First and Last

Link to published article: First and Last

Tonga is, for both John and I, the first and the last of our great big adventure. Tonga in 2011 was our testing ground, to see if what we’d enjoyed separately would be something we enjoyed together. Tonga in 2022 is proof of that mutual passion, and all that lay between those years lies a rich tapestry of countless expeditions and unquantifiable experiences. Our new boat became our permanent home and into that existence we brought two children, a son and daughter, and over eleven years we visited 36 countries and transited three great oceans. Our Tongan trial had turned out to be a great success. 

We feel very fortunate that our very first country is also our last. Tonga was a busy tourist destination in 2011, both by land and by sea. It is a popular stop for cruisers on the route across the Pacific and it is a part of the Western Pacific loop. In typical years it also has an established tourist and charter industry, so sailing around the islands is often a bustle of movement and  crowded anchorages. This is how we remember our first visit all those years ago. In 2022, however, Tonga is a very changed place. Due to the pandemic in 2020 and a tsunami in 2021, Tonga sealed its borders to the outside world for the past three years. October brought big changes: Land and sea borders opened and international tourism resumed. For most cruising yachts, the timing was too late in the season to take advantage of the change in policy. For stragglers like us travelling toward the South Pacific later in the season, however, the timing was ideal.

We sailed into Tonga on the 4th of October, the fourth boat in three years. Rather than being one obscure yacht of many, this year we were one of few. Opposite to blending into the crowd, our AIS had been picked up and our arrival known before we even laid sight of land on the horizon. From that moment the effusive welcome began. “Ātea, Ātea. This is Vava’u Radio. Welcome to Tonga!” As we pulled into the customs dock, locals came out to greet us and as we cleared and set anchor, calls from the expatriate community were welcoming us in. The few fellow cruisers who proceeded us popped over to say hello. Tonga was a real homecoming amongst total strangers.

Tonga is a relatively small country, broken up into three regions: The lush limestone islands of Vava’u in the north, the picturesque low-lying coral islands of central Haapai’is, and the densely populated southern capital island of Tongatapu. Yachts typically go to Tongatapu for no more than clearance and the Haapai’is are generally under-rated and ignored, which leaves Vava’u as the popular destination of choice for tourists and cruisers alike; and there’s sense in this. Vava’u offers dozens of small islands to explore in a large sailing area protected from the ocean swell by a surrounding offshore reef. The deep water between lush limestone islands bring a stark contrast of colour in deep blues and greens, and moorings are available in designated anchorages for a small fee. What isn’t available is the more tropical setting of rich coral gardens and clear aqua waters; this is what the Haapai’is offer and a trip to this neglected central group is well worth the effort. In a normal season, the anchorages around Vava’u are crowded with tour boats, local charters and cruising yachts, all vying for an available mooring. The yachting season runs from May through to October, which fortunately coincides with the whale season when pregnant females come to deliver their calves and suitors follow to continue the cycle of birth for the next year.

It is for the whales that we made Tonga our destination this year, more so than the sentimental appeal of “closing the loop.” I knew that all our other cruising friends were in Fiji and the reunions and parties would be continuous, but Tonga held the chance of sighting whales. Choosing between nature or social, I chose the experience that would, for me, be irreplaceable. Tonga is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with these gentle giants and the opportunity to be alongside them in the water is a rare one. We were late in the season so the chance of seeing whales was low, but I wanted to make the effort if the possibility was there. I was well rewarded. There were a few mother and calf pairs and escorts remaining in the protection of the sheltered waters. We could hear their calls as we snorkelled and watched them breech, roll and fin slap from our anchorage. To swim next to them was a beautiful experience: Tender, graceful, curious and relaxed. Mother guided calf to her side with the nudge of a fin, calf rolling over and around her mother’s bulk, a small body tucked under the massive head of its mother, and the intimate sight of a calf nursing as the two swam slowly in union. To be next to them, observer and observed, offered more than could ever be imagined.

When we weren’t with the whales, we were with the small community of cruisers that had quickly become good friends. Given the few boats visiting Tonga this year, every new arrival was celebrated by both cruiser, expatriate and local community. We joined church service on Sundays to listen to the wonderful booming song that marks a central part of the service, and we were invited to community meals that followed. We developed a warm rapport with the local expatriates whose businesses had been closed for years, and were taken under wing by a few who took us on a complimentary tour of the island and its landmarks. We joined forces as a cruising community, getting together for morning exercise, an early coffee, a lazy lunch and social dinners. We gate crashed private parties, where the hushed word of “pālangi…. pālangi… pālangi…” was whispered, labelling us in the Tonga language as white foreigners, before the doors opened to let us in. Apparently, as outsiders we weren’t on the invite list but warm hospitality had us quickly included.

The main town of Neiafu is a small strip that runs one vertical street and one horizontal street along the waterfront. By the end of the first day you’ve seen everything the town has to offer and know half the shopkeepers by name. Outside the village, everything is a spread of simple houses and rural properties. There is Kilikilitefua, the “wall of rocks” which was the product of a census that used to record the birth of the firstborn son of everyone family by adding a volcanic rock to the pile. There is the remnants of an old fort, protection for the community from attack by the waring tribes in the Haapai’is and Tonga Tapu. There are fresh water caves which supplied previous generations with drinkable water and there are ocean-facing caves where livestock were kept and sheltered, pinned in by the high tide, and there are saltwater caves that provide some exhilarating deep underwater entrances to enter through. A trip around the island is both an education on current culture and a lesson on its rich history. While the cruising grounds make Tonga a fantastic destination, the rich cultural heritage and shoreside services also offer much to explore.

We sailed into Tonga for the first time as a new couple on a new boat, and this year we sail out with a decade behind us and two kids in tow. The country symbolises the first and the last destination of our great adventure, but I should clarify: Tonga is the first and the last of this great adventure. A big change lays ahead of us as we pull into New Zealand and move ashore, and Ātea gets a long break from all the continuous miles she has carried us over. While Tonga symbolises the end of our time as long-term cruisers on Ātea, the adventure is definitely not at its conclusion. If Tonga teaches us anything, it is that the world is both behind us and ahead of us, and we are only turning a page in this great big adventure called life.

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One Reply to “First and Last”

  1. Beautifully written Kia – you and John, along with your children, have had an amazing and unusual life experience! xoxo Sharon


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