Niuatoputapu (a tongue-twister!!) is the most northern port of entry to Tonga, and is almost due south of Savaii, some 160nm distant. Once we were clear of the wind shadow about 20 nm south of the island, we found the wind just forward of the beam, and with one reef in the main and a reefed genoa, we were sailing comfortably at 7.5 knots.
The passage was just over 30 hours, during which we crossed the International Dateline. No celebrations on this occasion because according to the log we lost a day of our life at about midnight! So for us this year has 364 days…….
Tafahi is the first island a few miles to the north, with a beautiful cone shaped volcano, inhabited by about 90 people. The entry to Niuatoputapu is marked by a pair of rusty pillars, and then marks along the passage, most bent over by the Tsunami two years ago, or missing altogether. The lagoon and anchorage is calm and well protected. We were greeted on the VHF by Sia, a villager who can see the lagoon from her house. She then phones Customs and Immigration on her mobile to let them know a yacht has arrived. Their offices are 3 kms to the west and turn up on the dock in their jeep waiting to be collected by dinghy and taken out to the yacht to complete formalities.
We had not realised that this small island with a population of 750 had been devastated by the Tsunami 2 years ago, with virtually all the traditionally built coastal houses on the north side being washed away, mercifully with only 9 fatalities. But the villagers lost everything, their houses, boats and personal belongings, and were left living under tarpaulins until the outside world eventually heard of their plight. Initially they had tents, until the New Zealanders provided prefabricated houses. Even now the Tongan Government have not provided proper help, they are promising a start on a new village some way up into the hills in December, more than 27 months after the Tsunami. Not surprisingly most of the villagers, who fish, or weave mats and skirts, have no wish to live up the hill, where mosquitoes are far more prolific…..
To the west of Niuatoputapu is Hunganga Island, where Palm Tree Island Resort was located. This also was a victim of the Tsunami, and has not been rebuilt.
We had a great welcome from Sia and her husband Niku, and they provided us with the highlights of our short stay, beginning with a pot luck supper the first evening, in their “yard”, with a BBQ. Lighting was provided by a low wattage bulb run from a car battery. The island has no electrical supply, no land line telephones, and very few families have a generator.
We had happened to arrive at the time of the Celebration of thanksgiving for the survival from the Tsunami (30th September), and also an annual feast of the Catholic church (1st October). Before this Bob, Mike and Hilde from Quicksilver had hiked to the top of the ridge which runs for about 2km along the hill in the centre of the island. The views from the top were rewarding and well worth the arduous climb to get there.
The next day we managed to get a lift to the school assembly hall where the Tsunami celebration was taking place. 17 choirs of different denominations were taking part, with speeches from various leaders throughout the island. In the afternoon there was a rugger match, basketball and volleyball.
The highlight though was the next day, with the annual feast to which we and the crews of all the other yachts at anchor were invited guests. Elaine baked two cakes as our contribution to the fare. The festivities took place on a field the size of a football pitch next to the Catholic church. A pitched shelter made from palm fronds had been erected providing shade from the sun. Apart from an end shelter, where the elders and a visiting government minister imbibed in the national drink, Kava, the rest of the surrounding shelters were used for the “biers”, twin deck tables containing the food for the feast. Each of these was about 12 feet long, and was at least an 8-10 man lift off the lorries.
Beneath the decorated lace netting, the tables were laden with food, on the lower level at least 6 or 7 roast suckling pigs, water melon, crabs, lobsters, chicken, baked taro and on the next tier cakes and other sweets, drinks and bags of crisps and nibbles which the children made a bee line for. We were invited to join a family where the creator of the feast was a chef from Nukualoafa, the main island of Tonga. The food just kept on coming!
After the feast, there was dancing, and to fund raise for the church, participants were encouraged to stick local currency note, the Panga, onto the oiled arms and shoulders of an attractive girl, and later a very young baby who was covered with gardenia flowers. The 6 cruising yachts that were visiting had clubbed together and made a group donation through Sia. An excellent and enjoyable day, and afterwards we were very generously given a whole basket of food to share amongst ourselves.
Our final day on this island was a Sunday, so we joined the congregation at the main Catholic church, to listen to the singing. Though most of the service was conducted in Tongan, the priest did say a few words in English for the cruisers present. An enjoyable way to end our stay.
For all formal occasions such as those we had been invited to, and for church, the Tongans wear Ta’ovala (waistmats) made from woven pandanus, the bark of an endemic tree. Instead of a Ta’ovala, females sometimes wear Kiekie (waistbands) made from woven fibres, seeds and cloth.
With the winds forecast to decrease we left the next morning with Quicksilver, and had an excellent 26 hour passage to Neiafu the main town in the Vava’u group of Tonga.