Tonga - Getting the Blues

Tonga - Getting the Blues

The entry into Refuge Bay (Vava’u, Tonga) greets us with lush greenery, palms and forest growing down to the edge of the sea. Volcanic stone reshaped by the continuous waves changes to sandy beaches as we progress towards the refuge. Small hills extend over the rolling land and prevent to see far. The vegetation renders the land an umbrella like cover, only the man made structures blend in with sharp edges and corners, though most homes stand well disguised amongst the greenery. A short, narrow channel with a steep turn brings us into the bay. „Welcome to Tonga“ greets us the customs officer and hands us the many forms. It takes a while to fill in the - mostly redundant - information. But it’s friendly and quick, so we are soon off to a mooring in this 360 degree protected harbor.

Tired after the passage we go to town for dinner. And we surprisingly find beautiful places to eat with exquisite meals. The yachties have attracted a range of businesses, tourists that visit via the small airport add up and as a result a handful of great restaurants are in place. Quite a difference to busy French Polynesia, where food was expensive and restaurants of mediocre quality (contrary to the wonderful Carrefour markets where foods are super nice). So we tried to relax and enjoy. However, we found we did not really calm down, boat projects and housekeeping stuck on our mind, tension remained in the air. The long journey seems to be showing and taking it’s toll. We meet cruising friends, take walks. Still, I do not feel comfortable. I am lacking the energy and lost reserves to tackle even the small challenges. It’s time for a change.

Boat de-toxication. Yeah, get away from it. Take a break. Most people do not understand the work that’s involved to run a safe & comfortable boating operation. I guess only cruisers do, in fact. The strain on budget, the strain on material, the constant dirt, the aggressive salt water, wear and tear, the strain from responsibility, „life and death decisions“, it all adds up and at some point: stop. STOP! So we de-toxed from boating life.

We went to a locally run, calm, sunset-oriented backpacker where we stayed in a simple „fale“ without internet and only candle light at dark. We went back to our boating roots and hopped into the simple kayaks they had there, touring around the islands, discovering beaches and bumping into another remote backpacker in the forest. Our hosts introduced us to the local style to cook and the famous tarot root. Their dog Lucky turned quickly into a good companion. Strolling along we saw simple homes, foreign aid built solar plants and many friendly people. School kids were curious to talk to the strangers and made fun. The days passed quickly, without doing much, and we enjoyed the free range to walk. Not being bound to the limitations of our vessel, hearing the waves splash on the beach while over us in the palm trees the flying foxes had their meals.

Going back to Jade Akka we limited ourselves to a minimum of sailing. Just focusing on what we like to do, we visited four anchorages only: one to see the coral gardens, one to see whales, one to meet friends and one to be on our own. All of them turned out to fulfill their purpose - at least.

Corals in the coral garden are healthy and compare to the other great places we have been. Their exposition to the whales’ singing compensated for the lack of medium or big fish. Moving to an exposed anchorage we remembered our time in British Columbia and the US west coast: whales broaching and whale blows all over the place. Again, the songs penetrating the thick insulation of Jade Akka’s hull added an extra to it. Not to mention the picturesque beaches upfront. Meeting Oso and Merrion again in Hunga we enjoyed great free diving again. It’s a treat to dive the canyons, sandy patches and coral covered drop offs out a Hunga Pass. Again, the whales added their signature: while we snorkeled, three whales made their way into the bay, surprising Karl that stand-up paddled. He was just close enough not to get splashed while we got a bit - actually very - anxious when the whales came our way. They passed in a little distance and we were able to see their huge bodies moving swiftly through the water. A few seconds and they vanished in the big blue. We headed on to a hidden, less popular anchorage to enjoy solitude - and not even the whales showed up.

Tonga is a poor country. As boater it’s easy to miss this fact. You only notice it once you walk into the remote villages like Hunga. The communities do not have many business options. Fishing and tourism are about the most obvious. There’s a lot of fish and sand, palm trees and turquoise waters. But it’s a longer flight than to other such destinations. So it stays relatively calm. However, this does not mean that you would find solitary places easily. Many places are occupied by local families or westerners that looked for the dreamed-of-blue-lagoon to stay at and check out of ordinary life. As we hear, the white sand beaches are also said to be the reefs for the dreams of foreigners. Many places seem to have opened up but did not make it to last.

After ten days in Vava’u we got the impression that we did not find many new impressions. So we decided to see how Ha’apai looks like, Vava’u’s southern sister. Whales showed up all along the way. As we got closer to Ha’apai, it seems they calmed down, being relaxed and just hanging out. Suddenly Isa warned me that there was a mother and calf right in front of us. They would not move, we steered well clear and drifted past. Amazing.

Vavau pictures

In contrast to Vava’u the Ha’apais are low sand bars with palms. On the west side the water is shallow, going down to 100m, the east side is steep and dropping of to a few thousand meters. Reefs extend all around the islands and make them difficult to navigate. So for sailboats it’s the west side to explore. Wonderful clear water, broad sandy beaches, plenty of palm trees and a handful small resorts spread around our anchorages. Corals were mostly nice, but bigger fish was hard to spot. In many hours we saw just a bigger snapper and one white- and black tip shark. Compared to the Tuamotus, it’s a quiet place under water - except for the whale songs! We learn that a big portion of coral died after the effects of a cyclone and above average water temperatures. The broad shapes of the coral skeletons still remain and are well recognizable but life is gone. The algae that lives with the coral retreated, the coral remained trapped in their skeletons. It took a few hours four years ago to destroy these dream like coral-beach-and-palm combination. Palms, people and sand are back again. The corals are the last to recover.

Whales turn out to be everywhere. Snorkeling the reefs I found myself a few times in vicinity of the giants. However, always in safe distance - this also meant I did not see them under water, though. Seeing the humps while swimming is impressive nevertheless. Days passed and our onward planning kicked in: where do we spend the last quarter of the year? What will we work (if at all/if possible) down under? Unfortunately Isa slipped on the stairs and hurt her ribs, a painful accident, so we decided to anchor at the main village for a rest, internet research and calls around the world. Pa’angai is the main village in the Ha’apais.

In Pa’angai we found several chinese shops, all stocking the same items. Top up for our cell phone and 4G connection is available, too. And as usual in Tonga, a variety of churches line the streets. Everything looks well kept or quite freshly painted, so we wonder if the cyclone has brought some advantage at last, too. Given the little options for business here, the 4G infrastructure, the relatively new cars and the well kept bigger buildings in combination with some foreign-aid-signs we conclude that there must have been some external support.

As surprising as in Vava’u, the restaurant we have a dinner one day turns out to be serving excellent meals. It’s mentioned in all the guide books we have, also in the one dating back to 1992, and the stories we read in the internet about it seem still valid. Mariner’s Cafe as the place is called still is the „oasis“ it was called. A notable addition to this restaurant is the ice cream shop a little south west. For few pa’anga you get excellent ice cream in excellent cones. Yeah, Tonga, always a surprise when it comes to food.

By the way, did I mention the whales? At our anchorage at Ofalanga we had a resident family and a visiting family checking out Jade Akkka. The families consisted of mother, young and the escort. Even though they came „close“, they were still too far to see from in the water. We enjoyed the view from as high up as possible, as to see these huge bodies over the white sand. When the sun was out and at the right angle, we made them out while under water. But in general, as big as they are, when they dive, they are invisible.

Haapai pictures