Having a birthday on a Sunday in Tonga means no swimming, no paddling, no drinking, no fun, just rest. But we did have a much appreciated visit from Emma and Owen off Dulcinea, a kiwi boat, bearing gifts of pineapple lumps. They arrived in the lull of a five day patch of bad weather. We spent the rest of the day lazing and cuddling – not sure if cuddling was on the list of what not to do.
The following evening Thomas took me to a local restaurant. We’d scooted over a reef to Ha’apai Beach Resort before another shower was about to open down on us. As we ran into the open aired restaurant we dodged the warning droplets of what was about to come. For the next three and a half hours we chatted to NZ helicopter pilots who’d been commissioned to support telecommunication teams erecting a tower on a nearby extinct volcano, enjoying a spectacular freshly made meal, under the roar of a monsoonal type downpour.
We couldn’t even see the anchor lights of the yachts in the harbour, let alone hear the other side of the conversation. We prepared ourselves to rent a room for the night as the task of returning to the boat seemed like embarking on a perilous journey but we averted that when we made a quick dash back to the boat during a lull in the onslaught. Sometimes even going out to dinner is an adventure when you live on a boat. We were delighted with the level of our water tanks as we had unfastened the opening letting the water roll in off the decks. All in all, it was a nice birthday outing.
We’d hunkered down in behind a reef close to the Pangai airport for a week as we waited out the bad weather. Our patience ran out and we decided to make the most of the wind shifting from the north to the east to make our day long passage to the next group of islands. Wanting to leave our reef infested nest in daylight, we waited until we had a bit of sunshine to reveal the danger patches. Qi loves a close reach and soon we were sailing along at high speeds under a full suite of sails. We made in nicely into our anchorage in the Vava’u group just before sunset. We’d had an incredibly fast sail and were relieved to finally be in the sailing Mecca of Tonga.
Desperate for fresh produce, we made our way to the town the next day. Delighted by the range of fruits and veg, I stocked up and enjoyed making a menu plan in my head that would finally have some nutritional value. Other than the fruit given to us in the Ha’apai group, our produce net was rather bare. The capital of this area, Neiafu, had appeared to have gone through a bit of a facelift since our visit in 2014 with the construction of a large white hotel positioned on the water front. This area is the starting point for many tourists coming to Tonga.
The islands are different to the lower two island groups with these been formed from the rising of the seabed during ancient rumblings of the Earth’s crust. Caves and tropical jungle adorn rugged grey islands with an occasional white sandy beach to add contrast to nature’s masterpiece. However, land formation isn’t just a pre-historical occurrence in Tonga with the latest addition of an island appearing just off to the west in January of this year. Certain locations in the ocean between here and Fiji are considered dangerous waters due to the volcanic activity in the area. Tsunami evacuation procedures are clearly spelt out as various points around the islands. The layback life style of the Tongans reflects the locals ease with living in such a vulnerable environment. We chose to adopt their attitude.
We met up with Team Med, a group of young Australians from Monash University volunteering in the town, and offered to take them out for a sail. They enthusiastically accepted and we had all six of them out for a day of sailing, paddling, snorkelling, kayaking and swimming. We took them to Port Maurelle, an idyllic palm tree lined bay with a white beach stretching across its rim on the shore. It was great to chat and hear the dreams and aspirations of this group of substantial young men and women. We returned to Neiafu under sail in the evening and the day was declared a welcome relief to their routine.
During a visit to one of the local cafes we met a group of young Americans chatting over their beverages. I inquired about their reason for visiting Tonga and they announced that they were teachers. Needing to complete the final four in a sequence of six English as another language lessons, I asked if any of them had TESOL qualifications so they could observe me. Peggy, a young east coast girl told me that she did and added that she would be happy to supervise my lessons. As a grateful gesture I offered a sail amongst the islands. It so happened that her two friends who taught in Tongatapu were arriving to spend a week with her and she asked if they could accompany her. We found out that they were a part of the American Peace Corp and enjoyed hearing all about their adventures and responsibilities. They are doing amazing things in the islands from setting up libraries so there are on-going resources for education to teaching English directly in the classrooms. We ended up taking them out for three days.
The first of our days was spent enjoying the waters of Port Maurelle – gotta love that bay. Then we moved to an anchorage where we could access the Coral Gardens. The process for accessing the gardens is a little complicated. We needed to assess the conditions of the sea and the tide level to ensure a safe crossing of the reef to get to the deep side. Several sets of large breakers were coming through and then there was approximately 2 minutes of slack water. I took the kayak over to support the group as they snorkelled. Only Thomas and Melissa made it over between the breakers. After a bit of a snorkel I decided to return to the other side after delivering some fins to Melissa over the reef. I was getting a bit cocky crossing the reef and took a bit longer than I should have to return to the shallow side. A large set of waves came through and caught me mid-journey.
Our kayak is terrible in a surf and I quickly realised that this wasn’t going to end nicely. The kayak slid sideways and then rolled in the white water. I stretched out flat to ride the surface as I was washed overboard to avoid getting cut to pieces on the reef. Thankful for swapping the fins for Melissa’s reef shoes, I found my footing on the rough reef and stood my ground as the next few breakers washed over me, relatively unscathed. I noticed the blue snorkel that Melissa had also given me, floating under the water and reached for it while I was hanging on to the paddle. Triumphant on its retrieval after several attempts between breakers, my heart sank as I looked to the end of the paddle to see that it was no longer attached to the kayak and the kayak was floating about 3 metres away. I madly lunged towards it then realised that my desperation was an exaggeration as the break between the sets had arrived and so I could casually retrieve it.
Being no stranger to danger we decided to take the ladies to Mariners Cave where you swim under a 4 metre wide cliff to reach inside. Once again, the tide is important and we aimed to go on low tide to lessen the distance of having to swim down to the entrance. We had an outgoing tide but it was only half way down. We had previously gone on a low tide and figured on that occasion that it wasn’t too hard and we could manage. Peggy asked to borrow my fins for the activity and I agreed with slight doubt niggling me and tried to evaluate what this meant. I hadn’t done any deep water swimming just with bare feet since I was a kid at the Jim Gardner pool in Ipswich. Still my lungs are pretty good after diving on the bottom of the boat so often so I didn’t give it much more thought. Thomas stood by with Qi and Melissa, Peggy and I swam over to find the entrance. I took a big breath and headed down there. I found it difficult to go deep enough and scooted along the roof of the tunnel clawing myself inwards. The entrance slopes up for quite away and as my lungs were nearly bursting, I was horrified to see the surface of water way above where I expected it to be. I’m not sure if it was an optical illusion or the water level was actually higher inside the cave. A kicked madly to reach the surface and gasped for breath in the musty air of the cavern. There I waited. I wandered how I would be able to return without fins and thought that the tunnel may be a bit too much of a challenge for our visitors. There I waited. No sign of the others. I relaxed and focused on the magical blue light sifting in through the water and the mouth of the cave lighting up the sparse stalagmites. I waited. Finally I decided that they weren’t going to be coming through. I took big gulps of the tainted but precious air and returned to the world. It was much easier going back.
They apologised as after several attempts the task became too daunting for them. I agreed. Melissa said she would go in if I went in again. I kindly declined the offer. I decided that the cave was better attempted at a low or rising tide. We visited the Swallow’s cave where we could swim in on the surface. Here, all the ladies took advantage of the acoustics and belted out a song from the Little Mermaid. They sounded amazing and Thomas could hear it over the chugging of the engine as he stood by this cave as well. This cave was much more spectacular than Mariner’s Cave anyway. Schools of fish swam in the depths and the formations were much more impressive.
Amongst all of this adventure, we have met some wonderful people. The crew of the boat Sea Runner is here in Tonga delivering health care and repairing electrical and technical equipment in schools. We had a wonderful campfire with them on the beach in Port Maurelle where we played the drums, danced and chatted.
There are a number of inspirational people giving up their time and holidays to do amazing work in the islands here. Kudos to them. We have been glad to meet them and support them by sharing wonderful times with them and giving them new experiences. I look forward to my lessons next week with Peggy in her little village on the other side of the island. Lots More Pics below