Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tonga - Vava'u Group (2011)

We left American Samoa and set sail for Tonga on Friday, September 15th.  The winds were expected to be light.  They were almost too light, but the forecast for the next five days didn't show any bad weather, so we decided to go for it and deal with a slow boring passage.  The first day and a half brought winds from the east at 10 -12 knots, and they continued to lighten by Saturday.  We hoisted the spinnaker for a few hours, but it was hard to keep it full, so we eventually just turned on the engine. 

Late that night, the winds increased, and we were able to kill the engine and get the genoa and full main back up again.  Unfortunately, they continued to build to 20 - 25 knots with gusts over 30.  Even worse, the winds shifted until they were right on our nose.  The last 18 hours into Tonga were rough and wet.  There were periods of heavy rain with poor visibility, and we found several leaks that needed repairing. Sailing into the wind isn't fun, as the bow is constantly being buried in the waves, and all the spray is blown back into the cockpit.  

However, the rougher the conditions on passage, the more relief it is when we get into port.  Needless to say, we were really happy to arrive and anchor just before sunset in the calm and protected waters of Neiafu, Tonga after three days at sea.  Actually, we arrived four days after leaving Pago Pago, since we crossed the international dateline during the passage.    

view from Mt. Talau
The next day, we tied up alongside the dock near the customs office.  The dock is meant for larger commercial vessels and not small sailboats.  So, Andrew stayed on board to fend off the dock while Di cleared in at customs, immigration and the port authority. 
In Neiafu, there is a large mooring field right in front of the town.  When we arrived, no mooring balls were available.  Anchoring in the mooring field would have been a challenge, so we ended up anchoring out across the bay for a couple days and working on projects, including fixing some of our leaks and fiberglassing our dinghy oar that broke in half in American Samoa.  After the oar was repaired, we made the long row across the bay to check out Neiafu.This is the principal city in the Vava'u group, which is the only island group we visited in the Kingdom of Tonga.  Vava’u is the second most northern of four island groups that have a combined total of 176 islands, of which 52 are inhabited.  There are a little over 100,000 people living in all of Tonga, but most of those live on the island of Tongatapu, near the capital.  This is in the southernmost island group, which we didn’t visit. 
Vava'u is also the most popular cruising ground as there are about 50 islands and you can find good protected anchorages for just about any weather.  There is also easy access to stores, restaurants and wifi in the town.
On our first visit into Neiafu, we walked through town and then out a couple miles and up to the top of Mt. Talau.  It was a nice way to stretch our legs, and the views of the islands were great once we reached the top.  There was even a radio tower on top that Andrew climbed halfway up to get some good pictures of the harbor and the surrounding islands.  We then made our usual stop by a restaurant with wifi to catch up on emails.  It surprised us to learn that most of the restaurants in town were owned by ex-pats from Europe, New Zealand and the US.
We stopped by an ATM to pull out some of the local currency, the Pa'anga, so we could do some provisioning.  They have a few small grocery stores in town, as well as a bakery and a decent market, with fresh fruits and vegetables as well as local art.  After we caught up on email and had done a little provisioning, it was time to head out to explore the local anchorages for a few days.  We were anxious to get back in the water again and spent a lot of time snorkeling. 
Neiafu market
It had been over a month since we completed our open water certifications in Bora Bora, so we were really looking forward to doing some diving in Tonga.  We met Stu and Fran, two cruisers who decided to stay in Tonga for a while and use their catamaran Two If By Sea for charters and diving trips.  We signed up for one of their diving trips, along with another German couple.  It was our first time to sail on a catamaran, and it was easy to see why they are becoming so popular.  The motion was nice, without the rocking back and forth like we do on our monohull. 
Our first dive site was in a coral garden at about 60 ft deep, and the coral wall was beautiful and the fish plentiful.  One big difference between this dive and those in French Polynesia was the lack of sharks.  For some reason there are not many sharks in Tonga, at least we didn’t see any while snorkeling or diving.
We made it to the second dive site around 3:30 pm, and hopped into the water.  Two large coral heads rose from the sea floor 75 ft below to within 20 ft of the surface.  This was our first experience diving with a significant amount of current, and it took some getting used to.  Most of the dive was with the current, and Andrew stayed busy snapping pictures as we drifted along.  When we surfaced, it was surprising to see dark clouds looming on the horizon and lots of thunder and lightning.  We all got out of the water right as it started pouring rain, and headed full throttle back into town.
diving in Vava'u
While in Tonga, several cruisers had recommended a guided trip where you can snorkel with the humpback whales.  These whales come through Tonga during their annual migration, which covers thousands of miles every year.  They travel from the cold waters south of New Zealand in the summer up to the tropics, where they give birth to their calves before heading back in October or November.  This is one of the only places in the world where you can snorkel with whales, and there are just a few outfits licensed to take people out to see them.  We were lucky enough to be there at the same time, so we decided to take a tour with Dive Vava'u.  When we signed up, it turned out that our trip was the last of the season, as the whales were thinning out fast. 
Our excursion left about 9 am that morning on a dive boat and we spotted two humpbacks within about 20 minutes.  We stopped at least 100 yards from the whales, as they don't like the engine noise, and we quickly put on our wetsuits and jumped in the water.  We swam over to them, but they weren't visible until we were within about 30 ft.  It was a bit of a shock to see such a large animal right in front of us as we swam through the water.  It turned out that we found a female and her calf.  It was hard to gauge how big the whale was, but the females are generally around 50 ft long and weigh about 40 tons. 
The mother was apparently asleep, but the calf was not.  It was swimming all over the place, and several times passed within a couple feet of us.  It would swim around the mother and rub up against her, and every once in a while the mother's big eye would open for a few seconds.  We were in the water for an hour and a half, which is the longest they let people swim near the whales to avoid interrupting their normal behaviors.  As soon as we pulled away, the whales dove down for a feeding.

swimming with humpback whales
Apparently, the type of encounter we had only happens once or twice a season and is hard to top.  At that point, the wind and seas were picking up, so rather than bashing our way further to try to find more whales, our guides decided to head back to town with a quick stop at Swallows Cave for a snorkel.  This is a cave on the side of Kapa Island, which is named for the birds found inside.  The water in and around the cave was remarkably clear, and it was easy to see the bottom 70 ft below. We snorkeled for about 45 minutes inside the cave, topping off a great day on the water.

snorkeling in Swallows Cave
One evening, we anchored in the lee of the small uninhabited island of Lape.  We were the only boat anchored there, and a small fishing boat approached Saviah as we were sitting in the cockpit enjoying the sunset.  There were a couple of boys and a guy named Salteki, who was the town officer of a village on the island of Nuapapu, across the bay.  They were getting ready to go out fishing, and we talked to them for a while, and then traded some fishing hooks for a bunch of bananas and pineapple that he had with him. 
On the other side of Nuapapu, there is a cave that you can snorkel in, called Mariner's Cave.  Other cruisers had told us the cave was a "must see", but most people approach by dinghy from the closest protected anchorage, which was a mile or two away.  We didn't want to row that far in our dinghy.  So, we asked Salteki if there was a way to walk across the island of Nuapapu to visit Mariner’s Cave from shore.  He told us to come to his village the following day, and he would have somebody guide us over there. 
The next morning, we packed up our snorkel gear and rowed over to look for his village.  We tied up to a pier and found a dirt trail that led up the hill to where Salteki had pointed the night before.  After about half a mile, we found a village and walked in.  We asked the first guy we saw if he knew how to get to Mariner's Cave.  He didn't seem to understand anything we said, but motioned for us to follow as he led us quite a ways through the village before going into the backyard of one of the houses.  He then pointed to a guy who was putting food into an umu, which is a hole in the ground with hot embers that they put food in and then cover to slow cook.  We went over and explained how we had met Salteki the night before and were looking for a guide to take us to Mariner's Cave.   He told us his English name was Andrew (can't remember his real name), and he finished putting the food into the umu, covered it and told us to follow him.   He explained that he was one of the few people in the village that spoke English, and that is why we were brought to him. 
He led us across the island, through all kinds of fruit trees.  We passed a horse and her foal that were tied to a tree right outside the village, and he asked if Di would rather ride the horse.  She decided to go for it, and he threw a blanket on its back before helping her get on.  The baby horse followed right behind all the way. 

hiking on Nuapapu
After walking for about thirty minutes, we made it to the edge of the island, where the vegetation was really dense, and it took a while to find a good spot above Mariner's Cave.  The locals don't hike to the cave, so there isn't a trail for the last 100 yards.  When we came out through the vegetation, we were right over the cave, although it isn't possible to see from the cliff above.  We unpacked our snorkel gear and jumped off the cliff into the water, about 15 ft below. 
Once in the water, we swam over to the small X spray painted on the cliff wall.  This marks the cave entrance, which is a hole in the wall, the top of which starts about 5 ft below the surface of the water.  We were told that you swim down 5 - 10 ft, and then forward another 15 ft through the tunnel before coming up into the cave.  We dove down a couple times to take a look at the entrance.  It was easy to see where it started, but because there is no light coming into the cave, you could only see a couple feet in front of you. 
It took a few minutes to work up the nerve to swim into this black hole and hope that we could see well enough once inside.  Eventually we took a deep breath and went for it.  Turns out it was no problem, and 20 seconds later, we popped up inside the cave, which was really dark.  After a few minutes, our eyes adjusted, and the stalactites hanging from the ceiling about 40 ft above us were visible.  There is an interesting phenomenon that happens inside the cave.  The air is trapped inside at a constant volume, and the pressure rises and falls as ocean swells push water into the cave, which then quickly recedes.  As the air pressure suddenly increases, your ears pop and a dense fog is created, limiting visibility to only a few feet.  Then it clears a few seconds later. 
After about ten minutes inside exploring, we decided to head back out, as our guide Andrew was waiting for us at the top of the cliff.  Swimming out was much easier, as we just headed for the light outside.  Once we emerged, we stared up at the cliff wall, wondering how we would get back up again.  From our previous sailing trips by the cave, we knew that it would be a challenge to get back up, so we brought a rope with us.  Andrew found it and threw it down to us and pulled us back up the cliff.  Fortunately, the Polynesian people are very strong.  Otherwise, it would have been a very long swim back to the other side of the island.
After we got our snorkel gear back in our backpacks, we headed out on the trail and returned to the village.  We went back to Andrew's house, where the food in the umu was ready, and he invited us to stay for lunch.  He pulled off all the blankets, tarps and banana leaves and pulled out all kinds of food.  He had cooked fish in banana leaves, cassava (a starchy vegetable like potatoes), and papaya cooked in a pot with onions and coconut cream.  He didn’t have any dishes, but instead empty coconut shells served as bowls, and banana leaves were the plates.  We sat under the tree in his yard and enjoyed a really good meal.  There were eight piglets in the yard, and they smelled the good food, slowly inching their way toward us while we ate.  Andrew tossed them some cassava, which they happily (and loudly) smacked on.  It was a quite an experience!

traditional Tongan food cooked in an umu
Andrew explained to us that the village doesn't get many visitors.  It is quite small, and they don't have running water or electricity anywhere on the island.  In fact, they don't have any lights, so we wouldn't have even known it was there if we hadn't run into Salteki the previous day.  Very few of the residents ever leave.  The men do the fishing and harvesting of fruits and vegetables, and the women make baskets and tapa cloth, either for their own use or for sale in the markets back in Neiafu.  Andrew led us around the village to visit some of the houses.  In the first one, three women were busy making baskets.  They were excited to see us and happily posed for pictures.  
After that, we stopped by another house, where we watched a woman making tapa cloth.  It looked very tedious, as she stretched out the cloth by beating it over and over with a mallet.  She showed us some of her finished tapas, which were huge (20 ft by 20 ft).  When we left, she gave us some mangoes to take with us.  
He then wanted to take us over to meet the kids at the local primary school.  We went into the classroom, and the kids were very excited to see us. The teacher explained that he was teaching the kids how to speak English, and he wanted each kid to do an introduction for practice.  Each one stood up and told us their name, the name of their parents and siblings, the name of their teacher and what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Most of the boys said they wanted to be soldiers, and many of the girls wanted to be nurses.
After the introductions, they performed four different songs for us.  During a couple of them, two of the girls danced and banged together coconut shells.  We really enjoyed our visit to the school, and the kids really enjoyed getting out of school work for half an hour. 

visiting the village on Nuapapu
After that, Andrew led us out of the village fully loaded with bananas, coconuts, papayas and mango.  We rowed him out to Saviah to give him a tour and gave him some fishing lures and rope as a thank you.  Earlier that morning, we walked into his village, asking if someone would show us the way to Mariner's Cave - he just dropped everything, spent several hours guiding us through the island and the village, and then fed us, on top of giving us as much fruit as we could carry, and asked nothing in return.  The generosity of these people is really amazing.  
The thing we most liked about cruising in the Vava'u group in Tonga was the abundance of anchorages in a relatively small and well protected island group.  You could get to any of them from the main town of Neiafu in a day, most within a couple hours.  This also means that you can get back to town quickly for more provisions.  We generally spent about a week hopping from anchorage to anchorage and then would head back to town for a couple days.  Because there were so many good anchorages, most of them weren't very crowded, and we spent lots of nights in some great spots all by ourselves. 

beautiful anchorages in Vava'u
Another great thing was the number of really good snorkel spots, and we spent several hours a day in the water.  Most of the time, we could just drop anchor and jump over the side, finding nice coral patches around the boat.  Other times, we would row a short way in the dinghy and drop our little anchor over the side.  I think we spent more time in the water here than all of our other stops combined.  There was so many colorful fish and coral, although we were a little surprised at how few big fish and sharks we saw in the water.

snorkeling shots
 One thing we noticed by being in the water all of the time was that our anchor was always lying on its side on the bottom of the seafloor.  We purchased the anchor from another cruiser in Pago Pago and were told it was a genuine CQR, but after closer inspection it appears to be a knock off.  We dove on it every time we dropped it in Tonga, and it never set.  Once we spent 20 minutes with one of us at the helm backing the boat up, while the other was in the water watching the anchor.  Even though our scope was 10-1, it just kept skipping across the bottom.  We will definitely have to find another anchor when we get to New Zealand.  Fortunately, the anchorages in Vava'u are protected, and we didn't drag much.   
Throughout our time in Tonga, the 2011 Rugby World Cup was underway in New Zealand, and rugby matches were often shown at most restaurants in town.  Despite not knowing the rules, we caught a couple of matches and found we enjoyed watching it.  We even made a special trip back to Neiafu to watch the championship game between New Zealand and France.  The crowd was heavily weighted to the New Zealand side, and the All Blacks managed to pull off the win.
After about a month in Tonga, we knew it was time to start getting ready for our most dreaded passage yet, which was the trip to New Zealand.  We scrubbed the bottom of the hull, worked on stowing things for the passage and started studying weather and the route.  When we were a few days away from being ready, we headed back into Neiafu to check the weather via the internet.  As we pulled in, we could tell people were scrambling to clear out and head for New Zealand.  We pulled up some forecasts and quickly figured out why.  There appeared to be an ideal weather window, and it would soon be closing.  It was clear that we wouldn’t be ready in time.
So for the next couple days, we worked hard to be ready to leave at the next good opportunity.  Unfortunately, another window didn't come for another week and a half, which seemed like a month.  It was made worse as we heard what great passages people were having that left the week before.  We finally got a weather window 10 days after arriving in Neiafu.  It wasn't ideal (lots of head winds), but it was one we thought we could live with.   It was hard to believe our six months in the tropics were over, and we started preparing ourselves for the cooler weather of the temperate latitudes and even fired up the heater to burn all of the dust off it.  We had a great six weeks in Tonga, and on November 2nd, Saviah set sail for New Zealand.