What a Difference

August 29, 2013

Neiafu, Vava’u, Tonga

By: Kerry

Ngau Island

Amazing what a difference some decent weather makes! Since the last update from the Ha’apais, we haven’t seen anything like the relentless 30 knot winds (those euphemistically named ‘enhanced trades’). It’s been positively benign, with plenty of sunshine and protected anchorages that have greatly increased the ratio of decent nights’ sleeps!

It really is GORGEOUS here. It’s very different to the Ha’apais, which are mostly coral atolls and therefore don’t offer much protection from wind or waves. Here, it’s a tight group of more substantial islands – kind of like Pittwater in the Tropics in Technicolor. Everything’s close together, it can be blowing like stink but there’s always a sheltered little bay to escape it. We have to keep pinching ourselves at the sheer beauty of it:  we’ve dropped anchor in two or three metres depth and floated suspended in colour that ranges from luminous turquoise to deepest cobalt and it’s so clear we can see starfish on the bottom in 20 metres.

Many of the limestone islands that are strewn across this dazzling blue have been eroded by the sea into mushroom shapes and other weird rocky outcrops. Almost all are thick with coconut palms and virulent green forest and creepers and the fringing beaches are glaringly white. Unlike most ‘tropical paradises’ these days, there is very little development – most islands are deserted or have small villages; there are no large resorts and the few small resorts are very low key.

We’ve been doing lots of exploring: there are dozens and dozens of perfect, deserted beaches that are better than any brochure; there is great snorkelling with beautiful corals and myriad madly-coloured fish (yesterday we were ‘herding’ a school of several hundred tiny, iridescent blue chromis fish through the water) and walks through forests of coconut palms (Damian is getting pretty good with a machete: Cut down coconut. Chop top off coconut. Fill with rum…).

We still haven’t swum with whales, though we’ve seen plenty – a couple of days ago we were anchored and a mother, calf and escort came within a few hundred metres of us, showing us their tails. Even better, we have been woken up at night on a few occasions by them singing! It’s the most eery sound and reverberates through the hull of the boat.

Rock gift-wrapped in anchor chain

Rock gift-wrapped in anchor chain

And we’re feeling so much more confident (cautiously confident, I should say,) with maneuvering the boat – particularly anchoring, after our debacles in the Ha’apais. Having said that, our anchor chain did manage to crochet itself around a rock the other day. This time, we hauled the rock to the surface – it must have weighed about 60-70 kg – and it came up looking like it was gift-wrapped in chain. Damian managed to break it up with a bit of help from a crow bar and chisel (yes, we had both on board…).

We’re even getting more confident at negotiating some of the er, ‘interesting’ passes through the reefs: particularly interesting when the marker buoys have totally disappeared, the waypoints in the cruising guide are inaccurate, the channel is only a couple of metres wider than the boat and the charts have us going over green bits (i.e. ‘land’). One of us stands on the bow keeping a lookout while the other is steering and watching the chart plotter. The interesting bit starts when all of a sudden there are reefs where they’re not supposed to be and no reefs where the chart says there should be…

There’s a pass that has to be negotiated to get out to the Eastern islands, which we had some fun with last week. Usual story: markers have vanished and charts are off by an indeterminate distance. We’d come through the same pass (which does a double dog leg around barely submerged reefs) a few days previously, but it was at high tide. Coming back, at low tide, we tried to follow our same track in reverse (following the chart plotter). Damian was driving and following the track. I was on the bow eyeballing the actual route. It got interesting when I said, ‘turn right’ and D said ‘no, that’s not on our track’. I said, “TURN RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!!!”  as I could see barely-submerged coral just ahead of us. There was some short, colourful negotiation, but eventually (just in time) he turned right…

The fishing, unfortunately, has been pretty disappointing. Damian has caught a couple of skipjack tuna, but after eating one, we’ve tossed the others back – fussy, perhaps, but they really weren’t nice… This past week, we’ve had friends from Sydney – Pete and Gwyn – on board, which has been fantastic. Damian and Pete got into the fishing, with the result that they caught a dog-tooth tuna as we came through a pass in the dinghy. I should say that ‘caught’ is a relative term: poor fish was jagged through his side, and had been dragged sideways over the rocks so he came up all scuffed and was dead (presumed drowned) within minutes of landing in the boat. Nevertheless, he was delicious!

We caught him just as we were returning from Mariner’s Cave, a partly underwater cave accessible by diving down (with snorkel and mask) about three metres, swimming through a hole in the rock face and coming up inside the cave. Once inside, the exit to the outside is framed by black rock in the shape of a heart, while the water is the sort of vivid refracted blue that you see in the Blue Grotto in Capri. And when the swell comes in, it compresses and condenses the air in the cave so that it forms a mist with each wave – it’s like the ocean is breathing!

On the downside, the ripples of the GFC are still being keenly felt here – the economy is in shambles and the ‘town’ of Neiafu is very run down. But the people we’ve met have been upbeat, friendly and welcoming. The yachtie community is very strong and tight knit, which is fantastic. Each morning on the VHF radio there is a ‘cruisers’ information net’, hosted by local businesses who volunteer their time. It starts off with any calls for emergencies – more on that later – and covers the weather, then moves on to ‘buy, sell or give away’, where anyone can ask or offer just about anything, from spare parts to spear guns, yoga mats (we donated one of ours to someone who needed one) to empty glass jars for a local man who’s starting up a honey business. Improvisation is the name of the game here: so many things that you take for granted back home are impossible to acquire here – even the simplest of spare parts – so everyone bands together to help each other out.

MV Dorothea hauling stranded yacht, Paje off the reef

MV Dorothea hauling stranded yacht, Paje off the reef

A few weeks ago, a Canadian boat went up on a reef (we’re still not sure why – they went up at 04:30 in the pitch dark, when everyone knows that the first rule of sailing among the islands is ONLY do it in daylight). The call for help went out over the cruisers’ net. Over the next three days, so many people volunteered their time, equipment and labour to get the boat off – it was amazing to see. Luckily, there was a super yacht in town which was able to pull it off without too much damage – if they hadn’t volunteered to help, the Canadian yacht would undoubtedly still be high and dry.

Enough already! Suffice to say, we’re having a great time, feeling a whole lot more relaxed and feeling – finally – like we’re doing what we set out to do.

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

PS: Click on Images in the menu bar to see our photo album of Vava’u.

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