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The Two Captains


2C Update #131 - Niuatoputapu, Tonga  (September 1-13, 2005)

(Photographs by the Two Captains; Bud & Nita, of sv Passage;
whale photograph by Tom Abend, sv Bravo Charlie III)

 Arriving in Niuatoputapu (NEW-ya-tow-poo-TAH-poo) (15*56’S; 173*46’W),  the main island in the small northern Niua island group of the Kingdom of Tonga, is rather like arriving at the gatehouse of a big estate with a very long driveway.  Niuatoputapu is 160 miles south of Samoa, but Tonga’s next island group – the Vava’u Group, is another 160 miles south of here.  The whole chain of islands making up the kingdom is 325 miles long, ending at Nuku’alofa (21*08’S; 175*11’W), and yet they are one homogenous cultural group with a long history and a proud (if, at the moment, shaky) monarchy.

Our sail from Samoa to Niuatoputapu was memorable for being on the wind.  We’ve hardly sailed anywhere close-hauled since leaving the northeast Caribbean, and, yes, it was a shock to be heeled over with waves splashing across the boat!  (Have we said recently how much we like our hard-top cum enclosure?)  But here’s the amazing thing: after several rough legs this year downwind in confused seas where the boat’s interior seemed to creak and groan like she was coming apart at the seams, heeled over, sailing to windward, all below was quiet!  Gives new resonance to the old adage, upwind is harder on the crew than the boat while downwind is harder on the boat than the crew.

We’d motored out of Apia Harbor  at 4am, following our track (and our friends on Passage) out the channel and motorsailed along the north shore of Upolu reaching the straits between Upolu and Savai’i (which we’d crossed by ferry the week before) just after daybreak.  We enjoyed about an hour or so of classic sailing, reaching along at 7 knots in virtually no sea, catching and passing our friends (damn near close enough to pass the Grey Poupon) as we entered the straight.  And then we snagged a 30lb tuna.  No way could Don get that sucker in at that speed, so we had to take way off and furl the genoa, and even then it was a struggle.

As happy has we were to have the fish (tuna is a favorite), after that we couldn’t get the boat moving again.  While Passage, a Kelly Peterson 44. disappeared into the mist, we just got slower and slower. Nothing we tried seemed to work.  The instruments claimed we had a favorable current, the wind was 60 degrees off the bow, but the boat just felt sluggish, as if she were sailing through mud.  It was very reminiscent of the Anegada Passage in the Caribbean, and we were forced to motorsail until late afternoon.  Then, suddenly, as if she’d shaken off Neptune’s grip, T2 picked up her skirts and started sailing briskly again right through the night –  despite reefing down in several steps –  with the result that we entered the pass at Niuatoputapu the next afternoon right on Passage’s heels!

Within an hour or two of our arrival four officials were ferried out to the boat by one of the other cruisers, three ladies representing customs, immigration and health, and one gentleman representing quarantine. Everyone spoke English, albeit somewhat timidly, without which the crowd would have been overwhelming. The gentleman wore a woven pandanus mat wrapped around his middle over western clothes, our first introduction to the ta’ovala.  Looking somewhat uncomfortable to our eyes, the ta’ovala is Tongan formal wear, worn for occasions when a westerner might wear a suit and tie.

We had heard some stories about the check-in procedure here and were prepared with Zuko (a Kool-aid-type drink) and a large bowl of popcorn as refreshments. Every other treat, especially the ones of which we’d foolishly only bought one bag (eg. Tostitos) was tucked as far out of sight as possible, because we’d been warned that no one was shy about asking for things…and occasionally just taking them! We’d heard the island was short on fuel (since the last supply ship had failed to bring any!) and had brought extra gas from Samoa, which Besse, the customs lady, snapped right up.  The quarantine gentleman, however, was definitely more interested in western snacks and wasn’t shy about asking for more than the popcorn.  His eyes lit us when he found the “Trail Mix” bars we’d seeded for him in the snack hammock!  Aboard Passage, they imprudently put out Oreo cookies, and their whole 3lb bag was done in...and that was AFTER our popcorn!

In the course of checking in we were reminded that somewhere along the way we had crossed the International Date Line.  August 31 suddenly became September 1, thanks to the dateline jogging eastward about eight degrees to keep Tonga on the same day as Fiji and New Zealand, its major trade partners. The actual time on your watch--going from Z-11 to Z+13 --  doesn’t change, just the date.  In anticipation, crossing the dateline seemed like it would be as big a deal as crossing the equator, but, when it finally came to it, it felt more like a clerical error.


Niuatoputapu (a daunting name to pronounce which means “very sacred coconut’) is one of those very simple places that seem to have ducked the winds of change.   A kidney- shaped island with a protective lagoon on its north side and a small mountain in the middle like the peak of a sombrero, Niuatoputapu offers a protected and scenic anchorage with great holding in reasonable depths plus a commanding view of Tafahi, a perfectly conical volcano, across about 4 miles of water to the north.  There were about seven boats when we arrived, and we saw as many as twelve there, with room (sigh) for quite a few more.  In the past, many boats have bypassed this island, but recent guidebooks have described it as a possible highlight of a south Pacific cruise because of its traditional simplicity. Catch 22: you can’t dub a place a “highlight” and expect it to remain off the beaten path for long.


The Anchorage

Niuatoputapu has a road along its north side connecting its three villages: Falehau where the wharf and anchorage are at the northeast end, Hihifo, the “capital” at the west end, and even smaller Vaipoa between them.  People live in simple concrete homes or in even simpler huts of sticks, tin and thatch, which are so low you have to crawl into them.  Since everyone sits and sleeps on woven pandanus mats on the floor, I guess there is not much need for headroom!  There are pigs and piglets everywhere, dogs, chickens, and a fair number of horses, which are used to carry burdens of coconut and produce from the family “plantations” to the houses. 

“Plantations” – essentially garden plots where the family grows their staple crops like taro, banana, papaya and the like – are either up the mountainside or on the windward side of the island, or, like one couple Niko and Sia,  across the way on the sides of the volcano Tafahi. Breadfruit trees are everywhere, and mango trees, laden with tiny fruits that won’t ripen ‘til long after we’re gone, are thick on the windward side.  Clearly, while variety may be an issue, no one will ever go hungry here!   In addition to the horses, there are “almost” 20 cars and a bunch of bicycles. There are three primary schools, one high school, one hospital/clinic, one government office building, one store, one small “resort”, one airstrip and, of course, several churches.  Kava is drunk pretty much every afternoon.  There is not much else to do.

Typical Houses

Kava Drying

Burial Mounds

It’s a hot 3K walk from the wharf to Hihifo (as Don says, “scenic only once.”) where the office that will take your fees is…essentially the length of the island.  The children in the villages have palangi radar (palangi is the local word for “gringo”), streaking across yards and fields to yell “Hi” and “Bye” as you pass by, or yelling from a distance if they are busy.  If you slow down, the next phrase you will hear is “What’s your name?” and, if you actually stop, it’ll be promptly followed by  “Where’s my lolly?”, asked with an outstretched hand.  This sounds demanding written down, but in reality it is more like some hopeful greeting.  No one seems terribly disappointed if you haven’t got sweets on you.  Of course, the day we walked to Hihifo turned out to be Saturday, a fact we didn’t notice until we got there and found the office was closed.  So was the store.  Having exhausted the options of town, we turned around and walked back. 

The next time we ventured ashore we borrowed Bud and Nita’s folding bikes.  This made for a faster (and cooler) trip and we successfully found the office open and paid our entry fees (to the same lady who was one the boat!).  However, the store was still closed.  The bikes however allowed us to pedal back via the bumpy loop through the plantations on the windward-side.  We took each spur to the east as they came up, which led to the airstrip and the beach.  Occasionally we saw men idling in the shade, but the amazing thing to us is that there are no isolated houses out here.  Everyone commutes from town.

We know that for many cruisers the purpose and joy of cruising is to make as much contact with the local people as they can, a balance to be struck that is different for every person. Some people really have a knack, but in a quiet community like Niuatoputapu, I can’t escape feeling like my palangi presence as I walk through – essentially gawking; inevitably evaluating -- is an intrusion.  Sure, the kids are thrilled to see us.  They have the curiosity and ingenuousness of kids everywhere, and since English is a big deal in the schools, required of all students, they are eager to exercise it.

But the adults are more reserved, smiling, occasionally waving, but often just ignoring us.  Their school English, perhaps little used, is not so easy to understand, and quite frankly, our appearance and disappearance doesn’t have much to contribute to their lives unless they need something they want to trade for. Trading is an activity at which I always feel clumsy, probably because I either don’t have or can’t give up what they ask for, or I don’t need or want what they have to trade for it.

Plus, in situations like this I become even more self-conscious than usual about abiding by local customs.  The pitfalls are out there, ready to trap you. One shouldn’t point, for example, or pat a child on the head, or, when sitting on those mats, one should never point the soles of one’s feet at anyone.  If someone offers you a gift, like the nice lady who extended a handful of mandarin oranges to us just as we were climbing on to the bicycles, you should take it whether you want it or not.  Likewise, if someone asks for something, as per Mr. Quarantine-man, you should give it!

Sometimes the people do reach out, and invariably the most successful connections are made with people who have lived off-island and been exposed to the entrepreneurial spirit.  Niko and Sia, for example, are a couple who moved to Niuatoputapu from the capital Nuku’alofa.  Their English is good, and they have made a name for themselves here reaching out to the cruisers who visit.  They frequently come out to the boats with fruit to trade, and most Sundays Sia puts on an umu picnic on the uninhabited motu behind the anchorage, to which cruisers are urged to bring desserts, the sweeter and more chocolate-y the better.  (Apparently sweets are something Tongan’s crave but can’t fix for themselves!) 

Also, for 100 pa’anga (about $50US), Niko will take people in his boat across to Tafahi (where their plantation is) and will guide the hardy to the top of the volcano for the view.  I think cruisers are often more comfortable with this kind of relationship -- where the exchange is clear and familiar.  Yet there are those in town who think it is inappropriate that Niko and Sia charge cruisers for anything.  Evidently, Niuatoputapu is not so small that it is free of human politics.

Walking back from Hihifo that first Saturday, a cyclist came alongside our group, stopped and introduced himself, and walked the rest of the way with us.  John, at best guess somewhere in his mid-forties, has lived many years in the US giving twenty years to the Air Force as a cargo plane pilot.  Now in the reserves, he is back visiting his mother for six months, and his perspectives on island life and what they need to conserve versus what they need to change were very interesting.  His biggest criticism is the tendency of the islanders to only relate to visitors when they need something from them.  Unfortunately, this is probably could be equally said of how many cruisers relate to islanders!

Regardless, life on an island like Niuatoputapu is pretty slow.  It is definitely NOT a place Don and I could stop and linger long.

HOWEVER…the reef outside the lagoon gave us not only some good diving and hunting opportunities among its knotty coral and craggy ravines, but it gave us our first exposure to the whales of Tonga.  Tonga is a major breeding and calving ground for the southern hemisphere’s humpback whales that migrate here from Antarctica during the southern winter. We weren’t really expecting to find whales until reaching Vava’u, but outside the reef of Niuatoputapu the whale song below the thermocline was loud and clear!  There is nothing that thrills my soul like free-diving down as deep as I can reach, holding my breath and then just hanging there in the silence listening to the party line of whale talk.  I was able pick out four distinct phrases (which I won’t try to replicate here) at four different pitches, and the volume was such I was sure the singers would materialize from the deep at any moment. 

Photo by Tom Abend

They didn’t, of course, but knowing they couldn’t be far away, we sat in the dinghy and watched for spouts.  Shortly, we saw one only a mile or two away.   We sped over and then drifted, hoping against hope to catch a closer look.  Suddenly, a spout blasted a mere twenty feet from our friends’ dinghy.  On impulse, I back-rolled into the water and found myself just ten feet from a mother and calf!  It took me two full heartbeats to realize what I was seeing. Holy shit, Batman! I never imagined I’d ever see a whale that close! I raised my head to alert Don, and when I stuck my face back in the water, two tails were already receding into the blue. It was over way too quickly, and now we want more! 

Now, we can’t wait to get to Vava’u.



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