Tonga revisited – 2012!

It is interesting to revisit an island group that we know, when the pressure is off, and take our time to visit favourite places, and also explore new islands and anchorages.  When we were last here, the next stop was New Zealand, and we were learning about the passage south, the weather, and what to expect when we arrived, so our focus was very different!

No such distractions this time, but we did have to order a new Harken genoa furling block to be shipped from NZ to Tonga, the old one had decided that after 1.5 circumnavigations and 12 years that it had had enough!

Elaine also managed to visit the local radio station, above the laundry where she became a regular visitor!  She also spotted the local schoolgirls in their immaculate uniforms, and local Tongans arriving by boat at Neiafu for either work or the market.  No rules for safety at sea here!

Local DJ

School’s out!

Water Taxi!

We quickly made new friends with whom we went diving, and spent the last few days at anchor off the Reef Resort, a few miles outside Neiafu.   Here Pipistrelle became a magnet for squid that seemed to be attracted by the black hull beneath the waterline.

Reef squid (Sepiotheutis lessoniana)** in clear blue water – note starfish on bottom!

The name Reef Resort belies what it is!  There are 4 smart bungalows, and a bar/restaurant overlooking a sandy beach and a very attractive largely deserted bay, with a lot of excellent coral only a short distance away.  The resort is run by Josef and Renate, from Germany and Switzerland, so Elaine felt very much at home!  Their cuisine is excellent, so when we were not dining ashore, we were enjoying ice cream with Kahlua on the terrace overlooking the beach!

As so often happens we spotted new fish that we had not seen before, a pipe fish, and some sort of sea slug.  Our good friend Juerg in Switzerland has identified them for us, and the proper names have now been added.   We also found large tiger cowries living on the sea anemones in the coral.  As they were all alive, you will be pleased to hear that they were replaced as we found them!   Not sure how long they will survive though with Tongans around, because a lot of the normal sea life is depleted or non-existent here through their activities.  Interestingly, Juerg has informed us ” it is slightly uncommon that the whole shell is visible.  Normally, cowries pull up a living cover, part of their so-called mantle, over most of their shell.  Some cowries (not normally the tiger, though) are still endangered by collecting, both live for marine aquaria and killed for conchyliologists (shell collectors) as shells from naturally dead animals are often blemished.”

Black spotted puffer fish (Arothron nigropunctatus)**

Tiger cowrie (Cypraea tigris) **

Possibly a grouper

Sea cucumber (possibly Stichopus chloronotus) **

On a walk to Port Maurelle we spotted this spider, which had spun a huge web across the path we were walking along.

Incy wincy ….

We were delighted to meet up with our German friends on Abora and Wasabi who arrived at the anchorage from Niuatoputapu the day before we set off.  We spent a lot of time sailing with them last year.

The wind finally backed to the ESE, allowing us a 24 hour weather window to sail south to the Ha’apai.

It was an overnight passage, with the wind hard on the nose almost the whole way, now not our style of sailing if we can avoid it!   But we had no sooner anchored in 18 metres off Ha’ano Island, than we were invited to join a 50th birthday celebration that a Kiwi couple were holding on the beach.  Kiwi hospitality for you!   They were sailing in company with two German yachts and set off towards Vava’u the following day.

The anchorage was fairly exposed, so we moved a few miles south to Nukunamo Island, and found the most amazing anchorage surrounded by coral, with only enough room for one boat – Pipistrelle!  This was a totally new experience for us, and one that we were expecting.  The Ha’apai is not visited by the majority of yachts because of the danger of navigating and anchoring amongst coral.  The golden rule is not to leave an anchorage before 1000, to arrive before 1600, and always to time the departure and arrival so that the sun is behind us.  Only this way can you see the coral heads, or ‘bommies’ as they are known.

View of coral from aloft – note curvature of earth too!

Wow!!

The photos taken from the top of the mast with the shadow of the boat on the bottom show the clarity of the water, and the coral that was surrounding us.  As you can imagine the snorkelling was superb, and we found types of coral that were new to us.

We had also been given some amazing charting software that links in to the GPS, with a Google Earth chart as an overlay.  This shows exactly where we are in relation to the coral.  The only downside is that currently we cannot have it in the cockpit in front of Bob on the helm, but it is useful in planning the passage in, anchoring, and sailing back out again.  The headsets we have for communication from helm (Bob) to bow (Elaine) that we bought a couple of years ago have certainly come into their own!  Click link below to view images…

Nukunamo Island anchorage 1

Our next stop was Pangai, the ‘capital’ of the Ha’apai, where we checked in, did some minor provisioning and the inevitable laundry.   By capital, imagine a couple of banks, the post office which also acts as Customs, five Chinese stores in small corrugated iron shacks, the Mariner’s Café, the only restaurant/bar in town and a tiny fruit and vegetable market.  A supply ship turns up at the dilapidated wharf about once a week bringing cargo and passengers from the other main Tongan islands.  Last week there was a crisis because the whole island group had run out of eggs, and was waiting eagerly for new supplies.  Interestingly though chicken roam around freely and cockerels call, they are not corralled to produce eggs!

Chinese store, Pangai style!

Mariner’s Cafe – hub of the yottie universe in Pangai!

Tsunami warning sign. Problem … no hills to run to on Lifuka Island!

A few words here about the Kingdom of Tonga might well enlighten some readers.  The country relies on remittances from Tongans living overseas, and foreign aid from Australia, NZ and China to survive.  Whilst there are a number of expats here building various different businesses, and a large number of Chinese, the Tongans appear indifferent to any thoughts of building an economy, or improving their lot.  The nation therefore seems to be very poor, the streets dirty and full of potholes, and large numbers of buildings in a state of dilapidation or collapse.  We have also noticed a complete absence of turtles, and the reef fish are not nearly as abundant as elsewhere in the Pacific.  We now understand that this is because the Tongans fish for anything, and the Chinese buy turtle carapaces, grind them into dust before exporting them to China as something else……They also collect sea cucumbers, which are then sold for a pitiful sum to the Chinese, who dry them and eat them as a delicacy.  There is a long way to go in educating the Tongans…..

Once the visitor escapes from Nukualofa, the capital of Tongatapu and the Kingdom of Tonga, Neiafu in Vavau, or Pangai in the Ha’apai, the beaches and protected anchorages are wonderful.

Immediately south of Pangai is the island of Uoleva, and on the leeward side a large protected bay with a beautiful sandy beach. The only habitation is two resorts, the Serenity to the south, and a backpacker’s to the north.  Again the word resort is misleading in European terms, visitors stay in either prefabricated decrepit huts at the backpackers, or falas amongst the palms and vegetation at the Serenity.  All very rustic, but extremely friendly.

Uoleva Beach – Pipistrelle at anchor

There are also very few other yachts here, currently there are only three of us, and we can look west from our anchorage and watch whales either playing or slowly cruising by, with a background of one extinct and one active volcano.

We have had a marvellous 2 months in Tonga, and it has been well worthwhile visiting the Ha’apai, where we have been watching as well as swimming with humpback whales.  We are now on our way to Fiji, from where we will post the next blog update about our final day in Ha’apai which was very special and our whale watching experiences.

** Footnote:  names of fish in English and Latin kindly provided by our friend Juerg Straub.

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