Archive for the ‘Tonga’ Category

Off in 2 Days

leave a comment »

Neiafu Harbour
18 39.823′ S
173 58.903 W

It’s 5:30 am. Tonga’s ubiquitous roosters are announcing the dawn with enthusiasm (not that they ever shut up), the local canine chorus is in full cry, there’s a solitary cow mooing on shore close to us. The last big bat of the night flapped by a little while ago, lending an exotic note, and the church choir has just begun singing the morning service. Sky and smooth water are pale milky yellow and nacreous blue and the dawn is staining the horizon pink.

We’re in Neiafu, getting ready to leave on Monday morning – assuming the wind report for the Tonga-New Zealand stretch is reasonably favourable. We’ve been in this harbour more than anticipated thanks to the weather, which hasn’t been especially cooperative. Stiff winds and cloudy weather aren’t ideal conditions for navigating through coral in areas where there can be strong currents and the difference between a clear passage through the reef and a nasty crunching sound under the keel can be a matter of a few yards. When the sun is high, it’s easy to see the varying depths of the water ahead if one’s wearing a good pair of polarised sunglasses. Deep water is dark blue. As it becomes shallower, the colour becomes a beautiful clear turquoise and over sand it becomes even paler. Coral shows up as brownish khaki patches. If you see white or brown in right in front of the keel, it’s already time to think about how you’re going to get yourself off the sand or reef, as the case may be.

If it’s too windy anchoring also becomes a problem. Because of the way fringing reefs and atolls grow, there is often little relatively shallow area in which to anchor before the bottom drops off to 100 feet or more. This means one is usually anchored quite close to the reef. The holding is often somewhat dubious – sand is good to anchor in, but coral bottom can be like a broken-up pavement and the anchor simply skitters off it without biting. If the anchor isn’t properly set it can come loose, especially if the wind shifts, and if that happens at night one can be on the reef within minutes. We can set an anchor watch on our GPS, so that if we move beyond a certain radius an alarm sounds, but in such a situation one somehow doesn’t sleep very well.

Then there are coral heads, which can be dense as concrete but are also ecologically rather fragile. If the wind shifts, which it frequently does here, the bow of the boat moves to face into it and can drag the anchor chain ’round and ’round these formations. When that happens someone has to dive down to see which way the chain is wrapped and then the skipper has to drive the boat ’round the other way to free the mess. Some people try to break the anchor out, but that destroys the coral formations and often their windlass as well.

‘Utukalongalu Market, Neiafu

But being in Neiafu has provided the opportunity to spend more time talking with the people – both palangi (foreigners) and Tongans – and it’s been interesting to hear their stories and opinions about life here.

Whites who have started businesses here have done so because they’re attracted to the Tongan culture and the relaxed ambiance and lifestyle. They also, seemingly without exception, are involved in putting something back into this society which they have adopted and in which they are running businesses. Restaurant owners shrug and smile when they admit to lending their employees money to pay the church tithes, though they are less amused when describing the local pastors’ luxurious homes. The hand of the church (many churches, rather) lies heavy on the Tongans though perhaps the social foundation religion provides is what makes the Tongans accept their poverty with such smiling equanimity.

Typical Neiafu side road

The most critical of their own culture are the Tongans who have come back after living and working overseas, usually in the U.S. or New Zealand. They also make the attempt to improve the lives of their relatives and neighbours, mostly by encouraging them to begin their own businesses or work a bit harder instead of relying on hand-outs from the EC or funds sent by relatives working overseas. But these returning Tongans are also rather more caustic than foreigners about their compatriots’ cheerfully larcenous nature and unwillingness to do much more than work the odd day or two to earn enough for the day or week ahead.

The more one learns the more difficult it becomes to pass judgement in these matters. One can only hope the foreigners don’t run out of steam and that the Tongans find a way to become better-off without losing the qualities that make them such an attractive and likeable people.

A snorkelling trip to a nearby island was a delight. I had got to know the owner of the ‘Coconet Cafe’ – an internet cafe/restaurant/laundry/dive-shop/boat cleaning service – while hanging about waiting for our laundry to dry one afternoon. After 10 minutes spent chatting with his manageress while watching his attempts to paint a new sign for the shop, I offered to do the job for him. I’d made a living for several years as a fabric and wallpaper designer and enjoyed painting, which he rather obviously didn’t. He almost jumped at the offer, plied me with beer, fed me fish and chips, and when the job was done was so pleased that when he heard The Captain and I hadn’t seen much of Tonga, he insisted we visit their favourite island with them later that week. The Captain passed, but I accepted his invitation with delight.

They picked me up from The Boat – the manageress’ Tongan boyfriend came along for the fishing – and we sped off in the high-powered open dinghy to a small, crescent-shaped beach about 20 minutes’ fast motoring away. The beach was covered with pure white lumps of coral of many varieties and shapes and the adjacent reef was completely undamaged. I even saw a few giant clams – small ones of the species, but even so they had the iridescent green lining with the rows of neon blue ‘eyes’ that are so astonishing. This reef was mostly hard corals, including spectacular, round, pale green coral heads more than 12 feet across and 9 feet high. The best part of the trip, though, was on the way back when we stopped at another island where there is a formation called ‘Mariner’s Cave’.

The cave can’t be seen from the water because to get to it one has to find a certain area in a cliff face, then look for a dark area under the face, then dive down, then go under the underwater lip of the cave, and then up into the semi-darkness. I’d never have attempted it alone though it’s in the guidebooks as a ‘must do’, because even the thought of the access was rather nervous-making for someone who doesn’t really enjoy closed spaces.

But the side trip was so spontaneous and it all went so quickly, and the people I was with were so eager I see it, that there was no time to protest or be frightened. I was led through, so had flippers to follow, and I had the bright idea of turning belly-up so as to avoid cracking my skull on the rock. But I was at the limit of the time I can hold my breath when we broke through the surface on the other side. Inside the cave it was eerily beautiful. As the surge comes in it compresses the warm air in the space and one’s ears feel the change in pressure. The entire cave fills with a kind of blue haze which then clears with a pop – suddenly – as the surge sucks out again. We were there for about 5 minutes, and then dove out. That was easier, since I had a light blue patch of water to aim for.

The passage to New Zealand should take from 10 days to 2 weeks. We’ll probably encounter at least one low pressure system on the way, but they tend to pass rather quickly and our boat is so sturdy that even I’m not worried. We may stop at Minerva Reef on the way. This is a large atoll about 2 days sail south of Tonga, which is submerged during high tide but exposed during low tide. Pre-GPS sailors gave the place a wide berth but now it’s a regular stop-off point en route to New Zealand, both because the central lagoon can offer a reasonably secure anchorage during high winds and because it’s a strange and unique place. There probably won’t be a chance to send any entries during the passage, but shall try!

Next stop, Opua!




Written by mnestis

November 2, 2009 at 12:58 AM

Posted in Tonga

Tagged with , ,


leave a comment »

Neiafu Harbour

18 degrees 39.823′ S
173 degrees 58.903 W

Big Red Freighter in Neaifu Harbour

Events seem to have got ahead of this blog, so this will be a bit of a catch-up!

Photos Tonga

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.

2cm abdomen, 5cm legs

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 while flying a yellow ‘Q’ flag (used to stand for Quarantine!) which is taken down once one has completed the formalities. But in most places, until the boat has cleared no one other than the captain is allowed to leave the boat.

Neiafu Harbour & Islands

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 the 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.

Hi, Lady!

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!

I leave you with the radio message from one boat to another that we heard on Channel 16 as we came in on our first day here:

‘This is Karma. Karma calling Zen’

Really, the names of boats are worth a blog entry in themselves.




Written by mnestis

October 5, 2009 at 11:58 PM

Posted in Tonga

Tagged with , ,

Morning Mini-Tsunami

leave a comment »

Vaka’eitu Bay, Vava’u Group, Tonga

18 degrees 43.40′ South
174 degrees 06.01′ West

The Boat in Vaka’eitu

Photos Vaka’eitu

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 up 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 seriously lively.

Our sleep addled brains snapped 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, I shall post them at a later date when we get to a place with a better internet connection.

Love from us both,


Written by mnestis

October 1, 2009 at 11:45 PM

Posted in Tonga

Tagged with , ,


leave a comment »


Remnants of the Samoa tsunami arrived here at 8am this morning. We’re fine – watched the water go up and down about 2 meters at our mooring in a small bay near Neiafu and it was seriously bizarre. Just sending this off quickly, and will describe all in the blog shortly.

Love to all,




Written by mnestis

September 30, 2009 at 11:42 PM

Posted in Tonga