Sunday, 16 February 2014

TONGA. The last kingdom in South Pacific

The kingdom of Tonga, situated in the heart of the South Pacific, is the oldest and remaining Polynesian monarchy and the only Pacific nation never brought under foreign rule. It occupies 691 sq km of land, spread over 700 000 sq km of ocean. New Zealand lays 1300 nm to the southwest.
From all 171 coral and volcanic islands only 36 are inhabited. We sailed to the main Tongan sail hub Neiafu, also second largest town in Tonga (population of 6000) but with the biggest port in the county. Nested between several low hills, Neiafu is the only town in Vava`u islands groups with any kind of bustle, especially around the market on Saturday. Nuku ‘alofa, in Tongatapu group is the capital.

SORSHA - Sailboat number 3
It took us exactly 8 days to get to Tonga from Raiatea (French Polynesia) on board a 52-foot Sorsha. We didn´t stop at Cook island and Niue, like most of the other sailboats do but headed straight to Vava`u group in Tonga. We had crazy seas most of the time, just like the captain and his girlfriend unfortunately. With 4 people on board and working autopilot, 2 people had to be constantly on watch which was very stupid and quite exhausting because you end up being up on the deck 12 hours a day. The most annoying thing was that during the day it´s completely pointless having two people up just laying on their asses, doing nothing (the autopilot does everything), getting wet and freeze your ass off. Sorsha (Columbia 50) is a very low and wet boat. If the sea is rough (and it was most of the time), you get constant splashes of cold sea water over you and get completely soaked. And the combination with the temperature drop at night makes it even worse. So that makes the watches pretty unpleasant. Of course according to the captain (like every captains I met), it´s the most beautiful boat on earth. At least we got there quick, that´s for sure. 

On watch. The autopilot does everything
The first and only fish on this crossing

The galley
Always looking for the most comfortable position down
Romping about in the kitchen
Fast asleep after the night shift
Playing the most ridiculous game. Whatever kills the time to get through the days...

enna and Luis

Somewhere in Vava`u group

Steve happy that we are almost there

Almost there

Tonga is the first country west of the International Dateline and calls itself “the place where time begins”. It is important for mariners calculating celestial navigation because when arriving from the east, like we did from French Polynesia, it is the next day already. We skipped Friday, October 25th and had to accept it was already Saturday in Tonga. And apparently you can’t check in on Sat so no one is allowed to leave the boat and get to land before the quarantine and check in clearance. We took the risks of course. No way after spending 8 days at sea (most of the time rough) to be so close to the land and not set foot on it. And there were so many boat, I’m sure the local authorities can’t remember who checked in and who didn’t.

It was very close to the beginning of the hurricane season and there were maybe only 2 weeks left before every boat sailing to new Zealand or Australia leave. We spread the word we are looking for rides in exchange of help and also mentioned that on the cruisers channel in morning.
Port of refuge, Neiafu, Vava'u group
One of the few restaurants run by locals - Ene’io Botanical Garden

And back in the water...
I was getting really really dark. My leg next to Steve´s. 
I tried to explore as much as possible, anything that was reachable by foot or vehicle. Actually the locals are pretty happy to give you a ride, more cars stop that don´t. Tongans are welcoming, relaxed and happy. They enjoy the beach, collecting from the sea, singing and dancing. They are also very religious and Sundays are dedicated to the church, no one works here. Mode of dress is conservative. Girls wear way too much clothes in my and everyone else’s opinion. It’s extremely hot but they still wear long trousers and long sleeves (it is very important that your shoulders are covered).  Most Tongan women would swim fully clothed, I don’t know how they do it. They also wear distinctive mats, called ta’ovala, wrapped around their waists.
240 kg sword fish they`ve just caught and chopped into steaks
Ready for church. Check out the shoes
Domestic pigs play an important role in social obligations mainly for gifts and exchange at feasts, weddings and funerals. Almost every rural household raises pigs in a free range system. They are basically everywhere, just like the chickens in French Polynesia. 

Typical pet in Tonga
La mascota
Typical on Sunday. Sometimes the young ones are not that lucky
Tongan Pa`anga
People are very poor here, you can tell from the houses they have and the cars they drive (if they have one). The national language is Tongan but English is widely spoken and is becoming more common as an official language. Driving is on the left hand side of the road because the country was under the protection of Britain for a while. It was interesting how everything was relatively expensive in the shops and at the same time you can't find anything, just the basics. All the cruisers were hanging out in the bars and restaurants, all run by foreigners. It was very sad for me to see that the locals didn't own any business, they only worked for foreigners.
School girls I asked if I can take a photo of them

The Ark gallery
In search of a possible ride to New Zealand, I also went to Luituma bay on the other side of the island. We were supposed to speak to a captain looking for crew to NZ but at the same time the area was worth to explore. Pretty interesting was the Ark gallery. It is the studio, gallery and floating home of self taught artist Sheri and her husband Larry. Sailing into Tonga for the first time in 1983 was like coming home. Inspired by her surroundings, Sheri captures the spirit of the Tongan people and their way of life in her original paintings. The Ark Gallery also offers rowing and sailing dingys, snorkling, windsurfing and kayaking and cyclone moorings. 
Loituma bay in Vava`u
Loituma bay and the Ark gallery
The Ark gallery
Sherri in her floating home

In the mean time, I found a boat going to new Zealand soon. Michael and his boat Patanjali (Catalina 42). Another American, I knew it was a bad sign. On top of that, 3 people from other boats warned me about him. But I really wanted to leave as soon as possible so decided to ignore the warnings and just go. Anyways, I moved from one American boat to another. Or "out of the frying pan into the fire" (или от трън та на глог по нашенски)...
The beach at Tonga beach resort
Tongan Beach resort

On the way back from Tongan resort to Neiafu
Random pregnant Tongan girl who I convinced to walk with me until we get a ride. She invited me to stay with her family until I find a boat to New Zealand
I met the first Spanish boat since I started sailing. There was a group of young guys and a girl that I was seeing around the restaurants or using the internet. At the end I couldn´t resist and went to their table and introduced myself. In a place like Tonga where almost everyone is American or Canadian (and a few French boats that decided against staying the hurricane season in French Polynesia) I was jumping with joy that finally found some Spaniards. All young and from my favourite Barcelona. Looked like they also were happy to meet me because they invited me for lunch to their boat IBERO. I was expecting something like Karaka but it was another level. The boat was nice, big and clean, everyone had their own cabin and they had all the needed toys and comfort. Except the autopilot which was broken. Making friends with them, they offered I join the crew for the passage to New Zealand. And here is where I made the mistake. Having promised to Mike from Patanjali, and having learnt my lesson on Karaka with 7 people on board I decided to keep my promise to Mike and rejected that fun and tempting offer, which I regretted so much later.
First Spanish boat I come upon
It was Montse´s birthday
Montse and David (Ibero's captain)
At Veimumuni cave
Next few days I spent hanging out with the guys from Ibero, still exploring the island, talking to locals and getting back to Sorsha just to sleep. Then I moved to Patanjali, to do my last crossing to new Zealand. It looked like we might have a good weather window for the crossing and most boats were setting sail to leave. We did some provisioning at the supermarkets, I got some fresh stuff from a local guy who gave us lots of fruits and veggies in exchange of my last 6 packs of cigarettes that I still had from Panama (the usual deal I make with locals), did the outward clearance and immigration and were all set to go.
The crossing from Tonga to New Zealand is a tricky one; infamous for unreliable weather and boisterous sea conditions. The distance is over 1200 nautical miles from Neiafu to Port Opua in NZ or a bit more if you stop at Minerva reef. 
On November 4th 2013, I left Tonga on board a 42-foot Patanjali to New Zealand.

Gave them a few coins and they left happily

At the market
Neiafu. The harbour
Last picture from Tonga on board my new boat

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