Tonga – last stop before New Zealand

Tonga consists of 170 islands, of which 36 are inhabited. The total land area is small but spread over a vast expanse of sea. The country is divided into 4 distinct regions – Niua group, Vava’a group, Ha’apai group and Tongatapu. The population is just over 100,000 and 60% live on the main island, Tongatapu.

We were sad to leave Samoa but the good weather opportunities wait for nobody so we set sail for the very northern islands of Tonga, a short 24 hour sail south. We spent about a week in Niuatoputapu in the Niua group, before moving on to the Vava’a group of islands another 24hr sail south. Our sail to Vava’a was really unpleasant but we did catch a 1.4 metre mahi mahi! This was quite a beast but I am afraid filleting it quickly brought on the dreaded seasickness but Julian finished the job and we managed to get it safely into the fridge. We have not had a decent fish for sometime so we were rather pleased with our efforts. We will stay in Vava’a for another few days and then move further south to the Ha’apai group of islands and then to Tongatapu, the main island where we will wait for a weather window in order to head to New Zealand.

For the record – One very fine fish

It would be fair to say we are not completely enthused by Tonga but perhaps this will come. By way of a little social history: Tonga is the oldest and last remaining Polynesian monarchy and the only Pacific nation never bought under foreign rule. I mention this because so far it appears that the Tongans have a very, very relaxed attitude to commerce and work. Tonga is friendly enough but is seriously unpolished and nothing happens fast or even at all. The only tourist or service businesses seem to be run by foreigners. Our guide book tells us that the economy is in the doldrums, reliant on limited tourism, agriculture and fishing and yes we can see that. Here Church, feasts, sleeping and relaxing seems the order of the day. It is actually unlawful to work or trade on a Sunday and the whole place becomes very quiet. A significant number of the population emigrate and the largest source of income is from cash remittances from relatives living abroad.

We spent about one week in Niutoputapu in the Niua group. This is very remote, definitely rustic and the 700 or so people living there simply subsist together. Only 28 sailing boats have arrived in Niutoputapu this year making this quite a remote destination for cruisers. The pass into the lagoon is narrow and we were very pleased to see some excellent leading transit marks on the land – a rarity in these parts. Clearing in was a unique experience. The quarantine/customs man requested beer from each of the four boats that had arrived. It was 10am and he was thoroughly merry by the time he had finished.

Transit marks and posts at The pass

Niutoputapu was hit by a tsunami in 2009 and most of the housing is now small prefabs in little gardens. There is no mains electricity and the place is dark come night time, which at this latitude starts about 6:30 pm. There is a solar project on the way and we were told this would bring electricity to all the homes by Christmas. This looked very unlikely given the size of the solar array and current state of readiness.

Pigs, horses, hens and cattle roam freely and rather bizarrely there are quite a few cars and trucks but only about 10km of road. We were told that many people earn money working on farms in New Zealand and we can only assume vehicles are a status symbol. The ladies make a reedy weaving material used for making waist mats or ta’ovala. The Ta’ovala are traditional garments unique to Tonga and are the equivalent of a coat and tie and worn by both males and females. These can be plain or fancy depending on the occasion.

Sorting and wrapping up the weaving material
Some lovely ladies celebrating wearing their waist mats.
The weaving material drying

Our merry quarantine/customs man organised a feast for us, given there were a few boats in the lagoon. The deal was he would provide the pig and some traditional vegetables and we would provide some side dishes and very importantly the beer! The pig turned out to be a very small piglet, but it was roasted in the traditional way which was fun. One chap shimmied up a coconut tree, with his machete in his mouth, to get some leaves to form a table cloth and this was impressive. In reality we felt that the feast was primarily a way to extract as much beer and wine from the cruisers as possible, for the official and some of his mates. Nevertheless it was a fun experience. We were hassled by some young lads on shore for beer, and the kids were certainly up for begging for lollies and cash. This is probably a reflection of the reality of living on a remote island with virtually no entertainment, and we should not criticise, but it is the first time we have seen this, and it left us feeling a little sad.

One well roasted piglet. The crackling was excellent.
A new trick. Not to be repeated at home.
No fish for the BBQ, but happy to come for the beer!
The feast. I think even the cook is wondering how far this piglet will go!

The next island group Vava’a is home to the cruising community in Tonga and we were surprised to see quite so many boats in the main anchorage Neiafu. Both Sunsail and Moorings have a small base here and there are many small, delightful anchorages. In Neiafu there are a few small shops, restaurants and a small market for fruit and vegetables. The island has run out of eggs despite there being many hens so no pancakes and cake. We do sometimes dream of Tesco’s and easy provisioning! The pigs happily trot around town.

Neiafu Harbour
Dreaming of “Tesco Finest”

The scenery is very different and more like Cornwall with palm trees. As opposed to an atoll which we are very familiar with, this is an uplifted coral island, with volcanic ash on top. The agriculture is a little more sophisticated and we have seen some basic Massey Ferguson tractors and small plots of ploughed land. Harvesting seems to be done by hand. Once again pigs and cattle roam free and horses are tethered. The houses are small and the boundaries are often decorated primarily using old tyres as planters, but on the whole it is quite scruffy and, I am afraid there is litter everywhere.

A well decorated boundary but is the third structure from the left a swan?

A common mode of transport

Something ploughed and planted

Harvesting by hand. We think this is yams.

Just like Herefordshire but with palm trees.
Doing our bit to support to support the local economy.

We have spent nearly a week in the very quiet, but lovely bay of Malafakalava with one or two other boats nearby. We have cleaned the hull in preparation for New Zealand and hopefully we will also go a little faster, always pleasing; done general boat jobs and planned for New Zealand and next year. It has been lovely to go ashore, across the rough fields and have a walk most afternoons. We have been delighted to see the flying foxes. These are large bats and hang upside down in the trees. Photographing them is not easy and has occupied a few evenings, hopefully there will be an appropriate photograph next time. We are also very hopeful that we will see the humpback whales that migrate here for calving each year.