Sunday, October 22, 2006

Tip Top Tonga

The final part of our passage to Vava'u seemed interminable; tacking into the wind is hard work and the rewards are meagre, but the sight of land, and a new, apparently beautiful land at that, helped to restore our spirits for the last few miles. Vava'u is a collection of fertile limestone islands surrounded by a partial reef. Those to windward have quite dramatic cliffs, while those inside the island group have gentle rounded peaks. The bases of the smaller islands have been slowly but insistently eroded by the tide, so at this juncture in their history, they resemble stout green mushrooms. The islands appear uninhabited at first but if you look carefully you can just make out the odd white church tower, red roof or puff of smoke in the hills, but the general impression is one of lush wilderness. We sailed directly west amongst the islands and made landfall in a small, perfect bay called Port Maurelle where our friends Jamie and Lucy on Savoir Vivre had promised us a right royal welcome. We had last seen them in February while moored in Bonaire and since then we'd been playing cat and mouse across the Pacific, with Savoir Vivre as the very sprightly rodent and Kika as the rather easily distracted feline. Jamie and Lucy answered our silent prayers and asked us over for beer and supper when we were ready - bliss!

Port Maurelle is a delightful anchorage with crystal clear water, fringed to the east by a small, pristine sandy beach and flanked to the north and south by banks of lush vegetation. A clear view of the Pacific lies west amongst the islands, and if you're patient, it won't take you long to spot a humpback or two out near the reef. After a snorkel the following day, we left the anchorage to make our way north to the main town, Neiafu, to check in.
The cruising here is a dream; good winds, calm waters, and countless, protected anchorages to explore amongst beautiful and varied islands. The charter company, Moorings, has a fairly large business here and as a result, they have thoroughly charted the area. Normally, this would ring negative bells of over crowded anchorages crawling with cruisers and other tourists (ugh, don't you just hate them!) but in fact Vava'u is remarkably unspoiled and we have the benefit of safe cruising in a place where we can find friends or solitude, depending on how we feel. So, on our short sail up to town, we passed 2 familiar boats with good friends aboard, and glimpsed 3 humpbacks, all in the space of 20 minutes!

Tonga is known as the 'Friendly Islands' because Captain Cook paid a visit to the island group south of here (Ha'apai) where he found the people were extremely friendly and generous, especially with their homebrew. You would have thought this may have aroused suspicion, but apparently Cook was unaware that it was all a vile plot to capture his ship and its goods, while he and his crew were in a deep drunken slumber.
The Tongan leaders, however, could not agree on strategy and the plot was abandoned due to their squabbles. Thus captain and crew escaped disaster and left with hangovers in blissful ignorance of their lucky reprieve. Perhaps because of the spurious 'friendly' reputation, the expectation is unfair, but we have met friendlier people than the Tongans. It's important to remember that their King has recently passed away, and perhaps this goes some way to explain their sobriety and seeming indifference towards us. In some ways I like it, as any bond you do make is genuine, it just may take more time and effort to make it.

We like Neiafu whose buildings scatter the hillside down to the harbour. There are many tourists here and a few ex-pats, but we have all come a long way to enjoy Vava'u for what it is and therefore there are no fancy, luxury hotels to dominate the landscape or economy. Life remains fairly simple and the small, efficient laundry cum internet cafe is civilisation enough for us and most others.

Whale-watching is big business here and it's fairly easy to find some. Many cruisers we know have swam with humpbacks which, by all accounts, are gentle and curious. This is a treat we would like to experience but we're not going chasing whales, and if the opportunity arises, we shall see how we feel. They are enormous and I'm not sure I'd feel like sharing their space with them. One wrong flick of the fluke and I'm history! The coastline here is craggy with erosion and some islands are pitted with small caves. On the north west corner of the island of Kapa is Swallows' Cave which is a tall cathedral of space full of strange and lovely rock formations.
The water below is as clear as the air above, and a beautiful light filters in from outside making it a magical place to swim in. Just a little further west on the island of Nuapapu is the unique and testing Mariners' Cave. It is roughly a sphere shaped space, half full of water but the novelty is the entrance which is about 2 metres below water level and 5 metres long. It is extremely unnerving as there is no guiding light to speak of within the cave so you must steel yourself to dive down into what appears to be solid rock. We visited it with Savoir Vivre as Jamie had been before and knew what was involved. While Nick stayed at Savoir Vivre's helm close by, Jamie, Lucy and I swam towards the cave. Jamie dived down and headed to the submerged entrance and a nervous Lucy followed (it was her first time too). I surface dived and followed in the wake of her fins, finning madly myself. Ahead I could just make out the shape of more fluorescent fins treading water in the dim light of the cave. The entrance wasn't too long but I had been very nervous and pumped like crazy to get there, so I burst through the surface into an extraordinary space to find several familiar faces all slightly distorted by their masks and their gobsmacked expressions. The cave was not as beautiful as Swallows but as the water rose and fell within, the change in pressure made the clear atmosphere turn to thick mist and back again in the space of seconds. My ears popped uncomfortably but I was elated to have made it and delighted to share the moment with some other, equally joyous friends. The exit was a beautiful, blue welcoming window of ocean and it was easy to dive down and along into the open water. When it came to Nick's turn, I led the way and though I knew where the entrance was (someone had just emerged) there were no tell-tale bright fins to guide me in. I was pretty apprehensive but determined and so I dived down. I came up into the now empty cave and Nick soon popped up beside me. This time it was lovely to have it to ourselves.

We have spent our time here enjoying wonderful sails amongst the islands, sharing 'pot lucks' on beaches with other cruisers including Joan and Walters birthdays and preparing Kika for her final leg to New Zealand.

Joan's Birthday video

Walter's Birthday video

The concept of pot luck is simple and brilliant. Get a few cruisers together, find a beach, bring along a drink and a dish, make a fire and enjoy. It gives you the opportunity to vary your palate and it's a good excuse to meet.
New Zealand immigration are notoriously stringent and will not allow many foodstuffs into the country, so we are all eking out our rations to avoid buying more only to have it confiscated when we get there. Consequently, at this stage in the trip, stocks are getting low and bilges have long been raided, so pooling our resources is wise. It's uncanny how, without any planning at all, the different dishes can complement each other. You may have stumbled across (ie stolen) a juicy papaya and a coconut on a walk earlier in the day, and the guys anchored next to you may have been fishing and caught an octopus, hence octopus curry with papaya in coconut milk on the side. I get so excited about all the possible different flavours that I still haven't learned not to put too much on my plate and Nick has announced, rather rudely I think, that he will no longer accept my leftovers. Hmmm!

In preparation for the trip south, Nick and Walter (Noa) spent part of Saturday cleaning the underside of the boats with the help of Zeferin's 'Super Snorkel'; a kind of bizarre breathing apparatus comprised of a lawnmower engine, driving a compressor which feeds 2 air tubes. It sits on the deck doing its stuff, while you take one of the tubes and do your stuff without having to surface gasping for breath every 30 seconds.
It makes hull cleaning so much easier and it's also quite good fun. Zeferin and Noa had bottoms which were thick with tenacious weed, but Kika's was pretty spotless - a testament to the outrageously expensive anti-fouling we bought back in Curacao. This may sound like a good thing, but it does in fact mean that Zeferin's and Noa's speed will now increase considerably (like they need it!) while Kika will not be going any faster because she's already been going top speed. Poor Kikes! I have been repairing the headsail which seems to get more tatty and frayed with every passage. It's frightening how much wear and tear the boat takes on these trips. If you did nothing, the boat would surely start to fall apart before your eyes. The cruising fraternity here are almost without exception hoping to head to New Zealand within the next couple of weeks. It's a tricky passage and a good weather window is essential. Consequently, here in this paradise we are becoming increasingly worked up about highs, lows, fronts, troughs, convergence zones and now, tropical storm Xavier who has reared his ugly fax: tropical storm Xavier - NNW of New Zealand

weather fax: tropical storm Xavier - NNW of New Zealand
We'll keep you posted.


Lesieli said...

reading your journey of going to tongan sounds like good dream,lol one you dont want to wake up from parents are from tonga, but i myself have not been ...but its always nice to read about it lol like ur pics have a nice day...

Lesieli said...

reading your journey of going to tongan sounds like good dream,lol one you dont want to wake up from parents are from tonga, but i myself have not been ...but its always nice to read about it lol like ur pics have a nice day...