Tonga Part 1: Caverns and Taverns

James & Amelia Gould
Fri 12 Sep 2008 23:15

20 - 26 August 2008: Vava'u, Tonga (Part 1)


We had a great sail from Niue to Tonga, in perfect trade wind conditions.  Six other boats left Niue within a few hours of each other, and we were in sight of most of them all the way to Tonga.  We chatted on the radio and unofficially raced, showing off how fast our boats could go.  Unfortunately we were all sailing along the rhumb line so to overtake we had to bear away a little to give the other boat some sea room.  On the second night we were overtaking a Swedish boat at the end of my watch and as I handed over to Steve I asked him to keep an eye on her and ensure we gave her a wide berth.  Next thing I knew I was woken by a voice on the radio and a strong light shinning into our cabin hatch.  It appeared that Steve had misjudged the distance to the other yacht (easy to do at night) and had sailed within 200m of her, and she was shinning a torch in our direction to make sure we had seen them.  Fine by day, but too close for comfort at night!  James leapt on deck in his underwear and apologised profusely to the other boat on the VHF while turning Rahula away.  When we saw the yacht later in Tonga Steve and James went over again to apologise; luckily nothing was damaged except our egos.  The rest of the passage passed fairly uneventfully.  James fell over while hoisting the main and gouged a huge hole in his shin when he hit a cleat - he was more concerned with mopping up the blood on the deck than treating the wound! (Do you know how difficult it is to get blood stains out of white gel coat!? J)


On this passage we changed time zones again, but rather than gaining the usual hour as we had done since we left the UK, this time we lost a whole day!  Tonga cheats, as even though it is located to the East of the official international date line at 180 deg West it has put itself in the same time zone as its neighbouring countries to the West.  So we never lived through the 19th August, and we lost a whole day of our lives.  I felt disgruntled at this blatant robbery of my youth, and the boys complained about not eating since the previous day and demanded lunch immediately!  James and I soon figured out that we had been gaining an hour every 15 deg of latitude travelled, so all the hours we have been stealing away from you all in the UK have now been taken from us in one fell swoop.  We were now 13 hours ahead of GMT, and sailing towards the country which markets itself as "The land when time begins…", as it is the first country in the world to greet each new day.  (Fiji was very cross when Tonga decided to change time zones just before the turn of the millennium as it was now Tonga and not Fiji which saw the sun rise over the new millennium first!).


We were due to arrive in the Vava'u in the dark so we slowed the boat down as we rounded the island's northern coast.  As dawn broke we made our way through the islands, gingerly feeling our way past steep cliffs and shoal patches towards the main town of Neiafu at the eastern end.  The scenery was spectacular and the islands provided shelter from the ocean swell.  We tied up at the customs wharf in Neiafu and began the long clear in process.  The customs, immigration and quarantine officials all came onboard, and when offered a drink a couple asked for a beer even though it was only 10am!  The quarantine official took one look at our meager collection of vegetables and decided it was not worth the effort so let us keep it, contrary to what I had been told.  Ben, who had flown into Vava'u the previous day (we'd have been on time if we hadn't lost of day to the time zone monster!), came and found us on the customs wharf and we happily welcomed our next guest onboard.  Once we were checked in we tied Rahula to one of the many cheap moorings available in the harbour and went ashore for lunch at one of the bars along the waterfront catering for cruisers.  A brief wander around the town introduced us to all it had to offer, then it was soon time for a sundowners and another meal out at the Vava'u Yacht Club (AKA The Mermaid).  The trend had been set for what was going to be a very sociable visit to the place Captain Cook called the Friendly Isles.


We had great plans of staying in Vava'u for a few days until Steve flew home, then head south to the Hapa'ai group of islands before arriving in the main island of Tongatapu in time for Ben's flight home.  However, the weather conspired against us, and during our two week stay in Vava'u we experienced the worst weather we have seen in the tropics so far.  The Port of Refuge is a hurricane hole and provided good shelter during the worst of the weather (the clue is in the name…J).  Riding out the storm there allowed us to take comfort in the bars and restaurants and socialise with cruising friends.  We met up with Mat and Rose (the Dutch couple onboard Delicate Dawn), as they had rushed to Tonga from Bora Bora to meet up with Ben who kindly brought out their replacement propeller (no mean feat, and Ben really did help them out above and beyond the call of duty - this thing is 17" in diameter and weighs about 18kg, although I'm not sure I made that completely clear when I asked him to act as courier!  J).  We also finally managed to catch up with Jason and Jo onboard Reverie.  We hadn't seen them since Panama, and it was good to finally see each other again and exchange stories over a beer or few.  There were at least 30 boats in the Port of Refuge at any one time, many part of the "class of 2008" - boats crossing the Pacific this season.  We had seen many of the crews along the way, and there was a real community feeling as we said hello at the dinghy dock or in a bar. 


The whole of Neiafu seemed to be a yachties' paradise, geared around providing all a cruiser needs in a port - supermarkets (though not well stocked) (they sold beer and sausages, what more do you want?!  J), produce market, launderette and plenty of bars.  There was the Aquarium Café, which had a dinghy dock, sold simple delicious food and good coffee, and provided a Wireless internet service to boats in the harbour.  It also held a Happy Hour between 5-7pm, which generally resulted in us staying for dinner with the various friends we met there.  The Bounty Bar was run by a Londoner called Lawrence, and served good pub food in a great spot overlooking the harbour.  The Bounty Bar hosted live music nights where any cruiser with a musical bent could bring their instrument and jam with others.  The bar was usually packed on these nights, and there was always a great atmosphere.  Lastly was the Mermaid bar, which ran the Friday night yacht races in the harbour and provided a free WiFi service (though the connection was not as good as the Aquarium's).  Jo (from Reverie) had a birthday party at the Mermaid on one night, held jointly with two other women cruisers, and the place was packed with all their friends.  The bar provided a DJ, whose remit just seemed to be to change CDs at random, and whose music collection consisted of pirated old compilation albums.  We still managed to dance to a few of the oldies we recognised, and have a great time!  When the money started running low, or we felt like a change we would invite a few people onboard for drinks and maybe dinner.  Mat and Rose joined us several times and we had great fun playing games and chatting.  One night we hosted onboard Rahula an international games tournament with Jason & Jo (Australia) and Mat & Rose (Holland).  Each crew brought a dish to eat, James made pizzas and we played games and ate until we were all tired and full (the UK won!).

One of the "must do" things in Tonga was to attend a local feast, and sample some of the local food and generous hospitality.  One was being held on a beach near Neiafu on our first Saturday there, so we left the Port of Refuge and sailed to the Port Maurelle anchorage, one of the most sheltered spots in the island group outside the Port of Refuge.  The bay was beautiful with a long sandy beach at the top, backed by thick wooded jungle.  The turquoise water was filled with coral and colourful reef fish.  We spent the afternoon snorkeling and fishing, then got ready for the feast being held in the bay next door.  We left the dinghy on the beach at Port Maurelle then walked through the woods to the village on the other side of the island.  We followed our noses to find the house where the feast was being held, and as we turned the final corner we spotted the pig roasting on the spit.  We did not have high expectations for the feast, as we knew that it was probably a tourist trap and would be very false.  However, we went with the intention of having fun, and we certainly achieved that!  There were about 20 people at the feast, all from boats dotted in the anchorages nearby.  The table was simply laid, using banana leaf as a tablecloth, and clam shells as decoration.  We started with various delicacies cooked in an umu, or underground oven, and our host told us what was inside each carefully wrapped banana leaf or foil package.  Most of it had been cooked in coconut milk, and we sampled local lobster, clams and parrot fish.  Then the pig roast was brought in and placed on the table for us all to admire.  It was carved and handed out, accompanied by various simple salads.  After dinner we were entertained with traditional Tongan dancing.  The usual dancer was off sick, so our host had roped in a couple of school girls to step in at the last minute.  They danced rather timidly to music played out of a portable player in the corner.  They smeared themselves with coconut oil and made seductive movements with their hands, inviting guests to come and stick notes to their oiled skins.  The girls were dressed in a traditional woven mat which we had seen people wear around the town.  All in all it was a fun night, even though it wasn't as polished as other "cultural experience nights" we have been to.  When we returned to Rahula we sat in the cockpit for a nightcap and noticed that the New Zealanders on the charter boat next to us (who we met at the feast) were doing the same.  James invited them to join us, and before we knew it they were in their dinghy, clutching a bottle of vodka and a bottle of coke.  The party continued onboard Rahula until the small hours when tiredness finally overcame us all.  The following morning the New Zealanders returned with a box filled with food - it was the last day of their charter, and they decided to give us all the food they had left onboard.  They had brought some of it from NZ knowing that the provisioning in Tonga was pretty basic, so we were treated to real bacon, sausages and baked beans (yummy…J).

We stayed in Port Maurelle the following day to nurse our hangover and sit out some bad weather.  It had turned cold and rainy so we ate or Sunday pancakes inside and contemplated what to do.  By the time we mustered the energy to do anything the sun came out so James and Steve did some fishing (according to Steve, God doesn't take time off your allotment for fishing…J), while Amelia and Ben went for a kayak around the bay.  There were plenty of nooks and crannies to explore in the volcanic cliffs surrounding the bay, and in one little cove we found a rooster that had obviously dropped down from the trees above and couldn't get back up.  We contemplated catching him for supper, but decided he was too scrawny…  we beached the dinghy and went for a walk along a track through the woods, collecting coconuts and finding a mango tree with fruit high up its branches.  Ben decided to climb the tree to get the fruit, and after half an hour following the maze of branches 10m up he reached the one filled with fruit and shook it until the fruit fell to the ground.  Unfortunately none of the fruit were ripe…(this is a continuing theme of outings with Amelia; ever the Jewish farm-girl at heart, she cannot go past a tree or plant without trying to get some grub for nothing.  This has seemed to get worse through the Pacific.  Before reaching the Pacific Islands our walks and excursions have always been punctuated with "ooh look a pretty church" now it's "ooh look a breadfruit tree" no one has been so obsessed with breadfruit since William Bligh…J)

On our return to Rahula we found we had some visitors.  Alan and Marylyn were sailing onboard a Lock Crowther catamaran similar to Rahula called Rush, and used to berth Rush next to Rahula in Plymouth when she belonged to the previous owners.  Alan also knew Rahula's designer, who has been tracking our progress and mentioned that we were in the same part of the world.  It was a strange coincidence to have the two boats in the same bay again on the other side of the world to Plymouth!

At the top of the island surrounding Port Maurelle there is a break in the steep cliffs which line the shore.  This is the entrance to Swallows Cave, which is home to hundreds of Swiftlets.  We took the dinghy up to the cave and rowed in so as not to disturb the birds.  We were disappointed to see that the cave's walls had been covered in graffiti, but it was still easy to see the magnificent geology of the cave.  The cave was lit by a skylight revealing the jungle above, making the trees cast eerie shadows on the cave's walls.  Huge stalactites dropped down from the ceiling, touching down to their neighbours below.  New columns were still forming, making the ceiling look like frosted cake decoration.  The walls had deep alcoves, where the birds hid their nests.  The water inside was a deep blue, and so clear we could see every pebble on the bottom 20m below.  A gurgling sound from a smaller cave somewhere in the gloom indicated the possible presence of the cave monster, so I didn't want to hang around inside for too long…

The following day we sailed from Port Maurelle and searched for another cave which was a little harder to find.  Mariner's Cave can only be reached by swimming through an underwater tunnel, and there are no markings along the cliffs to indicate its location.  We motored along the coast of Nuapapu island looking for the tell tale signs of the cave's entrance, but failing to find a clear sign.  In the end James jumped in the water and snorkelled the whole length of the cliff until he found what he supposed was the entrance.  He dived into the dark tunnel and made it 2m in before turning back.  The second time he made it all the way through the tunnel and popped out at the cave inside the cliff.  He then returned to call Steve and Ben, while I stayed with Rahula and loitered by the cave's entrance (it was too deep to anchor).  The cave is famous for a strange phenomenon - the air in the cave is trapped by the water, and as the swell comes in to the cave via the tunnel the air is compressed, raising it's dew point, forming a mist inside the cave.  When the wave recedes, the mist lifts.  James got some amazing photographs from inside the cave.  (it was an amazing place, quite spooky inside and with crystal clear water.  When someone swam they left a sparkling trail of phosphorescence and the mist really was instantaneous.  There are actually two entrances, one only a couple of metres down and one about 15 metres deep.  The second one was a little more twisty turny and I thought about using that to go out but I chickened out, which was silly because I dived down and hung around next to the exit to um and ar, take a photo and realise I was a wimp, by which time I could have been through!…J)

Cave visits complete, we retuned to Neiafu that afternoon so that Steve could catch his flight back to the UK the following day.  We were sad to see him go after having him onboard for so long; he had officially reached crew status!  It was fun to have Steve around, and now we had Ben as a new addition to the Rahula fun complement!  Once the sad goodbyes were out of the way James and Ben went diving.  (We went with Beluga diving, which is run by a Dutch aircraft engineer who built his own Aluminium dive-boat, which did 38 knots with a full complement of divers!  He was a great guide and showed us some cool stuff, including ghost coral and various tiny critters which he got very excited about but which neither of us actually saw.  The first dive was called 'Fingers' and involved some cool rock formations and a couple of swim through caves but the second dive called 'Split Rock' was amazing.  The split rock itself was quite impressive -although it was just a big rock with a big split in it- but then we were shown a cool cave which went from the seabed at about 16m right up to 2m, at the back there were two ledges, one near the top which had hundreds of Lobster nestling on it and then another sandy ledge at the bottom of the cave where a dozen juvenile black-tip sharks lurked like thug teenagers!!  All in all the diving gets a solid 9/10 and Beluga diving were great, despite there being only two of us diving that afternoon, we were given the full service, including coffee and fruit during the surface interval.)