Vava'u Group is quite different from the other Pacific Islands. Instead of reef fringed islands and atolls, Faihava channel resembles a little the fjords, but a lot lower. As we approached Neiafu we were stunned by the scenery and eager to explore all the secluded bays and nice anchorages. There are at least 40 of them! We arrived just in time for the BBQ on Resolve. But it was an early night for us, a lot of sleep to catch up after a long passage.
After completing formalities with Customs and Immigrations, we went for a walk around Neiafu. It is very cheerful with lots colourful bars, the buildings are slightly ramshackle spread over few hills. We heard that the yacht club has Tongan dance and music in the evening. Together with Noel, Nat, Terry and Linn we headed for the night life. Pete and Fliss joined us as well. We haven't seen Nadezhda for a month, they cruised the Northern Cooks while we visited the Southern part. Unfortunately the yacht club did not have Tongan music that night, but it was ladies night. Free rum punch for the girls! Also 2 free beers as we were new arrivals.
It was a busy morning provisioning and filling the water tanks by jerry cans. Finally in the afternoon we were ready to explore some of the anchorages. We headed to Nuku, where Pete and Fliss were anchored. It is a tiny island with a golden sandy spit and fantastic turquoise water. It is a favoured spot for official functions; even Prince Edward had an official BBQ here! Rob and Lil from Mariah III were also there. It was Rob's birthday and nothing better to celebrate than a party on the beach. Lil took candles and the drinks were flowing. Because of the candle lights, lots of crabs came wandering up to see us, it was magic.
Snorkeling is fantastic, there are blue and pink starfishes, clownfish and very interesting coral heads. We also saw a whale from distance. Same as Nuie, Tonga is also a breeding area for the Humpbacks. In the evening, together with Nadezhda, Maria III and Clarabella we organized a BBQ on the beach. It all got spoiled by a huge downpour, that only lasted 5 minutes but everybody got completely wet.
The next anchorage from Nuku is Port Maurelle which is a sheltered bay. As the wind is very strong we sought refuge here. Swallows cave is a short dinghy ride from the anchorage. The cave is inhabited by hundreds of swiftlets and it is great for snorkelling.
Again we went back to Neiafu, this time to fill gas bottles. But in the evening, at Tongan Bob's it was "Les Girls" night! We could not miss it! Les Girls are a bunch of drag queens entertaining the crowd. They are known here as fakaletis, men who live their lives as women, quite a common thing here as well as in the rest of Polynesia. It was fun, but not as risqué as we imagined. Two of the girls were interacting with the audience, specially the male ones. But the other girls were more happy doing their Tongan dances and staying away from trouble.
The Rugby World Champion was a good reason to head back to Neiafu, after spending 2 days in the peaceful anchorage at Anu Beach. This time we took a taxi and left Nomad Life safely moored near the Ark Gallery. This is a floating art studio and home of Sheri, an American living in Tonga for over 20 years. It was an early start as the match started at eight in the morning. But we wanted to experience the atmosphere of Tonga Vs England. The Mango bar was crowded with a mixture of Tongans and yachties, only a few of us supporting England. But it wasn't Tonga's lucky day and they lost their space in the quarter-finals. Meanwhile in Tonga Bob's it was kicking off with the Fakaletis doing a show and packed with drunken people since the match was provided with free beer. It was all fun, the Tongans know how to party!
The best of the day was reserved for the evening. Finally we were around to experience the Tongan Feast. This is a full on Tongan night with a Kava circle, local dancing, singing and the infamous Umu and seafood extravaganza. The drinking of Kava remain a strong social tradition in some of the Pacific Islands. As well as a form of welcome, it's used to celebrate births, deaths and marriages. The modern technique involves pounding the Kava root in a bucket. The Kava is then served in a coconut shell cup. It should make your lips go numb, the limbs heavy and slower your speech. I was in the circle early enough to be chosen to serve the Kava. That entailed stirring the liquid with a cup and then pouring into the coconut shells. Slowly the circle got very busy as all the guests wanted to try the famous drink. In between serving I had a few cups but didn't notice any effect at all. The Kava was cleared away, while the local children performed a dance show. After that came the Tongan Feast. Before getting your fingers literally dirty (eat as the Tongans do, with your fingers) the host said a prayer, after that we tucked in.The food was dished in papayas, coconuts, celery leafs and some in parcels wrapped in banana leafs. Every parcel contained a different variety of food, either pork or bread. The parcels were steamed in a pit covered with hot stones. Unfortunately some very few people did not get into the spirit of the feast, either because they had to eat with the hands or maybe because of the uncertainty of what you were eating. We absolutely loved it!
It has been another rainy day and strong winds in Tonga. All anchorages on the eastern side are unattainable. We decided to stay at Anu beach, where we are totally protected. To top it all up the peace in the anchorage has been seriously disturbed. Three charter boats arrived. The kids are zooming around in dinghies at high speed while screaming and swearing. That is all you need on a Sunday afternoon, whilst nursing a sore head....
Despite the rain and strong winds we left Anu beach to Port Maurelle. As we left the shelter of the bay, the wind was up to 30 knots. Because of the reefs, the seas were flat. So the sail was fantastic, just with the headsail we were sailing at 7 knots! The rain didn't seize all day so Graham did some varnishing while I baked a cake.
Tonga is the first place in the Pacific where diving is affordable, could not miss that! Together with Gerard, from yacht Clarabella, we were picked up by the dive boat at the anchorage. The first dive was in a cave then through a gorge and finished in a drop off. Unfortunately the corals are not as colourful as the ones in French Polynesia. The second dive was a drop off, using torches we had a lot of fun inspecting the crevices on the huge underwater wall.
Fed up with the constant rain we headed back to Neiafu. At least in town there was some entertainment. It was another "Les Girls" night. This time Natalie, Noel, Terry, Lynn and a bunch of other yachties came out to play. It was Lynn and Terry's wedding anniversary. We made sure Terry received plenty of attention from the fakaletis!
Friday is racing day in the Yacht Club. Motivated by the prizes we entered a dinghy race. It was a very light winded day in the bay, so one person per dinghy would have been wise. Graham insisted that I joined him and I bought with me Jonathan, Gerard's 5 years old son. Being fully loaded we didn't move very far. Heather, from Chica Bonita, left us well behind, followed by Gerard and Tom from Clarabella, then Tony from Checkmate. Meanwhile we were going nowhere. Monica, Gerard's wife, came to our assistance in their dinghy and gave us a good push. After that we got our oars out to get back to the yacht club!!
After more than one week of rain and miserable weather, finally the sun came out. The weather forecast is looking good to sail again. There was an exodus of boats this morning, either leaving to the Haapai Group or New Zealand. After two months cruising together, we said our goodbyes to Lynn and Terry who left for NZ. Pete and Fliss left for the Haapai. Noel and Natalie went to another anchorage and will be going to NZ tomorrow. We still not ready for the "big trip", from here we are going to Nuku'alofa, 180 miles south, the capital of Tonga.
Due to another rugby match it was an early start. It was England Vs Australia, starting at 2 am local time. Tonga Bob's was full of Aussie supporters, the owner of the bar being one of them. Again we Brits were minority, but a noisy one. The match was fantastic and the results were even better. It was a tight game but England won. Four hours later Graham got out of bed again to watch France Vs New Zealand, with Tony and the guys off yacht Wherever. It wasn't the antipodeans lucky day. It is a European semi- final.
Mariner's Cave was a must do in our list; however I wasn't too sure that I would have the courage to do it. To enter the cave you have to swim through an underwater channel. It is possible to do it in one breath, without diving equipment. We went on yacht Clarabella, together with Gerard, Monica and the kids. The entrance is not obvious and all the description from the books was inaccurate. Graham and Gerard went with the dinghy to find the entrance. Suddenly we saw Graham taking a deep breath and disappeared for a while. When he came back up he gave a thumbs up, he has found the cave. I still wasn't sure that I would do it, Monica was adamant that she would not try it. Gerard went next and when he came back, he was very impressed. I had to give it a go, so did Monica. Going in was the difficult part, as you don't know how long you got to go, just as I was running out of air we came up inside the cave. It is dark but the interesting phenomenon is the fog that forms every few seconds caused by the swelling sea. Well worth a try even for those a bit scared.
The Princess of the Kingdom of Tonga arrived today for an official visit. Neiafu has been cleaned up and some buildings even had a lick of paint. She arrived on a barge, decorated with flowers then she was transferred to a car followed by trucks also decorated with flowers and full of people. The procession went around town a few times; it almost looked like a carnaval. As for us, we spent the last few days getting the boat ready for the trip to NZ.
Zazoo just arrived today. We haven't seen Ben, Rosangela, Josh and Luke since Marquesas, so we had a lot to catch up. They came from Niue.
It was time to go again, start heading South. We were two minded on going today or staying a bit longer with Zazoo. After a lot of hesitation we left Nuku anchorage 5 hours late, we had to sail fast to catch up the time lost and arrive at daylight. Tongatapu is 160 miles south of Vava'u. We were heading to Nuku'alofa as the engine cooling system has a leak and we were hoping to fix it before the passage. The trip started well, with 15-20 knots of wind and calm seas. We saw a whale with a calf not far from the boat, couple of hours later we saw a wonderful acrobatic show put up by another whale. It leaped from the water, belly up, arched backwards, and plunged back into the water headfirst.
Poor Graham did not get a lot of sleep at night. Unfortunately we were dodging the reefs of Haapai at night. This only allowed small intervals of one hour sleep in order to monitor the reefs and islands in the radar. We arrived early afternoon at the entrance of the channel leading to Nuku'alofa. There were more reefs around the entrance of the harbour, and very badly marked by buoys. Some of the buoys were very difficult to spot others were missing all together. Once inside the harbour, anchoring was Tahitian style. This consisted in reversing the boat near the wharf, securing the bow with an anchor and the stern with ropes to the wharf. We have moored this way before in Rarotonga and Nomad Life reverses beautifully, so it wasn't a problem for us, just a bit of a work. Thankfully Pete was there to help with the lines. After that it was beer time with Pete, Fliss and Tony. Later Morgan and Vanessa from Mostly Harmless joined in. It wasn't the early night that I expected!
The town is partially blocked due to the South Pacific Forum, all the Pacific country leaders are gathering here. There is a bustle of journalists and camera crew around. We tried to clear in with immigrations, but quickly we gave up. The immigration office has moved due to the forum and nobody knew where it was. We had formally cleared out of Tonga and have all the paper work to enter New Zealand, so we did not press to hard. In the afternoon an engineer came onboard to check on the engine leak. Ben was very honest with us and told that they will have to order the part from Sweden, that can take up to 2 weeks, furthermore the water pump should last the trip and we better off replacing it in NZ. Now we are ready to go as soon as weather permits.
The weather, again, has been the main topic of conversation between yachties. In the evening we had a few beers with Trevor, the owner of a local cafe in the harbour. He is originally from New Zealand but lived in Tonga for 30 years. We noticed some black and purple cloths hung at the entrance gates in some houses, Graham thought it was Halloween celebrations. We were wrong, according to Trevor these are part of preparations for a funeral. The tombs here are amazing, with huge colourful boards displayed at the back of the tombs, it really looks like carnival. Then he told us about the riots last year, mainly caused by the increasing population of Chinese in the islands and indirectly due to the dissatisfaction with the monarchic state. Lots of Chinese shops were destroyed and now they have thick bars on the doors and windows. Trevor told us that the Tongans aren't the most industrious people, while the Chinese are eager business people. Then we were introduced to one of his friends, Gloriana. Shortly into the conversation we realized that she was one of the many Royal Princess of the Kingdom.
In the afternoon together with Tony, Seaton and Buert we went around the island. The Royal Palace and the Tombs are very lavish. The blow holes of Houma were spectacular, they stretch for 5 km. Today for once, we were glad that it was a windy day with big swells. When the water is forced up through the vents, it can shoot up to 30 metres. Certainly Tonga is one of the most intriguing countries that we have visited during this trip. During the little time we have spent here we had a glimpse of their culture but at the same time it is totally incomprehensible for us.
Now that the Rugby World Cup is over, we can concentrate again on sailing. Shame about the result... We are leaving tomorrow for the most feared passage of this trip. We will be leaving the nice breeze of trade winds and the stable weather of the Tropics to adventure out into the Southern Ocean. Not a trip to be taken lightly but we are ready. Next port of call is Opua, New Zealand.