The Kingdom of Tonga

The wind died and we had to motor the last few hours to the Vava-u group of islands just as the dawn came up. We slipped quietly into the main port of Neiafu to tie up to the customs jetty for clearing in to the country. We managed to find the customs/immigration man fairly quickly but health and quarantine were out at the airport checking in a plane, this was Friday so we were told it might be Saturday morning or more likely Monday before we could complete clearance. Mooring on the jetty was free provided you still had the yellow quarantine flag flying and lucky for us it was only 100 yards from the local fruit and vegetable market so on Saturday morning we replenished our supplies. The nearest bank ATM was only 5 minutes walk away so we could get local currency quite easily. 

A view over the harbour at Neiafu.

The next day was Sunday when everything closes in Tonga, here people are deeply religious and work is not allowed. People go to church, eat and rest, not even the planes fly on a Sunday and you’re not even supposed to work on your boat, its that strict, so we used the day to explore the small town on foot. It was like walking through a ghost town with the only sign of life the sound of hymn singing from the local church. 

The Cathedral in Neiafu

Tonga was a big step down from the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. This is definitely third world, dirty streets, abandoned and scruffy houses, pigs roaming everywhere and poorly stocked shops. The people however were friendly and welcoming.

The only folks out and about

On Monday morning we finally completed clearance and moved onto a mooring buoy in the harbour at a cost of 10$T about £3.50 per night which wasn’t going to break the bank and from here we could get Internet and catch up on some of our emails and get the weeks weather reports. The expat community in Neiafu operates a VHF network on channel 26 which covers the whole of the island group providing weather, events, marine services, items for sale etc. We stayed for a couple of days enjoying the rest.

The islands in the Vava-u group are a renowned cruising ground offering many sheltered anchorages and nice beaches so we said goodbye to Neifau and headed off to explore the outlying islands.

We decided to go first to Vaka’eitu and had a terrific sail through the picturesque islands in flat seas, Gill helmed and I worked the sails, it was like sailing a dinghy again and something we had never done with Romano. Normally our sailing is long distances in straight lines for 100’s of miles, it was great fun and exhilarating to work the boat hard. The scenery reminded me of the west coast of Scotland between the islands of the west coast, except it wasn’t raining!

When we arrived in the bay and anchored of the sandy beach we went ashore by kayak to do our usual exploration. While walking along the beach we noticed a number of 8ft poles leaning up against trees or stuck in the sand, bleached white by the sun. It puzzled us why they were there. We came across a house at the far end of the beach hidden back in the trees where we were waved in by the owner. This was the home of David and Hika who had lived here for four years. David’s grandfather was buried in a large plot on a hill overlooking the bay which gave them the right to settle here. Property is handed down the male side of the family and each male can theoretically claim up to 8 acres of land from the crown for a small fee, few do, most preferring to live in the towns. The island and sweeping bay made a lovely sheltered anchorage and right in the middle of the beach was a huge Banyan tree with its extraordinary roots that drop from branches as they grow enabling the tree to spread far from the trunk. 

The mighty Banyan tree

A view beneath the Banyan showing the supporting root structure.

Hika explained that the poles we had seen are cut from the Fau tree (Beach Hibiscus) which grows long straight blemish fee branches. The branches are then tied together and left in the sea for a while before drying. The bark is stripped from the pole and beaten into thin fibres which are used in basket and hat making. Hika showed us a grass skirt she was making.

David and Hika off to catch dinner

Tongans are famous for their feasts which typically include roast suckling pig, fish, clams, crab, chicken, a range of vegetables etc which is cooked over an open fire or wrapped in taro leaves and baked in an omu where stones are heated by fire and the food placed on them to cook and then covered with sand. David and Hika offer feasts to passing yachts if there is a minimum of 8 people to make it worthwhile and they asked us to stay for the following Saturday. We were tempted however we had decided to move on and see more of the islands. We learned later that Neil and Jesse, off Red Thread, did go and said it was a great night with 18 people turning up, so we missed a good bash. Our next stop was Tapana island where we kayaked ashore on the Saturday morning. 

Gill dropping the anchor

A track ran along the back of the beach so we decided to see where it led, after walking for 20 minutes on what was now a paved road a truck stopped and the driver asked if we wanted a lift to his village so we hopped on board and his five year old son climbed on to the flatbed to make room for us in the cab.. Stupidly we hadn’t asked how far this village was and after a while we realised we were going to be in for a long walk back. The driver asked if we wanted to come to his church the following morning, he would come and pick us up but we declined as gracefully as we could and he lost interest after that. He dropped us in the middle of the village where Gill put on her all terrain walking shoes she had thoughtfully packed (smarty pants). I had a thin pair of flip flops so this wasn’t going to be fun. Having taken in the village at a glance we headed off back down the road in the hot sunshine. We had covered three quarters of the return distance back when a tiny pick up truck with a family crowded in the back stopped and we managed to squeeze in gratefully. By then my feet were complaining loudly and we were hot and sweaty. The family were going to the beach where we had left our kayak, for a picnic with a group of friends. Gill and I relaxed on the beach and noticed everyone gathering in a circle under the shade of large trees behind the beach and then they started singing. We were wondering what this was all about when a lady came over and explained that this was a Baha’i faith group who took groups of teenage children to teach them about the transition to adulthood. This was a group picnic outing to the beach with their families with hymn singing and lessons included. We listened for a while then paddled back to the boat for lunch on board.

The next day we moved to Lisa Beach around the corner of the island and had only been anchored for about an hour when in motored Red Thread. Jessie and Neil were keen to visit Kenutu island right out on the eastern reef which was reputed to be a beautiful anchorage. We had considered it but decided it was too risky with our 7ft draft through several narrow and shallow passages. Neil suggested that they could go ahead of us to test the way. If we left that afternoon this at high water with their lesser draft boat leading and Neil talking me through the depths on the VHF. We followed them without problem. 

A vain attempt to capture the beauty of Kenutu anchorage

The anchorage behind Kenutu island certainly lived up to it’s reputation it was stunningly beautiful. The lagoon was every shade of blue and green and the surf pounded the reef either side of the island sending great bursts of spray high in the air, giving off that wonderfully soporific roar in the distance, which lulled us to sleep each night. We both thought this was one of the most attractive anchorages we had seen on our travels. 

Waves breaking on Kenutu

A lookout we came across in exploring the island

Gill having a rest after a hot climb

During our three day stay the four of us walked the island, explored the reef and its rock pools, dug, not very successfully, for clams which we ate for appetisers, held reciprocal dinner parties on our respective boats and played Mexican train dominoes in the evening, perfect days in great company!

We all wanted to visit a place called Hunga lagoon which also ‘had a very challenging entry so we sailed in company again for the 22 miles from the far east to the far west side of the Vava’u group of islands. The plan was the same, Red Thread would enter ahead of us and sound the way through a very narrow dog leg pass into what was the crater of an extinct volcano. We got through with only 0.5m to spare beneath our keel and the tide pushing us through at speed, scary stuff, I had no idea what nasties lay beneath so it’s hold your breath and hope for the best, it certainly got the adrenalin pumping. We anchored just off Hunga Haven, the home of two Canadians, Cindy and Barry who had built their own house in the woods above a small sandy beach. In the morning I called up Cindy on channel 26 and asked where their house was so we could come and say hello. I dropped a real clanger by saying I could only see a little wooden shack in the woods, from the boat. There was a shriek from the radio followed by “that little wooden shack is the beautiful home we spent four years building, come and have a closer look”. Oops! 

The sun setting over the crater entrance to Hunga Lagoon

We kayaked ashore to be met by larger than life Cindy who pulled my leg mercilessly over my faut pas. Husband Barry was in the capital Nukualofa buying a boat which would be their car to get to town and back. Cindy had only been to town twice in the last year however they grew their own fruit and vegetables, had a plentiful supply of fish which Barry caught from his kayak and in the woods behind them were lots of wild pigs which Barry trapped, catching around 30 a year. They were pretty well self sufficient only needing to buy flour, rice, sugar and pasta.

They offered mooring buoys to passing yachties and an Internet service which provided them with a small income but as Cindy said they had little need for money, their largest expense was the small rental paid to a local Tongan for the 4 acres of land they occupied. Barry had been a solar electric installer in his previous life and he installed a system for them which provided all their electrical needs, as long as the sun shone. A small petrol generator provided stand by power. Cindy said they could live on around 300 Pangas a month, around £100, in relative comfort and in a beautiful location. 

Before we left Barry arrived back in his new secondhand aluminium boat and did a lap of honour at full speed around the crater lagoon in front of the watching Cindy, This was a big day for them which was evident from the big cheesy grins they both wore when they came back from Cindy’s first ride. They now had their own transport off the island and a much better fishing boat. 

That afternoon Gill and I took the kayak out through the pass and snorkelled our way back in on the incoming tide, me tied to the kayak, to have a better look at the pass for our outward journey. We left the happy couple the following morning and this time passed through at 7.06 exactly on high water with 1.4 metres under our keel this time, no problem. Our plan was to move on to Port Maurelle 10 miles away which isn’t really a port at all. It’s a very pretty bay on Kapa island where we dropped anchor to join three other boats. Red Thread arrived about an hour later and Neil came over in the dinghy to ask if we would like to go ashore for sundowners a bonfire and taking something to eat that evening. We agreed and he went around the other boats to invite others, in all 17 people turned up as more and more boats came in, presumably word had got out on the VHF! I went ashore to collect firewood from the forest while Gill had cooked a large rice dish which as it happened meant we were able to feed a few others as well as ourselves. It was a nice relaxed evening sitting on the beach chewing the fat as the sun went down and the fire helped to keep the mozzies away.

The entrance to Swallows Cave

Neil and Jessie gave us a lift the next day to explore Swallows Cave not far from our anchorage. A large ball of fish inhabited this cave and it was incredible diving through the morass.

Neil free diving in the cave.

Gill and I hiked over to a village on the other side of Kapa Island, had a chat with the village children and came back

They were quite fluent in English and are taught it from an early age. They were also quite relaxed with us and completely unfazed by these whitish people turning up on their door step. Their parents were much shyer.

These were some boys we met gathering coconut for the village pigs.

The following morning we set off back to Neiafu to enjoy a Tongan feast out on the eastern side of the island. We joined about 50 others and got stuck into fish, suckling pig, seafood, bread fruit, taro , curry, and many other dishes. The next day we returned to immigration to check out of the Vava-u group and obtain permission to sail to the next island group, the Ha’apai’s. This is a chain of lower lying limestone islands almost due south of the Vava-u islands around 60 miles away to the south. We set off in the afternoon to anchor in the Lee of an island called Ovaka, one of the most southern in the Vava-u group, which would give us an early morning launch pad for a day sail to the Ha’apais. Unfortunately Murphy was working well that day and the wind swung to the north east at 20 knots as we approached Ovaka and whistled straight into the bay where we intended to anchor. There was no way we could anchor in those winds on a lee shore so we turned south and hove to around the corner. In the Lee of the island we were protected from the wind but no anchorage however we were able to winch the dinghy on board and had a quick bite to eat before setting off for an unexpected overnight sail. We were much too early in setting off for a 60 mile journey to the reef strewn Ha’apai’s where we didn’t want to arrive in the dark so I reefed the boat down heavily and we sailed off slowly at 3 knots, arriving in perfect time at daybreak off Pangai, the main village where we anchored in 10 metres of water in front of the jetty. We went ashore by kayak, handed over our clearance papers to customs, got our clearing out papers at the same time, did a bit of shopping and headed back to the boat. There was nothing to keep us so we upped anchor to move 5 miles south to Uoleva Island. The first of many beautiful islands in this group, we approached a long swooping near deserted bay lined with a perfect white sandy beach backed by palm trees, we decided to stay here for a few days to enjoy it. There was a small bar come restaurant directly in front of our boat and of course after a long thirsty walk along the beach we popped in to see what was on offer. The place had been built by the owners Kirsten and Craig, she was a Kiwi and he South African. It had taken them four years to build it by themselves and the result was impressive. They also offered accommodation in a couple of adjacent huts for a modest fee to any passing backpackers. Kirsten was a vet and had a practice which she tended for 6 months a year and the rest of the year was spent in this beautiful spot with Craig. They had decided though that the business bureaucracy of Tonga had reached such ridiculous levels that they no longer wanted to continue and had sold out and were heading back to New Zealand at the end of the season. Even paradise has its problems!

In common with many south sea islands there are numerous reefs to deal with. In good light most of the reefs are easily spotted some way off and you can see small breaking waves on them known as “blind rollers”, the hidden coral heads (so-called “bommies”) that glow green and yellow in the water are much harder to spot and can rise 20m from the bottom to a pinnacle that will easily remove your rudder. You sail along thinking plenty of depth and then suddenly bang there is only 2m under the keel, or less. Not a recommended experience to lose your rudder in some deserted island. Polaroid sunglasses help in spotting bommies but even they don’t pick them all out so we have to keep a good lookout for any change of colour in the water ahead.

Something we hadn’t expected to meet in the tropics was the colder water in Tonga, admittedly we had come several degrees south and certainly sleeping at night was a lot more comfortable but a wet suit was beneficial if you wanted to spend any time in the water. We have been spoiled with the higher temperatures of other countries.

One of the ornate graves in a village in the Ha’apai’s islands

After the Ha-apai islands we intended to sail to Kelefesia half way down to Tongatapu but on arrival in strong winds and heavy surf it was clear there was no way we could anchor here. This would have broken our journey into two day sails but now we were faced with an overnight sail in reef strewn waters, not something we relished and we were bound to arrive in our final Tongan destination of Nukualofa well before dawn. In fact we arrived off the coast at 03.00 and I tried heaving to but the boat was still sailing at 2.5kts offshore. I motored back to our starting point off the pass through the reef at around 5pm and tried bare poles this time. Our drift slowed to1kt which was more acceptable so we drifted until we had enough light to see the reef. At about 09.00 when we motored in through a convoluted pass.

We arrived off Nukualofa on Tongatapu island, which is the capital of Tonga, around midday and tried to raise the port authority on the VHF radio, channel 16. Nothing, complete silence, I tried four or five times and at last a friendly Kiwi voice came on and told us how to enter the harbour and tie up for clearance opposite a restaurant. Just as well a yachtie with local knowledge was listening. We came in to what proved to be quite a shallow harbour for us with the depth alarm sounding every 2 minutes but after cruising the length of the harbour we couldn’t see the restaurant he mentioned. I made to come alongside the fisherman’s wharf and was waved off by a guy waiting for his fishing boat to come in to its parking space.

We met a French family mid harbour in a dinghy who offered to help. A number of the boats had tied stern to the harbour wall by dropping anchor and backing up, then putting stern lines ashore. I was dubious, there was a strong cross wind blowing down the harbour which would mean precision timing. The Frenchman was adamant they could do it so hey ho! The two women went ashore to a pontoon, we dropped anchor and motored back, handing our lines to the Frenchman in the dingy who took them ashore and handed them to the two females. We were shouting instructions to hurry them up as the boat slid slowly downwind, whether it was language or inexperience or lack of strength on their part but it all went wrong, we hit the pontoon, with no ropes attached to check us and as I tried to pull out by motoring ahead, calling to the women to drop our lines they hung on like grim death. There was no way they could hold a 20 ton boat in that wind and eventually either it dawned on them or our shouting got through and they dropped the lines but by then the rudder was caught up in the pontoon mooring lines. A quick burst of power I couldn’t apply before without pulling both women into the harbour, broke us free. Lesson learned, don’t trust people you don’t know in a critical situation we escaped without damage but it could have been really nasty. We motored back out into the centre of the harbour and eventually we saw a local man waving us into a small inner boat harbour we had seen before but written off as too shallow. It only had very small boats moored inside, we crept in with 0.2m under our keel. The man waving proved to be Inoki, a very cruiser friendly taxi driver who took our lines and tied us up without problem. Inoki offered to drive us around during our stay so we suggested perhaps an island tour the following day.

We didn’t like the Nukualofa harbour which was definitely not yacht friendly and decided to anchor off Pangaimotu island which was about 3 miles across the bay and hosted “Big Mamas Yacht Club”, a real cruiser’s joint. Here we met Russ and Gwen off A-train and Russ announced he was the friendly yachtie who had responded to our calls for guidance. It was also he who gave us lots of good advice on sailing to New Zealand through the reputedly difficult waters and which weather patterns were good and which bad. 

The next day we took the daily water taxi from Big Mamas back to Nukualofa the next morning and met with Inoki for our guided tour of the island. There isn’t a huge amount to see on Tongatapu but we visited Fiji’s equivalent of Stonehenge at Ha’amonga. 

The Maui at Ha’amonga.

We saw the shallow muddy bay where Captain Cook landed, why he didn’t pick a better spot I don’t know there are lots of of nice sandy beaches.

I don’t think the steps were there in Cook’s day maybe they thought he would come back.!

The plaque commemorating Cook’s arrival in the islands.

The irony is Cook called these the friendly isles but the locals say they couldn’t agree on which day to attack and then Cook left before any action took place.

We also saw the dramatic blowholes at Mapu’a’a Vaea and the new parliament buildings being built by the Chinese. They had also built the harbour and were in the process of constructing a new marina, all for unnamed concessions.

Inoki adopted us and we found out he earned his living off driving cruisers around town to sort out clearance, fuel collection, shopping etc. He was a real gem and not expensive. His wife did laundry for the yachting community so one had to be patient on a journey with him while he delivered and picked up laundry. I think he expected a big tip at the end of our stay but I had blown all our Tongan dollars on fuel. Sorry Inoki!

Our duty free fuel arrived at the appointed time on the dock in a 200 litre drum on the back of a pick up truck and was hand pumped by the driver into our tank. This took the best part of an hour which gave Gill the opportunity for a last minute food shop before we set off for Neiafu in Fiji, our next port of call. We sailed a leisurely 10 miles across the lagoon before exiting through the pass where we had come in. Our view of Tonga was mixed, great sailing in Vava’u pretty islands in the Ha’apai’s but a very poor country, run down and dirty, run by Chinese and the local indigenous people were, in general, uninterested in making anything of their lives. Not a place I would go back to. Next stop Fiji 480 miles to the west.

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