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Tonga, Vava'u Group,  Neiafu, September 15-22, 2006  by Dagmar

On September 12th we left Western Samoa to sail 350sm to Tonga. We heard that the king of Tonga, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, just passed away yesterday at the age of 89 in a hospital in New Zealand. So we did not know what we had to expect as foreigners or how they call us "palangis" in a kingdom that is dominated by monarchy. While we sailed towards Tonga we had to change the time, ahead for 13 hours. Tonga, geographically east of the dateline, changed that technically to be on the same day as all their immediate neighbors, such as Fiji and New Zealand.  

Since a lot of weeks that was the first time again that we felt really seasick during a crossing. Sometimes you really hope it will be improving with every new trip on the water and that you get more used to the crisscross waves, the strong winds, the roller coaster ride on LUNA. We were happy that I prepared a meal already at the anchorage, so we did not had to cook. That's sometimes really impossible, because everything is flying around in the boat anyway, the "spaghetti on the ceiling adventure" again. And we were asking us why we were doing that.

But we really must say that it is so rewarding when you reach your destination at the end. The kingdom of Tonga is composed out of four major island groups which are from North to South: the Niuas, Vava'u, Ha'apai and Tongatapu. The island group we wanted to reach first was Vava'u at the northern windward end of the kingdom of Tonga. In the morning of September 15 (we crossed the date line and skipped the day of September 14) we saw the island group on the horizon. 

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When entering the bay we were greeted by two humpback whales, a mother with its calve. From July to November, Vava'u is visited by the South Pacific Humpback Whales. The mammals use the sheltered bays and waters to introduce their calves to the ocean. We were still far away with our boat , but so close to whales we had never been, even not with the whale watches we did with the Pacific Whale Foundation on Maui. Amazing, apart from their weight, how gracefully they were moving thru the water. And then another whale jumped in the next bay....

We continued sailing along the coast towards the harbor of Neiafu, the principal center of the group. In honor to the dead king we raised the Tongan flag only halfway. When we tight the LUNA at the wharf to clear into the country, 5 Tongans came on board, one each for Customs, Quarantine, Immigration, Port Authority and one from the Health Department all dressed in black, wearing "tupenus", wraparound skirts similar to the Samoan "lava-lavas" with "ta'ovalas", distinctive pandanus mats wrapped over the skirts, see the pictures. Because of the mourning the whole country is wearing black for a month. So Soleil and I are wearing tupenus, too and the darkest clothes we have. After we had cleared in, we tightened the LUNA up on a mooring in the bay, anchoring was impossible because it was too deep. Looking around we realized that we reached the Third World again. 

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The Tongans who are traditionally large people are very happy and friendly. "Malo e lelei", Welcome.......

The Vava'u Group offers over 50 different anchorages at different islands and bays. So we left the harbor of Neiafu on September 17 to sail to one of the most westerly anchorage, Foe'ata, the blue lagoon. 

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While we anchored in the lagoon, we already saw whales outside the reef and very close by. We went there by dinghy, very slowly not to scare them away, shutting of the motor and drifting with the current. The whales stayed close by, a mother and her calve. She was the size of our boat LUNA, the calve almost 4m long. We took our snorkel gear and went very slowly in the water. And there they were, swimming under the surface, the calve protected under the mom, just leaving her and swimming on top of her, when it had to breath. What an amazing experience. Soleil was very scared in the beginning, because they are so huge under the water and because they were not afraid, they stayed so close. 

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The next day we continued to another anchorage. Here are so many to choose from. We sailed to the small island of Ovalau. What a perfect spot...but this opinion changed in the following night radically...for windsurfing and kite surfing. 

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The first time ever the whole de Zwart family went windsurfing. I enjoyed it so much to cruise with Soleil.

Close to the evening the wind increased very much...it started to rain...in the meantime we had 35-40knots..still increasing. While the island is so small we were getting strong windwaves from both sides. Suddenly the anchor started dragging and then we were drifting in the bay with wind speed of 45-50knots, in the gusts up to 60 knots, pouring rain. It was pitch black around. Luckily we had our chart plotter where we could check the incoming track into the bay, so we could guess where all the reefs were. We had to be careful not to end up on one of the coral heads. The only lights to be seen were the ones from the two boats anchoring next to us. Therefore we motored behind them for 3 hours in the storm until it went down to 35 knots and we could anchor again. We were soaking wet in spite of all the rain clothes we were wearing. We had a hot cup of tea to get warmed up. It was already midnight and we were tired but now we took anchor watch the whole night...the night before Soleil's 8th birthday. So I took the time in the night to decorate the galley with balloons and ribbons, preparing the breakfast table...I was anyway to scared to go to sleep. Soleil slept thru all this.

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The following morning, September 21st, Soleil's 8th birthday, Bart and I were really tired but proud of ourselves that we made it out of the storm with no harm to our LUNA. A strong coffee really did, wake me up, so we had Soleil's birthday celebration, a nice breakfast with cake, presents, a treasure hunt...but no nice weather at all. In the morning when we checked our dinghy, which we tied in the back of the LUNA, we found out that it must have turned upside down during the storm, the tank and the paddles were gone. So it was pretty obvious that the motor was soaked with salt water. That needed a check up before we could use it the next time. One of the two boats in the bay lost its dinghy in the storm and after breakfast we decided to go back to Neiafu because the weather forecast didn't look to good for the next days and we couldn't use our dinghy anyway.

Lifting up the anchor was another challenge, it was wrapped around a coral head and took us 2 hours to figure out how, because it was to deep to dive down. Then our electric anchor winch gave up...that was a really hard task for Bart after that night to pull up the whole anchor chain manually. Back in Neiafu we got some help from the boat crews on "Kupere" and "Dutch Touch", so in the afternoon Bart had made new paddles out of wood and we brought the motor for the check up and cleaning to shore.

Next morning we went to the local market. The variety of fruits you can buy is not so big, but they have lots of watermelons, bananas and papayas. You can buy a palm leave woven basket filled with 12 papayas for 7.- pa'angas = US$ 3.50. That's incredibly cheap, they are very sweet and big as a rugby ball. 

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Then we went shopping in town and are standing suddenly in front of Lynn, a friend of Annette and Vince from Maui. They, Lynn, Kurt and son Keith moved here last year from Maui, running the "Vava'u Scooter Rental" business in Neiafu. I heard from Annette, that they were living on Tonga now, but with 170 islands belonging to the kingdom of Tonga, we didn't expect to run into them like that. They are renting a house and living a very happy life here on the island enjoying the quality family life they are having now. 

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Later that afternoon Bart came home with a really special present for me...from one of the best carvers here on the island he bought the wooden sculpture of a whale mom with the calve on top...sooo beautiful, I love it.

I explored the environs of Neiafu by jogging along the harbor- and beach roads. The Tongans do a lot of farming with really simple tools. The whole family is on the field, covered in black and wearing their pandanus skirts. The following day we leave for the anchorage at Tapana Island for a Tongan feast, no music and dancing because of the mourning for the dead king, but excellent finger food on banana leaves. We were greeted by Maka, who was inviting us to join a "kava-ceremony". We sat down on pandanus mats under an open roof covered hut. Kava is made from the root of the "Piper methysticum shrub". 

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Here in Tonga this powder will be mixed with water in a special "kava bowl". Once the liquid mixture is ready for drinking, it's poured into a bowl made from an empty half coconut shell, which serves as a cup. Kava looks like a mud colored liquid. The order in which kava is drunk varies, usually the chief of the village drinks first. As well as being used as a welcome, its used to seal contracts, alliances and to commemorate births, deaths and marriages. If you are asked to drink kava at a village you can consider yourself honored, never decline it, its as if you decline friendship. Even when it tastes disgusting, gulp it down and appear impressed. Kava makes the eyes sensitive to glare. If the brew is strong enough, your lips will go numb and cold, like after a dental injection, your limbs will feel heavy, your speech becomes quiet and slow. You just want to lay down and relax. The brew we tried, was a mild one, so we experienced only a little numb feeling on the lips and tongue. The brew didn't look inviting at all and tasted muddy, rooty with a strong taste of green tea. Then we could taste different Tongan food, mussels, octopus, lamb, chicken, fruits and salads. It was really delicious.

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On September 25th we checked the weather in the Pacific's again. There was a big high pressure system between New Zealand and Tonga. It looked really stable, so we decided the same day to leave for New Zealand. It was really early in the season, but Bart has to leave Auckland/New Zealand on October 22nd for Cape Town/South Africa, to work for the German SURF Magazine again. We thought we gone need around 10-12 days for the crossing. So we would be early in New Zealand to still get settled there in the harbor of Whangarei on the North Island before Bart has to leave. The weather in Tonga was still rough, lots of wind, 35-40 knots and swell. 


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