As our boat was readied for our Tongan adventure, we sat at Mango, the waterfront restaurant at the Sunsail base. We were relishing the free Wi-Fi when the checkout manager, Raymond, came by our table, stuck his hand out to the nearest graybeard and said, “You must be the captain.” His eyes opened wide when he found out it was me, but he seemed delighted.
Our boat, a Sunsail 440 (Leopard 44 catamaran) named Kepa, had just been brought up from New Zealand. She looked none worse for the wear and was a great platform for a week in the kingdom. Tonga is made up of three island groups: Tongatapu with the main town of Nuku’alofa; Ha’apai where the Bounty experienced her mutiny and Captain Cook very nearly ended up being the buffet; and Vava’u, where you’ll find the only charter base.
I sat down with Raymond for the chart briefing. Vava’u has 170 islands and islets in compact cruising grounds that measure roughly 20-by-12 miles. The anchorages have numbers, and navigation aids are conspicuous by their absence. Water-color changes determine your pilotage. You can easily criss-cross the whole thing in a week, he told me, although once you settle into the Tonga time, the temptation to linger a little longer at each beach will inevitably catch up with you.
Provisioning was a bit tricky. Unlike the large supermarkets of the Caribbean and the high-end delis in Europe, Vava’u requires more of a hunt for the right stuff. We went to five stores, typically run by Chinese families. They stock a variety of merchandise from beer to flip-flops, but don’t carry produce and have never heard of olive oil, which we only finally discovered at the “American shop.” It’s liquid gold, at $30 per bottle. The following morning we rounded out our week’s worth of provisions by going to the outdoor produce market and then over to the fish market, which consisted of a few guys in a parking lot with large coolers full of fish, eels and still-moving octopuses.
Because it was raining, we opted to stay off the water that morning and start with an island tour. Our driver, Steven, was a soft-spoken gentleman with a lovely singing voice and the patience of Job during our provisioning escapades. He taught us a few Tongan words like malo (thank you), malo a lelei (hello) and palingi (Europeans or white people), which is what we were called by all.
We also wound around the slightly disheveled main town of Neiafu, visited a freshwater pool in a cave and then headed up Mount Talau where we hiked up 200 slippery stairs for a view of Port Refuge below. Very proud of his daughter’s education at the Mormon school in town, Steven even gave us a tour of the pristine campus where teenagers in green uniforms (the colors vary with church ownership) practiced their English as we came by.
Finally, the sun came out and it was time to hop aboard and get going. On our first afternoon, we enjoyed a lovely beam reach down the Pulepulekai channel until we hit more open water and the winds got a bit blowy. Having gotten off to a late start, we were running out of daylight anyway so we furled the sails and made our way up Hunga Island’s western side to find the only opening into the bay that’s big enough for a cruising boat. Passing through, we just about kissed the rock that guarded the narrow entrance, then turned to a course of 115 degrees magnetic and wound through the reef to the anchorage where 150ft of chain (basically all of it) still only gave us a 2:1 scope. Only one other boat followed us through—a C&C 44 crewed by a Dutch singlehander named Ruben. We would cross paths with him often over the next six days.
Anchoring in Vava’u is an adventure. You’re either in 3ft of water or 300ft. Most times when I dove on our anchor, I’d find it lying sadly on its side, the tip poking weakly into 4in of sand just barely covering a coral pan. Luckily, the nights were blissfully calm, so there was no breeze to pull us off our precarious perches. One time, after we found Swallows Cave—one of the recommended sights—I very nearly stuck our bows inside to take a look, it was that deep so close to the cliff face. Satisfied that we knew where it was, we headed around the corner to anchor at Port Maurelle, a shallow wide white beach. We dinghied the two miles back to explore the cave, after picking up Ruben who asked to come along as it was too far from him to row his engineless dink.
In fact, Tonga has lots of caves. Another one of note is Mariner’s Cave, named for William Mariner, a sailor on an ill-fated ship that came this way in 1806. Mariner was the only one of his crew whose life was spared after a native attack, and the 15-year-old spent four years living with Chief Finau before hopping on a passing vessel back to England. You can dive down and swim into this cave, but the weather the day we were there was unsettled, with the surge slapping the bottom of the rocks too hard for us to give it a try.
Before departing the base, we had asked Sunsail to set us up with a dinner with a Tongan family. And so it was that on Saturday night we pulled into the bay at Nuapapu, a horseshoe-shaped island with a total population of 82. Upon dinghying ashore to the beach we were greeted by the patriarch, who gave a short presentation and let us loose on a dozen dishes that probably took the village all day to cook. Curried chicken, grilled octopus and a papaya dessert were passed around, and after we ate, a small dance ceremony took place on the beach. A generator hummed in the background, providing power for the only light. With its short cord, the light wasn’t very effective, mostly backlighting the dancers, a couple of young girls who hammed it up for photos. As the father prepared for the dance, he stood next to a giant speaker, pairing it to his smartphone. Given the remoteness of the setting, that detail only seemed all the more surreal.
Our host’s name was Kolomaile, and he said he was the pastor of his church, one of five available to the island’s tiny group. The next day being Sunday, and Tongan Father’s Day, we asked if we could attend. He agreed and said he would send an escort down at 0930 the next morning so we could find the village where the only transportation was horses.
Come Sunday then, we arrived at the dock promptly and found the three adorable young girls dressed in all their finery. Meanwhile, their mom was cooling off in the water. Tongans swim fully dressed, so she could only go in the water in her mumu, explaining she would change before church. No horses, though, so we set off on foot.
After a half mile of muddy path, we stumbled into a village with small houses scattered about with dogs and piglets dashing back and forth. I’ve never thought of pigs as particularly active, but the Tongan swine are downright athletic. After that, we passed a school set on perfectly manicured grounds and then finally came to a tiny church that seemed to be standing only by the will of God himself.
Inside the one-room building were a few rows of pews and an altar decorated with synthetic flowers. These are big in Tonga, as they’re used to dress up the above-ground gravesites along with banners showing an image of the deceased. You may not be able to find olive oil, but you can always get a bouquet of wildly colored flowers.
One wall of the church looked as if it was about to peel off and heave itself down the hill. We were among the first there and wanting to be respectful, I chose a row farther back, but one of our entourage looked at me and patted the seat next to her in the front row. As we sat through the sermon, she shyly snaked a finger over to my arm and ran it up and down my shirt. I’m not sure if it was the material she liked or the fact that she could later tell everyone she had touched the palingi with the blond hair and green eyes.
Soon afterward Kolomaile arrived in a full suit, which he kept on throughout the morning. Not being a small man, he sweated right through it before the sermon was done. This part of the village didn’t have a bell, so Kolomaile beat a large stump with a stick as his call to mass. His wife arrived with their 11-month-old son, who randomly crawled about before being retrieved by his sisters. He was amazingly pliable and calm as they tugged and pulled on him. At one point, I turned around to see mom, eyes closed and praying, holding junior with one hand and a bottle to his mouth with the other.
Finding our Way
Navigation around Tonga isn’t difficult, but it can get exciting. The charts are sketchy and many places are simply labeled “Inadequately Surveyed.” We found that to be especially true as we wound our way through two channels to get to Kenutu, the easternmost anchorage, also listed as #30. (Again, the base distributes a chart that has numbers, so that the palingi don’t get tongue-tied trying to pronounce the Tongan names.)
Although we never found the “two green markers” that were supposed to guide us through, we still made it into Kenutu’s lagoon without incident. Ashore, we found a very rough jungle trail and dodging the sharp spikes of the pandanus trees, wound our way to the top of the island for a spectacular view of the rough windward side. Walking through the remains of a village, we looked down at the waves crashing below.
Tonga is the land of rainbows. Every day there were so many beautiful swaths of color, usually ending on top of a postcard-perfect island, that we grew jaded and started ranking them. This is also the land of the indescribably beautiful white sand beach. An especially fabulous example was Ngau, or anchorage #23. We picked our way around coral heads into a lagoon near the beach that grew larger as the tide went out. In fact, over a couple of hours, it surfaced enough that we could walk from one island to another. It was a hedonistic paradise until I thought I saw turtles surfacing around us. On closer examination, I realized it was coral heads that were starting to poke up through the waves as low tide approached. Time to raise anchor and wind our way out!
On the morning of our second to last day, we woke up to hip-hop music coming from the beach, a sign that not all is as it once was, even in Tonga. A small boat approached quickly with a couple of kids dressed in red school uniforms, and we were offered coconuts and a guided walk. Due to our schedule, we declined but asked if they needed any of our food since we had only one day left. “Anything,” came the answer from the father. We gladly unloaded our sugar, rice and beans. When the scowling girl on the bow saw a sleeve of Oreos coming her way, her eyes lit up, and she finally cracked a smile. I guess teenagers are the same everywhere.
That day we decided to enter the magnificent Blue Lagoon at the bottom of Hunga Island. It was high tide and rollers were coming over the reefs all around. It was a bit of a pucker driving inside as I knew the charts were sketchy and the rollers growled just 20 feet off either side. It would have been easier to enter at low tide, but that wasn’t going to be until 1800 and we had been advised not to overnight there. Inside, it was like a washing machine, and the dinghy swung wildly on its davits, warning us off even trying to go to the beach.
Instead, we exited carefully and sailed over to Nuku, a favorite beach of the king of Tonga. Just a tiny spit of sugary sand, Nuku also serves as a destination for local school and church outings, but that day, we had it all to ourselves. It was the only place we had to pay to anchor for the night, as a “government” worker appeared out of nowhere in a dinghy and collected $10.
Nuku is striking and it was nice to be ending on a highlight as we relaxed, watching a fabulous sunset. That’s when I reluctantly opened my email only to find that our flight the next day had been moved up by four hours. I’d heard that Real Tonga Airlines was a real adventure in terms of impromptu schedule changes, and they didn’t disappoint. The next morning we, therefore, raised anchor by flashlight and motored back to the base, eventually making it to the one-room airport with an hour to spare.
I’ve been to many parts of the world, but until now, I didn’t know places like Tonga still existed. The hospitality, civility and complete comfort with not having to lock up anything were easy to get used to. The pride Tongans take in their educational system (98 percent are literate) and their beautiful islands are impressive, and the solitude is most welcome. Of course, it helped that we were there on shoulder season (May) and therefore practically alone, so it was easy to imagine a different world of decades ago when cruising was unimaginably exotic and quite a bit more remote. Time hasn’t exactly stood still in Tonga, but it certainly has dragged its heels. And I, for one, am all for setting the clocks back while lounging about in paradise.
Photos by Zuzana Prochazka
MHS Winter 2018