We had light winds blowing us down to Tonga, so much so that by day two we had the motor on. Despite this we felt pretty lucky because with normal trade winds it would have been a much harder trip and we’d have been battling straight into it. We were determined to get into the harbour on the second day, as by day three the trade winds were expected to return with a vengeance – so we were pushing quite hard.
Tonga was always somewhere we’d been looking forward to. When we finally navigated the islands we were not disappointed – it’s stunningly beautiful reminding us of New Zealand or Thailand or somewhere equally lovely.
Neifu harbour is pretty well protected but does have one of the worst dangers we’ve encountered yet. The harbour wall! You have no choice but to tie up to it in order to clear customs. The wall itself goes in and out in a corrugated manner, is covered in spikey shells, nails and all sorts, and it’s topped with an overhanging piece of rough concrete. Nice!
So we put all of our ten fenders down one side, raised them and then raised them again and headed in. Our friends had just left the wall and the customs guys were slinking away but we called them and they reluctantly returned to take our lines. We docked well, coming in gently but still our fenders were two low, we managed to quickly squeeze a few between the guard rails and the concrete and raise them yet higher. This dock was certainly not made for yachts and we’ve heard tales of boats getting stuck under the concrete on a raising tide.
We were certainly not comfortable here and tried as best we could to rush through the paperwork, but in some places you just can’t rush things and have to go with the flow. We departed the dock about an hour later and were relieved to pick up a mooring in the anchorage beyond. With health, quarantine and customs completed, we’d only have immigration to do in the morning when the office reopened!
The village-sized town of Neifu is friendly and totally geared towards the hundreds of boats that make their way here each year. From French Polynesia to here there are a number of routes you can take but in the end all roads lead to Neifu in Tonga, and you can’t walk down the street for more than a hundred meters without running into someone you know that you’ve met somewhere along the way… the trick is to remember the name, the boat name, and where you last met them!
It also seems that all roads in Neifu lead to Tropicana, an amazing cafe that does internet, laundry, gas refills, bike hires, oh and great breakfasts too! After three days and three breakfasts, we’d caught up on internet and it was time to move on – to the anchorages!
First stop was anchorage 16, locally known as Vaka ‘Eitu. It’s a lovely spot and after a couple of goes we managed to drop our hook in a patch of sand. One thing that is worth noting, however, is that we were in 14 meters of water (not seven as shown on the chart), we went over a sand bar of three meters (not marked on the chart) and sailed around an island (which according to the chart does not even exist). Hmmm things are certainly getting more interesting here.
The next day we went for a dinghy ride tour of the island with our friends. We were keen to walk the trails and maybe visit the resort for a cold beer or spot of lunch. As it turns out, the guides are about as much use as the charts. The resort has closed and because of this the trails have grown over.
The island’s only inhabitants was a family with 11 children!!! The father, Dave, invited us to a hog roast on Saturday which we gladly accepted.
On Friday, however, we decided to explore a bit further afield and left for Hunga. We had a slow sail down there at about three knots, but as we were waiting for high tide to traverse the pass into Hunga lagoon we were in no hurry and it was nice just to tootle along.
Before long we started to see whale plumes in the distance and whale-watching boats everywhere trying to get in on the action. Then a couple of frisky whales appeared not too far off and converging on our course. We kept a close eye on them but as we were kind of stuck between an island and a pair of whales there was not much we could do. We were pretty relieved though as we rounded the island, and could tack away from them. We love to see whales, just not that close up!
With that obstacle expertly avoided we started to concentrate on the next one. The passage into Hunga. We had heard that the passage was 2.2 meters deep at low tide so with a two-meter draft and only and hour and a half before high tide we were pretty confident. But we followed our teachings and I posted myself on the deck for some eye-ball navigation while Simon slowly drove us through. And we got lucky!
The passage was ok but with only 50cm below our keel we got pretty nervous pretty quickly and then right in front of the passage is a reef so you have to take a quick dog-leg to the right. I didn’t know this so that made for a nerve-wracking few minutes of ‘Go right, go right, GO RIGHT’ and ‘Are you sure we can get through here?’.
Anyway we made it through and across the lagoon and picked up a mooring buoy in front of a resort. Phew!
After a quick bite we went ashore to explore and pay for our mooring. The resort was deserted except for two fierce-looking, barking, black guard dogs, that were all too happy to have their ears scratched. We plonked ourselves down on the beach, tried to find some snorkelling and then returned to the boat assuming it would open up later.
A little later Barry the caretaker arrived by dinghy to tell us we couldn’t use the moorings as the resort was shut and the moorings weren’t maintained. What is it with the charts and info here?!?!
After a nice chat he departed to go and feed the dogs while we dropped our mooring and went in search of a maintained mooring near the village. We picked it up relatively easily – perhaps that was because we were on land (well at least according to our chart plotter).
After all that, it was time for beers and nibbles onboard… again.
Back to Vaka ‘Eitu
Navigating the pass was easier on the way out, for one we knew what we were doing and for two we waited for high tide. The journey back to Vaka ‘Eitu wasn’t as easy, the wind had kicked up and so we had to battle into the waves. Another wet and cold adventure.
Back in Vaka ‘Eitu it was nice and calm. We headed to shore for Dave’s traditional Tongan feast with a hog spit roast. Now this is something I’ve been looking forward for a long time. I must have seen it on a film somewhere and thought it was the epitome of paradise island living.
Not so. When we got there mummy pig and daddy pig were still running around, meters away from baby pig on the spit.
Luckily the views distracted me and the family had made a huge spread of dishes including chicken noodles, potatoes, octopus, mud crab and much, much more. Yummy!
After a few days in the islands we decided to return to Neifu to take stock and to wait out some strong winds. Everyone else had the same idea and before long all the moorings were taken. It seems like high season here, and chaos reigned as another 15 boats turned up on one day making the customs guys work hard for their money.
It’s a good chance to catch up with friends and there’s lots of events and things to do here. So much so that you can get trapped here day after day and never leave.
For the record Pete somehow managed to miss this shot, which is maybe why the locals challenged them to a game of killer.
We spent our time getting in some much needed exercise. First up the walk up Mount Apu. It’s an easy stroll over there, followed by some steep, crooked, slippery steps. If you’re thinking of doing this hike remember to bring your rock-climbing gear. Apparently there used to be a rope handrail but some yachty came along and took it for his boat. Bloody yachties!!
The view at the top looking out over Tonga’s islands was fab and worth the climb (so long as you don’t break a leg on the way down). The following day we hired bikes to tour the island. It was an up and down ride, and the bikes were probably best described as death traps. We had about five gears between us, the breaks were sticky and I think my handles were taken off a three-year-old’s trike. Anyway we avoided the hogs and dogs, and made friends with the kids. Well actually Simon was shot up by the kids pretending to machine gun him as he rode past while I got high-fives. They know where it’s at!!
Our destination was the botanical gardens. Unfortunately by the time we got there we’d missed the tour. So we headed out across the causeway (sporting red and blue crabs) and down to another beach. I must say the rubbish here is terrible!! There’s big bins everywhere full of empty cans. But then it seems that these are simply thrown in the hedges or on the beach, such a shame.
After a quick mooch around we returned to the cafe at the botanical gardens for lunch. They served fish and chips or fish and chips so we ordered… fish and chips. After that we walked along the beach and had a snooze… until the tide came in and splashed our feet. Then we realised it was time to return to town quick-sharp!
After three or four days we realised it was time to get out and explore the islands again. This time we planned our trip more carefully and booked a few meals before heading out.
We decided to go East and attempt the tricky passage despite all our close encounters recently. Little did we know this would be the closest one yet. The passage to Ofu island is reportedly easy and at least three meters deep at low tide. We know this as it says so on our chart.
How then did our depth sounder go down to ZERO as we went through this channel?! Yes this is not the place to rely on the chart plotter, here eye-ball navigation is king and good luck is your friend. Turns out we should have gone to the left of the reef instead of between two reefs but how a first-timer is to know this from the information out there I’m not sure. Actually the closest you get to good information is Google satellite imagery – how about that?
Anyway we made it safely to the tiny island of Ofu without so much as a graze on the keel, but how we accomplished that I’m not really sure. After a few hours of lazing onboard we saw a familiar blue-hulled boat approaching and were pleased to see our Panama-crossing-friends on Matelot. After a few beers with them, we collected their waypoints for our return passage, and then headed ashore for dinner.
Mandela resort, run by Ben and Lisa, is amazing! Lisa took us on a tour of her small island to see the amazing rooms they have here, the best of which is the tree-house. They’ve built this place up slowly and are trying to be as self-sustained as possible. The beach-front restaurant is ultra-relaxing and they prepare the tastiest three-course meal for their guests. An extraordinary place and one that I’d love to come back to. Unfortunately the wind started blowing a guster so we had to head back to the boat instead of enjoying the camp-fire on the beach. Boo!
Ark Gallery anchorage
The next day we awoke to some pretty gusty winds. With nice weather we would have been quite confident navigating the passage back, we’d viewed the charts, the pictures and had our trusty waypoints. However with these horrid conditions there would be no room for error, so once again our hearts were heavy. Our other alternative was to stay in the blustery, unprotected anchorage and that didn’t seem like fun either. So we set off.
Stationed at the front of the boat, this time the waves were up and I was hanked on in my life vest with hoodie and long pants. Not what I paid my money for! But it all went smoothly and after 15 mins I was safely tucked back in under the spray hood.
We made it into our next anchorage which wasn’t as protected as we’d hoped, and with all the mooring bouys taken our only option was to anchor at the back in the wind. We tried anchoring a few times but just couldn’t get any hold as it was all coral. Luckily our friend on Four Choices left (maybe it was something we said?) and we grabbed his mooring buoy in relative shelter – nice.We visited the Ark Gallery by dinghy to pay our dues and had a snoop around Cherrie’s art gallery. The owners have lived on this floating pontoon for 12 years and Cherrie creates lovely paintings, capturing the local culture and sea-life.We took a walk up the road and met up with a farmer building a fence around his field of taro to ward off the pigs. He had a cute dog, here he is…We were told there was a path back to the anchorage via the beach but we couldn’t find it, and with the tide coming in we had no choice but to climb a tree to get back to the road.That night we caught up with friends and went to Maria’s Paella restaurant (I’m not sure this is the proper name but that’s how everyone refers to it). We had some scrumptious tapas and of course the signature seafood paella which was super yummy too and a reminder of our time back in Spain. After that we were delighted when a shower curtain was drawn back to reveal a three-man band, with keyboard player, one of the best harmonica players we’ve ever heard and a slightly weird but amazing vocalist. They seemed a little shocked when the screen went back and kind of came to life like some full-sized wind up toys. No idea how long the poor guys had been hid back there, I think the last booking was a few weeks before, oops.The vocalist was really talented but no-one could understand the language in which he sang. Simon thought it was the language of beer which he constantly drank between songs, verses, and sometimes even lines. It wasn’t really necessary to understand him, however, and his passion certainly made up for it. Before the end of the night everyone was either singing, playing the drums, dancing or head-butting the friendly goat that lives in the bar. No kidding!After a big night, we snoozed the day away in the beauty of the anchorage.
Anchorage 7… or actually Neifu again
We wanted to go to anchorage 7, because from here you can dinghy around to the Swallows Cave, which is supposed to be amazing. But when we got there the anchorage was full of boats and deep. We were pretty sure if the wind changed there would be boats on top of boats so we reluctantly changed our mind and headed back to Neifu.
Although we loved Tonga we were keen to head off to Fiji as time was ticking, however the weather gods had a different plan and the winds just weren’t playing so we had to wait a while. We decided to fill our time rather than clock-watch and so we booked a tour and meal at the Vava’u Villa. We walked over there with our friends from Whale and a Bird.
A Kiwi guy bought this place after he decided to have a lifestyle change following the Earthquake in Queenstown, NZ. He’s making a living from the coconuts and helping out the locals. He uses each and every part of the coconut, which he buys from the locals at 3 cents a pop.The husks are burned to make charcoal, the charcoal is burned to heat water, the white flesh is used for maggot feed which in turn is used for chicken feed, the oil is used for soaps, the milk is used for protein in the pig feed, the water is used as weed killer.
The pigs and chickens are eaten in the restaurant and their guts are fed to the mud crabs, which are also served in the restaurant. The shells of the mud crabs are fed to the chickens. The manure will be used to feed the veggie patch and the gas will be collected and converted to electricity. It really makes your head spin, or perhaps it was the berry cider that we sipped while walking the farm. After that we were ready for a Tongan feast and some traditional dancing. The lady restaurant owner had given the kitchen over to the local chefs and they cooked up some treats for us. Some of the delights are an acquired taste but there were some amazing flavours too. After that was some traditional dancing… of a sort. The guys wore american baseball caps and when granny came out she showed us her Hawaiian dance. There were some lovely lady dancers though, covered in oil that allowed us to stick dollar notes to her. A bit sleazy in our worlds but here it’s an honour, and certainly explains why the dollar notes here are always a bit sticky.
Hunga again… and the cricket
The next day we’d signed up for cricket! Now usually I avoid cricket like the plague, it’s slow and has funny rules. Anyway we jumped aboard Whalesong for a faster trip to Hunga (we decided not to push our luck with the scary entrance again). This time we went through the equally scary – small boat entrance at low tide. It was great to see some of our fellow yachties in the harbour and we climbed up to the village.
First up the yachties played while we waited for the Tongan team to arrive. There were many nationalities represented and most of us hadn’t played before so they explained the rules.
We were put into teams and set out onto pitch. My team batted first and we did pretty well for ourselves. Ann from Sofia bowled me some nice balls, and I managed to get in a few runs with my partner Noah, an eight-year-old heavy hitter. I was doing pretty well for myself until Simon caught me out, and caught my wrath as I chased him with a cricket bat. He won’t be doing that again… well not until he caught Ann out from Whale and the Bird. She gave him a beating too.
We were eventually all out for a duck (or some such thing) and it was the other team’s turn. They did a lot better… and Simon took away the title of Top Hitter with 23 runs before he was asked to retire… whatevs!
After that we were served up a really yummy Tongan feast and were serenaded by the lovely local school children (Hunga Hunga Hunga Oi Oi Oi!). We were able to take a sneak peak at the schoolhouse. Although it’s a little basic the walls are plastered in drawings and the alphabet and you could pretty much be in any primary school room in any country.After that it was time to get serious at the Tongan’s took to the pitch. The music was turned up and the fielders popped a few additional moves! I’m not sure if this was to put off the other team or just because they were having a good time.
Simon, meanwhile, was not having a good time. As top hitter, he was asked to make up the numbers, so he was padded up and waiting for his time to shine.Once on pitch, the Tongans took turns to throw the ball as hard as possible at the white guy. He held is own and got in a few runs. He looked pretty relieved, however, when he was caught out by one of the Tongan players and got his lucky escape with no bones broken.
It turns out I don’t like cricket… I love it! It was such a fun day – thanks to Barry, Craig and friends, the Hunga school and of course the Tongan Cricket team.
Tonga is one of the only countries that are not recognised by the ICC so like them on FaceBook and help them get the recognition they deserve.
Bye, bye Tonga
The next day we reluctantly went back to the wicked dock to clear out. At high tide the dock was a lot less menacing. We were able to raft up with Whale and the Bird while we did our clearance and grabbed a few provisions before heading out to… Fiji!