25 degrees South, 130 degrees West. This is our plan, but, in common with the vast majority of plans that rely on the magnanimity of the weather gods, it is subject to change. There’s a very real possibility (50% I’d say) that we will find things a bit nasty as we go further and further South and decide to bail out to one of the other island groups that are more to leeward. The winds should be fine for the most part – 10 to 20 knots are the norm at the moment in the trade wind belt – but there could be much more wind (and potentially head-winds) once we enter that region of variable winds closer to Pitcairn. Furthermore, the dominant swells even as far North as we are currently are approaching us from the South West and do not promise to change in the near future. These swells are generated in the far South, in the Great Southern Ocean by powerful storms – some of the worst storms in the world in fact. At the moment they make for a bit of slamming, but the further South we go (and the closer to their source) the larger they will become, and we may well find it very hard work indeed to continue crashing into them. We shall see!

Assuming we make it to Pitcairn (and I sincerely hope we do!) we will have the pleasure of the company of some of the best people on the planet. The island has a population of about 50, which is an increase over that of 2003 when I last visited. I think then it was about 40. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the lovely couple once again who hosted me at their house back in 2003 and I sincerely hope that some of the things I’ve brought along with me can be useful to the islanders. In 2003 the sorts of things that made good gifts were machetes, cake mix, chocolate and so on. Also liquor. We have all of these on board, but I wonder if they are sought-after commodities any longer. In 2003 the island received two supply ships per year. Now, I suspect this number has risen considerably. I would hate to turn up and impose myself upon their hospitality without having anything to offer in return.

At any rate we have at least 3 weeks before we’ll need to worry about that. At the moment all of my focus is internal to our little world – this small hole in the water made of plastic which we call our home and which is slowly but surely trundling through the miles into one of the most remote places on the planet. There are almost 3000 miles to cover (less the 250 that we’ve done in the last 2 days). That’s about the same as a crossing of the entire Atlantic Ocean in terms of distance, but in all other respects it is vastly different. For a start, we are sailing away from ‘civilisation’ rather than from one civilisation to another. Pitcairn Island (and indeed, all of the island groups ‘nearby’) offers very little in the way of yacht services. In fact, there isn’t even a real anchorage. The closest boat yard that I know of is in Tahiti, some 1200 miles from Pitcairn and 3500 miles from our current location. It is therefore of paramount importance that if we wish Bob to take care of us then we must be particularly diligent in taking care of her.

Update at 1415: as the seas continued to rise we were back to jumping off them. We’re turned off the wind about 20 degrees so as to be going a little more with the wind rather than with it, and it’s much more comfortable.

We’ve been surprised by the amount of wildlife even out here in the middle of nowhere. Flying fish abounded this morning, a number of birds have come to say hello and I even spotted a shark this morning lazily meandering back and forth in the characteristic way that they do. He didn’t seem too interested in us and didn’t hang around for more than 10 seconds or so but it was a pretty cool sight nonetheless.

The shark reminded me of a time when we were sailing down to the Caribbean and encountered the worst weather I have ever seen. The feeling one gets when one is in the middle of such a tempest is difficult to describe, but I would say that awe plays a large part in it. There is something very majestic about a violent sea. So there I was staring out over the mountains of blue and white water, and with every swell Bob was being jettisoned up 30 feet to the crest of a wave before falling down on the other side. At the highest peaks it was possible to see a great distance. Each time felt like a different frame of a surrealistic film, since every glimpse out over the crests was slightly different than the last. In contrast, between these glimpses from on-high the world was contracted into the tiny space between one wave and the next, where seemingly-vertical walls of water hemmed us in on all sides. We were all very tired and our brains weren’t really functioning as they should have been, but nevertheless I remember clearly one such wall that rose up right next to the boat, and within this wall was a huge billfish – a marlin I think. That moment lasted quite a while, and I got the distinct feeling that the marlin was just as surprised to me as I was to see it, for ours eyes were on the same level no more than 20 feet apart and from what I could tell we were both staring at one another as if to say “what on earth are you doing here? Don’t you have somewhere better to be than this?”

As for now, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

Penguins make everything better

We’re getting closer to the end of our stay in the Galapagos but there are still so many things we want to do before we leave. We need to finish various boat jobs before our next stint at sea. It will be the longest single journey at sea that Bob has ever done (at least since Alex has owned the boat) and we need to make sure she is well prepared. On top of that, I’m keen to get the analysis work done for my voluntary work at the Research Station. There’s also one island left to visit – Isabela, which is the final destination we’re allowed to go to as a cruising yacht. It’s the largest island in the archipelago and was originally formed from lava flows of six major and numerous minor volcanoes that have uplifted and joined over millions of years. Some of the volcanoes are still intermittently active. We’ve heard fantastic things about Isabela from other sailors and it had always been on the top of our list of places to visit whilst we’re here. So we decided to set sail for Isabela last Sunday and spend some time exploring the island we’ve heard so much about. It’s much more tranquil, less built up than Santa Cruz and San Cristobal and is home to the infamous Galapagos penguin and Greater flamingo – both endemic to Galapagos.

After a 10 hour sail through the night, we arrived at about midday last Sunday (23rd May). Although we had absolutely no wind for the sail and motored the whole way, the weather was glorious when we arrived. The wind was calm, not a cloud in the sky and the water was shallow and perfectly clear. A flock of probably 200 blue-footed boobies were torpedo diving for small fish schooling under the surface. They would fly in a group, all mimicking the path of the school of fish underneath them before torpedo diving in unison into the water. As we were setting anchor, Alex was concerned that there was a major problem with the windless because it appeared to be jammed and not letting out any chain. Whilst attempting to release the anchor chain by hand and loudly cursing the windless in the process, a curious penguin swam right up to us at the bow of the boat to see what was going on. “PENGUIN!”, Alex shouted whilst excitedly pointing at the water. They are so incredibly cute and I know that my brother have loved to see one (penguins being his favourite animal)! We stared at it for a few minutes before laughing at how amazing it was to see a penguin within 5 minutes of arriving in port, before we’d even finished setting anchor. Suddenly, the windless didn’t seem to be nearly as big a problem and we’d first thought.

One of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had came a few days later when we decided to go for a snorkel off the boat just as the large flock of boobies started their daily fish hunt. It was an absolutely incredible experience to be in the water whilst hundreds of birds were torpedo diving all around us hunting for fish. They are so precise that there was no worry of being impaled by their beaks should they miss and accidently hit us. Still, it’s easy to forget that fact when a hundred sharp beaks are plummeting rapidly from the skies towards you, but the thrill of it all was absolutely exhilarating. All the birds would surface at the same time and take off right over our heads for another round – I could have touched them if I simply held out my hand. At the same time two adult sea lions were also fishing nearby. They would mimic each other’s swimming patterns and as we viewed them from the surface, they looked like synchronised swimmers – mirroring each other’s actions. They were good fun to play with and as Alex tried to imitate their movements, they would come closer to us to investigate what we were doing. Another occasion I had a green turtle swim right up to my face, it hovered in front of me looking at me for a good minute before slowly swimming away and going about its business. The wildlife here is just incredible and I would recommend a visit for anyone with an enthusiasm for nature, there’s nowhere else in the world quite like it.

We’ve also been for a walk to see some of the wild greater flamingos in a brackish lagoons just outside the town which was very nice. There are some really nice walks here which take you right through opuntia arid zones, salt lakes, lagoons and give you the chance to see lots of interesting wildlife in some really unusual habitats. There’s also a fantastic giant tortoise breeding centre here with what appears to be thousands of tortoises, all at different stages of development and a really good education centre.

Of course no place can be 100% perfect and Isabela has its downfalls just like anywhere else. The lack of development means that finding things you need is difficult and the internet connection is practically non-existent – so I might have to wait until we’re back in Santa Cruz before I post this (which I have ended up doing so apologies it’s 2 weeks late!). Also, there seems to be a problem of theft from small dinghies at the small floating dock outside of the town. Although overlooked by a relatively busy pier, anything that is not locked down to the boat is at risk from being stolen. Apparently, even outboard engines have been stolen if not locked down. We have been the unfortunate victim of the theft here too, but luckily just an inexpensive metal clip that was attached to the end of a line that was cut away. It was a subtle reminder that you can find not-so-nice people even in the nicest places. We’ll definitely be locking everything down from now on!

Well, I think it’s time to do something productive. Today’s to-do-list mainly consists of doing some jobs up the mast. I’ll hoist Alex up on some lines while he does the work that needs doing, if he’s nice, I might even let him back down again….

Blue-footed boobies diving in unison into the water

Blue-footed boobies diving in unison into the water

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Greater flamingo seen during a hike we did just outside of town

Greater flamingo seen during a hike we did just outside of town

Tiny baby tortoises at the breeding centre in Isable

Tiny baby tortoises at the breeding centre in Isable

 The wall of tears - the final destination of our bike ride. The wall was built by prisoners in the penal colony during the mid 1900s. It's been left as a reminder of the horrible suffering endured in the past. Many of the people now in Isabela are descendants from the penal colony.


The wall of tears – the final destination of our bike ride. The wall was built by prisoners in the penal colony during the mid 1900s. It’s been left as a reminder of the horrible suffering endured in the past. Many of the people now in Isabela are descendants from the penal colony.