Cheshire Cat in The Kingdom of Tonga

Monday, October 8, 2007

Vava'u: exotic anchorages and whales tailes

Never leave port on a Friday - where did I hear that before?

Well - another abysmal but short trip (Friday to Sunday from NP to Vava'u) done and finished with, thank goodness!

The dinghy engine quit in the last port - it's in for repair now, but as the King of Tonga has died who can tell when it will come back to us. Everyone is in mourning, everything is closed. And to cap it all - it’s raining.

On the way here we had consistent wind on the nose - every time we tacked we went back up the way we had just traveled - at one point managed to do 2 miles while actually covering 12 over the ground in a couple of zig zags. I was queasy - again - most annoying as of course I feel rotten. To add to our woes we lost the main engine power and Mike had to bleed the fuel lines several times before it would run again. Very frustrating and not pleasant knowing it can by unreliable. In addition the Icom radio (SSB/Ham) turned itself on and then off without human intervention, so we couldn't tell anybody where we were or how we were managing. This resulted in several boats getting quite anxious about us, especially when night came – they knew we were struggling against head winds and had no engine.

Just a little thing added to our misery - a small nut dropped into the electric toilet – putting that out of action - what a joy! You can imagine the consequences!
The new King of Tonga at a local ceremony

At the tail end of the day we arrived at the entrance to the northern Tonga islands, the Vava'u group. We crept slowly along the shoreline in the dark until we were eventually able to talk to friends on the local radio (VHF, not working very well as some of the co-ax cable at the top of the mast has corroded. We lost the aerial out at sea some time ago.)

Nick on Tartufo and Bernard from Est Ouest came out to meet us in a dinghy and to guide us into the main harbour. This was wonderful because we would have had huge trouble finding our way in through the entrance buoys alone at night. CMap, our electronic chart program, (taken from the equally erroneous paper charts) was well off and we were dangerously close to shore in places. It was also very dark with no chance of a moon to help us see things.

Members of the royal family at the coronation
To cap off the days events, just Nick and Bernard were handing the rope on the mooring ball to us, Mike reversed the engine as usual to slow us down, and instantly we lost propulsion, the bolt in the shaft sheared yet again! The current and the wind took over and began to push us backwards in the middle of all the surrounding very expensive boats in the mooring field. By great good chance we had a couple of long lines (used as preventers on the boom) handy, so were able to link those together, hand them off to the guys to tie up with, and then pull ourselves back onto the mooring. Whew!!

We received a great welcome the next morning - all kinds of boats came by as they had heard we were having engine problems and had also lost the radio so were very concerned that we would arrive and be safe. I was sooooo pleased to have come into harbour instead of anchoring out somewhere (the alternative and usually the most sensible solution for a night time arrival) as if we had tried to anchor in the dark and in the extremely deep water (20 - 40 meters here) and also lost engine power, we would have been in a very serious pickle.
However - all is well, we are happy to be safe and sound, and the list of to-do's in New Zealand continues to extend!! I have calmed down and have decided that I won’t catch the next available flight out quite yet.
We’ve explored a little around the islands – we hesitate to use the engine much as the shaft problem gets no better and the hole is elongating. Friends arrive all the time and we have had a couple of very congenial happy hours and bonfires on the beach. I went whale watching – chose one of the nastiest days of the season, but did get one chance to swim with a momma whale and her calf for an unforgettable and all too brief moment.
Exploring a rock cavern in our dingy
It has officially be declared a light El Nino year in the southern Pacific - haven't clue what that means for the 1,200 nm trip to NZ, but now we have to prepare for that leg of the journey. We have a parachute anchor and a very sturdy drogue in case we hit really bad weather and have attached strong rope to use with them. We are going over all the maintenance jobs that we can, ensuring that everything will function as well as possible on this last leg. Everything will have to be stored away and whatever preparations for bad weather made before we think of leaving. Our route also has to be decided – the questions still being asked are should we leave from Tonga or from Fiji, should we stop over in the Minerva Reef; lots of discussion to keep us alert over Happy hour!
Market day

The first cyclone of the season has faded away before doing any damage. Lucky for us, as Xavier was forecast to pass quite close. The urge to leave is strong - boats are sailing out every day and we hear that about 8 or 9 are arriving in Opua, in the North Island of New Zealand every day. Some of our friends have started the trip down island to be ready for escape further south but we will leave from these northern islands, and try to make the trip in one leap Others have left completely, maybe to make a stop over at Minerva reef; the rest of us are havering and dithering around here. Shall we, shan’t we? The lows are zipping by fast – one every three or four days at least and we don’t like those as they hold high winds, rain and squalls. The highs are almost as frequent and almost as bad, as they have no wind in them and we don’t want to use the engine more than we have to. A quandary. Anyway – the latest buzz is not to depart before November 5, so we should try not to be impatient and enjoy the rest of our time here.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Nuiatoputapa: Very Sacred Coconut

Niuatoputapa' A step back in time.

"New Potatoes" as the cruisers are wont to say, is a tiny island off the northern part of Tonga - it has under 1200 people on it, very National Geographic sort of feeling. The King of Tonga died just after we arrived, (September) and everyone was in mourning for a month. (This is a lot better than the last time a sovereign passed away when everything, including all business came to a complete halt for a full year).

Upon our arrival through the reef edged pass we were boarded by customs and immigration and a health inspector. I think they just wanted the bit of excitement as the formalities were very simple. Their supply ship visits once every two or three months and the influx of yachties at this time of year is a huge event. Everyone wants diesel for their cars or petrol for their outboard engines and we traded for fruit and woven items.

Horses and small black pigs roam everywhere quite freely. The people were dressed particularly conservatively in traditional dress - at work, school and on Sundays, in respect for the dead King. A woven mat or overskirt wrapped around the middle and secured with a cord at the waist for the men and also for some women. Some other women wore and a decorative belt, often woven, but occasionally made from coconut or knotted from some other material with many decorated strips trailing to the hips or further down the body. Black dress were worn everywhere.

Houses and cricket strip on the island

We found the houses here were normally very basic, usually consisting of one main room either with a dirt or concrete floor, some of the better ones having a sleeping room as well. Buildings are constructed with corrugated iron sheets (what would the third world do without corrugated iron?) cement or palm leaves. Customarily each one has a step or barrier at the doorway to prevent the little pigs from going in. Everyone sits on woven mats on the floor. Fences outside the more affluent homes may have a gate which might also have a piggy barrier.

House building in progress

Everyone was very friendly and soon we were invited to have Sunday lunch with a local family on a nearby island or motu. They brought the main course, we cruisers took deserts. The islanders seem to have an extremely sweet tooth and are particularly partial to chocolate! (I took pancakes with maple syrup). We had cooked piglet and cooked fish, raw fish marinated in lime juice, raw clams, taro leaves cooked in some sort of caramel, with breadfruit, taro root and a juicy cooked papaya and grapefruit dish. All the cooked dishes were wrapped in leaves as the cooking is done in a covered pit – or umu. This turned out to be a much better Tongan feast than we could have paid for – better food certainly.

Everyone dressed in their Sunday best for churchy including Mary and Chrisfrom Aventura

The women on the island are kept busily on at work in weaving huts, producing high quality mats in what seems to be a form of co-operative. The long thin pandana leaves are harvested from the short trees that abound everywhere on the island. Then they are soaked in the sea for at least week, (longer if they want a finer quality), and dried in the sun hanging from fences or trees. These leaves are wound into flat reels of leaves ready to split into narrow strips for the actual weaving. The split is made with half a tin can top, or possibly a needle. When the leaves are split into four strips they are ready to be woven into mats by hand.

The weaving house was always a hive of industry

Some of the woven mats can be up to 100 feet long. The supply ship takes them off to wherever they are sold. The women sit on the bare concrete floor of the weaving huts to work but this is much cooler than sitting outside in the warm sun. I asked for some mats to be made and also dyed as they had some wonderful brown dye (from the nono or mangrove tree) but the finished article wasn’t as nice as I hoped because they used a coarser grade material for the weaving, and had also experimented with the dye process.

Bartering with Fadeha and her mother for woven mats with Mira from Ironbark

We spent quite some time bartering for woven items which was very enjoyable even though I think they got the better deal in most cases. We aren’t accustomed to trading yet and I felt sorry for them for not having the supplies they needed and knowing that they frequently didn’t have money to pay us. Tinned butter was popular, and baby wipes enthusiastically accepted. They had another advantage as well – we had a list of food stuff that we can’t take into New Zealand, so took the chance to off load some of it here where it was obviously very acceptable. I got a surprise nonetheless, when the stakes went up to things like DVD players and used laptops!

We rarely saw the men – possibly they went off to a nearby island where the gardens are, or off into the ‘bush’. They did return for the Friday night Kava evenings though, when they gathered together to drink plentiful bowls of the local mild home brewed alcohol. I heard that there is more potent liquor available but it is probably not entirely legal. The cruisers were invited to the Kava nights but as there was no singing or dancing allowed due to the demise of the King, we didn’t participate. Maybe another opportunity will occur before we leave Tonga, and if not perhaps next year or in Fiji.

All the young people go off island to senior school and I imagine very few of them return home. The lifestyle on this island is very traditional and opportunities abound elsewhere.

Fishing boat in a tidal creek