The Friendly Islands

As we motored around the northern islands of the Vava’u archipelago in Tonga, we caught a fish.  A lovely tuna – as this isn’t a regular occurrence onboard Blue Zulu, it was definitely a good sign.  We had a mixed sail from Niue – the first 24 hours was good and steady with a decent breeze and good boat speed but then the wind died and we had to motor – our buddy boats with more powerful engines speed off and due to our broken alternator (no battery charging capabilities so no auto-helm!), we had to hand steer the last 24 hours – it was tedious and slightly sick making with the horrible smell of diesel while on the wheel. So the fish was a very welcome sight.

But then so was the Kingdom of Tonga. We didn’t really know what to expect from Tonga – she doesn’t have the famous allure of her Pacific cousins on either side in French Polynesia or Fiji – so the country wasn’t really on our radar. We thought we’d stay for a while then maybe move on to Fiji but our visit turned out to be one of our longest stays in the Pacific and a feast for our senses in every way! Captain Cook called The Kingdom of Tonga, the Friendly Islands. So now we eagerly encourage everyone to visit Tonga, stay a while, soak up the wonderful laid-back atmosphere that permeates these islands, the people and her visitors. 

The Tongan culture is rich – the oldest and last remaining Polynesian monarchy and the only Pacific nation never brought under foreign rule.  A staunchly Christian nation, it is bordered by the islands of Fiji to the west, Samoa to the north, and the Tonga Trench, the second deepest ocean trench, on the east. New Zealand lies 1,300nm to the south-west. The country is divided into four distinct regions; each scenically different. The Tongatapu group is the most populated and farthest south. It is Tonga’s cultural centre and home to the capital, Nuku’alofa. The central Ha’apai group lies approximately 80nm north. Continuing 60nm north is the Vava’u group, considered to be Tonga’s sailing centre.  At the extreme northern reaches are the Niuas, an isolated trio of volcanic islands 320nm from Tongatapu, where traditional Tongan customs and culture still thrive. In all, Tonga is composed of 171 coral and volcanic islands; 36 are inhabited. 

Vava’u at first sight is quite mesmerising.  It doesn’t have the drama of some of the higher islands but it is a cruiser’s paradise – 60 islands distributed over a sea area of 18nm east-west and 16nm north-south, with a reef protecting it all the way down the windward side.  Flat water dotted with little islands all ready to explore.  After thousands of miles sailing between isolated islands in open seas, we had finally reached a compact, sheltered cruising ground – ah the bliss of flat water and short day hops! 

We spent around 6 weeks exploring the Vava’u group.  The capital of this area, Neiafu makes a great base – it’s a big protected harbour filled with moorings.  The only problem was that it was the busy time in the season so there was a daily scramble (& sometimes a bit of a fight!) for the moorings. With lots of good cafes and restaurants, a few shops for basic provisions, a great Canadian butcher and fab local fruit and veg market – it was an easy place to spend money! Although the ex-pat community were very evident in the town, it was also a wonderful place to watch the locals.  We enjoyed fish & chips from the little blue boat in the harbour and many other great meals ashore.  

When I think of Tonga now writing this more than 6 months later, the smell that mostly come to mind is smoke!  Unfortunately there is a fair amount of rubbish burning around Tonga and we saw a HUGE bush fire but mostly it’s the smell of beach BBQs!  We were very fortunate to have a wonderfully social time in Tonga – lots of people congregate in Tonga before heading south to NZ for cyclone season and those heading to Australia instead generally have to pass through so we had numerous fun boats to hang out with and we took full advantage! We snorkelled, walked, swam, explored and generally socialised to our hearts content. There were plenty of kids boats for fun and games, and adults for few fun nights out in the capital Neiafu including a very fun ‘ladies night’ at the local Fakaleitis musical show.  

Fakaleiti is a modern continuation of an ancient Polynesian tradition, known as fa’afafine in Samoa and mahu or rae rae in French Polynesia. The term fakaleiti is made up of the prefix faka- (in the manner of) and -leiti from the English word lady. Traditionally, if a Tongan woman had too many sons and not enough daughters she would need one of the sons to assist with ‘women’s work’ such as cooking and housecleaning. This child would then be brought up as a daughter. These days, becoming a fakaleiti can also be a lifestyle choice. There is little stigma attached to fakaleiti, and they mix easily with the rest of society, often being admired for their style.

Another highlight in Neiafu was the local produce market.  Agriculture is the mainstay of the Tongan economy. Squash, coconuts, bananas, and vanilla beans constitute the main cash crops, and other important crops include yams, taro, cassava, corn, watermelons, pineapples, breadfruit, limes, and tomatoes. If you time your visit right and the produce hadn’t been too picked over, there was all sorts of yummy things on offer. 

Most Tongans still survive by subsistence farming – the crown owns all the land but families are allotted two plots of land – one for living and one for growing food. Tongans grow their own food, build their own homes, and make their own woven handcrafts and various household items.  In many areas pigs outnumber people and outside the main centres there is very little in the way of commercial businesses.  As with Niue, Tonga’s largest source of income is cash remittances from relatives living abroad.

Religion is an important aspect of Tongan society, and most are Christian. We attended a Sunday church service in the local Catholic Church in Neiafu.  Rich voices filled the church, women in amazing outfits arrived fashionably late obviously enjoying being admired and mothers controlled their offspring with the odd swat of a reed fan.  It was a joyous but serious occasion with a sense of theatre and of community and faith. The quality of the singing, the drums and the passionate worshippers made it a very special and memorable occasion. 

There is a very active cruiser net in Vava’u – basically a daily news and information bulletin which is hosted on the VHF radio by different businesses around the islands.  There is a lot happening and there are a lot of cruisers around so plenty of chat on the VHF daily – it can make for some interesting eavesdropping!! We had a very funny radio experience after Patrick announced on the radio net that our inflatable shark had ‘swum’ off from Blue Zulu during the night. We didn’t like the idea of so much plastic lost in the environment and were worried about the long rope attached causing damage to other boats.  After assuring listeners that he was safe to approach, he kindly asked people to keep an eye out for ‘Sharky’.  Sharky was returned (a little worse for wear!) by a kind Kiwi fisherman but not without some gentle ribbing from his friends that it was probably his biggest catch ever!  Ah the joy of public radio conversations!  

The many different anchorages around the archipelago have Tongan names but have also been given numbers by local charter companies as a way of simplifying things – it works.  Some of our favourites were:

Fangaklma / Port Maurelle – #7  – a lovely central and well protected anchorage with a few moorings, a nice beach and great snorkelling off the north of Ava Island.  Also a good base to explore nearby Mariners and Swallows Caves.

Swallows Cave – we made a couple of visits to this glorious cave & we always seem to time it just right with the sun low and the light bouncing off the limestone walls.  We swam through huge schools of fish and marvelled as others swam through the narrow tunnel into the bottom of the cave.

Mariners Cave – a stunning cave that you can only enter through an underwater entrance that takes quite a bit of bravery and persistence.  It’s rather difficult to find and a bit challenging to enter but well worth the effort as once inside the only light is the ethereal blue coming through the underwater entrance, and the seal is so tight that when the swell rolls in, the water compresses the air in the cave fast enough to produce an instant fog-out!  As the swell ebbs, the air becomes instantly crystal clear if still somewhat dark! I’m very proud to report that after a few false starts, a few tears, very many lumps in throats and two visits, we all made it into the cave with huge grins on our faces – conquering fears along the way!

Hunga and Blue Lagoon #13 and #14 – we used well protected Hunga as a base for a few days while the weather wasn’t so good.  We explored the island, did some fun snorkelling just outside its narrow pass and went on a dinghy day trip to neighbouring to the beautiful Blue Lagoon. 

Vaka’eitu #16 – we had a brief stay in this lagoon anchorage to explore the nearby coral garden.  Lovely snorkelling made all the more surreal by the sound of nearby humpback whales.

Kenutu #30 – probably our favourite anchorage in the Vava’u group – just tricky enough to get there that you feel like you’ve earned it, with a gorgeous beach, stunning water and fun blow holes to explore. Although we didn’t get the chance, friends reported good kite surfing and even a decent surf break in the right conditions.

Having fallen for Tonga and abandoning any ideas of squeezing in a trip to Fiji, we started heading south to explore a bit more of her Kingdom and get ready to head to New Zealand. 

Humpback whales greeted us at sunrise as we carefully made our way into the Ha’apai archipelago. Ha’apai is Tonga’s central archipelago with it’s 61 islands spread over an area approximately 60nm north to south. We were back in the land of low lying islands, tricky navigation and coral reefs causes many cruisers to skip the Ha’apai.  Those that get there will not find much infrastructure but this extraordinary cruising ground is picture-perfect: coral reefs, azure blue and turquoise water, lush islands with sloping white-sand beaches, swaying coconut palms, fruit trees, and verdant foliage. 

We spent two weeks in this stunning archipelago. We got happily ‘stuck’ in one anchorage for almost a week while a big weather system with high winds and rain came through.  Fortunately it was a stunning sport with long glorious beach, cute beach bar and a small but friendly band of boats.  Life slowed right down, we started to live a bit more like the local Tongans and really loved the complete lack of much to do except the basics of eat, sleep, boat school, swimming and socialising.

We meet some lovely friendly Tongans – we received lots of smiles, got invited for lunch, offered help everywhere we went and even got a visit to the boat from a couple who told us after an exchange of fruit for various useful items we had that they enjoyed ‘shopping’ onboard!  We’ve been advised time and time again not to gift things but rather to trade – this isn’t always easy and we often feel like we have so much even just aboard our tiny home but most of the time we do manage a trade – we may get fish, coconuts, bananas or as in Ha’afeva, a little performance on the ukulele!  Some of the outer Tongan Islands were amongst the poorest we’ve seen, with no sign of industry and sometimes more pigs than people but the local inhabitants seemed relaxed, content and very community minded. 

Our favourite anchorages from the Ha’apais:

Uoleva – lovely long beach – good walk around the beach.  Nice eco-lodge with bar and food. 

Tatiana – incredible snorkelling – some of the best coral in the whole of the Pacific

Nomuka – Bats, shells, palm trees ready for climbing – unihabitated & stunning! 

Reluctantly it was time to move on to our final stop in Tonga – the capital Nuku’alofa in the Tongatapu group.  We need to get fuel and stock up on groceries for our 1000+ mile sail to New Zealand. We were also quite inquisitive and interested to see the capital of this relaxed country.  

Tongatapu’s 259 sq km make up over a third of the Kingdom’s land area—two-thirds of the country’s population live here in over 60 villages. Throughout Tonga we had seen people dressed in the traditional Ta’ovala but not as much as we saw in the Capital. It is woven mat that is warn by Tongan’s like a suit and tie is warn by westerners. It is formal attire and all government workers must wear one. Wearing a Ta’ovala is worn to show respect and authority.  There are different kinds of Ta’ovala for different occasions. The most common are made from the leaves of the pandanus plant.

We saw all sorts of amazing traditional dress on show both on the street; kids in Ta’ovala as part of their school uniform, business men in the capital in very bold fashionable versions, intricately woven and ancient looking ones at church and in the more remote villages where the Ta’ovalas looked older, more simple but no less impressive.

We found Nuku’alofa to be the perfect capital for Tonga – relaxed and ever so slightly chaotic with a thriving central market, a few bigger buildings, a couple of ‘supermarkets’ and an impressive royal palace.  The only problem with the town is actually getting there.  You have a couple of options – tie up along the town whalf which in reality is difficult and leaves you open to unwanted visitors (i.e. rats up your mooring lines!), or you can anchor next to the town wall which is only possible in settled weather and definitely not in anything onshore!  Finally you can do as we did and anchor off the pleasant Pangaimotu Island and either take your dinghy or ‘Big Mama’s yacht club’ launch into town.  Whichever way you do it, it’s still a long hot walk into town especially laden with groceries (we were very thankful for the kid’s scooters onboard!).  Nonetheless we enjoyed our long weekend in Nuku’alofa – we arrived Thursday night, rushed around madly getting groceries, fuel, gas and all our paperwork done.  Ticked off all most of the things on our pre-passage to-do list and we’re off again on Sunday – heading for New Zealand…

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