Journal -18 Kingdom of Tonga
OCTOBER    2004


Lat: 18deg 39’S  Long: 174 deg W

Yet another geographic profile faced us as we approached the entrance to the Nieafu
Harbour in Tonga.  No fringing reefs, no towering volcanoes: this time, a limestone platform in
a 50 mile downhill tilt from North to South, and covered with thick jungle.  It looked lovely on
first approach and reminded GT very much of Langkawi in Malaysia.  When it “grows up” it
could be another Phuket: the limestone islets and karsts are similar, only not as tall in Tonga.  

We wove through the islets and headlands to access the inner harbour and were surprised at
the amount of VHF radio traffic – boat names we hadn’t heard since Mexico, and earlier
boats encountered in the Marquesas.  When we rounded the corner the vista opened up to
reveal a large fleet in the anchorage – no wonder there was so much radio traffic!  So, we had
arrived at the gathering place for the New Zealand flotilla and the pass thru port for those
westing to Australia.

We pulled alongside the imposing Customs wharf: a high concrete affair with black rubber
bolsters designed for a ship much bigger than the DREAMCATCHER, however, it proved to
be no problem in the light breeze. A leisurely parade of officials proceeded to check us in: our
bureauocratic procession consisted of the Health officer (who took our remaining  onions but
left the tomatoes and eggs!), the Immigration officer, the Customs officer and the Quarantine
officer: gotta keep those jobs flowing!!  We subsequently paid our fees and motored off to
find a mooring buoy.  What a pleasant change not to have to grapple with the anchor!  Though
tired, we couldn’t resist the call of “civilization” so the dink was inflated, launched and before
we knew it, we were on waterfront terra firma in the form of “The Mermaid” pub, cold one in
hand, laughing with old friends.  It really was “old home week” and we revelled in the company
of these fellow cruisers from ports past, swapping stories, and talking up a-storm.  When you’
re confined to the boat for a multi-day passage, conversation with people other than your
partner is a complete novelty and even the most taciturn sailor turns garroulous!  Needless to
say, we had no problems in this regard!

Thus began several days of re-entry into cruiser social life in the township of Neiafu – drinks &
eats at The Mermaid, Ana’s Café and a number of other establishments was fun and so
convenient, only 50 meters from the boat.
Additionally we visited other yachts, and they us, standing in the dinghy, hanging onto the toe
rail, exchanging pleasantries and information.
We visited supermarkets, hardware stores, the little bakery and of course, the Internet café –
or more accurately, the Internet Laundry.
All thoroughly enjoyable.  But we were urged to “get out to the islands” and subsequently did
so with three social invitations to hand!
We chose to motor rather than sail, as the latter held no novelty and the distances were small.  
Conversely, the charter fleet – Moorings and Sunsail  – were all in full sail.  It takes a lot to get
a heavy cruising boat sail-ready, and with all of us having experienced week-long passages
prior to arrival, were happy to keep the white things under cover, the boat on an even keel and
give the “iron genny” a work-out, after all, for us Tonga is about anchorages, not necessarily
sailing, and we wanted to have maximum time on the hook.

Said simply, the Vavu’u group in Tonga, is lovely.  Very little is built upon, leaving rounded
islets and headlands, thickened with all manner of vegetation and draped in tropical vines
with the omnipotent palm trees waving their shaggy heads above the treeline.  It is deservedly
regarded as one of the loveliest cruising grounds in the world and a place where a sailor
could happily while away many months.  The Moorings charter company keep about 2 dozen
boats here and they have done an outstanding job of producing a guide and chart to the
complex geography, having identified dozens of picturesque anchorages.  The Moorings
chart is so complete all the cruisers use it rather than the official navigational charts, and
anchorages are referred to by number rather than by name – given that many of the names
are tongue twisters, eg…. Kakautaumai and Malafakalava !  it’s sooooo much easier to say
“we’re in No. 7”!

That’s where we started off – No. 7, along with a dozen or so other cruising yachts, for a
beach BBQ.  About 30 of us took to shore at sunset in dinghies, armed with marinated
goodies, salads, wine, lanterns & blankets for a feast, a laugh and a sing-song.    Following a
recuperative morning we dinghied to “No. 8” for a cuppa tea with Brit friends on s/v “Finale” to
find that they had moved to s/v “Traveller” for their cuppa – we joined them all aboard Traveller
– a fancy 47’ft catamaran and laughed away the morning there.

Our social calendar demanded our presence at anchorage # 11 the following night, so we
moved the boat early hoping to get a good spot.  We had a couple of frustrating goes at
anchoring – most of the time it all works well, but sometimes the boat and the anchor just don’
t want to go where you want them to, and with the inter-island currents, it’s easy to mis-fire on
position.   This fortuitously led us to one of four mooring buoys owned by the Ark Gallery.  We
rested in turquoise water, 20 ft deep and 20 ft from the shore, overhung by Casurina and
Palm trees – it was just idyllic and we were happy in this little cluster of boats surrounding the
floating art gallery.  The  Gallery is the size of a small shed and is completely covered in
marine murals.  Sherri paints in the mornings and helps her husband with their two boats in
the afternoons.  The two of them moved to Tonga from the USA 20 years ago and live aboard
the Ark along with two elderly felines, one of which, “Castaway” is a very salty cat.  He rides
the prow of their dinghy like a furry bowsprit!  We were fortunate to have s/v Alii Kai Too next
to us – we hadn’t seen them since the Marquesas, and caught up over a beer as soon as we
were settled.

Our social commitment that evening was a Tongan feast shared with dozens of other
cruisers.  Held on the beach under a palm-weave roof, we sat cross-legged on the pandanas
mats and ate with our hands from the myriad of tasty and interesting food presented in palm
leaf trays .  It was a lovely environment, great cameraderie and a chance to experience some
Tongan culture first-hand.  The dancers were children, the eldest of whom would have been no
more than 14 and they were delightful in their costumes.  Once the Kava circle* had finished
and the festivities were over, we sat around with groups of other sailors, talking of coming
passages and the delights of being in Tonga.  For most, the Vava’u islands are 10 out of 10
for “easy”….it’s the down time many cruisers have waited for after the anxieties of coral reef
encounters and arduous passages.  

We swam the following day in an turquoise cove, shared only with a large black starfish, after
some scenic exploration in the dinghy.  There are so many inlets and coves, some steep-to
and deep, others shallow with glistening white beaches, that it is difficult to feel crowded, even
with most of the Pacific cruising fleet present.  Later that evening we hosted the folks from s/v
Moose and s/v Tapasya to champagne cocktails aboard DreamCatcher to celebrate Moose’
s 10th wedding anniversary.  We followed up that fun time with dinner at a Spanish restaurant
perched atop a cliff in a quiet bay…. It’s a challenge for the girls trying to dress for dinner:
skirts are removed, dresses are hitched up around thighs and pants rolled up high for the
knee-deep dinghy landings: it’s just as well the guys are busy with the outboard engines, there’
d be blackmail photography for sure!  The restaurant was a hoot, with the owner and staff
forming a band after the meal was served and the customers providing percussion from the
variety of “instruments” that were handed out.  It was pitch black when we left, we must have
been a sight, wandering around the beach in a semi-disrobed state, giggling, trying to launch
the boats.

The next two days saw a change in weather which put an end to our plans to cruise another
anchorage.  A stationary front had combined with a South Pacific Convergence Zone and
between the two of them concocted grey skies and blustery rain.  In a way, it was welcome:
we were in a lovely safe spot with plenty of on-board things to do so we used the time for
computer work website update, writing journals, reading, baking (yes, really!) and other
domestic things.  Interestingly, we have hardly used our DVD/flat-screen TV.  Many other
cruisers plough through movies but we seem to be busy just enjoying the stars or the water,
napping or just generally being at peace with the world, to think about movies.  We’ll catch up
with those on a winter’s night some time in the future.  Meanwhile, we’ll take the South Pacific

A few days later, we moved the boat back to the main harbour in Nieafu and spent several
days at anchor waiting for the wind to die down – a consistent 18-22 knots in this sheltered
cove certainly indicated much stronger winds and rough seas outside.  The weather system
lasted a week and delayed our departure but we were not so chagrined as we were able to re-
visit the Mermaid and the market.  

The Nieafu market is a large rambling shed with open sides housing art & craft and
vegetables.  The latter were sold in “heaps” – like-sized piles of fruit or veg and the craft stalls
were colourful, selling mostly pearl-shell jewellery, wood carvings and the pandanas
basketware that Tonga is famous for.  We bought a t-shirt from the local “Tropical Tees”
company, 50% of it’s profit going to the Tongan agriculture department on a credibile
program to help replace all the fruit trees that Tonga lost in the 1998 cyclone.  One could
choose the type of tree you wished to sponsor.  You’re provided with an ID number and your
name is put against that tree – so we are the proud parents of a mango sapling in Tonga!

Vava’u proved to be great fun, mingling with fellow sailors so unfortunately we did not have the
amount of interchange with the locals we like to have.  Additionally, the locals were so used to
the cruisers that we presented no novelty to them and hence the two groups did not seek
each other out.  Exchanges were usually transaction based at the pub or market and all of
them were relaxed and cordial.  It was interesting for us to note the racial change from
Polynesian to Melanesian: after months of mingling with folk with long, thick, black tresses,
here were equally handsome people, but with short frizzy hair!  Given that anthropologists
believe all the South Pacific islands were settled between four and six thousand years ago by
peoples on canoes from north Asia, we wondered at the catalyst that turned the prevailing
hairdo turned from straight to curly!

While we spent time waiting out the bad weather, we hooked up with Aussie boat “King
Harold”, also Brisbane-bound.  A great couple in their 60’s completing a 7 year
circumnavigation, we agreed to “buddy boat” to Fiji, the first time we had entered into such an
arrangement.  It worked out great for both of us, but not before our harrowing time at the fuel
dock.  The volume of diesel we required was such that it was necessary for BP to send a
tanker to the wharf.   It took 4 hours between docking DreamCatcher and leaving with fuel.  In
the meantime, we had to complete check-out paperwork and wait for the tanker.  
Unfortunately in the duration the wind had kicked up to 25 knots, pushing us onto the wharf
with a vengeance resulting in a nearly-burst fender.  Our issue was that the tide was dropping
and it was becoming evident that the deck level of the boat was about to drop underneath the
wharf’s large black rubber bolsters. With our own fenders being so small against the scale of
the wharf it meant that DreamCatcher’s sides would be pushed up against the concrete/steel
of the wharf quite violently with potential damage.  We had the crew of s/v Sapphire and the
fuel truck driver aboard pushing with all their might to keep us from crashing into it and when it
became evident we were likely to incur damage, we had to say “we’re outta here” without the
full order of fuel.  We simply could not stay at the dock any longer without risk to the rigging
and stanchions.
Fortunately, too, the large tender vessel for Sapphire was as hand to pull our bow off the
dock, as we would never have made the turn in the strong wind at the angle to avoid hitting the
boat berthed in front of us.   Oh for a bow-thruster!  As it happened it all worked out fine
(except for the large black smudges on the hull) and we thus spent a quiet night at a peaceful
spot near the exit before launching into the wild blue yonder for the 500 miler to Fiji.

*Kava is ceremonial drink made from the root of the kava plant.  It is drunk sitting cross-
legged in a circle while the chief is honoured.  The beverage apparently has a mild narcotic
effect rendering the consumer “very happy” but it has not taken on as cocktail-of-choice by the
western world, as the stuff looks and tastes like 3-day-old dish water. It is also accepted
custom for partakers to spit into the communal bowl.
Click on link to VIEW  PHOTOS FOR JOURNAL 18