Tonga Part 2: Storms, Scooters and finally, Sun
27 August - 10 September 2008: Vava'u, Tonga (Part 2)
To make the most of our visit, we bought a cruising guide to Tonga, and followed its direction on the best spots. As many of the island names are difficult for westerners to pronounce the anchorages have been given numbers, and everyone refers to their location by number rather than name. Our next anchorage was near Vakaeitu island where there was supposed to be great snorkeling and a small hotel for a refreshment stop after a hard days sailing. The weather was too cold and grey for snorkeling so we went for a walk instead. We crossed the island along a path marked by notches cut into the trees to a deserted beach on the other side. It was high water, so there wasn't much beach, but we walked along the soft sand, watching the crabs scurrying about. The sky started to get darker and more menacing so we decided to head back to Rahula before the rain came. We arrived back at the dinghy just as it started pouring with rain, and we got drenched on the way back to the boat. The weather didn't clear until 11am the following day, and as soon as the sun came out we grabbed our snorkeling gear and jumped into the water. The area was renowned for the Coral Gardens, but as it was low water much of the coral lay exposed. It also looked like a lot of the coral had been damaged or was dead as there wasn't the usual medley of colour and variety. There was plenty of marine life though, and we spent a good hour watching the colourful fish swim around their desolate habitat. After the swim we felt we had earned some refreshment at the nearby resort, so we landed on the island and took another path towards the hotel. It soon became obvious that the hotel was no longer in business as the path was overgrown and dilapidated huts came into view through the jungle. It was amazing how quickly the jungle reclaimed the space, as the last evidence of trading we found was a bar stock list from January 2008. The kitchen gardens were still in bloom though, and we collected limes, papaya and coconuts from the bulging trees.
The bad weather was forecast to last for the rest of the weekend, so we decided we would rather be in a town with things to do than stuck in an anchorage unable to do anything because of the rain. We returned to Neiafu and planed some land based activities with our friends on Delicate Dawn. There were no cars available for hire, so we rented scooters for the day and all 5 of us set off (rather wobbly in my case) to explore the main island of Vava'u. We followed the vague map in the Lonely Planet guide to a viewpoint at the north end of the island, planning to stop when the road finished, but we ended taking the road marked on the map as a "barely used 4x4 track" all the way to the edge of the island. The scooters only just managed the journey through the woods along the muddy track strewn with fallen coconuts, leaves and tree roots). There were a few steep parts where we had to rev the little 50cc engine to screaming point in order to make it to the top, but otherwise we all survived (it was a bit like 'Kick Start' and proved beyond doubt that the fastest and most versatile vehicle is anything rented…J). It was worth it for the expansive view along the north coast of the island, overlooking some scenic bays.
We spent the day meandering through the island's roads stopping occasionally to consult a map or take a photograph. Everywhere we went people smiled and waved (probably laughing at 5 people travelling on little scooters along barely paved roads…). We saw a cricket match being played on a dirt field, with a woven mat used to mark the bowling area. We passed elaborately decorated Tongan graves, complete with huge banners, plastic flowers and balloons. We ventured off road again into Vava'u's farmland, passing acres of pineapple, cassava root, watermelon and papaya plantations. The farmers walked along the fields placing picked fruit in a basket woven from fresh palm leaves and slung across their back. I was on the prowl for some breadfruit for dinner (now you must see what I mean, she is obsessed! J), and eventually found a tree with the fruit within easy reach of the ground. I jumped off the scooter, found a fallen branch and started poking at the fruit to get it down. Fruit acquired, we continued merrily along our way.
We tried to go up Mount Mo'ungalafa, (AKA Mt Wannahockalugi… see Finding Nemo) the highest point on the island (185m). The Lonely Planet indicated a path leading up to the plateau, but as we meandered through the woods we could only find paths that took us around the mountain, instead of up it. Fed up with walking in circles, we decided the only way to the peak was up, so we started scaling the mountain. After a while the gentle incline became a steep scrabble up sharp coral rock, and we clinged on to branches and roots to stop ourselves from slipping down the crumbly earth. Poor Rose and Mat did not expect to have to do any hiking and were wearing flip flops, thoroughly unsuitable footwear for such a climb! They kept their sense of humour though, and eventually we broke into a grass clearing occupied by two cows (to this day we have no idea how they got there as there was no obvious path out of the clearing, just steep cliffs!). We were hungry, wet from the rain, and fed up after the muddy climb. We sat under a tree to have our packed lunches (and it started to rain again - true British weekend!) and decided to give up on the mountain top and head back the way we came. An hour later we were back at the scooters, vowing never to venture far from them again. We headed back across a causeway over a rickety bridge made of planks, with quite a few of the planks missing (I was glad we were in a narrow, light scooter and not a car!). Our last stop was a small cave on the southern coast, filled with a fresh water pool. (We also did some shopping at an out of town shop that was considerably cheaper than in town. Wwe ummed an arred about what we needed and settled on bread and beer, so I learned that it is possible to carry a couple of crates of beer on a scooter…J). We returned the scooters slightly dirtier than they were at the beginning of the day, and sat at the Bounty Bar covered in mud reflecting on a fun day.
We weren't too saddle sore the following day, though James had caught a cold (man-flu, would have had a girl close to death… J) so wanted a rest day. Ben and I decided to walk to the Mount Talau national park near Neiafu and finally get our sweeping views across the islands. The weather still wasn't great, but we had a pleasant walk through the town and into the forested national park area. In the park clear, well marked paths led to four view points overlooking each of the cardinal points. The views were spectacular; we could clearly see the maze of islands stretching out to the open sea beyond, and spot Rahula at anchor in the Port of Refuge. (I, however, spent the morning winching Alan up the mast of RUSH while we investigated his VHF aerial problems. Also ended up having a chat over a cup of tea about the various catamarans and characters from Milbrook -on the river Tamar, where we bought RAHULA- he seemed to know everyone and even worked for Richard Woods, the designer of RAHULA, building parts for various projects. He was a wealth of knowledge but the most interesting story was that of his own Catamaran RUSH, which was the maritime equivalent of a 'cut and shut' job after the boat started flooding and eventually capsized in extreme seas off the Australian coast. Still, she looked like a well put together boat now!…J)
On the Monday the weather forecast indicated that there was finally going to be an improvement, and we saw this as a chance to head south to the Hapa'ai group of islands. We checked out of Vava'u, provisioned with food, diesel and water and said our goodbyes, including a tearful farewell to Delicate Dawn who we would not see until we were back in Europe. We sailed on the Tuesday morning, planning to anchor somewhere further West in the Vava'u group for the night so that we could make our escape early the following morning. As we sailed down the main channel and out of the shelter of land the wind became stronger and stronger, and it slowly dawned on us that the weather forecasts may have been very wrong. We decided not to venture too far from Neiafu in case the weather deteriorated even more, and anchored near Mala island for the night. The weather cheered up a little by mid afternoon, so we went for a walk around Mala. By the time we got back to Rahula it had started to rain again, and it basically didn't stop for 2 days.
That night the wind howled through the bay, creating small white crested wavelets in the normally calm waters. By 2am the storm intensified, and huge thunderstorm passed overhead, while the wind increased to 35 knots. The sky was lit up every 1-2 seconds by lightning striking inside the heavy clouds above. Occasionally a lightning bolt would escape the clouds and touch down on land with a deafening clap that shook the rigging. We were all awake, and stood inside marveling the intensity of the storm . James was watching the GPS carefully to see if we were dragging our anchor (it was pitch dark apart from the lightning…J), but luckily we didn't budge an inch. The lightning storm finally moved on around 5am, leaving us with torrential rain. Satisfied that the worst was over, we went to bed to try to sleep in what was left of the night. The rain did not stop when dawn broke, nor for the rest of the day. That morning's weather forecast did not sound good (it had changed completely in 24 hours!), predicting 5-6m seas and 25-30 knot winds. We did not fancy that lot on the beam for the 60 miles down to Hapa'ai, nor did we want to spend another night in an exposed anchorage. We tried to wait for the rain to ease, but it showed no sign of stopping, so we donned our foul weather gear, weighed anchor, and reluctantly headed back to the shelter in Neiafu. This was not turning out to be the kind of sun drenched holiday Ben had hoped for…
Back in Neiafu we found many other boats had done the same thing, and the harbour was crowded with yachts seeking shelter. Even Delicate Dawn came back, with tales of high waves burying their bow when at anchor and a yacht dragging onto rocks. We spent the day onboard, collecting rainwater, baking cakes and watching DVDs, none of us wishing to venture further than the dry comforts of the saloon. After this bout of bad weather we realised we would not make to down to Hapa'ai in time to enjoy it and make Ben's flights home. So we decided to stay in Vava'u and explore more of the islands, and try to give Ben a good time. Luckily the following day dawn clear and bright, so we prepared the boat and sailed out of the confines of the Port of Refuge once again, this time heading for an anchorage near an island in the south of the group. We had a great sail to the island, beating to windward for some of the way (something we haven't done since leaving the UK! It has been downwind sailing all the way…). We taught Ben how to tack, and Rahula was flying along in the calm seas and strong breeze. We picked up a mooring for the night in a sheltered spot in the lee of the island near a small floating port-a-cabin called the Ark Gallery. The gallery was set up by a couple of American cruisers who got this far and decided to stay. She paints local scenes, and the gallery sells locally made handicraft and jewellery. From there we sailed to Taunga island for a short snorkel and lunch stop. Unfortunately again the coral was very dead, and there was not as much marine life as we had seen in other places. We left disappointed, but ended up anchoring for the night in one of the best spots in the Vava'u group.
Nuku island is a small unassuming rock, with a narrow beach linked to the larger island of Kapa by a long sand spit. The snorkeling on the sand spit was superb, and we found isolated colourful coral heads teeming with marine life. During the swim over the sand between coral mounds we saw blue starfish and rays. I finally found a Pacific Clownfish, though a slightly different sort to Nemo and Marlin. The final anchorage we visited provided a perfect setting for Ben's final day in Tonga. On the way to Hunga lagoon, on the western end of the island group, we spotted whales swimming nearby, and excitedly followed their progress. They come to Vava'u to mate and calf their young at this time of year, and we had been on the lookout for them for a while. It was magnificent to see them swim, and we could have followed them all day. We were lucky enough to spot them several more times. The lagoon has a very narrow and shallow entrance, and when we managed to squeeze Rahula through we were treated to the sight of a beautiful lagoon hugged by the island of Hunga and fringed with coral. As soon as Rahula was tied up we jumped in the water and went for a snorkel. The coral and marine life was abundant and colourful, though visibility inside the lagoon was not great. We ventured through the northern gap in the island at low water into the ocean beyond, and found a completely different scene. Here the water was crystal clear, and deep water fish such as shark and tuna mingled with large reef fish. The coral formed in towering peaks, providing a fascinating landscape of summits and gulleys. I spotted some fish I hadn't seen before, and spent ages chasing them trying to get a good picture. It was amazing, and Ben came out beaming from ear to ear, happy to have finally had sun, sailing and snorkeling in Tonga. (One of the most fun parts was shooting the breakers through the small gap: you either got propelled through like superman, or ended up in a mass of bubbles as the waves broke over the top of you. Yet again I took my spear-gun but fish that would happily swim to within feet of me if I free-dived with the camera, swum a mile when they saw the spear gun….it's true!!!… J)
Ben sadly left on 8 September, and we prepared to leave too. We had checked out of the islands a week ago, and felt it was really time to finally go. Tonga has been an amazing stop, a perfect mix of social life, great sailing and interesting anchorages. If we are ever inclined to sit on a plane for 30 hours we would certainly come back here again!
(I really enjoyed Tonga and would readily go back there. Despite the large numbers of boats, including a charter fleet and clear catering for tourists, the place retained a certain charm and character that was distinctly genuine and welcoming. With great sheltered sailing, beautiful anchorages and amazing snorkeling and diving, it has to rank as one of my favourite places so far. J)