If it's raining, this must be Tonga
John & Susan Simpson
Sun 6 Aug 2023 01:58
It came as a surprise to me that Tonga, or the Kingdom of Tonga as it is officially known, isn't just one island but an archipelago of 171 islands spread over a huge area. Clearly the South Pacific never featured in my geography lessons, or I wasn’t concentrating at the time! We’ve been based for most of the time anchored in Neiafu, the largest town on the island of Vava’u in the North of the Kingdom. The penchant for vowels and apostrophes in the Polynesian language is still very much in evidence. We passed A’a Island on our way in to Neiafu, and wondered why the opportunity was missed to include an O and get a full set of vowels in the Neiafu name.
As we rounded the corner to enter Vava’u the rain began to pour….and that was our weather for most of the 19 days we stayed in Tonga. There were a couple of sunny days but mostly it was cool, wet and overcast - pretty much like a British summer really.
Arrival in Vava’u, Tonga. We were soon searching the lockers for our oilskins, having not needed them since mid-2021!
Judging by what we have seen here in Neiafu, Tonga is just starting to recover from recent disasters. The first case of Covid-19 wasn’t detected here until late October 2021 when a seasonal worker returned from New Zealand with the infection. That outbreak was contained but in December 2021 an eruption began in a submarine volcano in the middle of the island chain. The eruption came to a head in mid-January 2022 and caused a tsunami which reached from Tonga to as far away as Russia, the United States and South America. It was the most powerful volcanic eruption since Krakatoa in 1883 and the waves in Tonga reached 20 metres high. Many homes were destroyed and ash from the volcano caused major damage. Tonga was in desperate need of foreign aid in the weeks after the tsunami but this also exposed the population to Covid-19 as foreign aid workers arrived. Their true Covid-19 outbreak therefore coincided with dealing with the aftermath of the volcanic eruption in early 2022. That all of this happened only last year, it’s not surprising that Vava’u felt as though the economy is only just starting to get back on its feet again and remarkable that we have been welcomed as warmly as we have been. However, yacht tourism is a major contributor to the Kingdom’s economy and the local businesses are desperate to be working again.
On a side note, as we were sitting on Casamara one quiet morning a public announcement rang out across the bay and it was a test tsunami warning. I’d imagined a tsunami warning to be an urgent sounding noise but instead we heard jolly bing-bing-bong chimes like the start of a British Rail announcement. I half expected to hear that the train arriving on platform 3 would be the 11.15 to Clapham Junction! Thinking about it though, maybe a jolly tune is what you need to remain calm in the face of an incoming tsunami. A klaxon might be just too scary.
Tonga’s major attraction is that every year humpback whales migrate from the Antarctic to the islands to mate and to calve. We were lucky enough to arrive just as the whales did; their season in Vava’u is mid-July to October. We were greeted by a group of whales as we arrived and they were very much in evidence everywhere we went. A local guide estimated that there were 1200 whales in the waters around Vava’u at the time we were there. A whale even swam through our anchorage in the dark one evening. We could hear it blowing as it approached and saw it glide by in the darkness very close to Casamara. We were very relieved to hear the blowing noise gradually fade away again as it passed us by, glad though we were to have the experience!
Whales breaching as we approached Vava’u
There was great excitement as we arrived in Vava’u because the King of Tonga was due to visit later in the week. An agricultural show was planned so that the King could inspect the produce and local crafts made by his citizens. We enjoyed touring the stalls with all their wares displayed but were slightly disappointed to find that most of it was not for sale. It was just to show the King!
Fish stall at the Agricultural Show
It is a mark of respect in Tonga to wear around your waist a Tupenu, a type of sarong made from finely woven bamboo or bark fronds which is folded and tied with a belt. Ladies often wear instead a woven belt with long decorative tassels hanging down all round the body to about mid-thigh length. Local dress is quite conservative and we were asked to wear garments that covered knees and elbows when in public, particularly when going to church.
The King of Tonga (under the umbrella) at the Agricultural Show and the party wearing their Tupenus
A stall showing woven handicrafts including the Tupenu and the ladies’ belt version (hanging from the line)
We were moored very close to the Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph in Neiafu and were delighted to attend a Mass service there on Sunday. There was a visiting Archbishop from Italy so it was fortunate that the sermon was conducted in English (albeit with a heavy Italian accent) and then translated into Tongan by the local priest. Much of the service was sung and the whole congregation sang in harmony with great gusto. There were no prayer books, hymn sheets or bibles but everyone around us knew all of the words.
A special mention must also go to the abundance of wild pigs on Vava’u. They are absolutely everywhere. It’s no wonder that Tongan celebratory meals have roast suckling pig as the feature dish! I was very taken by the cute little spotty piglets and thought we might find space for a boat pig. Captain said no!
Tonga was a meeting up point for all our World ARC Pacific Rally friends to come back together after a period of about 6 weeks either free cruising separately or divided into two groups for passage to the smaller islands. We had many, many social occasions too numerous to mention. One very special evening was a party for (SV Mary Doll) Derek’s birthday and our 39th wedding anniversary on 21st July. I can honestly say that we have never celebrated with a karaoke night before, and certainly not one in a Chinese restaurant in Tonga! It was a hilarious and memorable evening.
An anniversary karaoke duet!
And finally, Tonga was where you could buy tomatoes again - the first time since Galapagos! In fact, tomatoes were for sale on every market stall we passed and were pretty much the only fresh produce available. It was tomato heaven!
It was a shame that the weather was so poor whilst we were in Tonga as the few sunny days we had revealed an unspoilt paradise of clear turquoise water, white sand beaches and lush, unspoilt islands. I’ll leave you with an image of the Tonga we saw on our one and only sunny day walk. Next stop Fiji.
Vava’u ‘Uta, Tonga