Tongatapu, Ha'apai and Vava'u (Tonga) 2016

Ocean Child arrived in Tongatapu, Nuku'alofa Harbour, on June 8, after leaving Opua (NZ) nine days earlier. A storm arrived the following day, while we were still at the small boat harbour wharf, where we had been processed by clearance officials late the day before. Ocean Child was exposed to a strong nor-nor-east wind, and moving considerably with the waves, pulling on her mooring ropes. I fell heavily while stepping from the boat to the wharf.

Time moves slowly in Tonga, and medical services are no exception. I waited in the Nuku'alofa Hospital 24 hours for an X-ray, and another 24 hours to talk with a doctor about the results. A "displacement fracture of the left clavicle". I was advised to return to my home base of Hobart for further medical attention. I flew out of Nuku'alofa's airport as soon as I could... arriving in Australia on June 15. My crew Kayla and Kara took a ferry to Vava'u, and Kayla flew home to Hobart from there. Ocean Child lay, lonely and unattended, at anchor in Nuku'alofa Harbour.


I returned to Nuku'alofa on July 16, staying at "Hafu's House" (above) a guest-house owned by the rugby player Will Hafu. Lydia Chaplin (UK) had flown from Fiji and was already there, and my old friend and sailor Dieter Nikolai arrived on July 19. I was still in considerable discomfort from the broken collar bone, but I had Lydia and Dieter to do the heavy lifting.


Nuku'alofa Market, where we bought supplies and (below) small ornaments.


We completed the intra-Tonga paperwork with Customs, and left the harbour before dawn on Friday July 22. We sailed Ocean Child from Tonga's main island of Tongatapu, where 75% of Tonga's population live, to the Ha'apai Island Group, 100 nm to the north, where the total population of the whole island group is less than 8000. After leaving Nuku'alofa Harbour we turned east, leaving via the main channel. Once clear, we set a course towards the north east, actually about 30 degrees true.

Winds were consistent in both speed (15-20 knot) and direction (roughly easterly). I set the mainsail on the second reef, with as usual the Genoa No.2.  We did not have to touch the sails or the autopilot for nearly 20 hours... I was pleased with that. A good trip... Ocean Child was loving it... she hated her lonely stay in the harbour, and I think she was showing off.

In the first few hours after leaving Tongatapu we passed two pairs of whales, both in very deep water. July is the 'season' of the juvenile humpbacks, so I suppose they were teenage whales, although they looked rather large for juveniles.  One pair were doing a lot of tail-slapping, one bringing his tail down hard on the surface of the water, again and again. There must be some special significance to this behaviour...  The second pair, one was lying half on its side, so the white underbelly was exposed, and slapping its large pectoral fin on the water. It looked as though it was waving at us!


We were under sail, and uncertain of our arrival timing, so we did not stop for either pair, even though the second pair was only 100m away.

Below, a chart of the Haapai Group. The main 'business centre' is on Lifuka Island, just north of Uoleva Island. The volcanic islands of Tofua and Kao lie to the top left of the chart (from the iNavx tablet program).

Below, Kao Island after rain.


We arrived at the main island of Lifuka at 4:30 am under a full moon, and anchored just outside the main harbour at Pangai to wait for sunrise.  To get to the harbour we passed through a gap in the eastern barrier reef, luckily for us 400m wide. We had surf breaking over the reef on either side, which we could see under the light of the moon. In the last 500m from the deep ocean to the gap, the depth went from 500m to 20m, and we had a 4 knot current behind us, pushing us through. That's exciting stuff for Ocean Child.

Below... Ocean Child resting in Pangai Harbour, along with the Tongan Navy vessel "Pangai". The wharf is home to a few small wooden local fishing boats, which leave and return early in the morning. There's not much yacht traffic apparently. In fact not much boat traffic. The inter-island ferry makes regular visits. The Yacht Register at the Mariner's Cafe indicated that in winter (the busy season) around two yachts arrive each week. Like the town of Pangai, the wharf area is very quiet, with several businesses closed down, and many deserted houses and other buildings. We eventually found the Customs Office, by which time all customs staff had gone home.


On Saturday July 23, a contingent of the NZ army were departing Ha'apai after helping repair cyclone damage from 2013. The Ha'apai community put on a feast to say thank you.

I had read much about old-time Tongan feasts... this looked rather different and unfortunately more modern! I wondered about the incidence of diabetes...

The feast was enjoyed by old and young...

As mentioned, the town of Pangai, Ha'apai's largest, is slow and sleepy. Below, a typical Pangai beach scene.


Dieter found a coconut on the beach, and turned it into a sailing boat.

Coco Nikolai accompanied Ocean Child for a hundred days and a thousand miles. Unfortunately, on arriving in Australia, she was deemed a biosecurity hazard, and destroyed by government officials.


Lydia photographing Dieter photographing Lydia...

Below, Lydia mending a rip in our Genoa No.2.


Tonga has taken on Christianity with great zest... actually too much really. All work is forbidden on Sundays, as well as loud noise and swimming (seemingly because the Tongans enjoy swimming so much...). So Sunday is a day to be spent with family, praying, singing hymns (himi in Tongan) and eating... then eating some more....

There are many interesting plants here. I wondered if this cycad (below) was native or introduced. As the genus is generally slow-growing, this plant is presumably very old.

You might notice rubbish, old cans, scattered on the ground to the left. There is a lot of rubbish lying around in Pangai.


Below, Pangai's mostly deserted, windy, front beach, open to the south east trade winds...


Tuesday July 26. We looked around the small islands and shoals near Pangai, hoping to photograph humpback whales. During the day we saw 14, mostly travelling in pairs, but always in the distance, so we did not get any photos. We had lunch anchored 300m from the tiny Luahoko Island, which is densely wooded. Many frigate birds, with their long forked tails and slow lazy wingbeats, circled the island. With only one dwelling visible, we thought the island looked like a private retreat... but we have no further information. The island's vegetation is thick and luxuriant, a jungle really, dominated by large trees from the fig genus and of course coconut palms. I thought of swimming ashore, but in the end decided not to. The water was clear, 20m visibility. About 30% live coral cover... not too bad. And many tiny fish, which is what I've come to expect, with all the medium-sized and large animals, including turtles, rays and sharks, removed by local fishing. In local markets the islanders still sell turtle shells to tourists (from green and hawksbill) although these animals are without doubt locally and regionally endangered.. All the large shellfish have gone too, like the clams, as well as sea cucumbers and octopus. Yes... Hardin's tragedy of the commons played out again and again...


Below, from Pangai looking west you can see the distant extinct volcano of Kao Island, rising impressively and symmetrically from the horizon. It's well over 30 miles away, so the base of the old volcano is hidden by the horizon, which is less than 10 miles away. Over 500m in height.


We sailed northwards from Pangai late in the afternoon, travelling all night, with the intention of arriving at Neiafu, Vava'u, just after sunrise. We had good winds all night, and had to make an effort to slow the boat down to arrive on our intended schedule.

The iNavx chart, showing the many sheltered bays and passages of the Vava'u Islands, and the extensive submerged plateau, around 100m or a bit less in depth. Neiafu (the business and tourist center) is where the blue triangle sits.


On our arrival at the Vava'u Islands, these birds spent some time inspecting Ocean Child... I suspect they thought they might be fed. In body shape, although not colour, they seemed very like the Australian Gannet.


Below, a street scene, Neiafu, Vava'u. The car here is an exception.. most are in various stages of disintegration.


Holy door of mercy, Neiafu, Vava'u


Below, Neiafu Harbour, Vava'u. Farther south, about 100 moorings have been provided by nearby businesses to cater for visiting yachts.


Below, fish are sold each morning at the local market, along with fruit, vegetables and crafts, such as pendants and baskets.

We snorkelled at a variety of places (all readily accessible and fairly sheltered) in the Vava'u Islands, but never saw any fish over 50mm in length. Almost all the fish shown in the photo above are slow-reproducing reef dwellers, prone to overfishing. However a catch like the one shown comes in every morning, so there are clearly reef areas where larger fish can still be seen. But where? I asked at Beluga Diving, and was told they take tourists to a reef called Chinatown. Apparently there were no large fish there now, although there had been 20 years ago. As already mentioned, turtles are not protected in Tonga, unlike nearby Fiji. The only live turtles we saw were at the remote active volcano Tofua Island, where we were unable to find a safe anchorage. If we had found an anchorage, we had intended to walk to the volcano's crater lake.

A few kilometres outside Neiafu Harbour lie two famous "tourist" caves: Swallows Cave, which is a large open sea-cave, and Mariner's Cave, which is a 'hidden' sea cave, with the entrance slightly below the sea surface at low tide. Photos of Swallows Cave, below, by Wai Ho.


The islands of Vavau are largely ancient coral reefs, now limestone hills, which lie on an extensive submerged plateau a bit less than 100m deep. 

The smaller islands are deserted, while some of the larger islands contain resorts, like this one below named Treasure Island. Land tenure is apparently a 99-year lease. I believe that foreigners cannot own land in Tonga.


The complex shape of the islands provides many sheltered areas, which attract humpback whales in the calving season (late July to September). Photo Belinda Chant.

The whales really are amazing... we were impressed.

We left Vava'u on August 6... maybe we should have stayed longer....

But we were treated to wonderful sky colours on the way out...