Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Friendly Kingdom of Tonga

We made landfall at Vava’u, Tonga on September 9th, after a nine day passage from Bora Bora. We had hoped to stop along the way at Beveridge Reef, a submerged atoll in the middle of nowhere, and the island of Nuie, but by the time we got there the wind was blowing 25+ knots from the southwest and the seas were 4-5 meters.  Neither place is tenable in those conditions, so we sailed right on through.  Next time…

The annual Vava’u Sailing Regatta was in full swing when we arrived.  A week of parties, parades and fun.  Many boats that we had not seen for a while were there, so it was great to catch up and swap stories about our Pacific crossings.  Sete Maris, Sharkita, Chantey, CD, Narama and of course our buddy boat, Pelagic.  And then the Rugby World Cup started. Even more partying!  Tonga is rugby mad - every bar and restaurant with a TV screen showed all the games from morning ‘til late. Tonga had a team in the tournament, so it was pretty intense. The Tongans cheered for pretty much every play by every team, but when Tonga beat France, the whole town of Nieafu went wild!

We did take some breaks from the unexpectedly intense social whirlwind of Neiafu to explore many of the 40+ identified anchorages in the protected waters of the Vava’u group.  We were able to find places all to ourselves and the snorkeling and diving were excellent. We identified about 60 new-to-us species of fish. Compared to the Tuamotus we did not see the large numbers of fish, but we felt there was greater diversity. There was spectacular variety of abundant and healthy corals, b ut hardly any sharks. We usually had about 20+ meters visibility and the water temperature was about 26C, a bit cooler than French Polynesia.  The people of Tonga were amazingly warm and welcoming.  We felt that they were truly happy to have us visiting and enjoying their beautiful island Kingdom. 

 Neiafu Harbout, Vava'u, Tonga. Its deep and rocky, making anchoring tricky but you can usually find a mooring in this well protected anchorage.

Rugby World Cup - Tonga vs. Canada. Everyone cheered for everyone.

 Canada managed to win this one!

 A Tongan Feast at the tiny village of Lape Island, population 24. Our hosts, Kulio and Tara were extremely welcoming. They are holding these feasts to encourage donations from cruisers towards the rebuilding of their dock, which was destroyed in a cyclone several years ago. After this gathering they finally had the required funds and hoped to have the dock built for next year.

 Time to work off a bit of the beer and roast pig with some diving!

 Amazing diversity of corals.

 A formidable oyster.

 A Pacific Lion Fish in the Pacific where it belongs. The last picture of a lion fish on this blog was from the Caribbean where they are a destructive, invasive species. Here they are part of the natural ecosystem with predators that keep their numbers in check.

 More fabulous corals.

 Sunset Wrasse.

 Cathy's Clown(fish).

 A Motley Crew aka the Southern Cross Net, getting ready to party. The Southern Cross Radio Net was started in the Med several years ago and picked up members along the way. We were pleased to be invited to join back in the Tuamotus and Derek volunteered to be the Monday net controller. Every morning, especially on ocean passages we all checked in on shortwave radio with our positions and weather conditions. A good way to keep in touch and it was great to know there were friends out there who would do anything to help if the need arose.

 Derek's public debut, with encouragement from Connor of Toucan, who can actually play the guitar and sing - very well.  Thankfully the Southern Crossers were a supportive audience, helped no doubt by the quantities of beer and rum!

 The Tongans are renowned for their church singing. They have put up a shade tent for the overflow crowd on this Sunday. It was lovely to just stand outside and hear the choir and congregation sing in glorious harmony.

 School boys dressed in their uniforms which include the Ta'vala, or waist mat, a traditional item of Tongan dress which signifies respect to God, King and country.

 Primrose, a leading figure in the Nieafu market and a multi-talented artist presented Cathy with an heirloom tapa that had been in his family since the 1930s.  Another example of the friendship and generosity of the Tongan people.

 A woman finishing her day of weaving mats from pandanus leaves. It takes many weeks to weave a single mat and the best are saved for special occasions and as wedding gifts etc.

 Shopping for watermelons in the Neiafu market. These were about $4 Cdn. There was a good range of local fresh fruit and veggies at reasonable prices.

 Picture taken from inside Swallows Cave. Several high interlinked caverns large enough to tour by dinghy. 

 A Tropic Bird leaving its nest site inside the cave.

 We hung out with a mother Humpback Whale (about 15m long), and calf for about half an hour. We were just drifting along in the dinghy and they stayed with us. It was wonderful to hear their songs underwater when we were snorkeling and diving. Next year we plan to do a guided trip where you are allowed to snorkel with the whales.
 After 6 excellent weeks in Tonga, finishing with a few days in the Haapi islands, the weather conditions were perfect for the 1100 mile passage to New Zealand. It was a bit earlier than we had planned to leave, but given that the trip has the potential to be one of the nastier ones, we decided to take the window and leave for New Zealand. We'll just have to come back next year!
 For this passage, we did engage the services of Kiwi weather guru, Bob McDavitt, to provide us with a forecast and voyage plan, as well as daily emails from our friend Russell in the Med (you can access weather info for anywhere from anywhere). We also download twice daily weather info directly via satellite and shortwave radio.

 Cathy cooking up a storm on our passage from Tonga to New Zealand. We had heard that New Zealand Agriculture inspectors would not confiscate meat that has been cooked. So Cathy went through our frozen meat and cooked up masses of tasty dishes which we then froze. This worked for us but others had their cooked frozen meat confiscated anyway.

And it was mighty tasty! Here we sit down to a meal of Moroccan chicken on couscous, salad, homemade humus and wholewheat buns, and for desert, fruit bars (we had heard they would take our dried fruit too - they didn't.).  We ate this gourmet meal while the autopilot steered us along at 8 knots with a double reefed main in 20 knots of wind and 2m seas - we love our cat!  Not only was this meal tasty, but it was a prize winner. Cathy won Best Meal Underway from the NZ Island Cruising Association Rally!

 We do have to go outside sometimes especially as we get close to land, in this case New Zealand. And suddenly it was freezing! Well, not actually freezing, but it was 19C and after 3 1/2 years in the tropics where we never had temps under 28C, our blood was pretty thin. So we piled on fleeces, hats and socks - warm thanks to Iris on Pelagic!
We had a great trip down. 1100 miles in 6 1/2 days, at an average speed of 7 knots with max of 15 and many hours at 8-10 knots over sparkling blue water.  A great finish to a fantastic season sailing across the Pacific.

 A sunny welcome to Opua, Bay of Islands, New Zealand.