Staircase to Paradise

What do you say when you leave one group islands that have registered top of the A List, only to discover the next group far supersedes? Just how far will we climb on this staircase to paradise?

We have spent the last two weeks cruising through the Ha’apai Islands, Tonga’s central group. Every one of the islands we have hit (a small smattering of the 61 that make up the archipelago) look like they have been prepared for a photo shoot. Not one island pales to its neighbour, sitting quietly amongst swaying coconut palms and dense green foliage, fringed with white sand beaches and dotted by coral reef. What make these isles so unique is the paucity of other sailboats, the pristine reefs, the friendliness of the locals and the quaintness of the villages.

Not that we ran into many villages during our stay – most of the islands we visited were isolated havens of tropical bliss. Only seventeen of the Ha’apai Islands are inhabited, and of those we visited four. The locals are very pleasant, upholding the name “Friendly Islands” attributed to this area by Captain Cook in 1777. Villages are surrounded by a fence, intended to keep the pigs in – not out. Inside these villages are houses lined with neat gardens, several churches for different denominations (Ha’afeva had five churches to support the 200 island inhabitants). One could purchase a variety of goods at the main port of Pangai; but otherwise the only supply was directly through the locals, most of whom were more interested in trade than money – snorkel and fins are the hot commodity, but rope, line and tackle could also be exchanged for lobster and fruit. Locals will often invite you into their home to socialize over lunch, and they will smile, wave, and stop to exchange a few pleasantries in passing. It is easy to feel welcomed here, and a short stay will find a traveler quickly accepted.

That is, when there is a village to accept you. Most of our time was spent in what we coined the “Naked Isles” (photos exempt!), a term first attributed to the area by John and Kia in 2011. Not because the islanders are fond of the display of bare flesh – typical garb for women is covered shoulders and long wraps over legs, often under the traditional ta’ovala (waistmats made of woven pandanus) – but when you have entire island groups that leave you the sole king of the domain, why be constrained by social custom?

It has been absolutely incredible to spend time in these islands, completely removed from other inhabitants or travelers and free to explore and play and relax to our hearts content. For both John and I, this has felt like the pearl of the cruising experience, as it is rare to find a place in the world so void of human contact, hidden from the exploitation of tourism and free from the ravages of society.

This lack of traffic was most notable in the corals that surrounded the islands. The Ha’apai’s have some of the most prolific, colourful and healthy corals we have ever seen, filled with a variety of reef fish dodging around in their assorted schools. In addition, we sighted turtle, schools of dolphin, and a very healthy – and fortunately content – seven foot shark. Humpback frequent this region during the winter season, July – September, however we are a month early and don’t count on a sighting during our time here.

As for life on the boat, we have fully settled into a lifestyle of self-sufficiency. As there are very few markets to re-provision, we are reliant on our stores and the planning prior to departure. Neither of us bakers by habit, we’ve been testing our creativity of making bread without white flour. Fortunately I had inspiration in Auckland for gluten-free bread and added to stock a number of random flour option – rice flour, potato starch flour, tapioca flour, chickpea flour, sorghum flour…. What we wouldn’t do for good ‘ol plain white flour! But at least we have options. Options that usually yield bread bricks, but worth the experimentation regardless.

On the topic of food, I am rounding up to seven months through my pregnancy and fortunately still craving-free. John, being the bigger foodie, could probably catalogue his cravings – ice cream, chocolate, sugared biscuits, café lattes, bacon, and of course, gluten-filled plain white flour.

I, on the other hand, am enjoying what we do have – which is fresh tuna at will. I do not fancy myself a competent fisherman, and John even less (he claims a fondness for the eating of, not the capturing of, fish), however the Ha’apai’s could easily give a false sense of accomplishment. It takes no more than dipping a lure in the water to get a strike, and then a quick haul in of an evening’s meal. Tuna has always been my eye-fillet of seafood options, and so it is almost unbelievable when we toss in hook and call out, “just another tuna!” as if we’d just pulled up a can of corned beef.

I am feeling pretty lucky that the pregnancy has gone trouble-free. So far the only inconvenience is getting out of the bunk. My energy is up and whilst growing, the belly isn’t much of an obstacle yet. I am getting the satisfaction of more activity, knowing with every kick that all is well in the womb. Chronically cold-blooded, it has been entertaining that I finally have my own furnace to keep my temperature up – and so when John complains of a night chill I bask in my own radiant heat.

So, as I look at the rungs we’ve just climbed these past few weeks on our “staircase to paradise,” there is nothing but awe that we feel. The world around us is breathtakingly beautiful and the life we are living filled with appreciation for all that we have: a sound boat, a fantastic cruising ground, and a loving partnership.

I can hear my mother’s mantra, “live in gratitude,” the problem is knowing just where to start.

La Pura Vida

Vava’u is a group of islands surrounded by warm, tropical water and a steady easterly breeze. What makes the Tongan Islands so unique is the close proximity of pristine and unspoiled islets and isolated anchorages – a cruiser’s paradise.

The lack of western development brings the feel of authenticity, and the genuine hospitality of the locals makes a traveler feel a sense of welcome and safety both ashore and afloat.  Clear azure waters with shades of aquamarine fringe each lush tropical island. The archipelago covers 20 miles and includes dozens of safe, sandy anchorages.

In May the anchorages hold few other boats, the majority being charter yachts enjoying a few weeks of isolation from the rest of the world.  There is little sight or sound of habitation from our aquatic perch, so it is easy to feel away from the typical hustle and bustle that so many holiday destinations attract. Rather than the whistle of hawkers, life cries out through distinguishable calls from the forest: large bats that stalk prey hours before sunset until the sun is high, the mixed melody of the variety of birds that fringe the surrounding bays, the grunt of pig and the crow of cock, monkeys chattering from their perch, the splash of the fish as they fly to outrun predator… I’ve never seen so many fish dancing on the water’s surface, of a variety of size, shape, colour.

There are few villages in the area, the largest of which is Neiafu Town. This provides the only base in which to stock up on fresh veg and other supplies, with a smattering of shops that run down the central main street. It also provides a number of simple restaurants with one common theme: Excellent seafood. Each morning you can listen to the cruisers information net on the radio and get an update of your daily specials, in addition to the local chat within the community. If wanting a walk about town for a bit of sight seeing, don’t worry about changing out of your jandals…. you’ve covered the town end-to-end in ten minutes. And don’t pass the church without stopping by for a visit – if you get there during a service you should pop in to listen to the beautiful singing that rings out over the harbour.

Now that we can truly claim holiday on this excursion, our days are dominated by rest and relaxation. We fill our days with simple routine: morning swims off the boat and paddle boarding around the bay, snorkeling in the surrounding caves and around coral heads, a quick haul of anchor and an afternoon jaunt to a new idyllic spot.  We celebrated my birthday with a no-egg cake (you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get your hands on a dozen eggs – best be at the market by 7AM or you will be leaving empty handed) and a treasure hunt that led to a beautiful diamond ring. We saw off our passage crew and welcomed new arrivals.

We connected with a good friend Stephen, recently arrived on his new boat from Tahiti. We went over to meet him on his boat for morning coffee, and were still there at 6:00PM. Such is the flexibility of this life!! One of our evenings together we enjoyed a Tongan feast in a local seaside village. We were treated to local dancing by a teenage contingent followed by local food served local style, topped off with a session of music and kava (local grog). Despite being put on for a collection of yachties, the fact that this feast was prepared and presented by local villagers has made it the most authentic experience by far. The food was superb, a large spread of traditionally cooked dishes individually wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in coconut milk, served in stems of bamboo and fruit skins to be eaten by hand.

We’ve explored many different anchorages and have enjoyed the leisure that defines island cruising. And we pinch ourselves. Not half a year ago this wasn’t even a consideration, and here we sit in our island paradise watching the sleepy days tick by, loving every minute of our new reality.

This is La Pura Vida!!!!

All for a $5 Washer

Apologies for the delay, as this is old news to us at present. But to fill you in on detail from our expedition out to Tonga, a proper conclusion to our “mis-adventures” will update interested parties on the reason for our system failures on the trip out.

It is well known that after an ocean passage, set in your new tropical oasis, the leisure you seek is still far from sight. After entering port at Neiafu, we spent the following days on task trying to sort out heads, engine and batteries issues.

Fortunately, John has a number of contacts in Tonga as he has worked for the Moorings in past and is familiar with a number of individuals about town. We started to ask around for some assistance as we had hit wits end with finding a solution to our engine woes. With a sample of diesel in hand, John was introduced to an engineer who – after taking a good swallow of our brine – informed us that it was more a cache of seawater than any form of fuel. The one test that has escaped us provided our reprieve.

With a diagnosis in hand, the solution was clear. After sourcing jerry cans, we pumped out 300 liters of contaminated fuel, flushed the filters and got our engine revving again. The engine, being the heart of the boat and the power behind all our systems, once working brought life back to all our other luxuries. We once again had our fridge, freezer, lights, heads, water maker and water pressure up and running. All could have been averted for a $5 washer.

The crux of the issue was the lack of one coin-sized rubber washer over the fuel filler pipe – purchasable at any local hardware store for a $5 note.  Because this was not present, when the boat heeled over it allowed salt water to seep into the tank, slowly converting our diesel into a saltwater cocktail.

Once the engine and batteries were sorted, we (a.k.a John) had the non-performing head to contend with. The last on our list of critical items, we turned to sorting a solution before our holiday could begin.

The heads, comic in that we purchased the boat from a gentleman who owned a plumbing business, had very poor pipe work and an incorrectly fitted pump (and appropriate, for who ever services at home what they do as a profession?!). Leaving John to enjoy the glory of an afternoon in ankle-deep s*@%, he tapped and tinkered and ….. well, to be fair, I asked him to skip the details…. but the end result is a fully functioning head, and the pleasure of my first piss in privacy in over two weeks.

Finally, four days after our arrival in Tonga, we were “adventure free” and finally able to start enjoying our holiday in the islands.