Temptress approached the Tongan island of Vava’u slowly awaiting daybreak before passing Longomapu Point halfway down the west coast. Arriving from the east, the Vava’u group of islands are best reached via the north coast of the largest, eponymous island of the group and thence via the Faihava Passage. The eastern side of the group is reef strewn whereas the western approaches are amongst flat topped, forested limestone islands with deep water right up to the cliffs.
Neiafu itself is tucked securely up what seems like a river but is actually crystal clear sea enclosed by Vava’u to the east and Pangaimotu Island to the west. A narrow navigable channel at the northern end provides access for small ships and yachts, an even narrower pass at the southern end ensures there is a tidal flow through the “lagoon”. All around except off the town itself the trees come right down to the waters edge, we could be in the Carrick Roads or above the King Harry ferry. The water is clear enough to see the bottom in 20 odd metres!
Clearing in happened at a leisurely pace on Friday morning. The man from Customs and Immigration dropped off the forms to be filled shortly after we tied up to the wharf behind two other boats. Rhumb Runner was further along clearing out for the ten day passage to Tanna, Vanuatu and taking on duty free diesel so we briefly chatted, catching up on each other’s trips. Form filling complete and showers had, the quarantine guy showed up, happy to accept a coffee and hoover up a lot of biscuits as he asked his questions. We’ve no pets or rats on board and could keep the last of our Panamanian onions as well as the two Tahiti steaks destined for supper, then he was gone taking our rubbish to be burnt.
Next up was an enormous gentleman from Health (I secretly giggled at the paradox) – no one had died, had the plague or had been ill during the two night passage from Niue so we were fine and a certificate of “Pratique” – their spelling- was issued, a first for Temptress’ souvenir box and we could take down our yellow Q flag. Both Quarantine and Health need paying in cash so we were directed to the nearest ATM with instructions to get change by purchasing something in the market if necessary. As it was the cash machine churned out small denomination notes $10s, $20s and $50s. One Pa’anga is about 33p.
Eventually Customs and Immigration came back from duties at the airport. Very friendly and interested in our time on their neighbour Niue he and his colleague were wearing smart, immaculately pressed uniform shirts – a Polynesian floral print in shades of blue with the customs logo embroidered above the pocket. He helped us complete some of the obscurer forms; the local authorities require that the owner to place a valuation on their vessel on arrival so if you decide to stay long term and import the boat they know how much duty to levy! Then he requested sight of our beer, wine and spirits saying he would not charge us duty on them as long as we didn’t take them ashore which seemed an eminently pragmatic rule. Passports stamped he wished us a pleasant stay and Temptress was free to leave the quayside for one of the moorings nearby.
What a pleasant spot, a gentle breeze and absolutely no swell or waves. It was so nice to sleep soundly that first night without being rocked about at all, we can’t remember the last time we had such a calm anchorage.
Neiafu is the second largest town in Tonga that said it is not much larger than a small village with a vegetable and handicraft market on the flat land down by the quay. A handful of Chinese grocery stores selling everything from noodles to washing up bowls are strung out on the main street interspersed by several bars and cafes mostly run by expat Europeans from Australia or New Zealand, at least three banks and one hardware store whose thinly spread stock is very dusty. In fact many of the shelves in all the shops were empty and the meat freezers were bare; the monthly supply ship is not due until Tuesday so we are glad of our tin stocks.
There is a hospital, a police station and a fire station, a sprawling white rendered Catholic Mission that looks as if it is left over from Victorian times and a huge airy modern Wesleyan church. Most homes are wooden with corrugated tin roofs and large trim gardens where pigs seem to roam at will. The sound of squealing piglets is a feature of the anchorage in addition to the crowing cockerels that are part of the soundscape of every Pacific island even the first world metropolis of Papeete had its fair share of crowing at unsociable hours. Everywhere has a well worn look but is reasonably tidily kept; there is always someone out sweeping the pavement in front of their home or business. Without exception everyone says hello and children wave from open car windows as they pass. These are indeed the Friendly Isles.
Saturday night was spent in the Bounty bar (the actual mutiny happened in Tongan waters just a few miles south of here in the Ha’apai group of islands) overlooking the harbour but all eyes were on the tv screen not the moonlit water; Wales were playing local boys the All Blacks. A mix of locals, expats, holiday makers and yachties settled down for a few hours of rugby accompanied by some good humoured teasing of the Brits present following the week’s Brexit drama and the ensuing collapse of stock markets and currency. We also met an interesting expat couple who have given up city life to run a vanilla plantation and produce vanilla cured bacon as a sideline; a tour we will try to do before we leave.
Tongan Sunday’s are sacrosanct, no work, just relax or attend church. The unaccompanied singing we could hear wafting from St Joseph’s this morning was incredible. Tongan’s also are conservative about dress, no skimpy shorts or tight t-shirts here even on the teenagers, bare chests are frowned upon, nudity is illegal and western swim wear must be confined to the beach, in fact Tongans swim fully clothed. There are no flights on Sunday and the small container ship that tied up at the quay this morning was simply “taking on water”.
Another little local idiosyncrasy is that many Tongans wear a finely woven grass mat called a taovala around their waist, quite why I haven’t been able to find out though I read somewhere that it is a sign of respect to their elders and the royal family; it looks a bit odd but even young Tongans seem to do it. In the market the craft stalls bear testament to the local weaving skills; there are some extremely handsome trays in dark smoky grey with an off white pattern as well as grass skirts, the first we’ve seen, and woven handbags lined with tapa a fine fabric made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree.
On Monday we hope to stock up with fresh veggies at the market then we plan to head for one of the many island anchorages for a couple of days snorkelling, exploring and boat fettling. There is the sprayhood to repair and a few other little maintenance jobs before we set off to sea again. Then weather permitting, we’ll return to town to buy some meat for our icebox, checkout and head a thousand miles or so west to Vanuatu but then again Thursday is quiz night at the Bounty Bar…