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.

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