5 September 2006
Neiafu Vava'u, The Kingdom of Tonga S 18.39 W 173.59
Tonga claims to be the first landfall on earth struck by the dawn sun:
"Where the day begins"
The 250 mile passage from Niue to Tonga should have taken 42 hours but with strong winds and currents we were making 10 knots for a great deal of the trip. We arrived in the middle of the night and "hove to" in the lee of the island waiting for daybreak to enter the channel to the lagoon. Due to the depth of the lagoon, mooring balls are plentiful. The green mooring balls belong to Beluga Dive, the red to the Moorings Charter Co and the white to Sarfais Sailing. Take one and then call in on VHF channel 16 to let them know what number you are on. Mooring are about $7 US a day. If none are available or if you choose you can anchor in the general area.
We had timed our departure from Niue to arrive on a Friday but just before departing we realized that although Tonga is 180 miles east of the international date line it includes itself with the more westerly islands and therefore we were going to arrive on Saturday. This would mean if we "checked in" we would be paying overtime charges. After we made our way up the channel and grabbed a ball, we started to stow the gear when friends warned us that we had better proceed directly to the commercial dock and clear since the rules were being closely adhered to and there were rumors of fines for not checking in on a timely basis. Most small island countries would encourage you to wait until Monday but not in Tonga. There is no government or business on Sundays since Tonga is very respectful of its religious heritage. No stores or restaurants or shops are open, save the hotel restaurants and the Mermaid Bar and Grill. In fact you are to refrain from fishing, swimming and any work or for that matter any fun in respect for the Sabbath. Soon after early explorer, missionaries converted most of all the islands in the Pacific to Christianity and in Tonga the King of Tonga works in close cooperation with "the church" which consist of Methodists, Jehovah Witness, Latter Day Saints, and others.
About 170 islands make up the Kingdom of Tonga, most of them uninhabited. The Kingdom ranks among the wealthiest nations in the South Pacific when you include the royal family who owns multiple palaces and properties all over the world. The king's personal wealth has been reported at around $350 million USD. After walking through the village it appears to us that the wealth isn't widely distributed but the people appear to be content. Tongans also rank among the largest people on the planet, beginning with their king, who was once cited by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's weightiest monarch, at 444 pounds. On the day we entered the Vava'u group of islands the crown prince was entertaining at a local restaurant, The Compass Rose. A special chair had been flown in to accommodate the prince's girth so it appears that the crown prince will be large enough to fill the shoes of the king when the time comes.
The national dress of Tonga is the skirt worn ankle length by women and knee length by men. Over this skirt women wear a woven or decorative waistband known as a kiekie and the men wear a woven mat called a taovala. This decorative pieces is worn as a sign of respect for one's elders and respect for the royal family. The waistbands are keepsakes handed down from one generation to another.
Okay back to the story, clearing in requires you to take your boat to a large ugly commercial dock which is a real pain in the neck but doable with the help of friends ashore. Three agents representing customs, immigration and quarantine showed up to collect their overtime fee. The fee was $20.00 USD per officer which is as close to robbery as you can come. In fact it was robbery since the quarantine agent took our Tim Tams. In case you don't know what Tim Tams are they are chocolate covered cookies that René has become addicted to. If we hadn't had another package the guy would have never made it off the boat. But this "taking of things" is not unheard of in the Pacific. Since the early exploration by Captain James Cook visitors to the South Pacific have complained about the practice of natives wantonly stealing things. Cook in fact was killed in pursuit of the Hawaiians who made off with his pinnace or dinghy. On Sunday the whole day is filled with church bells and melodious choir music from the many different churches surrounding the harbor. It is really quite wonderful but somehow you can't reconcile this dichotomy. Islanders have adopted the protocols of Protestantism without adopting the tenets.
In the harbor was the sailing vessel Convergence owned by the founder and chairman of West Marine, Randy Repass. The 65 foot boat averaged 200 miles per day on its passage to the Pacific last season and he and his family are on board for a second season. The owner is not only enjoying the boat but is doing some product analysis while cruising. He has found the number of system failures on the boat unacceptable. Well no s....., welcome to cruising. Anyway the boat is very beautiful. We didn't have the opportunity to be invited aboard.
Humpback whales come to the waters of Tonga during the winter to mate and the following year to give birth to the calf. During the summer they migrate back to Antarctic. In 1966 the humpback was designated an endangered species and the population is presently believed to be around 10,000. NOAA prohibits boats approaching closer that 100 meters and only at idol speed with no abrupt course changes. This is the reason that when you select a boat to go whale watching in Tonga you look for something fast. Hey the Tongans don't abide by NOAA which is part of the US Department of Commerce. This is Tonga and the king makes the rules. Well we signed up after getting great reviews from our fellow cruisers and it was an amazing trip. You do get close, like you could actually step off the boat onto the whale but hey wait why not just jump in the water and swim with them. Whale watching is an all day event and well orchestrated by the boat captain. The typical boat holds about ten people and is fast and agile in order to get to the locations fast and to maneuver close. If whales are found sunning around the top of the water and don't seem to mind the intrusion then into the water you go. Fortunately we saw many whales and had a great day but unfortunately we didn't find any whales who wanted to join our synchronized swimming team or would let us join theirs. It sounds careless and irresponsible but the whale watching boats are a well organized bunch and they know, " no whales.... no whale watchers". And the good news is that they haven't lost too many tourist either. In fact BBC spends a great amount of time and money here watching and documenting the humpbacks. One of their main objections is to video a mother giving birth to her calf. Watch for the humpback series on Blue Planet video.
Neiafu the small town on Vava'u is a very busy place filled with a variety of activities to keep.
you busy and on the mooring ball. For five Tongan dollars you can sit on a sofa at the Paradise Resort Hotel and watch current movies while drinking you favorite beverage. On Wednesday night at Tongan Bob 's Mexican restaurant there is a female impersonator "drag queen" show. It is one of those wild and crazy events that you wouldn't be caught dead at back in your home town. The entertainers really put on a show pantomiming their favorite tunes and playing up to the crowd. On Friday evenings the Mermaid sponsors a sailboat races. I was drafted crew on the S/V Safarsi but somehow the mooring lines entangled in the propeller and we spent the next hour trying to free the boat. Rene and the other ladies went to the Compass Rose restaurant where they were drinking sundowners and cheering us on. It was a good example as to why the US lost the Americas Cup. If you want there is something to do every night (except Sunday) so you can see why letting go of the mooring ball can be difficult but let go and cruise the islands. If you happen to be in Tonga when there is a full moon, then you should attend the "full moon" party at anchorage #16 which will be announced on the net carried on VHF channel 6 at 0800. Moorings Charter Co. have numbers for all of the anchorages and so as not to embarrass yourself trying to pronounce the name of the island or bay. Some of the anchorages are so close that you can go for a day and return to your mooring ball by dusk if you chose. We were invited aboard S/V Blue Sky to a nearby anchorage one Sunday (it is o.k. to have fun at islands that are uninhabited). So the kids could be loud and play on the beach. I don't believe that we have ever seen so many "kid" boats. We had a cookout on the beach the other night and 15 kids were there!
The day after we left Tonga there was a radio announcement that the King of Tonga had passed away. He had been ill for a very long time. Before he died it was rumored was that he would be removed from life support so many cruisers checked out because we weren't sure what the mourning period would be and how that would affect government offices. Friends still in Tonga told us that there would be a 35 day mourning period where everyone is asked to wear black and that bars and restaurants refrain from playing loud music.
For more pictures just click on the arrows to start the slide show and then click on the square to stop the slide show.
If you're headed that way:
- If you can, remember to buy adaptor plugs for the different electrical systems you will encounter along the way. They are readily available but it is just another trip to a store or tow to tract them down. Also spares on all 110 v items are impossible to find.
- You can apply for your Australian visa on-line. We suggest you do this well in advance especially if you want an extended stay. We were required to have chest X-rays because we had spent more that 3 months in a developing nation. and also required to submit financial information due to the length of stay.