Terrific Tonga

June 2005

Tonga: Tongatapu Group

Malo e lelei!

Nuku'Alofa, the capital of Tonga, is a small city on the island of Tongatapu, with a population of about 23,000. It has a lot of garbage strewn around, although some waterfront areas have obviously been maintained. There are lots of scruffy dogs wandering all over; dogs aren't really pets here and are 'fare' game for the dinner table, as are horses. There are no high rise buildings but there are several large government and corporate buildings, and a few embassies. There wasn't a Canadian one though, even though there seems to be a fair amount of Canadian aid present. We were told that the Canadians give money for sustainable projects, that involve some teaching and expectation that the locals will take over the project. Nice to know our tax dollars are doing some good. The Chinese embassy was huge and controversial. A while back the King had sold Tongan passports to Chinese citizens. He made 30 million Tongan dollars (pa'anga) but his subjects were not impressed with all the new Chinese-run businesses that bought out, or are competing with, local business. People also feel it is unfair to those locals who had lived and worked here for years before they were able to get passports.

On the topic of politics, there was a large protest during the parade for the opening of parliament. Apparently, the Crown Prince is not the least bit popular as he seems to abuse his power greatly. He was head of the energy board and the electricity prices had sky-rocketed. The protest seemed effective as he did step down from the energy board. We missed the protest but saw the parade, which was mostly school kids in their uniforms, marching along, with some bands interspersed. The military was also present. One group was wearing pith helmets as part of their dress uniform; another group stopped periodically to so some martial arts patterns. We were told that the parades used to be a bigger deal some years ago. A cruiser who was here last year says that there appears to be more political unrest this year, and that more people are speaking up about their concerns. Not too long ago, the government had tried to shut down any criticism by controlling the media, but access to the Internet undermined their efforts; when word got out, which would have been quickly since there are many Tongans living outside of the country, other nations put some pressure on.

It seems you can get pretty much the things we get at home if you look hard enough, and have enough money. There were a number of stores renting DVDs and videos. Lots of islanders have relatives working in the U.S. or in New Zealand, and these relatives send money and goods back home. In fact, a lot of the Tongan economy relies on these expatriates. We were pleased to see NZ-style meat pies at the bakeries. There were a couple of places advertising “American Hamburgers”. We did end up getting burgers at a restaurant, and they were awesome, not to mention huge. It was probably a ½ pound of good quality meat, served with french fries (chips here). It sure beat McDonald's. We had heard that Tongan appetites were large – this confirmed it. We had ordered the burgers from the “snack” menu, and the waitress was wondering whether we wanted to order a meal after our snack. There was a huge market down town, with with lots of fresh produce, and some handicrafts. On Saturday, there were even more booths with all kinds of odds and ends. Oranges are in season right now so there were plenty of those. We also got some passion-fruit, which seems to keep well without refrigeration (always an important consideration).

We went to a cultural performance where we enjoyed Tongan food and watched some dancing. Bjarne and I were able to participate in a kava ceremony. Kava, according to the Lonely Planet Guide, is made from the roots of a type of pepper plant that has analgesic, antibacterial, relaxant, diuretic and decongestant properties. It can help fight depression, reduce anxiety, and lower blood pressure. In the 1990s it was becoming popular in Western cultures, at least by people who frequent health-food stores, which provided some income South Pacific Islands. Unfortunately, there was a study in Germany that said the kava caused liver problems. The substance was banned in many countries, and continues to be banned, despite the fact that that study later turned out to be quite flawed. Our guide commented that the Tongans tend to be a violent people, especially when they are drinking alcohol, but that there was no violence associated with them using kava. We weren't given enough to have much effect, although my lip felt a bit numb for a couple of minutes. The dancing was fun to watch, especially the men as their dances are very more enthusiastic and energetic. The women mainly wave their hands and arms gracefully, with some head movement and minimal large body movement. The dancers had an interesting head flick that was quite charming. Bjarne and I still haven't gotten the hang of it, but we provide good entertainment for each other when we try. During the show, we were seated with a couple from Vancouver Island (Comox); amazing, to travel all this distance and spend time with someone who is practically a neighbour!

We decided to take a tour of the island (Tongatapu) with Toni, a fellow who has lived here for about 17 years (originally from Britain). He has a very dry sense of humour and gave us lots of information about plants, customs, people and the local scenery. Our tour got off to a Tongan start, however, when the attendant at the fuel station put petrol into the diesel-run van. Oops. Fortunately, the error was discovered before the engine was started, but the van had to be pushed over to another area and drained, while 8 tourists sat on the curb waiting. There were some great blow-holes on one side of the island: as the waves come in, they rush under ledges and the water bursts up out of holes on the surface. As we drove around the island, Toni pointed out many of the over 300 churches on the island. There is a huge Mormon presence, as can be recognized by the identical buildings scattered all over the island. This is the richest church and has the best schools. Many Tongans move to Utah, USA, to go to the Mormon colleges. Some Tongans become Mormons when their children reach school age and convert back again when they graduate. It is quite unthinkable to not belong to a church here and the churches expect their congregation to give significant amounts of money to them. Some read out during service who gave what. As it is important to be seen as generous it can be quite shaming if one does not give very much. Some of the churches are happy to help out with this problem: they will loan money to you to tithe back to them, at a high interest rate of course. Hmm... I wonder if we could start our own church...?

People sell a lot of tapa cloth here, which is made from pounding the bark from the mulberry trees. It looks to be a lot of work and you can hear the sound of thwacking as you walk around town. There is also a lot of weaving done with pandanus leaves. These jobs fall to the women, but the men usually do the wood carving and bone carving (made into pendants). However, we met a couple of Tongan women who told us that roles are changing. One described Tongan women as princesses who did very little, but these two women didn't seem to like that idea and were proud of their ability to do the same things their husbands could.

We spent a couple of days at a nearby tiny island called Pangaimotu, where there is a resort and a restaurant bar at the waterfront. The island became more crowded on Sunday, when tourists and some locals come over from Nuku'Alofa, in order to avoid the strict rules about behaviour on Sunday, such as no swimming or fishing. In tourist areas people can also wear bathing suits without getting fined for exposing too much skin.

Tonga has a pleasant climate at this time of year; about 28 C during the day and 22 C at night. So far we have had a mix of sun and cloud, but not too much rain. When it comes, it seems to be a short downpour and then it clears up again.

From Nuku'alofa, which we left on 31 May, we went north about 30 miles to the small island of Kelefesia. On the way we saw 4 or 5 whales, which might have been Humpbacks. During July and August they congregate around Tonga to mate and to give birth, but they are sometimes seen in June. They didn't seem to like the sound of the engine and disappeared as we drew near. A few dolphins came by as well. The pass into Kelefesia was a bit scary as there were large waves of water breaking over shallow areas all around us. On the chart these were called 'blind rollers'. The anchorage was rather rolly because of the swell coming over the reef but the anchor held well in the sand and coral bottom. We met three Tongans there fishing for octopus. They alternate spending one month on the island by themselves, and one month at home on Nomuka which is about 20 miles away. They have a nice little camp set up, and there are oranges, coconuts, and lemons growing. They have planted bananas but the trees are not old enough yet to bear fruit. We baked them two loaves of bread and traded for a bag of drinking coconuts and lemons. These are a different variety of lemons; the skin is green and bumpy, they are about the size of a regular orange, and they were a bit less tart. Great for lemonade. We had dinner on the beach, kicked off with a beautiful sunset, with two of the Tongans and two other yachties. The water was a bit rough, which made motoring our dinghies back in the dark through the reef an exciting, not to mention wet, experience.

Tonga: Ha'apai Group

Our next stop was an uninhabited island called Nomuka'iki, which had nice clear water, a beautiful, long beach, and interesting coral growth. There used to be a prison here, but very little remains of it. One can see that they planted papaya trees. One wonders what it would be like to be imprisoned on a tropical island. Some other cruisers told us they accidentally went to a prison island; the prisoners were very friendly, and gave them some fruit and coconuts. No one tried to escape, but then one wonders where they would go. Any village would know they were strangers and probably be able to figure out where they came from, while their home village would know they weren't supposed to be there.

About another 20 miles or so north is an island called O'ua, which is in the Ha'apai group of Tongan islands. One navigates along a well marked passage to get through the reef and into the lagoon. Given the wind direction, we were sheltered only by the reef, not the island, which meant when the wind picked up the water got a bit rough. I was a bit nervous that our anchor would drag onto the nearby reef but it actually held just fine.

The village was very neat and tidy. Apparently, the unmarried youth are assigned two days a week when they have certain tasks to do around the village. Surrounding the village was a fence, which contains the many pigs which wander around freely. Outside of the fence is bush area, sections of which are owned by different families. It was here that one of the teachers, Sarah, took us to get some oranges, bananas, and casava (a type of root vegetable. A bit further away from the village, there was a cloud of smoke, where the bush was being cleared so a vegetable patch could be planted.

The adults were pretty reserved for the most part, but when we reached the school, the call of “palangi!” went out and a crowd of kids rushed out of the building. One of the teachers, Andrew, was an American who was with the Peace Corps. He had been there for about 6 months and had another year and half to go. The kids asked us where we were from and how old we were. When they learned we were from Canada, they pointed to the school gate which said “Canada Fund” on it. Sarah commented that it was a good fund. Appropriately enough, the kids were in English class when we showed up, learning about how to be a tour guide. Andrew assigned three kids to show us around the village, along with the 4 other cruisers that soon arrived. There were actually about 10 kids that came along, hanging out with palangi being infinitely more interesting than being in school. The boys tended to talk to the men, while the girls were more apt to spend time with the women. All of the children seem to love having their picture taken; they are really quite the hams when it comes to posing for a shot. The kids picked flowers along the way and gave them to us. We had a rather pretty, albeit limp, bouquet by the end of our walk. One boy picked a large stalk of sugar cane and gave us a piece, and one of the kid's grandmothers stopped along the road to give us each an orange. She spoke only a little English, but was kind and welcoming.

The children took us out to the cemetery. I think the cemeteries here are more integrated into people's lives. It is not uncommon for Tongans to go there to speak with the deceased. The kids scampered over the graves and posed in front of or on them, asking us to take their photos. There was no element of fear or apprehension, and I imagine that scary stories here do not involve people coming back from the dead. The graves are mounds (you can't dig too deeply here or you get into the water table) which sometimes have some structure built up around them. They tend to be boldly decorated with various things including flowers, artificial and fresh, bottles, pictures, and large colourful banners.

Back at the school, we created further disruption when the kids insisted we come in and see the school. They were keen to show us their library, which was newly set up, and some wanted to show us that they could read the English books. On the corrugated metal roof, octopus were drying in the sun. Some of the boys scampered up a two-by-four to collect the dried goods. The roof wasn't very high, but we have no doubt that kids in Canada would not have been allowed similar freedom: someone would have sued the teachers.

Because the winds were picking up we moved to a more sheltered anchorage the next day. We had a nice three-hour sail to Ha'afeva. The charts of this area are off by about 300 meters and so one cannot rely entirely on GPS. This seems to be a shock to some cruisers, which makes us a little nervous about their navigating skills. The weather got windier and more rainy and we didn't bother to budge from the boat. We entertained ourselves with scrabble, cribbage, reading, and collecting rain water; we even watched one DVD. We lured friends on Manu Kai over one evening: they arrived rather drenched despite their raincoats but thought it was worth it for pizza. During this time, we were very happy we weren't on our way to Tonga: we heard that the winds were 50 knots, with some gusts to 70 at Minerva Reef. Apparently, two boats ended up on the reef, but we haven't yet heard why.

There was a prediction that the winds would shift for us and make our anchorage less comfortable, so the 6 other boats that were anchored with us all left for the other side of the island. As one of the cruisers put it, the exodus was done according to nationality: the USA boat bravely led the way, getting hit by a squall with 40 knot winds and blown off course by 1.5 miles; the British boat followed, and when a squall hit them they noted on the radio that it was time to put on the tea; the Kiwi boats were fishing despite the weather and caught a tuna; and the Canadian boat waited until all the fuss was over and cruised easily into the new anchorage. I called us the lemming fleet but I admit that the new side was a bit better. The next night we had a spectacular thunderstorm, which lit the sky up like daylight and kept us awake for almost two hours. Bjarne especially hates thunderstorms: probably he can imagine in more detail just what a lightning strike could do to us. Fortunately, it didn't pass right overhead but I think everyone in the anchorage was counting seconds to themselves.

After four days on the boat, the weather had improved so we swam over to Manu Kai, where we visited and recovered from the unaccustomed exercise :-) The next day we moved across the harbour to tiny Koru island, about a couple hundred feet in diameter, and swam ashore. We were rewarded on the way with the sight of a stingray. The water was still a bit rough, putting us in danger of getting scraped up when we discovered that the entire island was surrounded by sharp, jagged dead coral. With some effort we got ashore without any loss of skin; we were glad that we had our sandals on, and that we didn't bring the inflatable dinghy. The island was one tall hill, with coconuts, ironwood trees, and some other things we don't know the names of, all growing in a nice little ecosystem. It was really quite pretty. Getting back in was a bit scary with the waves crashing around but we eventually convinced ourselves to leap out past the pointy bits.

We had a pleasant downwind sail of a couple of hours to get to Luangahu I, which is perhaps a couple hundred meters wide (maybe a half a mile to walk around it). It is completely surrounded by a course golden sand, and is heavily wooded with a wide variety of plants. We saw evidence of a fishing camp, but it wasn't being used at that time. The only local inhabitant is a rather cute pig, who seemed a bit lonely. Manu Kai had arrived the day before, and told us on the radio that it was a great spot. We walked around the island on a beautiful sunny day, looking for paths leading inward, where, it was rumoured, papaya could be found. There were hints of paths, but they usually came to a dead end, the dense bush having reclaimed them. All we got for our trouble was a few scratches. That evening Manu Kai played dinner host – spaghetti with real meatballs: a fun ending to an awesome day. When they left the next day, we had the island all to ourselves. We had another lovely day of swimming, beach lounging, and then barbering, which can be pretty entertaining. We spent the evening admiring each other's haircuts.

Pangai is the capital of the Ha'apai group, and we were expected to check in there with the customs officer. This town was bigger than I expected and even had Internet access, although we decided not to bother with it since we'd be in Vava'u soon. The town was neatly laid out, with a lot of space around each building. It had a small grocery store and a market on Saturday, which had limited selection. We purchased a rather large amount of bananas there (they are often sold by the stalk, which has several hands or bunches on it). I don't imagine we have to worry about potassium deficiency for the next while. Many of the homes had gardens and picket fences, and there wasn't very much garbage strewn around. There were quite a lot of scruffy dogs wandering all over, and even more pigs, the latter often being followed by very cute piglets. Unlike Nuku'Alofa, the small convenience stores didn't have bars on the windows. At the waterfront, one could see racks of pandanus leaves bleaching in the water. These are used to make traditional Tongan clothing and mats. Overall, it was a rather pretty rural town.

We treated ourselves to dinner out at The Mariner's Cafe, a restaurant run by a former cruiser from Australia. We'd heard that the pizza was excellent and we weren't disappointed, although we were surprised to see plantain slices and canned peas on it, along with the more usual pizza stuff. That night we saw a rare astronomical event: there was a star or planet which was occulted by the moon while we watched. It is pretty rare to see a star so close to the moon. I think this was a highlight for Bjarne, although I'd rate the pizza a bit higher [I loved the pizza too – ed.].

Off to Vava'u Group

Just before leaving, the folks from the neighbouring boat, Betelgeuse II, traded us some ripe bananas and cooking bananas (plantain) for some green bananas. They also shared some fish, which a local had kindly given to them. After figuring out where to stow all of our bananas, we departed for the Vava'u group. The winds were light but our Red Baron spinnaker moved us through the calm waters at a moderate speed, at least for a while. It was a darned-near perfect evening: the moon provided a gentle light, the seas were comfortable, and, much to our delight, some whales chose to accompany us. We'd heard that they liked classical music; we didn't have any on board so put on Loreena McKennit (lovely celtic music) and they didn't seem to object. In fact, they stayed beside us for about 40 minutes. It was wonderful to hear the loud blowing, see the spouts of water and watch these large dark beings surface, showing us a back and dorsal fin before gliding below again. Some were as close as 30 feet from us, which is pretty close when one considers they might weigh 10 times as much as little Freya.

After midnight we had to resort to the engine, but this allowed us to test our newly installed (thanks Bjarne) [you're welcome – ed.] autopilot. Hellena, who steers by using the wind, wasn't up to the task. Since we motored through the rest of the night, we were both happy to have Mr. Chekhov on the job. We arrived in the Vava'u group the next day, June 19th.

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