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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Tonga Time-Warp: The Kinda Friendly Isles

The trek to the customs office did offer a good time to stop
and enjoy the flowers, passionfruit flowers in this case

In gratitude for the feast Tongans feted him with, Captain Cook dubbed Tonga, “The Friendly Isles.”  According to Lonely Planet, what Cook didn’t know was the real reason for the feast was to rob his boat whilst he was busy feasting, to be followed by the murder of him and his crew.  Thanks to the ineptitude driven by disagreement amongst the Tongans on the how to execute the plan, Cook sailed off demurely, one could argue, fat, dumb and happy. 

Today, “Friendly Isles” or not, Tonga is not a major tourist destination, nor is its infrastructure set up to be, though it’s trying.

We checked into the relatively remote island of Niuatoputapu (asked “very sacred coconut), population 800-900.  From the anchorage, it’s a 3 km walk down a hot dusty road to Customs and Immigration (the health department is closer in, tucked behind a church and inside a schoolyard). Both buildings bear no signs stating their purpose or hours of operation, though they are among a few with flying a Tongan flag outside. 

Both the Customs and Immigration officers on Niuatoputapu
who came aboard were women, something
Wayne found novel enough to photograph.
If you’re lucky, more likely if you arrive amidst a posse of other yachties (like we did), you might be able to arrange to dinghy the Customs and Immigration folks to your boat from the nearby dock. Customs and Immigrations does not have their own boat, nor do they arrange for a ride from any of the local boats, as we’ve experienced on other islands, such as Galapagos and Panama (though Panama charges cruisers for their water taxi).

If you’d like a tour, Sia, who handles part of the check in process is the local “arranger.”  Don’t make the same mistake I did (in the interest of coordinating plans with several folks first), not committing to arranging for a hiking guide (advised on the Soggy Paws Compendium due to the trail’s passage through private lands) when given the in-person opportunity to make that date and time arrangements.  No one monitors VHF on this island, so using that is futile.  As our first stop, we had no Tonga phone SIM card, nor are they available on Niuatoputapu, though mobile phone use on the island is rampant. 

After a long hot walk to the Customs and Immigrations office, I discovered it was closed. Outside the closed building, three girls from the nearby school chatted me up in Tongan.  “’Oka ‘iau taha’oku lea faka palangi*?  [“Do you speak any English?]” I asked, consulting my very limited Lonely Planet Tongan language cheat sheet.  Two girls nudged the third, the tallest of the bunch.  “Yes;” her one word response in English.  “I don’t speak Tongan,” I explained.  End of conversation.

*Palangi is translated to Westerner, though ironically we’ve traveled over 92 longitudes Westward to Niuatoptapu from Florida. Palangi appears to be the term used to indicate any Caucasian, and many are likely more likely to arrive from further West New Zealand and Australia or perhaps China.

Meanwhile, the bank* next door was open, so I enquired about Customs and Immigrations, noting I was looking for Sia.  “The office is closed for Coconut Day,” they informed me, apparently not a holiday that affects the bank.  No one in Customs and Immigrations mentioned the closure the day prior when I was there. 

*where money is left out atop desktops local accountholder transactions are recorded in passbooks and there is no computer or printer and I later learned in Nieafu we were given currency due to expire within the month.

Kindly, the bank folks tried phoning around on my behalf to reach Sia, to no avail.

“Go by her house,” they urged.  Sia pointed her house out to us on the whirlwind island tour we were fortunate enough to partake in when we first arrived, groggy from our overnight passage.

Niuatoputopu TONGA’s rather inconspicuous
Customs & Immigrations office and bank.
The best instructions I was able to get to Sia’s were, “In the village [there are three on the island – the one Sia lived in was closest to the anchorage, furthest from the Customs and Immigrations office, but I didn’t remember that], the house past the fenced house [nearly all houses were fenced] past the Catholic Church [one of several churches on the island, no denomination obvious from the church exterior].”

Eventually, I found it.  Fenced with a locked padlock on the gate and Sia’s truck parked inside the locked yard.  No response to my “Hellos” except to see a fellow disappear inside about a block before I got there and several dogs leaping through a gap in the fence to gleefully chase two pigs across the adjoining field.

Niuatoputapu TONGA schoolgirls,
English-speaking but too shy to speak it.
We were holding off leaving Niuatoputapu until we hiked its ridgeline, but I was done chasing down a guide for the hike.  Also rejected were snorkeling in the lagoon, which appeared nearly bereft of life, and too chalky to offer good visibility.  We’d already explored the atoll in the lagoon twice. We were too pooped on the day after our arrival to partake in the morning church service followed by the umu feast with the other 6 boats of cruisers there when we arrived. Afterward, for us, plans to partake in the local island culture just didn’t gel.

Peregrine, now the only other cruisers at Niuatoputapu were busy doing boat work.  We’d already finished our planned boat work; Wayne handily tackling the most critical -- re-cetoling our exterior woodwork.

Monarchy & technology mix on Niuatoputapu TONGA with the King’s
welcome banner contrasted with mobile phone communications center
and the solar-powered streetlights.
The next day we returned to check out.  “The person to take care of that is not here,” we were told by the three other gals there.  When will they be back, we asked, and were told “In an hour or so; they’re at lunch.”  It was Friday.  We planned to leave over the weekend, and the office is closed then.  An hour and a half later, we were checked out.

Health Center; another unsigned and inconspicuous
Niuatoputapu officially required cruiser stop.
All we needed were the standard Southeast trade winds to re-establish themselves  with enough East in them as our trip to Tonga’s beloved Vava’u cruising grounds was nearly all due South.

Pergrine crusier Gretchen refuses to watch the Health Center
tv broadcast while her partner Dirk can’t help himself from
eyeballing the women’s wrestling competition.
Alas, like the sailboats there when we first arrived, we were in for a wait.

Niuatoputapu is a pleasant enough spot.  But if other cruisers with limited time to cruise Tonga were to ask us whether to break up the sail to Tonga by first stopping at Niuatoputapu, I would advise them to continue straight to Vava’u, unless maybe they’re part of a bigger, culturally curious group. Niuatoputapu’s a good place to get boat work done with minimal distractions (assuming you have everything you need with you to do the work), far more pleasant than being downwind of Charlie-theTuna-breath in e-coli water waters of Pago Pago and unlike Suwarrow, relatively shark free. 

I found this to be the most picturesque of the churches on the island;
many of the others are post-Tsunami rebuilds or very very plain.
Leaving the Niuatoputapu, however, we saw our best-ever goodbye…. Plenty of humpback families cavorting in the seas between Niuatoputapu and nearby picturesque silhouette of the extinct volcano island of Tafahi.

In Vava’u, Tonga, we are likely to be in a better place to enjoy local culture and hospitality.  Here the passages are short, there are a number of villages welcoming cruisers, and there plenty of other cruisers around to instigate a more worthwhile cultural exchange.

Peregrine anchored at the atoll off Niuatoputapu; a great place
to get boat work done undisturbed and whale watch humpbacks
fringing the nearby reef.
Location Location
We are currently in Neiafu, Kingdom of TONGA (S18.39.842 W173.58.915).  This was written at our first Tonga island stop, Niuatoputapu (meaning 'Very Sacred Coconut') (S15.56.395 W173.46.125).  Anchor to anchor, we sailed a little over 200 miles, a 2-day 24/7 sail to get to Niuatoputapu from Pago Pago, American Samoa, then another 2-day, 24/7 177 mile sail from Niuatoputapu to Neafu Tonga.

Communication Access
While there was cell phone coverage, there was no wifi in Niuatoputapu, so posts were written awaiting arrival and wifi access in Neiafu, the Vava’u islands of Tonga, 177 nm from Niuatoputapu.

Our wifi access in Tonga will vary.  It’s very expensive and slow, so most likely posts will be set up when we’re in Tonga’s more populated areas.  Once we get to New Zealand in November,

Cruising Progress by the Numbers
As of our start, December 7th 2014, from Jacksonville FL NAS, USA until our arrival on Sept 16, 2015 in Neiafu, Tonga -- ~9 months, we’ve spent about a third of our time --118 days -- sailing and covered 8,711 nautical miles.  The prior 2 years combined, we sailed 3762 miles.  By the time we arrive in New Zealand in November, less than a year from when we set out, we expect we’ll sail over 10,000 miles this year.  That’s a lot of miles for a boat with a hull speed of 7 knots; we usually sail far slower than that.