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On Monday, June 25, we sailed into Neiafu, Vava’u, in the Kingdom of Tonga, after what will hopefully be the worst passage we have yet to make. Strong head-winds, then dead calm and glassy seas for 48 hours, then stronger head-winds and high seas battering us and forcing our boat headlong toward a strange port in the middle of a cloudy night, and to top it off, our motor suddenly began acting contrary, threatening to run on only one cylinder and then just as suddenly purring like a kitten. Not one of our best trips, comfort wise. The 315 mile trip should have taken us three days, but we made it in six—even taking into account crossing the International Date Line just before arriving. Well, win some—lose some. The joys of cruising!
The only high point of the trip occurred the second day out. A small humpbacked whale surfaced so close to our bow we could have touched it with a boat hook. It surfaced again and blew near our starboard rail, then dove and we never saw it again. Just curious. The next day we caught a three foot mahi mahi (dolphin fish). We had fillets the first day and serviche the next.
Tonga, 200+ lush, tropical islands (only about half are inhabited) spread across 362 miles, grouped geographically into three sections of the Pacific, and the only remaining Polynesian kingdom. The northern group, Vava’u, where we will be cruising, is composed of 34 islands having the total land area of 45 square miles. It reminds me of the Virgins: high islands separated by deep-water passages, with lots of good anchorages, reefs nearby, caves to explore, and English speaking people.
It was love at first sight, especially when we discovered the clear blue water and went in for a swim—something we would never have attempted in Pago Pago. Another bonus was in being welcomed over the VHF by the boats that had shared that filthy, smelly, noisy harbor in American Samoa, weathered Tropical Cyclone Ofa, and then had sailed to Tonga ahead of us. It was like coming home even though we’ve never been here before. One called us as we entered the "group" from the sea, another directed us to the customs dock, another called to warn us that we were heading the wrong way, another met us at the dock and took our lines and, after checking in, they helped us moor our boat next to theirs and took us out to lunch. The calm harbor was sure a welcome relief from our rough passage.
The biggest shock was the weather. Just a few miles south-west of Samoa and we had drier air and cooler evening temperatures. We just about froze during our first 70 degree night! Had to close almost all the ports and hatches and cuddle up under a flannel sheet to keep warm. Thin blood?
Tonga is the only Pacific island nation that has never been colonized by a European power. The people are independent, proud and very polite, and they seem to welcome us with open arms to their islands. They bend over backwards to help the tourist and even feel offended if they can’t be of service. Tourism is an important industry in Tonga and the island and its people are geared to accommodate visitors. In Samoa the big industry was tuna—fishing, processing and canning—and tourism was something to tolerate. Panama is a lot like that. Almost the whole economy is based on the canal and other things fall by the wayside. The attitude toward the tourist is just about the same there as it is in Samoa.
We discovered a tourism center near the docks, complete with brochures and posters and a man to answer our questions. Next door was a government-run duty free gift shop with some of the best prices on the island. I bought a beautiful piece of tapa at half the price you would pay in Samoa. Basket weaving is a Tongan specialty, but the only problem is deciding which one to buy. In Samoa we had trouble locating the office of tourism. No one knew where it was! By the time we found it, we knew pretty much what was available on the island. Now is this any way to run a country?
The Tongans are a darker-skinned, thinner version of the Samoans. Being deeply religious, they wear similar conservative clothing with the women covering shoulders down to below their knees with colorful prints. Most of the men and boys wear lava-lavas (wrap-around skirts that come just past the knee) and both men and women sometimes wear straw mate wrapped and tied around they waists, sometimes belt-width, sometimes hanging past the knees. We’ve seen lots of people in mourning clothes (basic black) and we understand these are worn at least a year. Many six-man canoes have come past our boats. The men and women practice their racing skills here, too. All over the island, pigs and chickens run wild. We had three little black piglets grunting around us while we ate lunch at an outdoor cafe. You throw them your scraps. No problem getting rid of garbage here.
We’ll be here at least three months. We plan to attend a "Tongan Feast" on July 4, the King’s birthday. We want to explore the other islands, shop in the local craft shops, snorkel on the reefs, collect shells, motor through caves carved into the volcanic rocks by thousands of Years of oceanic activity, climb the scenic hills, picnic on uninhabited islands, and thoroughly enjoy ourselves.
The night before we left Tonga, a group of us were invited to a Kava party in a local village. Never having tried the stuff and hearing so much about it, we quickly accepted. Kava is a root that grows all over the Pacific. The drink made with the dried and ground root mixed with water looks like a light gray liquid. It is scooped up in halved coconut shells from a wooden kava bowl and is passed around the room to the people, usually men only, sitting in a circle on large woven grass mats. Our yachting group consisted of three cruising couples and two children under 12 years of age. We were guests so it was OK, but usually women and children don’t take part.
This was the "usual Friday night kava group;" several groups meet in different parts of the village depending upon jobs and interests. One man was responsible for preparing the kava each week and the other men gave him $2 when they arrived. This money was noted in a ledger book and would be deposited in the bank. At a certain time in the year, the men got their money back with interest—a kind of Christmas Club. It was also a good time to get together after work and enjoy each other’s company.
The "leader" poured and passed around the coconut cups—one for pouring, three for passing. A man would drink the kava then toss the cup back to the "leader" who would fill it again and pass It until all had their fill for a while. Suddenly someone would break out in song and soon all the men would be singing a Tongan ballad, usually a love song. The voices were unaccompanied and were wonderful to hear, sung in two or three part harmony. When the singing stopped, more kava was poured. This began around 8 p.m. and would continue sometimes until 2 a.m.
The drink, that comes from the root of a pepper plant has a peppery taste and isn’t very good. One of my guide books says it "looks like dirty dishwater and dirty dishwater probably tastes better!" If you drink more of it, kava will slightly numb the tongue and throat. It’s a kind of anesthetic and tranquilizer. I didn’t drink enough for this to happen but we noticed that after a while the men talked with slightly slurred speech. The drink is non-alcoholic and non-narcotic. It’s just a sociable drink common to the islands, and, just as coffee is used when people get together, so is kava, even to the extent that here in Fiji, the office workers have a kava break! Personally I don’t see what’s such a big deal about the stuff, but they probably feel the same about coffee. And it’s interesting to note that the missionaries kept the people tea-totalers but didn’t prevent kava drinking.
Our trip to Fiji, about 450 miles away, began the next day and it was a wonderful sail—that day ! The next day the wind began to die and each of the next two days moved our boat no more 30 miles. We hesitated about using our engine because we didn’t know how much fuel we’d need to pass between the islands of Fiji to get to Suva, the capital city, to check in for customs and immigration. We couldn’t stop at the other islands before we did this. Since the islands are surrounded by dangerous reefs and coral groupings in the middle of nowhere , it makes for a very nervous passage. Just before we left, we had word that friends who had left three weeks before went up on one of those reefs during the night and lost just about everything when the villagers on the island helped themselves to their belongings. Their boat broke up soon after and they left Fiji with little more than the shirts on their backs. So we were doubly careful when we entered the group, especially because now the wind picked up and began pushing us toward the islands at a faster pace than we expected and the visibility diminished because of mist and sudden squalls. Ah, the cruising life! Well, our SatNav worked perfectly and we threaded our way to Suva with no problems and with most of our fuel intact, since we only used it to raise anchor in Tonga and get into the harbor in Suva.
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