25 June 2010 - 15 September 2010
Written December 2010 – New Zealand
This update was going to be called A WHALE OF A GOOD TIME.
Then it was YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND.
Finally, MORE FUN THAN A BARREL OF MONKEYS.
Sometimes it's hard to avoid clichés. Because, sometimes, clichés say just what you mean to say. That's why they became clichés.
Our season in the tropics was certainly not run-of-the-mill even though our plans this year were not grand. They didn't involve ocean passages of thousands of miles, or visiting completely uninhabited islands far off the beaten track. Our goals were to really get to know Tonga; visit friends there; to return to Niue; and to see, hear, and swim with, whales. So that is what we did.
IT'S A SMALL WORLD (GEOGRAPHY LESSON)
The Kingdom of Tonga is divided into four island groups creating a chain about 400 miles long. Nuku’alofa, the capital city, is located in the southerly Tongatapu group. Northward is the Ha’apai group, then Vava’u, and finally, far to the north, Niuatoputapu. Each island group differs in geology, remoteness, and the effects of tourism and technology.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
We spent just one week in Nukua’lofa, the capital of Tonga. It's the big city with a population of about 25,000 (the entire country has just over 100,000). As such, the provisioning is good, but it's not exactly our cup of tea.
We skipped out of town as soon as we could; heading first to the small island of Malinoa. We had to stop so Alene could do a cartwheel.
The Ha'apai group consists of reefs, islands, more reefs, and then some islands. There are also some reefs. Many cruisers sail right past because of... the reefs. We were determined to see all of Tonga, and we'd read that the Ha'apai bore great similarity to the Tuamotus—our favorite part of French Polynesia. We left Tongatapu in company with Isolde and Gabor on s/v Kestrel. After a fine, windy sail, we arrived at the island of Nomuka. It was early in the season and we were the only sailboats around.
HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE
It's pretty easy in the Ha'apai. At least the "friends" part. Just sail to small villages and walk around. We met lots of friendly people—especially kids.
We were anxious to visit friends in Lifuka, the main village of the Ha'apai group. But we didn't want to rush. We stopped at five islands on our way north: Tanoa, Fonoifua, Fonuaika, Ha'afeva, and Lofanga.
The villages of the Ha'apai are very basic. Often there is no, or very little, electricity available. Basic homes, subsistence fishing, no television. The Tongans are somewhat shy but always polite. Very generous as well. We often asked if we could buy fruit and were never allowed to; always given a bunch of bananas as a gift. We usually carried fishing hooks and line to offer as our gift.
AS COOL AS A CUCUMBER
Actually, in Tonga these days, sea cucumbers are hot. They are a delicacy in China, and Tonga has opened their seas to Chinese and Korean importers. I don't know a lot about the life cycle of the sea cucumber but it just doesn't seem sustainable to remove every single cucumber from the sea floor around the islands. It might create a problem when the sea cucumbers try to reproduce. I do know that sea cucumbers play an important role in the health of reef systems and are seriously endangered in many parts of the world. Again, humankind's insatiable appetite and greed is aiming to destroy another species.
YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND
Last year we were lucky to make the acquaintance of Melaia and Sio when they were living in Nuku'alofa. They've since moved to Lifuka. That's where Melaia is from and her mother still lived there.
We had a WONDERFUL time visiting Melaia and Sio and meeting Melaia's family. Melaia is a fascinating person with a very interesting history. She spent many years in the USA and provided us with a very personal view of Tongan culture. We spent many hours sitting around talking... as well as too much time eating.
We spent 8 days with Melaia and her family: enjoying each other's company and learning a lot about Tongan culture. Knowing we would return in a few months, we headed to the most northern islands of the Ha'apai for some excellent snorkeling and diving.
MONEY CAN'T BUY LOVE
But it can buy a lot of nails, fish hooks, and hammers. What does that have to do with anything? Read on.
We had a great 55 mile sail from the Ha'apai to Maninita, the southernmost island in the Vava'u group. We spent a couple of days exploring this tiny bird sanctuary—on land and in the water. We even had a great night snorkel under a full moon.
We sailed north among Vava'u's islands and met up with our friends Dick and Trish on s/v Geramar. Both are avid divers and we did a couple of great dives together.
Near Mala Island, we had an excellent snorkel in what is called the Japanese Garden.
We hung out for several days but soon we knew we would have to head to town.
Neiafu is the main town of the Vava'u group. Some people love it. The provisioning is all right but there are too many boats there for my taste. And all the businesses are owned by palangi (white foreigners) which bothers me. It's also noisy. Hmmm... maybe it's not my favorite place.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE NAILS AND FISH HOOKS?
NIUATOPUTAPU (cliché needed)
It's about 165 miles to Niuatoputapu from Vava'u. We had a solid 20+ knots of wind and arrived in 25 hours. Niuatoputapu as a narrow pass, but the beautiful lagoon has room for many boats. Good thing as we were surprised to find 14 boats anchored here. The winds had been southeasterly for some time and, since most boats were heading south, no one had left.
Niuatoputapu is much closer to Samoa than to the capital of Tonga. It is, and feels, very far removed from the rest of the country. There are about a thousand people on the island spread over three villages. Until recently, very few boats stopped here but it has become quite popular in the last few years, especially for boats sailing from Samoa to Vava'u.
The island is sill recovering from the 2009 tsunami that killed 9 and destroyed a great part of the villages. One of the first things we wanted to do was deliver the supplies we'd brought from Vava'u. Read the entire story, and see more pictures here.
Wherever we walked, kids followed us around. They were great. Though occasionally asking a few too many times for lollies (conditioned by other cruisers), they were still fun to talk to and play with.
We had some interesting weather while we were there. When it finally settled, many of the boats left for Vava'u.
When things settled down, we unfolded the bikes for an island circumnavigation. We love our bikes!
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN
Niuatoputapu's neighbor, four miles north, is Tafahi: a perfect cone-shaped island 560 meters (1,840 feet) high. It begs to be climbed. We talked to one of the locals, Niko, about guiding us up and decided that we'd take everyone interested over on Migration and tow Niko's small fishing boat so he could shuttle us in through the small break in Tafahi's reef.
We set off with 14 aboard: 11 cruisers, Niko, Niko's brother who was returning to his home on Tafahi, and one of the local police officers who needed to follow up on a case on the island.
Our social and activity calendars filled up quickly on Niuatoputapu.
The last thing we did before we left was hike to the northeast point of the island. This is where the tsunami first hit. It was sobering, to say the least.
NIUE: RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
Anyone who's read Migrations 13 knows how much we loved Niue. Last year we spent two weeks there and it wasn't enough. We were determined to return. Unfortunately, Niue is West—upwind—of Tonga. We actually left Niuatoputapu heading back to Vava'u. But after several hours it seemed to make sense to try for Niue. We cranked in the sheets and pounded upwind. Luckily, we were fortunate to get a period of relatively light trade winds. The seas laid down and we had a fairly pleasant 3-day sail.
Since we'd been here before, we didn't mind arriving at 2 AM in the dark. How exciting it was to be back. Like meeting an old friend. And we even had a warm Welcome Back message from Commodore Keith of the Niue Yacht Club when we checked our email in the morning.
The morning also revealed s/v Navire moored nearby. We'd briefly met Kiwis David and Janet in Nukua'alofa and had looked forward to getting to know them. But our paths had diverged for several months as they headed north to Samoa. All the other boats were unknown to us as they had arrived from the east. We quickly glommed on to David and Janet and became fast friends. Together we visited the school for the Friday morning assembly. One class leads the assembly with songs, poems, and stories. It was very enjoyable—except when we were chastised by the principal for applauding after a hymn.
Being back on Niue was a delight. People were friendly, we had a great many plans for adventures above and below the water, and just walking along and looking out to sea is always enjoyable. Because Niue is a raised atoll, one has a much higher vantage point than the usual low lying Pacific islands. This creates nice views of the coast as well as a long horizon over the sea.
RETURN TO THE FOLD
Last year we joined the Makefu Women's Weaving Group for a morning of more or less effective lessons. Alene wanted to try her hand again at Niue weaving. She rounded up three other woman, I dropped them off, and they went at it. David and I chose to partake only of the lunch portion of the day.
SAVE THE WHALES
Niue has a local NGO dedicated to protecting the marine mammals in the area. Oma Tafua held a benefit night and we, along with a host of other cruisers, decided to attend.
WHALE OF A TIME
One reason we were heading to Vava'u instead of Niue when we left Niuatoputapu is that we had been in contact with Ian and Annie of Niue Dive and they'd told us that there just weren't many whales visiting Niue this year. What a bummer! The previous two years had seen a bumper crop of whales. As we left the pass at Niuatoputapu, a mother humpback and her calf swam right past us. We thought this might be a good omen and hoped that when we arrived in Niue, so would the whales.
We were not disappointed. A few days after our arrival, whales swam through the mooring field three mornings in a row. We grabbed our masks and snorkels and jumped in. That's me in the first photo! Being in the water with a whale is exciting, humbling, and awe-inspriring.
THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS
Once a year, each Niuean village has a Show Day. We would call it a fair. Tuapa's Show Day coincided with our visit and we didn't want to miss it. The helpful lady in the tourist office warned us that the food would be gone if we didn't arrive early. "How early?" we asked. "Oh, by 7:00am."
We'd rented a car with David and Janet so we headed out together. We didn't arrive before 7:00 but there was still food available at 8:00. We diligently purchased our plates from one of the many stands set up. What was being served? Huge portions of fish, pig, sausage, and, of course, taro. We sat down and ate it while it was hot. What a strange breakfast, we thought. Then noticed that all the locals took the plates (which are served wrapped in foil or plastic) to their cars, then retrieved them to eat at a more reasonable hour—like lunchtime!
A fashion show was part of the day's activity. Since the only entrant in the men's category was the mayor, Alene suggested David and I add our haute couture to the proceedings. We were asked to describe our outfits. Mine was 'typical cruiser' fashion (le mode navigeur) consisting of ball cap, sunglasses repaired with tape, shorts, sandals, and a non-solid shirt.
AS EASY AS ONE, TWO, THREE
One of our goals upon returning to Niue was to complete Vaikona cave. We entered this cave last year when we toured the island with our friends on Avel Mad, Canela, and QoVoP. We didn't have enough lights—or knowledge—to transit the entire cave system. This time we went prepared with ropes, climbing harness, a map from another cruiser, and extra lights. David and Janet were gung-ho to jump right in... literally.
First we had to crawl through the narrow opening and then work our way down a long slippery rock slope with a low roof. Then comes the Big Gap: about two meters across with only a few handholds.
This section of the cave is not a cave at all, but a huge chasm. You can see the sky above through the scores of bromeliads clinging to the rock face. Ferns hang from the cliff edges and grow among the boulders. The first pool is crystal clear—and cold!—and an exquisite aquamarine color. We spotted several small fish and a large eel.
The far end of the pool ends at a sheer rock cliff. Diving below the face, there's a four-meter tunnel leading into the next chamber. This one is quite large—probably 25 meters long. Blue light filters up from the tunnel behind. Ahead is all darkness. Unfortunately we don't have a light for our waterproof camera so we don't have any photos.
There are two more swim-throughs and then a scramble across rocks and into the light at the bottom of a second chasm. This is where we got lost... we thought we were supposed to climb out here but could find no way up the sheer walls. Eventually we backtracked through the pools and exited the way we entered—which meant crossing the scary gap again.
Now that we'd had two tastes of Vaikona, we couldn't give up. We returned a third time, also accompanied by Les and Sandy—Aucklanders who were on holiday. Plus we were armed with another round of local knowledge as we'd quizzed one of the Niuean guides about the exit.
This time, after the first set of pools and the scramble in the second chasm, we jumped into another set of pools. This led far back into the cave system until we finally saw light shining from high above. Les and David carefully explored routes up and out. Though it was quite steep, very high, and a bit nervous-making, we managed it without incident and finally squeezed through an opening to find ourselves on the very rough and sharp landscape above the coast.
A twenty-minute hike brought us back to the cave entrance where we gathered the rest of our gear before the hike back to the road. We'd done it! It was a great feeling of accomplishment and certainly one our best adventures... shared with good friends. We later found that we hadn't exited the 'normal' way which is why it was so difficult to get out. Still we'd made it!
Vaikona is only one cave of dozens on Niue. With David and Janet we visited as many as we could fit in during our visit.
TIME ON OUR HANDS
Now that we had conquered Vaikona, and visited most of the caves, we could turn our attention to some other activities on our list.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE YOU...
A GOOD STORY: One night Janet and David joined us on a night snorkel along the reef to look for lobsters. We did see some lobsters but just weren't fast enough to get them. Still, it was a cool snorkel with lots of different fish and the chance to see big parrot fish sleeping in various nooks and crannies.
Janet and David's wet suits weren't as thick as ours so they went back to their boat because they were cold. About a half-hour later, as we quietly swam past Navire on the way to Migration, we stopped and did our very best whale song imitation through our snorkels. We were patient. Slowly increasing the volume and sounding more whale-like with practice. After five minutes, David rushed naked into the cockpit shouting "Janet, there are whales all around the boat! Get a torch!" Of course, we couldn't stop laughing as he shined the flashlight down on us. It was a good joke and we very proud of ourselves.
However, we didn't just play hoaxes on our friends the whole time we were there. We behaved ourselves and hosted several fun get-togethers aboard Migration.
With all we wanted to do—and did do—the time flew by. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Tonga.
(Our continued travels in Tonga and return to New Zealand will soon be chronicled in Migrations #16.)
Writing (and reading) clichés usually makes me cringe. My apologies for subjecting you to so many. Sometimes the theme appears and I just have to run with it. However, as I said at the beginning, clichés can serve a purpose. Within their well-used embrace, there is an understanding of a feeling or experience that is common and easily shared.
I write this on 1/1/11, the first day of the New Year. We are in Wellington Harbor in New Zealand; few cruisers sail this far south so we are far from the friends we've made sailing—most of whom are in the north of New Zealand. We're even farther from the friends we made in Tonga and Niue, and very far from loved ones in the United States and beyond. But our friends here in Wellington have opened their arms to us. The feeling of being cared for and loved is an experience that is easily shared. We hope it is one that you experience and share during this holiday time of year. Alene and I are mulling over our resolutions. Though mine aren't quite defined yet, I know they'll include the desire that our path across the planet leaves the land and sea no worse (and maybe better) than before we arrived, and the people we meet with memories that bring only pleasure. So may it be for you in Two Thousand and Eleven.
And one other resolution?
Avoid overusing clichés.
Happy New Year.
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