Mālā e lei lei from The Kingdom of Tonga! We felt warmly welcomed by this proud land as we sailed into Vavá’u in the dark, and calm descended on our pummeled boat in the shelter of land. What a relief! Bone tired and cold, we were glad to finally get the anchor down. Everything else could be sorted in the morning.
Arriving at an anchorage at night is never plan A, but the thought of spending another night out in the strong winds, big waves and rain drove us in for shelter. We were not sorry that the 1400 nm passage was behind us.
When we got our bearings and relaxed into island life, we found the town of Neiafu to be a nice place with the usual array of shops and services, including many funny little supermarkets/variety stores. all selling a lot of the same thing, but each one having something uniquely available there. Wheat flour for instance. Tapioca flour was everywhere, but basic wheat flour was like the proverbial needle in a haystack, and finding it in a dark little shop, sold in small plastic bags or 20 kilo sacks felt like a small victory.
Chuch is important here, and Neiafu boasted an assortment of beautiful churches; from the grandeur of the Catholic cathedral to the thatched roofs and open sides of tiny community congregations.
We passed at least 10 well attended churches on a Sunday morning wander, and the singing that wafted past our ears was sublime.
We have noticed that most people are conservatively well dressed, but the Church goers were a wonderful sight to behold. Adorned in their Sunday best; men wore tupenus that reach at least to the knees. They also wore a woven ta’ovala around their waists, and a smart shirt. (The ta’ovala traditionally takes the place of a tie.) Women wore a kiekie (a Tongan dress) with an ornamental girdle around the waist, complimented by a belt of woven palm fronds or pandanus or fringed leather. It seemed like this was also business attire, and when in town we were careful to respect cultural norms and keep our shoulders and knees covered. This was fine by me – it’s a bit colder here!
The soundtrack to our time in Tonga included roosters, pigs, flying foxes, motors, church congregations, a lively VHF cruiser’s net and cattle. We often saw cattle tethered on the roadside and less often, grazing in paddocks, shaded by mango and breadfruit trees.
- Well…. having a humpback whale next to the boat was a new experience! 😳
- Wandering through a busy port area, along with everyone else bustling about their business while a forklift scurried back and forth loading all sorts of things onto the cargo/passenger ship. Many of the goods were loaded directly from family cars into small to containers to be sent on the ship. Everyone helped to put their harvest of taro root, bananas, papaya, onions etc, and even the odd armchair from the back of the car into the container. When I say everyone, I mean everyone – toddlers, the dog, grandma…. You get the picture.
- Free hand gas filling. As in, no connector, just squirting it in the top. The gas depot we went to didn’t have the adapter required to fill our bottle, but seeing our dismay and disappointment, the young man offered to do his best to fill them, sans adapter. Magnus quietly noted that this would be against Swedish regulations, while surreptitiously stepping backwards, but we were extremely grateful, and happy to be able to cook on our stove again. (Actually we were pretty lucky to get them filled at all. Tahiti suppliers would not fill them, partly due to their derelict condition.)
- Wearing the foul weather gear. We’ve not had this on since the Caribbean but needed it during the unsettled weather en route to Tonga. And even when in Tonga, I wore long pants, thermal top, and hoody to drop the anchor on a sunny day! The temperature is mild, but add a stiff wind to 23’ C and it feels a bit chilly!
- Visiting a town with a tiny but vibrant community well equipped to help yachts, even though there are not many of us, or them. The sea, and therefore boats are integral to island life, and it seems that many expats who are making a life in Tonga arrived on a boat at some point in the past, giving them an added understanding of what boaters need. Having a serviceable dinghy dock from which to access town makes life much easier for a start!
- Being in Tonga! Soooo exotic, with a unique thriving culture and and homey and down to earth feeling at the same time.
- Visiting Swallow’s Cave. It is a large cave, accessed from the sea, a little like the Blue Grotto in Capri. In the afternoon the interior is lit by the sun, and the water is a startling shade of iridescent royal blue . The walls are shades of creamy yellow, with washes of sky blue in parts. It is decorated with many graffitied name “tags”, and in some ways all the colours of the rainbow scrawled on the walls adds to the beauty, although I think many would disagree. There is a large second cave further in that hosted feasts for historical VIPs; the food lowered down through a hole high up in the cave roof. We took the dinghy into the large first cave, and then swam to near the entrance of the second cave. To get to it you clamber out of the beautiful water and climb with a torch up slippery rock to enter it. We continued by torchlight through the second cave, climbing up rocky surfaces and through mud, with cockroaches for company, to a third cave. This was smaller and pitch black, but it was worth the climb. I wondered how many near 60 year olds had been up here recently, but knowing cruisers, probably many, as well as plenty of septo and octogenarians!
- Seeing whales. Tonga is famous for whale watching, in fact it is one of few places in the world it is permissible to swim with whales. We did not book a whale watching tour, but heard from others that it was an incredible experience. We did however, have some fantastic informal whale watching, including a whale appearing right beside the boat. It certainly surprised us, and hope we didn’t surprise it too much. As we moved away, it appeared to be a mother and calf. On another occasion we watched a mother and calf from a distance – the calf playing, slapping its tail on the water repeatedly for about half an hour. When mum’s tail appeared it was a different story, huge! We spotted whales spouting, and parts of their back on several other occasions; not surprising in this season. We learned that these humpbacks are known as the Tongan tribe, and come up from Antartica via the east coast of NZ.
- Having a walk with a local lady and a nice long chat about how she came to live on an island owned by her husband’s family, babies, education, family expectations, and wedding customs. One custom is the making of tapa cloth, to be given not only to the couple, but also to (at least) the bride’s oldest maternal aunty. Then on the Sunday 1 week after the wedding, more feasting and more tapa cloth is to be made. Weddings are not undertaken lightly!
- Learning a little about how a family on a remote island live. It seemed that really only sleeping happened inside, and that their roofed area outside was where cooking and life took place. Some of them used a large tent a little away from the small house, and a the shade of a huge banyan tree was central to family life. Everyone participated in the family’s farming. They attended church on a small neighbouring island, and any travel is via one small motorboat. They told us that in times past, if anyone needed anything, they would light a fire to signal to the neighbouring island that they needed help, and someone would come in a boat. (if they noticed!) They had a large area under cultivation, and grew sweet potato, cassava, Chinese taro, (looks like elephant ear) kava, bananas, papaya, pineapples, coconut, breadfruit, guava, a kind of pumpkin, limes etc, etc. On Saturdays the market in town on the main island swells as people from outlying islands (such as this family) take their goods in to sell.
- Hanging around with our boat buddies and sharing some of these fantastic experiences with them. 😊
- One day when we were in the customs office in the port, right on the large dockside, we heard the wretched, desperate, panicked crying of a small child, and when we looked to see what was happening, we saw a small boy of 4 or 5 being taken firmly by the arm as he struggled. The customs lady explained that he was crying because his mother was going away on the big ship currently in port. She was going to Australia for 6 months to work. Her son was beside himself, and I guess it was not easy for her, or Dad either. I wonder how many of the islanders that come to help with the asparagus and broccoli harvesting (near where my daughter Lara lives) have children missing them everyday at home. 🥲
- We ran out of gas – and cooked on a camping stove for a week. Actually running out of gas was not as bad as the thought of running out of gas! 😂
- Free ranging pigs! They were everywhere, quietly snuffling around on the side of the road, in front yards, backyards, church yards…. and the piglets as cute as buttons.
- Friendly curious children. Walking down the street we were sometimes startled by a loud “bye” emanating from the inside of a parked car, or the shade of a tree. Little children initiated this interaction with us and seemed delighted when we responded. Not sure why they said “bye, not “hi,” but the intention was clear.
- More on children; we watched a toddler of 1 (who lived on an island inhabited only by his family) clearly demonstrating his independence and knowledge of island life, even at his tiny age. This happened one day when we beached the dinghy and went to meet his Mum, who came out to greet us, as we asked permission to walk on the island. While we were talking, he toddled over to our dinghy a hundred metres away, climbed in, and tried to start the engine. He was barely walking!!
- Meeting a woman who lives in my small town. This is only noteworthy because Clematis is tiny! As we clambered out of the dinghy on a little dock behind a restaurant, we were greeted by two friendly and gregarious (aka Australian) women. They were in Tonga on a whale watching tour, and told us a bit about their magical day and were interested in our travels. They joined our table and as the evening wore on it was revealed that there were 2 Clematis residents present! What are the chances!😳
- We enjoyed a fantastic Tongan feast prepared by a family for a few of us boaters. (They do this to supplement their income, which is mostly gained by growing fruit and vegetables.) The extra they make by serving dinner to boaters on their island helps with their children’s boarding school fees. Their children have to attend boarding school during the week, as secondary school is too far to travel daily. Primary school is on a closer neighbouring island and was possible to attend daily.
The feast included:
- Ota iko; a Tongan specialty of raw fish in coconut milk and vegetables. Fresh, light, and delicious.
- Fish curry
- Chicken curry
- Fish wrapped in taro leaves and cooked in coconut milk
- Crunchy cabbage based salad
- Chicken teriyaki, and a couple of other dishes that I can’t remember – 9 in total – all scrumptious. We ate this meal under an enormous banyan tree on the beach, with a mix of nationalities, and four generations of the local family.
Other mentionables include:
- Poisson de cru we made from a big yellowfin tuna caught on the way to Tonga. Glorious, if I say so myself! Also a very good way to eat a lot of tuna.
- Boat Cheesecake – I wonder if this would taste as divine on land?
- Chilli prawns at Mango Bar.
(A staged pic, obvs!)
- Toilet fixing – clearing a blocked pipe took some doing, but well worth the mess!
- Re lubricated the furler.
- Adjusted ring clip in auto pilot clutch.
- Temporary fix to faulty GPS antenna contact. (solving this perplexing problem required a beer and a good lie down!)
- Cleaned jammers – no beer required.
- Fixed the fishing rod reel. (The big yellowfin tested the brake to failure.)
THE SWEDISH STUDENT:
Den här månaden har mest handlat om att lyssna igen, och lite deltagande i samtal. Lite nytt ordförråd har tillhandahållits av min nya distanslärare, baserad i Sverige, som har gett mig en andra läxuppgift.
And meanwhile in Australia: