Where are we

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Looking back at Tonga from Whangarei, New Zealand.

Hello!  We are still in Basin Marina in Whangarei. Much of our time has been taken up with Larus and her new sails and solar panels.  We are going out tomorrow morning for a couple of days and will be better able to report on how well the sails and solar panels work out of the marina.  There isn’t any wind forecast so there won’t be much sailing but we can admire the sails at anchor and gloat over the our super charged charging system.

I’m the meanwhile I hope you enjoy looking back at our time in Tonga.

South of the Samoan Islands lies the Kingdom of Tonga, and the most northerly island for a visit by cruising yachts is Niuatoputapu. We were much taken by its remoteness and the friendliness of its people.


The island is often described as a sombrero thanks to its silhouette.  The crown of the hat is surrounded by brim of low coastal land and reef.   'The (Nuia) islands,' says Wikipedia, 'are the peaks of undersea volcanoes, towering from the sea,...' To which I reply, 'Ya think?'  The  neighbouring conical island of Tafahi, population 20, left us in no doubt.

The population of Niuatoptapu has been decreasing since the devastating tsunami of 2009.  Most sources I've found say it is currently 2000. Originating from an earthquake near the Samoan Islands, there was no warning before the first of three tsunami hit.  We spent a lot of time with a local police officer come tour guide, Lefai, who told us of his story. It was emotional for him and us, as his father was one of those who died. Most of the population in 2009 lived near the coast.  Nine people died and scores were injured.  Animals that were tethered or penned died; those that were free to roam instinctively ran to higher ground. The concrete foundations of the homes pre-2009, are now abandoned and over grown.  People were rehoused on higher ground, but many of the 'new' buildings are small, two or three room, plywood and timber constructions.  

These northern Tongan islands from the Nuia islands and the  Ha'apai group of islands have some of  poorest people we have visited.  Medical supplies are limited and they are lacking in many basics like painkillers, gout medication and anti-biotics.  Cowboy films for the adults and cartoons for the children are always welcome and we were asked for music as well.

Remote as the islands are, the people are still at risk from diseases being brought in to the country. New Zealand assists these islands in many ways and is sending vaccines and medical staff to Samoa and Tonga. We learned of it via the World Health Organisation - Measles outbreaks in the Pacific

There still are homes along the coast and there is now a warning system in place, which would save lives but the homes themselves would be lost. You can understand why people would choose to live by the sea as it is provides transportation, food and the means to process an important contributor to the economy.

I suspect that now we are in New Zealand our internet searches are less about where we have been and more about this area of the Pacific.  I have just found the most wonderful website that explains a good deal about Tonga.  The Eua Island Website is as charming as it is informative about all things Tongan. I like it allot (sic).  

Particular areas in the site that do a much better job of explaining than I could are:

One if the first activities we noticed in Niuatoputapu was women washing great bundles something at dawn in the sea. I saw the same thing each morning a little later in day the day. Eventually, I twigged that it was the state of tide, low water, that decided the time these ladies (and the odd gentleman) went down to the sea.


Then I saw these long fibres on the beach. A couple of days later I got close enough to see exactly what they were doing.  This was the day the ferry arrived, which might be why there are men washing the fibres as well.  In the second photo you can see the lady in the blue dress is carrying olive green fibres.  The plants along the side of the road in the last photo are of pandanus plants, which are soaked and dried and soaked and dried until...

… as Amanda, my beautiful and talented assistant, is showing you, they are clean, bright and ready to be woven into large mats use in homes or small mats to be wrapped around the waist and tied with a plaited rope as part of their traditional dress.  The middle photos shows how each strand is torn, leaving one end still intact, into strips narrow enough to make a fine woven mat.

I do not know why the ones drying on the line are smooth, and the ones Amanda is displaying are curly.  We will just have to go back and ask.

On out first day out with Lefai, our police officer and guide, he drove us around the island with the couple on Zoomax who had met him in town and arranged the tour.

Slight digression here.  Negotiating the cost of something like this is difficult and often outside our budget.  You want to be fair, but not taken advantage of, but determining the value of something is difficult when you have no idea what things cost where you are.  After our first day out Lefai asked for things like medicines and cereal for the children, which he got.  On our last day, after Tim got a ride into town to clear out with the Chief of Police and then a ride back to the anchorage with Lefai During Lefai had told Tim, that though the cereal was great, they had no milk to eat it with and asked to come aboard (which was fine) and for money.  Giving money makes us uncomfortable, though he was one person I'm sure would have used any money for the intended purpose. Instead, while he sat in the cockpit drinking coffee and eating banana walnut muffins, I gathered up milk powder, tinned vegetables, teabags, citronella candles, non-deet mosquito repellant for the children and anything else I thought would be useful. The value probably more than any amount of cash we would have been comfortable to give him. We had paid cash for our island tour, but were we fair?  We hoped so.

Whatever my waffling infers, we have never felt taken advantage of in any way. They really do not have much by our standards and even, we later saw, by Tongan standards once we had been to the larger islands of Vava'u and Tongatapu. He took very good care of us, we enjoyed his company, he showed us and involved us in things we would not have experienced otherwise. That sounds priceless, doesn't it? Anyway, back to the island tour.

The tour started from the ferry dock where we tie up our dinghy when going ashore.  The ferry arriving is a big deal in the islands.  It is the main way to get people and supplies on and off the island.  There was much excitement that morning on the dock, as, though there were no injuries, a car coming off the ferry was somehow dropped off the ramp and into the water.  The crane on the ferry was used to haul it out onto dry land after all rest of the cars and cargo had been unloaded.


The west coast of the island with Anna, Lefai, Tim and Paolo.

Next stop was the fresh water spring.  It was clear and cold with steps down into the water. The next plan was to walk to the top of the peak in the middle of the island. We saw many churches as we drove there and this was the Catholic Church.


The land around the peak are extremely fertile and the area we are walking through is planted with taro.  In the second picture you can see the peak in the distance and in the foreground, the plants that looks a little like a tomato plants are little mulberry trees. It is mulberry they use for making tapi cloth.  Other crops are mango, banana and breadfruit.

At this point our tour was interrupted by a phone call from the Chief of Police.  Lefai was needed to attend an accident, which turned out to be the car being driven into the sea.

We carried on our tour the next day without Tim.  He had gone over on his ankle walking in Apia, Samoa and must has damaged some ligaments. It took over 3 weeks for him to be back to normal.

It was too bad that Tim missed out as we walked to the top of the 'sombrero' in the middle of the island.

It was a spectacular view.  The climb up was challenging, and the climb down even more so.

I managed to walk up the slope but coming back down was quite different.  There were lots of tree roots and the like to hang on to but one needed to come back down backwards to make use of them.  Everyone else came down sideways but I was not convinced my dicky knee would enjoy that very much and scrambled down in a most undignified way.

Lefai invited us to church and then a meal with his family on the next Sunday.  Three days after our tour we went ashore to wait for Lefai to collect us and take us to church.

Before our arrival in Tonga we had read that Sunday is a day of rest and families stay indoors.


Not a person was seen and the road and waterfront were take over by horses and pigs.  We had never seen so many horses at one time, and wondered what was so interesting to the pigs in the tide pools - sea slugs or snails we found out later.


We were welcomed to the Church of Tonga by their tiny congregation or 10 adults and about the same number of children.  The church is a very small part of the school complex.   As the service was in Tongan, much of our time was spent watching the children and they were worth watching, particularly one little fellow who had to have his traditional woven mat retied regularly.

After the service we walked the short distance to Lefai's house.

We met his mother and all his children and were served roast piglet, fish and pork with coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves and then tinfoil and baked.  Both Anna and I brought cake for dessert.  We ate her cake after the meal and I left my triple chocolate layer for them to enjoy when we had gone.  We heard later fromLefai that they loved it.  It was so sweet!  Only Lefai ate with us as is their custom as is their custom, the rest of the family ate once we had left the table.

It was an eye opening experience and we felt privileged to be welcomed into their home. It was a lovely way to end our time in Niuatoputapu and when the winds became favourable, we headed south to our next spot in Tonga, the Archipelago of Vava'u.

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