“Sure, we have a piece of line you can have for your cow. No problem!” We had just finished a breezy clearance process into Tonga after a 2-day sail from Niue, and we smiled as we obliged the random request and pushed off the cement wharf.
Ahead was a mooring field where, for just $6 per night, we could bob among rows of dozens of sailboats off the town of Neiafu. We hadn’t seen this many boats in ages and quickly discovered that the cruising community in Vava’u shares qualities with the one that flourishes in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Mexico! Although, like us, most boats were passing through, more than a handful of expats had made Neiafu their permanent home and many returned year after year from New Zealand, to enjoy this beautiful corner of paradise.
We had the good fortune to meet one such fellow as we tied up to our mooring.
I was at the helm, Neil was on the bow, and a small row boat was passing by. Serendipitous so, as Neil accidentally plonked our boathook overboard in the process of securing the mooring. Given that we had yet to pump and launch our dinghy, retrieval would have been a bit of a trick as it began to drift deeper into the bay. Neil enlisted the aid of the row-boating passerby who scooped our boat hook from the water, inspected it and proclaimed, “Nice boathook,” and continued his row toward his boat, Ichi Ban! Smirking, he rowed to our transom moments later, returning the wayward boathook. We wouldn’t reconnect with Ichi Ban John until Fiji a month or so later. Little did we know that this silly moment was the first seed of a friendship that would continue to grow even as we eventually built our life in Australia…
The early morning cloud cover was burning off beautifully. Energized by our arrival and a cat nap, I tugged on a green dress and put on the dangly shell earrings I had purchased in Maupiti. I was giddy and raring to toast our safe passage and to celebrate our third wedding anniversary, which coincided with our arrival to Tonga.
Utterly spent from the passage, my lover had collapsed into a state of unconsciousness on the settee.
So, I settled for a beautiful lunch at a cockpit table set for one. Freshly caught yellow fin sashimi and a very large beer kept me satisfied until he awoke just before sunset.
Tonga’s second-largest town
Neiafu is a bit lackluster, though not without charm. Butter fat pigs trot across streets lined with rubbish, which are tread upon by tidy school boys and girls in sky blue lavalavas and burgundy pinafores. Cold beer and decent Wi-Fi can be found in a handful of restaurants that perch over the water’s edge, and on Sundays, singing drifts across Port Refuge Harbour from the open doors of St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Vegetables were beautiful but prices were surprisingly high and stock variable. We had to return to the market three consecutive mornings before we finally managed to get a dozen eggs! Early bird gets the worm, as the saying goes, and we were simply too slow to rise each morning before they sold out.
The only South Pacific nation never ruled by a foreign entity, the Kingdom of Tonga is a constitutional monarchy. The nation’s wealth is concentrated in the monarchy, who are infinitely rich; meanwhile, most Tongan people live in poverty. The majority of aid for the general populace come from faith-based organizations, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, of which roughly 60% of the population is a member, the largest proportion of any nation globally (about 20% are active members).
We later learned that the man who needed rope for his cow was chronically short of rope, and requested it from every sailor who tied up at the wharf. We also discovered that a $10 fine we had been levied during what was otherwise a very smooth check-in process wasn’t charged to another boat that had arrived the same day. While we felt a bit swindled, the reality was that Tonga, like every place, had its complexities and knowing those complexities offered some context to what we had experienced.
Feasting at Vaka’eitu
The draw of Vava’u is not Neiafu, which serves as the administrative center of this island group. One of the South Pacific’s leading charter destinations, the Vava’u group comprises 50 islands, all of which are just hours, if not minutes, apart. It is a day sailor’s dream and protection in almost any weather condition is easily found. And so it was that with a few fresh vegetables and a dozen eggs, we slipped our mooring and set out to explore the Vava’u Group.
A two-hour sail in refreshingly calm, protected waters and we were swinging around our anchor at Vaka’eitu (Anchorage #16). Ashore we met David and Hika, whose family resided in a lovely home nestled in the trees.
We had heard that David and Hika sometimes host traditional feasts for travelers who visit Vava’u, and we were delighted that there were several cruising boats that were keen to share the experience.
We enjoyed a memorable evening eating suckling pig and other traditional foods and listening to David and Hika sing, as their daughter proudly demonstrated cultural dances. Her hand swayed in the shadows of the nearly moonless evening, synchronously telling stories and communicating things we couldn’t understand. She wore a purple blouse imprinted with flowers and a shimmering purple skirt that covered her ankles. Over the illustrious fabrics, a straw-colored woven mat called a ta’ovala was tied tightly around her waist.
It was a beautiful evening.
The family had a small powerboat, their transport to town, which had fallen into a state of disrepair and was making their life difficult. Cost and parts access made repair challenging, so Neil spent the better part of two afternoons bobbing in the bay alongside David and attempting to resurrect the motor.
Meanwhile, I tended to boat tasks and beachcombed with Hika.
Hika has a grin that stretches ear lobe to ear lobe; the kind that evokes an instantaneous smile in return. She is beautiful. Her giggle is contagious. She’s teaching me about searching for clams at low tide on the rock-strewn beaches that stretch before her home. –Jessie
We planned to leave to sail for another anchorage, intent on seeing more of Vava’u’s gems, but I was enjoying spending time with Hika and learning from her. I even saw my first-ever octopus! I was struck with the familiar feeling that there is never enough time.
There is never enough time.
But the little time we had in Vaka’eitu, was time very well spent.