We reached Vava’u, the most northerly group of Tongan islands, just before sunset on 18th September 2019. We were exhausted from our very difficult 16 day passage from French Polynesia and were very tempted to break our first golden rule: never enter an unfamiliar anchorage at night. However, we opted to round the northern point of Vava’u and seek shelter in Vaiutukakau Bay on the north-western side, taking three hourly watches to make sure we didn’t drift out into the current and rougher water.
At first light we sailed into the scenic waterways of Vava’u and passed a number of islands, heading for the main port, Neiafu, where we had to clear in. We tied up to the main dock and were informed by the friendly customs official that we had missed a day along the way. Tonga is the first country west of the International Dateline, which meant that we were now 11 hours ahead of our family and friends back home, instead of 11 hours behind.
After a few abortive anchoring attempts we were happy to tie up to a mooring buoy near our friends Francois and Rosemary on ZigZag, who were moored amongst about 50 other yachts. This is a busy season for Tonga as many cruisers who are on their way to New Zealand for the cyclone season spend the last few weeks of the Pacific cruising season here.
Tonga is indeed wonderful cruising ground! The 171 islands of the Kingdom consist of three island groups, Vava’u being the most northerly one. Less than 40 of these coral and volcanic islands are inhabited.
Tonga is situated in the heart of the South Pacific, east of Fiji, south of Samoa and 1300nm northeast of New Zealand. The Kingdom of Tonga is the last remaining Polynesian monarchy and the only Pacific nation that was never under foreign rule. Today the Tongans are a proud nation and are as friendly now as when Captain James Cook visited the Ha’apai group in the 1770’s. He was so overwhelmed by the friendliness of the islanders that he called Tonga “The Friendly Islands”.
In Neiafu we managed to get a new linkage welded for the port steering before we set off to explore the islands and waterways of Vava’u.
Volcanic ash that settled on the islands hundreds of years ago makes the soil rich and fertile. The islanders live mainly from coconuts, mangoes, paw paws, bananas, bread fruit and root types that grow prolifically. Free range chickens and pigs are to be found on all the islands and on some islands they keep cattle. Obviously fish makes up a big part of their diet.
Ha’apai, Tonga’s middle group of islands, is only a day sail south of Vava’u. The islands in this group are more widely spread and have many potentially hazardous reefs in between therefore I was looking out from the bow and Pete had Google Earth charts open, as well as our Navionics charts on the chartplotter whilst we cruised this area. Judging by the number of shipwrecks we’ve seen this was prudent.
Traditionally the Tongans cook with fire, using a wooden pole to spitbraai pigs and coals to heat an underground earth oven. Root vegetables are put into the earth oven first, then the taro parcels. They also serve raw fish in coconut cream and spices, with breadfruit pudding for dessert.
Tongan people are very religious and traditional and are distinguished from other Polynesians by their dress. For formal dress (equivalent to a coat and tie for us) men wear woven mats (called Ta’ovala) wrapped around the waist as a sign of respect. The female equivalent, which is a waistband with woven patterns hanging down, is called a kiekie.
Our last stop in Ha’apai was the idyllic and picturesque Kelefesia. This uninhabited island with its white sand, turquoise water, limestone bluffs and shelves of coral was truly intriguing. Rocky patches in the anchorage are covered in coral of all possible shapes, varying from ice crystals to brain, lettuce, fungus, dried twigs and rose shapes. This included both soft and hard coral in a variety of colours.
Our last stop in Tonga was the Kingdom’s main island, Tongatapu, where we had to do a few admin chores and wait for the right weather window before sailing to New Zealand to avoid the Pacific cyclone season. Tongatapu means “sacred south” and this southern island group not only hosts the royal residence and burial tombs of ancient kings but also Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, where we had to clear customs and immigration.