Archive for October 2009
18 degrees 39.823′ S
173 degrees 58.903 W
Events seem to have got ahead of this blog, so this will be a bit of a catch-up!
Vaka’eitu – where we were last week – was in fact our second mooring in Tonga, and the most beautiful bay we’ve been in on this trip so far. The ‘tsunami’ pictures don’t do it justice. The island is small and consists of coves with golden sandy beaches set between stretches of deeply undercut coral cliffs nibbled by the sea into fantastical shapes: arches, curves, caves, overhangs and loops. Pandanus and mangroves cling to the edges and lacy, drooping trees hang over the water. The landscape looks almost too beautifully arranged to be natural – like an exotic Japanese garden planned with the greatest subtlety and sophistication.
White fairy terns swoop over the water and herons flap off slowly when one disturbs their meditations. In the evenings, we watched flying foxes (a kind of large fruit-eating bat) beat their way slowly across the darkening sky towards fruit laden trees in the distance, as the moon rose over the feather-duster silhouettes of coconut palms. The interior of the island is a tangle of fallen trees and under-brush, often draped with huge spider webs as much as three feet across. The spiders themselves are beautiful in a 1920’s Cartier sort of way: pale green abdomen and long, elegant legs striped in yellow and black. But I loathe spiders and had trouble getting up the nerve to get close enough for a photo.
The scenes under water were lovely too: soft corals grow at depths from 1 to 3 meters – rubbery fingers and castles and mounds many yards across, coloured dusty pink and pale yellow, violet and beige, interspersed with the tiered, thin green shelves of lettuce coral and spiky antler-shaped stony corals, yellow with electric blue tips. Sea cucumbers lie about flaccidly, some decorated with pink and yellow leopard patterns and others studded with knobs and tentacles. Bright blue starfish and Day-Glo-orange sponges cling to corals and rocks, hydroids and feather stars curl like black gorgons’ locks from crevices, and groups of sea urchins with needle-like 2 foot long black spines menace the unwary swimmer. Cone shells – many of them venomous – lie on the sand, temptingly patterned in subtle shades of brown and white. Egg cowries, purest porcelain white, sit on the pink corals and cover themselves with their velvety black mantles, which are spangled with white dots, like midnight skies in miniature. The egg cowries eat the coral they sit on, however, and when I lifted one off an oval scar was left.
Best of all, though, were the whales. During this time of year, humpback whales and their calves take refuge in the warm, sheltered waters of the lagoons and bays. As if to compensate for the previous morning’s fright, the morning after the tsunami 3 whales, including a mother and calf, swam about and played in our bay for at least an hour. Although they came within 10 yards of some of the boats, it was difficult to take photos because one never knew just when or where they were going to come up next, but no one really minded in the excitement and sheer wonder of seeing and hearing the great beasts.
Tonga is very, very different than French Polynesia. For one thing, the International Date Line begins here, so once we entered Tongan waters the time difference between us and London magically changed: from being 12 hours behind, we were suddenly 13 hours ahead of GMT!
Another difference became obvious when we checked in at Neaifu. We arrived in Tongan waters at about midnight and hove to a few miles from the harbour entrance in order to wait for daylight and for the working day to begin. When arriving on a sail-boat, one has to go through a more or less complex check-in procedure which, in many countries, is more rigorous than when one arrives by plane. This makes sense, because boats bring in a lot of valuable gear as well as potential insect and marine pests. In most countries, one enters specific harbours and flying a yellow ‘Q’ flag (used to stand for Quarantine!) which is taken down once one has completed the formalities. But until the boat has cleared, in most places, no one other than the captain is allowed to leave the boat.
In Tonga, officials come on board to inspect the vessel and fill out paperwork. We got 3 officials, each with his own area of competence and authority. All of them were very large and gravely courteous, and one had brought his little girl with him – obviously just back from school as she was still wearing her uniform. We offered them cold coca-colas and biscuits and as we all sat and conversed about non-official subjects, the occasional official question was asked and forms were slowly filled out, as if they were a side issue. Some people find this ceremonial a major bore but we think it’s brilliant and especially compared to the unpleasantness experienced when one enters so many other countries!
We had just finished, and were saying goodbye to the officials, when a rusty red ferry came into harbour and tied to the dock right behind us. As the vessel approached the shore the passengers began to sing a sort of hymn, in beautiful harmony. We asked, and were told it was a hymn of gratitude at their safe arrival. We understood, having heard about the previous ferry – the Ashika – which had sunk 3 weeks earlier carrying with it 74 people, mostly women and children and many from this particular group of islands.
The atmosphere lightened up when an old rogue came alongside and offered to sell us some fresh bread. It was very good bread, in fact, but when The Captain went off to the immigration office to meet with the fourth official (who hadn’t felt like leaving his office, according to his colleagues) the bread seller stayed to ask if we had any spare raincoats, any rope, any candy, any medicine, any booze? Did we want to buy wood carvings, bone carvings, lobster, have our laundry done…? Well, a man has to make a living! But it was our first indication of how desperately poor the Tongan people are. Though the royal family and favoured officials and cronies live quite the high life, the majority of the population exists at a subsistence level, and though Tongans eat prodigiously the bulk of their diet is home grown (including piglets, which star at every Tongan feast!), both starchy and fatty, and strictly seasonal when it comes to fresh produce.
Though Neiafu is Tonga’s second largest town, what one sees in the shops is shockingly inadequate – just more or less the contents of a corner shop in London, except spread out a bit more. The shopkeepers are mostly Chinese, resented but at the same time appreciated by the Tongans, because before they arrived and provided a bit of competition prices were even higher. There are no jobs to speak of and the expatriate Tongan population is vast. Most go to New Zealand and the United States, and the money they send home to help support their families makes up 1/3 of Tonga’s GDP! Many of the houses on the island are little better than shacks, though they sit on properties with views which would fetch millions were the property in California or the French Riviera. There is a dearth of the most basic commodities: those raincoats, printing supplies, shoes, rope, medicine, snorkelling masks (used for hunting fish for food, not sport diving!)…you name it, they don’t have it, or the price is so insanely high they can’t afford to buy it.
The Captain has become a minor star, because when we took some photos of the women in the market, he printed off copies for them. I took them in a few days later to hand out and have never heard so much giggling in my life when they were passed around. What neither of us realised is that no one can afford to print photos even if they have a camera, so an A4 glossy print of ‘auntie’ is a big deal, not just a small gesture. I was loaded with bananas and pineapple and a drinking coconut to take back to him, so that he should come back and take some more.
Although the Tongans seem more serious than the French Polynesians, they are warm once their initial reserve thaws (almost instantly if one smiles) and they also seem quietly happier and more centred in their culture, which is very religious and extremely conservative when it comes to dress and behaviour in public (though in private, from what we’ve read, they’re much more liberal – a bit like the Victorians that way!). Going without a shirt in public – for either sex – is illegal and women usually wear skirts long enough to cover their knees and tops that cover their shoulders. Women who show too much skin get dirty looks from the grannies on the street! This standard of dress applies to tourists as well, which is fair enough, since we’re guests in their country. Everyone seems to speak English and even tiny children say ‘Hi!’ as one passes and then giggle at their own boldness. I took a walk this afternoon, and had a long conversation with a very old man on his way to church, who was extremely pleased that I was willing to chat and that I understood his (perfect and very careful) English.
At the moment, almost everyone here is wearing black or dark colours. This is because many are still in mourning for relatives who died in the ferry disaster. People who are closely related to someone who has died show this by the astonishing pandanus fibre mats they wear wrapped around their middles. Many women wear these ta’ovalas anyway, as a traditional mark of respect for the royal family, but special ones are worn on solemn occasions and to church, and the closer a person is to someone who has died the larger and more colourfully decorated is the mat they wear. Men wear ta’ovalas too, but usually just wrapped around the waist and reaching to the vicinity of the knees like a short skirt or kilt. The ta’ovalas range in quality from coarse – literally like woven place mats – to ones that are very fine and white, with many variations of weave and texture in between.
We’re now back in Neaifu harbour from Vaka’eitu and will be leaving again tomorrow for another small bay and village. Geologically, the Vavau Group is a raised atoll, and most of the islands are so close to each other that cruisers tend to come back to Neiafu to shop and socialise every week or so, which makes for a pleasant atmosphere. In the evenings, moored in the harbour, one can hear snatches of song and conversation drift over from the cafés on shore. Lights glitter on the dark water, wavelets lap against the side of the boat, and the occasional purr of a motor launch sounds in the distance. Sometimes there’s a sudden burst of raucous laughter and the thump of dance music. Over and behind the whole is the sound of hymns, as church choirs practice for the next Sunday service. Sometimes songs come from just one church, sometimes from several at the same time. Choirs of angels…and sometimes a slightly out-of-tune Salvation Army band!
‘This is Karma. Karma calling Zen’
Really, the names of boats are worth a blog entry in themselves.
Vaka’eitu Bay, Vava’u Group, Tonga
18 degrees 43.40′ South
174 degrees 06.01′ West
Well, this entry was going to be about our arrival in Tonga, but we thought you might be more interested in yesterday morning’s mini-tsunami. And it was a mini-tsunami; a science-museum tsunami; the kind of kiddie-size tsunami that makes you very, very grateful that you haven’t experienced the grown-up version.
I’d just finished making our morning coffee and tea at about 8am when I saw a mast going by outside, so went on deck to see who might be leaving the bay. The mast belonged to the neighbouring boat, which was swinging erratically ’round on its mooring though there was no wind, just as we were swinging; and the strip of water closest to the shore was muddy and roiling, which was puzzling. The couple on the next boat were on deck, and they shouted something about ‘the second wave’, which was even more puzzling until they also said ‘tsunami’ and ‘go to radio channel 26’, at which point the morning suddenly became much more lively.
Our sleep addled brains slowly ground into gear, even as the sea rapidly began to drain away from the shore, exposing the coral heads over which I’d snorkelled the afternoon before. Channel 26 was relaying a Southern Pacific-wide tsunami warning from Hawaii, the response to a 7+ Richter Scale earthquake near Samoa (later we discovered it was a 5.4 quake). The estimated time of arrival of the wave was ‘now’ and, as I made ready to cast off our mooring, The Captain turned on the engine in case the water retreated faster or further than it had already. We and the other boats were moored in about 40 feet of water and the shallows only began about 50 yards closer to the shore, where the transition was abrupt, as is typical of these islands. Theoretically, this meant we were reasonably safe, but…!
Like any other wave, tsunamis only manifest themselves – and become a potential menace – when the water becomes shallow; in mid-ocean, a tsunami is only a slightly larger swell, often not even noticeable. In fact, the best place to be during a tsunami warning is in really deep water. Radio advice was to remain in the deepest water possible and on no account to make for shore, not only because of the rise and fall in sea level but because of the erratic and terrifically strong currents that were being produced as unbelievable quantities of water were being pushed and pulled through the channels between the many small islands making up the Vava’u archipelago. In essence, what was happening was a more-than-maximum high and low tide every 10 minutes.
By the time we’d made preparations to leave the mooring if necessary, the water was coming in as fast as it had retreated and The Captain read out the changing depths under our keel: within 5 minutes, we rose almost 10 feet. A small tsunami-wave raced from one side of our small bay to the other, following the curvature of the shore. I watched a floating coconut being carried along just behind the crest of the wave and it was moving faster than a man could run. Then the water began to retreat again, churning and bubbling and carrying with it a yellow cloud of sand and mud. Then it came in again and once again we saw the wave racing along the shore. This fascinating but sinister pattern repeated itself every 10 minutes or so for the next 2 ½ hours. At about noon the All Clear came on the radio and everyone could continue with their routine – suddenly more aware of how easily everyday life can become something quite other.
I’ve taken a few photos and if they come out reasonably well, shall post them at a later date when we get to a place with a better internet connection.
Love from us both,