Murder in the Friendly Islands and Back to Bahia Temperatures.

Fri 30 Sep 2016 20:11

Murder in the Friendly Islands and Back to Bahia Temperatures.

Sandy at Vavau Adventures helped us organise a couple of trips while here. She and her husband have an extraordinary workshop full with ongoing projects and past and discarded vehicles. We were welcomed by an adult dog and some puppies. Their mother was run down and killed in August and then the body was stolen for meat.

Each day VHF channel 26 is monitored here and used by locals and yachties alike to exchange news, notices, messages and items. At 8.30 in the morning there is a forum for yachties, which we keep forgetting to turn on! Sandy was constantly taking messages while we were there and used the VHF to book visits for us to Vavau Villa and Eneio Botanical Gardens and we arranged to hire one of her scooters to get to the Gardens.

“The easiest way to get to Vavau Villa is by dinghy, down to the end of the residential buildings you’ll see a little beach. You have to go near high tide, leave the dinghy on the beach and walk through the shady woods to the house. Ian is a real character, you’ll enjoy it.”

So the next morning we languished on board pottering over the endless jobs while watching the tide slowly rising. There is a new bird to add to our list, a Noddy, brown or black and I think we have the black ones around here. They are like skinny blackbirds, with thin, straight beaks and a white head, we had one on the pulpit this morning.

A few were perched on vacant buoys as we motored slowly past towards the aforementioned beach. I say slowly as we are conserving fuel where possible at the moment and the 15 minute, by motor, trip would be a little far to row especially in the heat of midday.

Ahanga Tonga – home of Queen Vanilla is also a hotel called Vavau Villa, the hotel side is run by Vanessa while Ian, her husband, busies himself with countless waste digesting projects all based on the processing of vanilla and coconut.

We arrived on the terrace ready for a cool beer and lunch after walking the short wooded track from the beach where we had left the dinghy. A few black cattle were individually tethered to stakes and were absorbed in munching their day’s circle of green foliage. One turned a head crowned with bent horns to spy us through big dark eyes.

We were idly chatting with Ian, the owner, when someone on the other end of his VHF radio, mounted on a shelf nearby, called him up to ask for help. This person said he was in jail and needed Ian to come and collect him.

Before he jumped into his van to go and oblige Ian explained that this man was in the habit of getting into trouble. The previous weekend he had, against helpful advice, gone to a party, drank too much, got into a fight and ended up in jail. He seemed unable to cope with the world, this nameless man. He was married to a woman who is the defence lawyer for the underworld of Melbourne, and is on Tonga because life in Melbourne was getting too ‘hot’ for him, he had made some enemies in other words.

Along with him in jail was one other prisoner, a murderer. He had cruised to the area for a number of years with his wife on their pretty classic yacht, ‘Sea Oak’ and was well known locally both for his mechanical skills and his ill treatment of his wife. Fellow cruisers moored nearby just off the town and visitors in their hotel rooms on the quay used to hear the two of them rowing and arguing with eachother and it all came to a head a few weeks ago, on July 7th when he reported to the police that his wife had committed suicide by repeatedly stabbing herself in the back.(!) That is what Ian said but I read she was covered in bruises after a beating and failed to wake up in the morning.

He was incarcerated in his cell with the door open during the day and locked up at night with the key, for ‘safety reasons.’ Of late he has also been doing a pretty good job of answering the phone.

He made an attempt at escaping a while back by swimming out to his boat but the police got their before he fired up the engine. Its all on the internet if you want to read about it in greater detail.


When Ian returned he explained it was all a prank by his friend from Melbourne, designed to get back at the comments made the weekend before.

We had finished our delicious lunch and Ian started his guided tour of his enterprise by telling us that Queen Victoria gave the company in her colony of Australia the permission to call their Vanilla business ‘Queen Vanilla’ as she enjoyed the essence herself.

Well of course Tonga is a Royalty itself, so when Ian asked permission to call his vanilla products Queen Vanilla after the same company that he supplies in Australia they refused him in deference to their own Royal family. “But it’s the name of the company started back in 1897, so how can it be a slight on the present Tongan royal house” he says and the fight goes on.

Spotty came with us at the start of the tour. He has grown to be a big dog from a painful start in life. Ian found him dumped outside the house and by the time Ian de-ticked him and cleaned him up not only did Ian have Spotty’s unwavering loyalty but it was obvious from his twisted back legs he had had some sort of trauma when very young. Unperturbed he hobbles around as if he is perfectly normal.

Ian started in the coconut oil business but then asked himself what to do with the mountains of husk and shells and white pulp left over from the production of the oil, he found solutions for all three and more.

Ian receives vanilla pods from the 250 or so farmers all over the islands. When their crop is ready they trundle along in tractors and trailers, pickup trucks, wheel barrows and bicycle baskets, bringing their laboriously produced crop of any size. Ian weighs it and along with the payment they take away a load of coconut husks to use as mulch around the base of the supporting structure, may it be framework or low tree on which the vanilla orchid is growing. So that is one problem solved.

Nothing much was happening when we visited because a typhoon earlier in the year had destroyed most of this year’s crop and they are waiting for the new season ones to drop in Jan/Feb time.

At the moment the coconut shells are used to make charcoal and eventually the gas bi product from the charcoal burning will be used to generate electricity for the island.

Ian took some sacks of charcoal into the market to sell but they were returned to him the next week. “What was wrong?” he asked them. “No good, because no smoke, and we need the smoke to kill the mosquitoes!” Oh dear.

Now he uses the charcoal in the market for barbecues to fry taro chips and sells the food as a hot snack. A second problem partially solved at least.

The used pulp from the coconut oil process, and any other remotely edible waste products go to feed the pigs and he plans to turn them into feed pellets in time and market the product locally. A third neat solution.

Once the vanilla pods have been blanched for 3 minutes they are laid carefully on plastic and rolled up at night but unrolled and sun dried during the day. This goes on for a few days until they are at the exact right stage of dehydration when the enzymes will be working to produce the flavour. The straightest and most perfect are set aside to be sold intact for retail and rest are sent for processing to Queen Vanilla in Aussy.

There the essence is made by grinding the pods with 90% alcohol, leaving it to render its flavour for a week before water is added, reducing the alcohol content to 20% resulting in the essence we all know. You can get well pickled on vanilla essence!

The pigs I mentioned do a snorting job of clearing up and of course produce their own waste. The Chinese government as part of the Pacific and Oriental aid project, supplied the island with 10 bio waste digesters. Fermenting poo in a concrete pot produces methane. The digesters were presented to keen locals along with the pigs from China and Chinese expertise to help built them, set the industry up and educate the users in the required husbandry. Perfect you might think, but ‘no’, all the installations failed. Why? They ate the pigs!!

Ian then had to buy his own installation and start all over again trying to educate the locals, “Pigs = piglets = more pigs = poo and pork yeah?”His own pig waste fuels the bio mass unit and the gas is used to heat the water in which the vanilla pods are initially blanched for 3 minutes to stop growth and prevent them from splitting.

All the usable parts of the pigs go to the hotel kitchen and the rest is used as dog food.

If the coconut pulp is left for 5 days flies lay their eggs in it which turn into maggots and it is then fed to the happy chickens in their enormous wired cage who produce fine eggs and flesh as a result. Left more than 5 days and the maggots become voracious flying monsters that head straight for the hotel kitchen and render Ian very unpopular with his wife. So, 5 days only PLEASE or Ian’s in the dog house with Spot.

Chicken waste goes to fertilise the garden in which all the kitchen veggies are grown, plus numerous medicinal and health giving plants and egg shells go to the pigs. This is a farm of intelligent economy, efficient waste usage, eco- friendly practices and it is totally organic.

The five of us watched while Ian unravelled the resident cow who had got her tether looped around a tree and a tow hitch on a trailer. We stood on the rise looking over the small acreage and noticed there was not a single chicken in their run.

“And sometimes it resembles Animal Farm around here,” joked Ian referring to the George Orwell masterpiece on farm animals rising against an oppressive master.” The pigs were complicit with the chickens and together broke down the substantial wooden door liberating the inmates from their prison so they could roam and lay free range eggs!”

Talking of liberating oneself from prison; that is exactly what happened last night. Rob and I motored slowly in to the small boat marina to leave the dinghy and do some shopping when Rob commented “The crime scene boat has gone!” Sure enough Sea Oak, complete with her shroud of incident tape glittering in the sunlight the day before, was not on her mooring.

We remembered that the previous night we heard police sirens for the first time ever here and I commented that they seemed entirely inappropriate on this tiny, friendly island, but then so is the murder committed by a foreigner inappropriate.

The town was buzzing with the news and VHF radios blared out the conversation between the police alongside the culprit on his yacht and the police station. He was threatening to shower the police boat with petrol and then shoot a flare onto them. The thin line between comedy and tragedy was all too clear.

Back to Animal Farm. Ian’s mind works logically from one experiment to the next. He is growing a small area of Moringa trees. If you don’t know already the leaves of these trees are being recognised as containing many times the amount of potassium of bananas, many times the protein of meat, many times the vitamins of fruit etc and he plans to add them to the pig pellets which already have chicken feathers and coconut pulp on their list.

I could go on but will end on a sweet note. They make their own vanilla syrup and flavour it with lemongrass, spices, ginger etc and poured on pancakes or over waffles it is delicious and they even fry bacon in it. Rob had some with eggs and toast for his brunch and I had scrambled eggs on a waffle with lemongrass vanilla syrup yum!

It certainly pays to have more than one string to one’s business here. A cyclone or disease are only two of the local factors that can affect demand for what are primary products. The world price of vanilla is as volatile as the stock exchange on the eve of Brexit! In one part of the world $500 can be paid for a kilo of vanilla pods, here it is $250, when the islands are spared cyclones.

It was hot and after a final stroking of Spot’s soft ears we made our way thoughtfully back to the dinghy, discussing what we had seen. That evening we sat in the cockpit, listening to the loud cicadas that start up at 18.46 and stop at 19.08pm or they have recently anyway, and wondered how Ian’s enterprise would fare in the future and whether someone will continue his good work when he retires.