The Kingdom of Tonga where piggies taste better

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Mon 10 Sep 2018 10:26

18:39.5S 173.59W

The crossing from Niue to Tonga was pleasant and would have been even more so, had the toilet not blocked. (No prizes for anyone who guesses what my first job on arrival was.)

At dawn we were off the north shore of Vava’u Island, a tall limestone cliff. We sailed around to the  entrance, Faihava Passage, on the south-western side and tacked up the scenic sound into the very sheltered Neiafu Harbour. 


The stunning Faihava Passage

Just before noon, we tied up to the fishermen’s quay, flying our yellow Q flag and waited for the Tonga Government officers to clear us into Tonga.

The first officer to visit was George. He looks after ‘Biosecurity’ and makes sure nobody brings anything in that would damage the Tongan environment. He took our rubbish away and charged us a small fee. The next officer was from ‘Customs and Immigration’ who handed us a large bundle of forms to fill in. While I completed the paperwork, Franco and the officer discussed the effects of drinking kava, the local fermented beverage. Apparently you just fall asleep, an outcome much less socially damaging than that of many other drugs. We still needed to see the ‘Health’ officer who would give us free pratique. Unfortunately she wasn’t available for several hours. While we waited, I wandered out of the harbour area and found the excellent all day market. Unlike Niue, there was lots of produce: bananas, eggs, vegetables and fruit.


Neiafu market

At 3:30pm Franco went to find out where the missing officer had got to. She arrived five minutes later, we paid her the one hundred Tongan Pa’anga due and she authorised us to bring down the Q flag and move to a mooring. 

As we approached the mooring, we spotted a small floating blue house with a Canadian flag and a ‘fish and chips’ sign pinned to a beam. We called out and made a booking there and then, it seemed like a grand idea. After putting Caramor to bed we hopped into the dinghy and drifted, exhausted, to the pretty blue house. It was a fun evening with sailors and tourists chatting away over generous helpings of battered ‘mahimahi’ (dolphin tuna) and chips in paper cones.


Caramor at Neiafu (many boats indeed!)


Barry at his very handy fish and chips shop

Neiafu is small, peaceful and pleasant with a good selection of restaurants and cafés. There are many churches, of all denominations, including one called ‘City Impact’ which does ‘contemporary worship’, whatever that is (apparently it excludes singing). Given the size of Neiafu (tiny), we were surprised that such a church was deemed necessary! The men wear a kind of cotton skirt, some with a mat wrapped around their waists, over the top of the ‘skirt’ and the ladies wear western clothing, often leggings. Pigs and dogs of all sizes run around the streets freely and the only difference is that the pigs don’t chase bicycles. The few shops stock a fairly random selection of goods and are more basic than the stores in Niue, but it is surprising what one can find, with a little rooting around.

Since Franco had a lot of Pesda work to do and Caramor needed a good clean, we decided to stay put in Neiafu for a few days. It also gave us a chance to catch up with several boats we recognised from Fakarava and Niue. 

When we go ashore, we tie the dinghy to a pontoon provided by ‘Mango’, a restaurant, so it seemed only fair to drop in for a meal. We chose the pork because we thought it might be local rather than brought all the way from New Zealand. The meal was very good and we said so to the waitress. She thanked us for the compliment. I then asked her if the pork was local.

“Oh no, it’s from New Zealand. Our local pigs are very tasty!” She exclaimed.

That’s ‘thumbs down’ for pig breeders in New Zealand, then. We decided to test her statement so booked one of the ‘Tongan feasts’ organised for tourists at the Ene’io Botanical Gardens on Sundays. We cycled out to the restaurant, on the other side of the island, passing through villages, just as morning church service had finished. People were walking home in their finery; the ladies wearing beautiful brightly coloured long dresses or skirts, possibly that they had tailored themselves. The men and boys’ attire consisted of a black cotton ‘skirt’ (called ‘tupeno’) down to mid-calf with a shorter (knee length) woven pandanus palm or crochet wrap (‘ta’avala’) over the top of the skirt. On top, they were wearing an ironed white shirt under a formal black suit jacket and on their feet, flip flops, though a few were wearing black polished shoes. The girls were dressed in pretty frocks and a kind of a belt (‘kekie’) with woven strips (maybe 8) made from the mulberry tree, hanging down. It seemed the smaller the girl, the higher the heels!

We said “hello” and they answered “bye!” A response possibly conditioned by two and a bit centuries of fleeting visits from foreigners. 


Pandanus palms, the leaves are used to make all kinds of mats

The land was undulated but the hills were never too long. The metalled road was wide with few pot holes and only the occasional car passed us. Unlike in Niue, where waving at everyone is compulsory, few of the Tongan drivers returned our greetings. Captain Cook called Tonga the ‘Friendly Isles’ (though he never came to Vava’u). The story goes that the locals’ friendliness was because they were interested in eating him, so maybe we shouldn’t be offended by the lack of attention.

The ‘feast’ was a pleasant affair and the food was good. The highlight was the spit roasted pig. We sampled taro and yam, though between the two, there isn’t much to choose from, both are starchy and bland and the ‘corned beef wrapped in taro leaves’ was an interesting innovation.


The unfortunate pig and the chef


The reef facing east 


The restaurant from the reef

Our cycle back coincided with the afternoon service and the churches were full. Our route through the villages was like a musical feast for the ears, with multiple courses, as we passed one church, then another and another.

We stopped to take photos of the countryside. Compared to Niue, Tonga is blessed with good soils, and agriculture seems much more organised.


A calf looking at me warily in front of a mango tree


‘Kape’, in the taro family, the stems are eaten rather than the roots, here growing under coconut palms


Pasture by a lagoon

Along the road we saw a few signs acknowledging foreign aid. The Japanese have helped with water pumping infrastructure, the Chinese with agricultural experimentation and the European Union and Australia have funded a solar panel array.

We’d taken a slightly different route back and weren’t sure which road to take. I asked a couple of boys which way it was to town. They waved us on vaguely, I wasn’t sure they’d understood a word I’d said. I keep being told that everyone here speaks English (as a second language) but I remain to be convinced. Franco thought it was another ‘Pwllheli’, the word we use to describe being sent in the wrong direction, (in honour of my friend Llinos, who, as a child, used to send tourists the wrong way if they mispronounced the name of her local town).

The lads cycled with us and we came to a crossroads we recognised, we were already in town! I raced them down the last hill which made them laugh but we had to abort the competition to give way to an oncoming lorry.

P.S. Apologies to Tongans if I have mis-transcribed the names of the clothes. I asked the ladies in the market and at first they couldn’t understand what I was talking about. As far as they were concerned, the men in town all wear trousers. (It wasn’t our impression.) it was only when I mentioned meeting people on a Sunday that they grasped what I was talking about.

“Those are the Christian people, we wear are finest clothes on Sunday.” They told me.

Further questioning led me to understand that the men and boys wearing more traditional clothing in town are in uniform.