Vava’u Days (written 11 November at Limu Island, Ha’api Group, Tonga)
We cruised the Vava’u group far longer than we ever imagined. The calm protected waters for flat sailing, sweet kiteboarding spots, beautiful snorkeling, and protected anchorages lulled us into a vacation-like mode. For even as the weather changed, the seas thrashed, and the winds howled, only a short sail from any anchorage in the group was the South Pacific’s only natural hurricane harbor. We took refuge a few times in Neiafu’s protected harbor, using these opportunities to re-provision, get our laundry cleaned, and catch up with cruisers who we had gotten to know in one anchorage or another.
Within Vava’u, our longest “passages” were from the West side of the archipelago to the East, a half day sail away, or a day of tacking if the wind was on the nose. The first times we journeyed from one side to the other, the numerous marked reefs and occasional unmarked ones added stress and drama to the sail. (Stories from veteran sailors – the kind who round Cape Horn – who had run aground navigating a channel kept us on the lookout and peering at the electronic chart.) We often sailed to an anchorage when others stayed tucked into port, for when the trade winds were reinforced by a high pressure system to our south, kiteboarding called. Several times we reefed down to sail in 25 knots of wind and made our way eastwards to the kiteboarding site of Kenutu Island, short tacking to avoid the reefs and line up our entrance through narrow channels to the anchorage. A nearby sandbar which appeared each low tide was the perfect launching spot for Anson, Devon and Mark to develop their kiteboarding skills. This remote anchorage, challenging to access and enter, is a favorite of cruisers looking for rugged beauty and fewer crowds, as well as kiteboarders looking for their daily adrenaline rush. We shared evenings around beach fires, and on the spit the kiters gathered to share tips and resources with our crew. We got to know a number of folks, including Michelle and Steve, an inveterate kiter, aboard the catamaran Citrus Tart (the one that would have claimed line honors in the race we won, had they not been hosting the sponsors).
We got to know very few Tongan people during this time. Partly this was a factor of the cruising grounds: Kenutu is uninhabited, as were most of the islands off of which we anchored to snorkel and explore. But also daily interactions were limited by a reticence that was explained by the Samoan-American manager of one waterfront cafe as “shyness.” As we walked along streets, our greetings of an English “hello” or a Tongan “Malo e lei lei” were rarely acknowledged or reciprocated. Perhaps it was shyness, or perhaps fatigue, sprinkled with resentment, as their home and daily life was transmuted into “vacation paradise” for the small, but economically significant, tourist industry. In stark contrast, families who depended upon cruisers for part of their livelihood were outgoing and welcoming, seeking anchored boats out by kayak and inviting all aboard to a Tongan feast.
We had heard that such feasts were not to be missed, so we joined about 20 other cruisers at David’s home on Vakaeitu Island for an evening of suckling pig roasted on a home-made spit over an open fire (young men of the family spelled each other as they rotated the stick for hours on end). David’s wife had worked in a hotel in Tonga Tapu for many years, so the numerous side dishes she prepared were straight off a hotel menu crafted for the palangi (foreigner) palate. We were hoping for local dishes, harvested from their farm, such as breadfruit and coconut wrapped in taro leaves and slow-cooked in an ‘umu or underground “oven,” but were presented with dishes like potato salad and Szechuan chicken. The only taro wrapped package was filled with slow baked corn beef hash, a staple of these islands, with large tins available at every small store.
We had visited David’s family several days before the feast, when asking permission to traverse their land to hike across the island. There we saw his wife, assisted by several children on break from school, transform branches cut from their trees into the finely crafted waistbands worn by government officials and others required to, or choosing to, dress in Tongan style. Children used sharp knives to cut the bark from the branch and then carry the naked wood to the lagoon to soak for several weeks. Once softened, the wood separated into strands, which could be twisted into fine cord, then braided into a waist band, with decorative loops. (We have fond memories from a decade ago of watching a similar process in Kangra, India, as our friend Joginder’s father sat on the verandah of their home twisting fiber from water soaked wood and ultimately producing strong rope to be used around their farm.) The family sold these decorative belts in the market to those required to wear them, but without the time and/or knowledge or inclination to make their own. Through the feasts, fishing and crafts, the family earned enough income to pay for school fees and other essentials, their farmlands and the sea providing the core of their subsistence needs.
Shortly before leaving the Vava’u group we anchored off of Naupaupu Island and gave a bit of outboard oil to Sareta, who was preparing his boat for the two-hour journey to the high school in Neiafu (most villages have primary schools, but children reside with family members in town during their secondary school years). Sareta’s wife deftly braided pandanus fronds around the wooden supports for the wooden biminy top, which provided shade for this otherwise open launch. Once each post was clad in greenery, she added red and yellow flowers to complete the beautification.
Sareta invited us to tour his farm (he’s a local councilman and a large landowner), and so the next day we journeyed ashore. He and his 13 year old son mounted horses, a pony following behind, while we chose to walk to their extensive plantations. We asked endless questions about the swidden agriculture/slash and burn farming methods through which the family transformed impenetrable jungle into fertile, intercropped fields of banana, plantain, papaya, yam, cassava, sweet potato, several varieties of taro, pineapple, sugarcane, mulberry (for tapa cloth), and several varieties of kava (for the production of the kava drink, central to both ceremony and celebration). Mango trees lined the forest side of the path, with small fruit beginning to ripen; coconut trees were dotted along the road. We brought pancakes for them to enjoy and returned with our arms laden with bananas, papaya, coconuts, yams and plantains. We kept protesting that they were too generous, and reduced the quantity down to a mound we could transport by dinghy, but later we redistributed the bounty among cruising friends, for we never could have consumed it all before it rotted in the hot, humid weather.
We encountered such generosity each trip to the open-air vegetable market in Neiafu as well. There women sit at long tables covered with piles of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cabbages, beans, onions, potatoes, eggplant, papayas, melons, banana, taro, sweet potatoes and fresh herbs. Over the weeks of cruising Vava’u, we returned to the stall of one woman, and soon she piled on extra fruit and veggies after we completed our large purchases. Again we graciously protested to keep the quantity down – sometimes it seemed we would have equal portions of bought and gifted produce. Upon our departure we learned that she had journeyed from New Zealand to care for her father, who was so neglected in the local hospital that his bed sores were deep and deadly. After nursing him through the most critical time, she farmed a plot of melons and marketed vegetables from her brother’s land, assisted by her daughters during school holidays. Now that her father was home and mostly well, she was preparing to return to New Zealand, to the relief of her daughters, for whom New Zealand felt more like home.
Our time to journey onward had come as well. Devon’s fractured wrist had stabilized enough to sail in open ocean, and a beautiful weather window appeared: one meter seas and 15 knots of wind off the beam. The northernmost of the Ha’apai group of islands of Tonga were a quick 70 nautical mile sail south, an overnight passage since these reef-strewn waters are best approached with the sun high in the sky. We departed Vava’u after cruising friends joined us aboard Anthea for a last dive of Mariner’s Cave. That night we left the protected waters of Vava’u and ghosted out into the ocean. Once clear of the lee from the larger islands, the wind filled in for a perfect sail. Reefed down in case of squalls, we sailed along at 7.5 knots, feeling Anthea come alive as the wind freshened and veered, putting us on a close reach for the final miles. The dawn light revealed the low-lying islands of Ha’apai nestled among reefs and sandy shores. We tucked behind the small island of Nukanamo to seek shelter from the forecast 25-30 knot winds, and thus began our Ha’pai days – days filled with strong winds, kiteboarding mania, and, when the sun shone and the winds calmed, snorkeling in these less frequented waters.