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The Two Captains


2C Update #133 - Vava'u, Tonga  Part 2  (September 15 - November 29, 2005)


We hadn’t been in Tonga’s Vava’u island group five days before we knew we weren’t going to have enough time here. Our projected schedule allowed us one month  -- maybe six weeks -- to explore all the treasures of this archipelago and the Ha’apai Group to the south-- before we ought to be hightailing ourselves off to Fiji for our reservation at Vuda Point Marina.  Drats!!

So far we’d only been in two anchorages: Neiafu’s harbor and the exquisite curve of reef we’d anchored behind for the previous weekend’s full moon party.  With the dust settled from the party and the fifty-some cruising boats which had brought all the partygoers dispersed, we could have sat happily right where we were for weeks!  At least we could have, assuming the weather would stay as perfect as it had been, since the spot was bit exposed at high tide.  Being realistic, unending perfect weather was not very likely, so we finally snapped to and realized that if we wanted to see some more of Vava’u before our time ran out, we’d better get to it.

There is a chart of Vava’u produced originally by the Moorings for their customers that identifies all the anchorages in Vava’u by a number system.  Although it takes away a bit from the charm of being in exotic sounding places, it does simplify things for visitors struggling with hard-to-pronounce place names, especially since there are forty-two of them marked. As you might guess, Don likes the number system and I like the place names, so nothing has gotten simplified on our boat.

There is also a terrific cruising guide for the area, (actually for all of Tonga) called Sailingbird’s Guide to the Kingdom of Tonga by Charles Paul and Katherine Pham-Paul.  Of nearly coffee-table book quality, full of color photographs and chartlets and interesting sidebars, this is a book we had not bought at Bluewater Books, since we already had the Comprehensive Cruising Guide for the Kingdom of Tonga by Ken Hellewell, which came out two years earlier and unfortunately isn’t near so nice.  Fortunately, Kathi and Dave of sv Sunflower, whom we’d met in Niuatoputapu, felt strongly enough about it to insist we borrow their copy, and I’m so glad because I wonder if we would have enjoyed these islands as much without it. 

As I described in the last Update, the main island of Vava’u – the one that gives the island group its name – lifts its north face high out of the sea in sheer cliffs and then slopes away southward.  South of the big island of Vava’u is a middle belt of middle-sized islands, that hang southward in strands (kind of like the tentacles of a jelly fish!) and amongst these islands are the famous fjiord-like waterways and the most protected anchorages. To the south the north-south strands are bounded by an arching band of submerged reef running west to east topped here and there by small islands with beaches, while south of that band is a thin scattering of tiny round sand islets topped by green and fringed by reef.  The geological explanation is that all of Vava’u is a single tilting limestone block, but there is a fable that I like better.  It says that Vava’u was created when the god Tangaloa went fishing and hooked his line on the bottom pulling up the islands from the sea.

Since conditions continued to be very settled, we set out to check out one the spray of unprotected islands south of the reef band.  The one we chose was Luahiapo (#35), more or less in the middle of the spray, but it could have been any of a dozen others (had we not confirmed it with our chartplotter), so alike do they look:  perfect little circles of sand with centers of green and fringing reefs encircling them.  After finding a spot of sand to anchor in on Luahiapo’s NW edge, we jumped in to snorkel the crystal clear waters, Don armed with his speargun. I think I misread the text when I got the impression that fishing might be good here.  Right under the boat was a towering coral bommie coming up twenty feet from the bottom with some sizeable fish keeping just out of Don’s diving range, but to our surprise all the other the coral in sight was low-lying, like a field of cabbages and cauliflower.  In close to the islet we found one ravine full of fish at a good depth, and Don took a couple of shots with his spear gun only to discover his bands had grown weak from age and disuse.  No joy for the hunter today.  Away from the ravine over the low coral slope the fish life seemed sparse.  After a long but fruitless swim we took the dinghy all round the island hoping for better hunting.  What amazed me each time I popped in the water to look was the island’s underwater shape.  The island and its reef appeared to sit plopped atop a pincushion of sand!  What holds the sand together in that shape? Why doesn’t it all just slide downhill? Although we returned to the boat for lunch feeling a bit thwarted in our goal of finding spectacular diving, the trip out was not disappointing because for the first time in a long, long time we felt totally alone, so remote we could relax after our swim au natural, if you catch my drift -- no mean accomplishment in this part of the world.

In contrast our first choice of a night anchorage at the island called Taunga (Tah-oong-ah) (#23) was clogged with a group of this year’s puddlejumpers who seem to go everywhere in a pack!  Instead of stopping, we bore away north to anchor alone off Nuku, a spur of an island off the southwest tip of Kapa.  Nuku features a long snow-white sand spit, and we dropped our hook in shallow water behind the spit letting the boat blow back over a drop-off of much deeper water.  

We woke the next morning to the end of the settled weather.  The sky was gray, the wind blowing, and here we were hanging precariously off the edge of a drop-off! However the spit kept the water flat while the wind made the wind generator sing.  Don swam the anchor several times, but despite its precarious position, all stayed well-set and unchanged, so we continued to sit contentedly there a second day, snorkeling in the island’s lee and pursuing onboard projects.

Unfortunately, the unfriendly weather did not relent, so we moved on, motoring into the wind along the south end of Kapa and its tricky offshore reefs, before setting the genoa for a fast tack up to anchorage #11.  This anchorage is one of the best protected in the group wrapped around as it is by Pangaimotu and Tapana Islands.  It is one of the most popular anchorages with Vava’u cruisers because there are not one, but two Tongan feasts presented weekly on adjoining beaches, there is the very popular La Paella restaurant run by some former cruisers from Spain, and, at the center, the charming little ARK Gallery.  And if that isn’t attraction enough, there is a road to town from the beach, which makes it very convenient to sneak back into town by taxi for provisions.

The Ark Gallery is a small colorful houseboat moored in the lee of a narrow bit of island in the center of the bay.  It is so protected in this spot that the Ark and any boat that picks up one of its rental moorings are liable to sit back winded even as the nasty weather blows right over the top.  We dinghied in to check out the gallery’s offerings: mostly the work of its owner, Sheri Schneider, but also selected crafts of local Tongan artists.  A self-taught artist, Sheri does small paintings of local scenes that she reproduces and mounts in frames of locally printed tapa cloth. She also does hand-painted T-shirts of underwater scenes, and you can arrange with her to do a custom portrait of your boat.  Sheri’s husband Larry runs the daysail trimaran Orion in between doing boat deliveries to New Zealand and the States.  In fact, it didn’t take us long to find out that Larry’s latest delivery to the States was none other than the Ericsson 39 Danseuse de la Mer belonging to Mike and Mary-- our cruising buddies of last year.

That evening we went ashore to the Tongan Feast on Hinakauea Beach.  Like the Samoan feast we went to at Teesa’s in American Samoa, the food is prepared in an umu, but unlike that one, this weekly feast is put on not by a restaurant, but by a community as a way to raise money.  The low tide beach was not easy to get into, but schoolboys waded out to guide us in via a channel someone had picked clear of rocks.  Ashore we found a long hut with a table for about thirty people inside set with banana leaves and flowers, while outside on the lawn was arranged an avenue of crafts-people selling their wares, reminiscent of the revolving band of vendors who’d followed the tourists around Easter Island.  We had not come prepared to shop, but it was a good opportunity to get a first look at the kinds of crafts available in Tonga -- mostly baskets of every shape and size, carvings large and small of wood or bone (usually cow bone), pandanus mats and great sheets of tapa cloth.  

Next on the agenda was a show of native dances performed by local children to music and song provided by their parents and grandparents.  While some of the youngsters enjoyed being the center of attention, others looked like being “on stage” in their skimpy attire was excruciatingly terrifying.  The tradition in these parts is to stick paper money to the oiled skin of the dancers, and since the objective of the show was to raise money for their school materials, lots of money got tucked into tiny bodices!  (Hint: Go prepared, bring lots of $1 or 2 paanga bills!)  Tongan dance is more like Samoan dance than Tahitian or Hawaiian, with the bulk of the action in the motion of the hands and arms, except for the dances of the “men” which are quick, aggressive and accompanied by war-like grunts and cries.  The boys, who danced with sticks reminiscent of English sword dancing, looked like they were having a lot more fun than the little girls.  At the end they all picked partners from the watchers to dance with them.  As usual, Don was one of the first picked.

The meal was very good.  With all the palangi (foreigners) arranged on benches the length of the table, the food was placed artfully at each place directly on the banana leaves or in clam shell “dishes”, and with no silverware (or napkins), it is all eaten with the fingers. Knowing Don’s feeling about finger licking, I’d come armed with paper towels.  Although many dishes were similar to ones we’d had at Teesa’s Samoan feast -- specifically the “lus” of coconut cream, onion and meats cooked in wrappers of taro leaf (see Galley #30 & 31), there was much less emphasis on meat and more on seafood.  We had ota ika, the Tongan version of poisson cru, roasted octopus and fish, the inevitable pork, and of course the whole array of local starches -- taro root, breadfruit, and plantain. Although the umu itself was somewhere out of sight, food kept coming if you kept eating!

Afterwards we were invited to have our first taste of kava.  Kava is made from the root of a pepper plant.  Traditionally the root was chewed to soften it, then steeped in water, and wrung out into a special kava bowl to make the mildly intoxicating beverage that is (or at least was) the most important ceremonial element of any gathering of men.  These days you can buy kava powdered.  It was served to us from the bowl into coconut cups, while musicians seated on the floor placed some background music on a ukulele and banjo, and while it wasn’t the tastiest thing we’ve ever quaffed, and I think it takes quite a bit more than we were interested in drinking to get intoxicated, it definitely had a numbing action on the lips and tongue!

The next morning during coffee a craft vendor took a second shot at us coming by boat into the anchorage.  Pita and Petiola rowed up with their two granddaughters and after about fifteen minutes of chit-chat we found ourselves not only in possession of a club about the size and shape of a baseball bat carved with the somewhat alarming visages of the Gods of Peace and Love (!!!) but with a date to join Petiola for church on Sunday!  The two captains are not normally churchgoers, preferring to express our appreciation of life directly with Mother Nature, but Christianity is such an important part of life here that many cruisers make a point to attend a service at least once.  One of the really amazing things about Tongans is that there is no judgement evident about our different ways and beliefs.  They expect our ways to be different and absolutely no one is trying to convert you to anything.  All they ask is that we palangi respect their traditions, one of the most important of which is to honor the Sabbath.  Nothing resembling work is to be done.

Sunday dawned with a break in the clouds and sure enough Petiola and her granddaughters Vai and Fiona arrived (just late enough that Don thought we were going to get out of it) in a taxi to collect us from the beach where we awaited them in our Sunday best and carted us off to her village Catholic Church. As Don puts it, this surely was the most undercapitalized Catholic church either of us have ever seen, but the pews were full, the priest impressive in his robe, and the song produced by the congregation enough to make you reconsider your religious commitments.  The choir, mostly men, all wearing the ta-ovala mats around their waists, filled the center pews of the left side of the church, and the only way you knew it was a choir was the choir master who’d step up on a pew to direct.  However, everyone in the church (except us) knew the songs and no one was shy about belting out their part.  The volume and the harmony were impressive…. and were the main reason we wanted to attend.

The service was, of course, entirely in Tongan. Fortunately, there were enough similarities in the sequence of things for us to keep track, and Petiola would lean into me and lay a gentle hand on my arm as advance warning of times to stand and sit.  Plus, for  our benefit (we were the only palangi there), the priest ad-libbed a two-sentence summary of his sermon in English before launching into the twenty-minute Tongan version! After the service we spoke to the priest (whom we barely recognized in his civvies and SUV) and learned that all the Catholic priests in the South Pacific are trained in English in Fiji, and then it’s up to each of them to translate the creed into the languages of their own islands.  Petiola took us home (we passed Pita, who appeared to have forgone church for a kava party) to her tiny two-room house which was decorated with vase after vase of bright plastic flowers, 2 stereos, 2 TVS, floor mats, a trunk, and a gas burner on which she did the family cooking.  She did not actually feed us a Sunday meal, but instead sent us home with a gift of cooked fish, and we reciprocated not only by donating for the upcoming church fundraiser but by putting together a package of hand-me-down videotapes, sweets, Tackless II pencils, as well as photo printouts of the granddaughters.

Sunday’s slight break in the weather failed to hold, and seriously crappy weather with rain and high winds set in for the next week.  About this time I got an email back from Cruising World Magazine with a green light for several articles I’d pitched, so the weather-enforced hiatus from sun and fun was timely for me.  It made better sense for us to spend the week in town, so we braved the high seas to sail back to a mooring in Neiafu.



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