Welcome to Kia Island

I write this at the helm, surrounded by a calm rippling ocean and a soft ocean breeze. I am on a short watch, just after daybreak, giving John rest after his all-night sentinel.While he was supposed to wake me when he tired to swap post for pillow, he pulled a nine-hour watch so that I could sleep and “grow bubba.” Either pregnancy is his excuse to spoil me, or I am going to bear the yoke next season to make up for all this special treatment. Getting pampered is so addictive.

This morning is a good one for pondering on the experiences of our three-week circumnavigation of Vanua Levu. I woke at 6AM to a stunning blood red horizon. As the sharp colour faded into a light blue sky, a brilliant rainbow unfolded itself ahead of us from port to starboard.We sailed through the arch filled with awe at the stunning seascape before us. Such earthly beauty gives cause to pause, pull into ones reverie and absorb the spiritual inspired by the van der Helst masterpiece held before you.

The pictures taken do not capture the beauty of this trip; they are far from reflecting any of nature’s masterpieces we’ve had the privilege of viewing. I don’t say this because a photo is never as accurate as the eye. I say this because it hasn’t been in the scenery that we have been so in awe, but in the wonderful people we have met and the cultural experiences we have been honoured with.

Vanua Levu is one of two main islands in Fiji. It is second in size to Viti Levu which lies across the Koro Sea to the southeast. What makes Vanua Levu unique is the paucity of tourist infrastructure and a slow pace of life – my ideal travel destination. It presents lush, unspoiled tropical beauty with a spattering of traditional villages set on beaches surrounded by verdant forest and coconut plantations… a world away from the hub of activity in Western Fiji.

When we first unfolded the chart of Fiji, John noticed Kia Island north of Vanua Levu. We both laughed at the idea of my own personal oasis but it was a long way off our route and a significant distance upwind and so we didn’t count it into our itinerary. After running into another yachtie who spoke of Kia as a highlight, off the standard cruising route and away from the tourist hub, we thought a visit to “me” was a must.

A few weeks later our calendar became free and we decided to go for it.  We both felt that we’d not yet found our Fijian Shangri La. Whilst the Yasawas and Mamancas were pleasant, they were well populated with westerners and we wanted to get a feel for an authentic Fijian experience. Vanua Levu and the surrounding islands offered this — no more fancy resorts and Fijian wait staff, no more tanning tourists and traveling yachties. We wanted real Fiji.  We wanted something special. We wanted “Welcome to Kia Island.”

To get there, it was going to be 500-mile round trip. First east to Vanua Levu, then nor-northeast around the island, and finally a run along the top west to Kia and connecting back into the far north of the Yasawas.  A wide circle, but it was well worth the trip.

As we made our way around the mainland and stopped in the outer islands we got our taste of culture, of community, of the traditional Fijian way of life. Every port of call held a new welcome and a new invite. Each stop holds a very special memory, thanks to the genuine hospitality of the local islanders to whom we owe nothing but gratitude for their warmth and welcome. I will cut short to some of our more favourite experiences in route, and share some of the moments that made this particular journey so special for us.

To start this trip we needed food for ourselves, fuel for Atea and an updated travel visa for the areas we intended to visit. We are able to buy fruit and vegetables in town and a few of the villages, but Atea’s thirst for fuel is much less frequently satisfied. She gulps 1000 litres of diesel at each sitting and is a huge demand on our budget, so thankfully our stops for a refill are usually two months apart.

We like Lautoka but this time chose to anchor on a little island off the mainland and take a dinghy ride ashore. Rather than arrive into the dockyards, this time we pulled into a mangrove-lined bay, surrounded by local houses. We asked a family if we could come ashore and were warmly greeted, and after introductions and pleasantries one child from the cluster of children escorted us through the village into town.

We were greeted by the community as we walked by local houses with vigorous waves from children standing in doorways, clusters of women weaving mats or shredding cassava on their lawns or men taking turns pounding yaquona by the dirt road. We did our shopping at the market and after a wander through town with our arms full of fruit-filled bags, we wove our way back to our dinghy. It may have been a simple errand, but the encounters along the way made the ordinary act of grocery shopping a memorable event.

Our first few days were a bit of a slog, heading east and into the tradewinds. The main islands are fringed by a surrounding reef and we chose an inside route which made for calm sailing but called for our constant vigilance as we winded our way through the coral-strewn pass. After two days we were free of the reef and could ease sheets and relax on an exceptional day sail across the Koro Sea between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.

Stepping ashore from our paddleboards onto the dock, we were greeted by laughing kids, all enjoying the simple pastime of kids everywhere – jumping into the water again and again and again. They were thrilled at being invited to play with our paddleboards, again showing the universal attraction between children and the sea.

While watching the games, we got chatting with a local couple who invited back to their house to enjoy a kava ceremony (the local grog) and a spread of home-cooked food. It was such a treat for us to enjoy the comforts of home after the many months in the tight confines of a salon and galley.

Five days after leaving Lautoka we finally arrived at the port of entry on Vanua Levu, the sleepy little town of Savu Savu on the southern side of the mainland. Here we checked into Fiji customs to register our arrival and intended route, whereby we named all possible ports of call as there are severe penalties for being caught off your reported schedule. The town held the feel of the colonial era – waterfront bars, affordable prices, gentle climate and plenty of white faces, many of whom were cruisers a few decades ago who dropped anchor and neglected to raise it again, those who arrived and stayed – John and I just might turn into one of them – it is that kind of place.

Pressing eastward from Savu Savu, we arrived at the island of Taveuni and stopped at the quaint village of Somo Somo for Sunday church. Christianity is strong throughout Polynesia on Sundays the villages are always quiet except for the beautiful singing that echo’s out from every church. We’d gone ashore to see this very integral part of island life and bathe our ears in the beautifully harmonized hymns. We were lurking in the back row enjoying the service when the pastor spotted us and accommodated us by giving half the sermon in halting English. No more day dreaming or sly gestures to the rambunctious kids amongst us; we had to pay attention and nod sagely at his relevant points, our reprieve coming when he resumed his table-thumping sermon in Fijian. Church in Polynesia is not an experience to be missed. So much so, in fact, that we attended two different services at same day. I can still hear the ringing of the choir in my ears.

After Somo Somo we headed to the northern tip of Taveuni to Matei. Here we based ourselves for some inland exploration and took a local bus around the island to the national park. We wandered up the mountainside to view waterfalls and swim in the refreshing water. It was bizarre to swim in salt-free pools, free from the taste of salt in your mouth and sting of spray in your eyes.

Our next stop was Katherine Bay on Rabi Island. This island is unique as it is a resettlement community of Micronesians originally from Banaba, in the Kiribati island chain. In the early 1900’s the British mined Banaba clean of its natural phosphate resource, resulting in the ruin of the island by over-mining and foreign settlement. Following WWII the British purchased Rabi, paid through the islander’s own funds, and 2000 Banabans were relocated. The islanders still hold to their traditions and culture, and while Fijians have merged into the culture through work and marriage, they adhere to the Banaban way of life.

Timing in travel can make the difference between average and exceptional. We arrived at Baukonikai village during a week of celebration to honour the return of the village preacher. There were two preachers, husband and wife, and the wife had been assigned to another village for the past three years. After petitioning she was permitted to return to her home village, an event that signaled the occasion before us. We were invited to join in the celebration, and thus we did.

The following afternoon we wandered into church during an honorary lunch with the village elders and we were immediately ushered over to join the feast. Sitting with this select group, we were treated as guests and participated in the rituals. We spent long hours in the meeting hall afterwards with one of the elders, a retired man of the church, and were able to learn a diverse account of the island, its people and its history.

We were asked on our departure to return for evening service, dinner and festivities. There is much that stands out in those evening hours. When we heard the “bells toll” – a stick beat against a hollowed out tree trunk – we made our way to the church. The whole community was so welcoming; it felt like a homecoming amongst strangers. The pews are split into two, with men gathering on the left and women to the right. I made my way down the aisles and was signaled by the guest of honour to come and join her. She guided me through the service and held up her hymnbook for us to share, and so I diligently followed along with my best attempt at the local dialect in song. John had no such guidance but chose to join in the male chorus and sang with gusto.

Afterwards, we were ushered to the meeting hall where an array of food was spread out in the centre of the room. Here the elders, the two preachers and ourselves were seated for the meal. As we did so, the community sat at the entrance in a large group and sang throughout dinner. It was a guess as to what each of the plates held, but the food was delicious. My favourite custom at mealtime was the application of talcum powder to potentially offensive areas of the human body.

At lunch I had quite the surprise, as I had been the first to experience this particular “refreshment.” When I sat down to join the elders earlier that day, a woman came up behind me, raised my arm and applied a generous dose to my armpit. I was quite relieved when John was likewise doused. Now, at dinnertime, the same ritual was repeated, this time with the accompaniment of a bottle of perfume. My neck was showered in the white powder, which cascaded down my chest and belly, then assaulted with a liberal spray of acrid perfume. Fortunately, we were all included in this ritual so it wasn’t only John and me sitting there looking like volcanic ash victims.

Three claps in unison released us from dinner, we got up and the food was passed over to all the men, women and children who sat waiting in the wings for their disbursement of leftovers. After everyone satiated their appetites, the preacher was dressed up for a fun and comic dance, signifying the arrival of the original Banabana residents to the island. Afterwards, five woman draped in leaves and crowned with flowers spent the remainder of the evening in dance. The first was in Fijian-style, the remaining in beautiful Banaban form.After so many church events in succession, I feel a primal need to do something quite devious.

The other highlight to our stay here was precipitated by a fellow yachtie who shared the bay with us. Hauke, from yacht Serendipity, had been given schoolbooks by friends to disburse as appropriate, so we joined him in bringing these ashore. As we rowed to shore the children gathered and so we passed out books to eager hands, eyes filled with curiosity. I was very impressed with how well mannered they were, none pushing or shoving, some looking after those who had not yet received their goods. Once collected, they brought them to the teacher who came out with a bundle in hand and invited us into the classroom. We played with the children (ages three-five), read to them, and shared a wonderful afternoon.

One child came up and gave me a coconut; I found out that her mother was there and only had two, one for each of them, and the little four-year old had wanted me to have hers. The generosity of spirit at such a young age will ever impress.

I have seen that selfless sharing many times during our stay here, indicating that possessions are not hoarded but shared amongst each other. There is much to be learned in the lessons brought through travel. I did drink that coconut, but perhaps I should have brought it home to share within my own community. I’ll have to work on that lesson.

Onward to our next stop in route, the gold at the end of this particular rainbow: Kia Island. Perhaps it is fitting that this island has been my favourite out of all the Fijian stops we have made. My affinity for the place is a combination of its natural beauty in both land and sea, as well as the incredible warmth of its people.

To get there, we did a 24-hour passage through a moonlit night, and rolled toward Kia in the late morning. The surrounding reef provided platform for fishermen with hand-lines, and local boats scattered off the shoal. As we made our entrance through the pass, we caught a great surprise as, one-by-one, spear-fishermen popped up on either stern. I am often out on the bowsprit on watch for coral heads, however this is the first time that I have been on lookout for human bodies. They would pop up and wave, welcoming us in. Our arrival, apparently, was an exciting occasion for all.

Kia gets an average of one boat a month during the cruising season. Given a handful of boats visit a year, the arrival of our vessel was cause for much excitement amongst the locals. We had visitors to our boat on dropping anchor asking for an invite to board, kids running up and down the beach hollering and waiving, curious faces peeping out from huts along the shoreline. We made our way in to give sevusevu and while this can be a routine process in many of the villages in the Yasawas, it was treated with celebration on Kia. We offered our yaqona and after speech and acceptance were asked if we wanted to share in the grog. We were given coconuts to sip on as the kava was prepared, and we introduced ourselves to villagers as they arrived. Every time we greeted one another there would be a flurry of conversation at the mention of my name, and much laughter. Introducing myself as Kia in Kia made for a great icebreaker.

After we shared a bowl of kava we were hosted around the grounds by Anna, a twenty-year old woman who had returned from her studies the previous year and spoke excellent English. She and a tribe of kids wandered around the village with us and took us to one of the neighbouring villages. Before departing we invited Anna to have breakfast with us onboard in the following morning.

The next day, we were woken at 8:00AM by knocking on the hull and outside laughter. Anna and a friend of hers had a reprieve from fishing for the day and were dropped off by family on their way out to the reef. After breakfast we came ashore for a hike over the mountain and visited a village on the other side of the island. Anna was our escort, flanked once again by a flock of children. We spent a wonderful day hiking and wandering around the island, playing on the beach and hiking around the rocky shores. We were to head out in the late afternoon, but before we bid our farewell we were invited to share tea and pancakes with some of the local women. 

We said our farewell, the children helped pull our dinghy into the water and two of them walked us out until the water was neck high. Once onboard, the waves and cheers continued as we pulled anchor and set out through the pass.

If anyplace has captured my heart, it is the people of Kia. A piece of Kia was left on Kia – now, how more appropriate could that be? That evening we sailed another 24 hours back to the northern tip of the Yasawa Islands. We completed our circumnavigation of Vanua Levu, and found what we had been looking for. With travel appetites satiated, we now look forward to the remaining three weeks in Fiji. This next period will be filled with the arrival of good friends from New Zealand and Australia. After a healthy dose of the local, we now look forward to the social.

BULA! The official greeting of Fiji

As we have been remiss since our departure from Tonga, we thought it time to stop and reflect on the passage over and our past month in Fiji.

Our passage here was a varied one. The forecast before departure wasn’t ideal, but we were keen to move on and thought we would try our luck. The first two days consisted of light winds but we had reasonable progress, aided by our diesel engine, Ms. Lucy.  Conditions turned on our third day and we ran into a very strong southerly front. For eighteen hours we suffered the southerly winds and rain, with an average of 30 – 35 knots and a few gusts of over 40 – 50 k’s.  In landlubber language, f*&king strong winds! Stronger than either John so I have experienced in prior passages. Rather than battling the conditions, we reduced our canvas to a reefed staysail and fell away to the north. Whilst it was a total rollercoaster ride as we crept up mountainous swells and disappeared into the trough, skipper and vessel are superbly competent and we safely navigated through gale force winds and mighty sea swells. In these conditions we operated as a good team; John looks after the boat and I look after the skipper.

Wind eased the following day and our last two days saw the best weather, and our best runs: 166 miles in one day, even with a conservative sail configuration. I cannot aptly express the satisfaction one gets watching the miles clock down and the boat whistle through the water. These last days provided stunning conditions and we glided Atea through the fringing easterly reefs into safe harbor on the southwestern side of Viti Levu. After five days at sea and 560 miles behind us, we drew into our port of call: Lauotoka.

Lautoka is one of the three ports of entry into Fiji and one of the main cities on the mainland. After clearing customs, applying for a cruising permit, we were free to roam the town and explore. As our fortune had it, we arrived on the opening day of a large carnival that was touring throughout Fiji. Had we not landed on this particular weekend there may have little on offer in the city; however, the festivities offered brought much entertainment and excitement to our short stay.

Fiji has a relatively equal mix of Indian and Fijian populations; as we wandered through the fairgrounds this mix of culture was evident. What struck us most was being submerged in the hip city culture after two months in the quiet, remote Tongan islands. Here, the bands boomed, clusters of men and women roamed around by the dozens, hip teens gossiped in their circles and parent roamed toting sleepy toddlers on their hips. We had entered a totally different world.

As we started to experience what was on offer around us, there was much to muse on and much to offer continuous entertainment. Initially John and I spent our time near front stage, enjoying the humour of a third-rate presenter who ran events: bands, a dance completion, a beauty contest, a wearable-arts show, and the like. I can still hear him welcoming the beauty queens to the stage, “and contestant number 5, with her hair in a barrette, wearing a black dress with shiny bangles on her wrists and magic shoes on her feet…” Other than the random “magic” comment added as a twist, there is nothing like a presenter stating the obvious! But it was kind for kind and presenter and contestant on equal ground, as when she was asked, “If you were granted one wish, what would it be?” the answer came, “I’d ask for a really long nap.”

Collecting treats as we passed the ice cream, shaved-ice, caramel popcorn booths, we finally made it to the long line of food stalls – we couldn’t wait for a break from our galley and a taste of local cuisine. However, there was much left to be desired after we passed the last of the stalls – every single one offered the exact duplicate of the one previous. After the simple selection of barbecued beef and mixed vegetables, we ventured off toward the crys spewing forth from spinning bodies and whirling seats of whizzing, creaking, groaning fair rides. We decided to join the chaos and, daring fate, selected the worlds largest, fastest, and ricketiest ferris wheel – my piercing scream must still be echoing through the deserted fairgrounds.

The main islands consist of two large mountainous islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, each canvased with tropical rain forests, rolling hills, and dense vegetation. City centres sprawl with shops filled with plastic trinkets, electronic supplies and budget fashion – none seem to offer anything specifically different from the other. The Indian influence is strong here, and there seems an equal distribution of Indian and Fijian population all cohabitating on equal terms despite the frequent government battles (though at a guess this distribution is representative of the mainland and not the surrounding island groups).

Local infrastructure functions for the locals and does not cater to the tourist. Internet cafes are few and far between, and you have to hunt through town to find a computer shop that offers internet services. As we wandered around it was obvious that this is not where foreigners spend their time, evident in the merchandise displayed in shop windows and the paucity of foreign faces. For yachties, most of the interest lies in the surrounding island groups which lie to the north, east and west of the mainland. So far we have spent our time in two of these groups, the more touristy Mamamucas and the quieter Yasawas.

After a few days sorting out logistics, we were ready to explore the islands that we’d battled 500 miles of open ocean to get to. It was not, on first sight, anything that we’d imagined. We slipped away from the mainland and headed for the Mamamukas, a southern-most chain of islands west of Viti Levu. Much to our surprise each island was packed with the burnt flesh of newly arrived tourists, basking beside chlorine pools or elbow up to the beach bar awaiting their next cocktail. It seemed on sight the very antithesis of what a cruising experience should be; done away with the remote, unspoiled isles, these seemed to offer the exact opposite: Bars and beach bungalows sprawling along the length of the island. Every island was home to a dedicated resort, not a local village or longboat in sight.

Don’t fight ‘em, join ‘em — and join them we did. We snuck into resorts with our sarongs, sun hats and credit cards, laid poolside with our novels and joined the line at the bar for an order of mai tai’s and lemon juice.  And I can’t say I minded one bit! While embedded in the cater-to-tourist trade, I do confess that it was quite a treat to rag-gab with the tourists and be a part of the not-so-ethnic experience. It provided a great change of scene and allowed us the feeling of “holiday” from our extended holiday.

We made our way to Musket Cove, famous to yachties and holiday-makers alike. Our experience here was made dear by connecting with a friend who was spending the season in Fiji, as well as the other sailors we met. Of particular note during our time here was a Fourth of July celebration – cruiser style. I’d brought sparklers from New Zealand which were

passed amongst the group, and some of the other cruisers brought expired emergency flares…60% of which didn’t work. But they did the trick, and we all ooh’ed and aww’ed as the red flares dropped from the sky, detonated by men with dangling cigarette butts from bottom lip.  Our friend Kurt brought in the American flag accompanied by an American-flag printed oven mitt, adding to the general fanfare of the night.

Musket Cove is an easy spot for any cruiser to get lost in. Come for a day and you stay a week, come for a week and you’ll find yourself there several months later. It boasts some of the best surfing sites globally, just released from private control in 2010, and some excellent sand bars that rise out at low tide offering a great kite-surfing spot and some excellent snorkeling. We, as you do, fell into the trap and stayed much longer than anticipated, enjoying the social atmosphere and the aquatic wonders.

We had a forced departure as we had to get back to the mainland to pick up a friend, Lizzie, who was joining us for ten days in the islands. After collecting her at Nadi (the city closest to the airport), we headed north to the Yasawas.

The Yasawas are a group of twenty islands that stretch north of the Mamumkas. Until a decade ago this island group was isolated and visited by only the intrepid traveler, leaving it unspoiled by tourism and unaffected by resort development.  A daily ferry has opened this area up to tourism, and had significant effect on accessibility to the islands.

Large resorts have not started developments here, but the area has responded to the change and now offers basic bures and upmarket villas hidden amongst the palms. These have not overrun local villages, and the Yasawas still offer sight and feel of the ethnic way of life.

Here locals depend on agriculture and fishing for their livelihoods and longboats as the main mode of transport. There are no roads on any of the islands, and not a car, scooter or bike in sight. Dirt paths provide access to different villages, and wind their way haphazardly through the islands. Pigs abound as a main source of meat, and the occasional cow for meat and dairy.

Most villages have a preschool of sorts, every island a school that is shared amongst the local villages, and to attend high school the youth have to move to the mainland for their education.  School is mandatory and the government fines a family if a child is taken out of school early. As a result commuting or dormitory living is common and starts at a very early age.

For the yachtie, custom is to offer savu savu if anchored off the villages on any of the islands. This tradition involves a gift offered to the chief for permission to stay on local ground, and in exchange travelers are offered protection for the duration of their stay. The most common gift offered is yaqona, the root which is used to make kava – the local grog. It is made by emptying the ground root into an old sock, or the like, and squeezing water through the fine powder until the liquid looks of dirty mud in colour.  The taste is in kind, and the narcotic has a drowsy, numbing effect.

This tradition is a good way to get entrance into the village, and Fijians are natural hosts. You are lead by a villager to the chieftain or chieftess of the village to give your offering, and after a quick ceremony of clapping and chanting, you are welcomed as a guest and made to feel so. This often leads to an invite for lunch or an afternoon tea, a lime leaf in hot water.

While this time of year boasts of consistent trade winds and settled weather, we’ve seen the variety during the month of July. Unsettled wind conditions combined with unreliable anchorages has made many a night less than ideal.

However there are many events that stand out and many memorable experiences to provide the balance. Along our route north through the Yasawas we dove for (but haven’t found yet) manta ray; snorkeled some fantastic reefs and played in a undersea playground hosting a rainbow of different corals and curious, playful fish; hiked through rivers and rock beds through mountains and played amongst its peaks; found a WWII Spitfire in 2 meters of water (though on sight we agreed it was more the remains of a miniature toy airplane); and gabbed with local fishermen who stopped mid-catch to banter in the afternoon heat (Fijians exude friendly warmth and welcome).

One of our favourite anchorages in the Yasawas is the Blue Lagoon, fantasy of many a boy in the 80s (not for the stunning setting, but for the petite jeune fils Brooke Shields). Our love of the area was based not on a Hollywood film but for the wonderful kiting it offered. We saw many boats come and go, however Atea stayed snuggly tucked in at anchor as we spent our afternoons under kite and board.

At seven and a half months pregnant, this was to be my final swansong. Given I needed John at hand to get my feet into the straps as I couldn’t reach the board, the call for an end date was well overdue. What added this spot to our favour was the nearby resort, hosting 12 quiet bures tucked into the hillside. Here we socialized with the guests and connected with several of the cruisers we’d met along the way.

One incidence was an invite onto a 100 foot super yacht for lunch, fully catered and waited on by the staff. We managed to make an impression of our own, however, by coming over on our paddleboards. On departure the coin flipped and we seemed the rich and famous as the enthused owner clicked the camera as we bid our farewell.

It was also a great haven from a provisioning perspective. We’d managed to get an occasional banana or pawpaw along the way when making savu savu in previous villages, but here a local had seen the opportunity and turned his family subsistence farm into a farm offering a variety to the nearby backpackers and villas. This was extended to yachties, and the experience was one of my favourites. We made our way in at high tide and navigated through mangroves up a creek. We were greeted by the family and were taken into the valley where we selected fruits and veg from the selection offered – freshly picked for a fraction of the cost paid at the markets. We were freed of our canned provisions and ate in what felt like pure decadence – to look in our stores and have a selection to choose from – ahhh, what a sight!!

Another favourite was when we were invited into a local home to watch a rugby match. We’d come the week before however reception didn’t work so we spent the afternoon drinking kava and yarning the time away. By the following week the reception was recovered, just in time to watch Fiji play New Zealand. It was a hoot – four of us in the living room with twenty-two Fijian rugby fans, a kava bowl sitting in amongst the group. Whilst the score ended 60 – 17 in the All Blacks favour, there was unleashed enthusiasm when the Fijian made a goal. For the first time I wished for an All Blacks loss, just to hear the craze from our patriotic hosts.

Without drabbing on too long (already done, but if you’ve made it this far thanks so much for your interest) – a conclusion and summary. This past month has been a full one, and while quite a different experience from Tonga, a treasure of the South Pacific all the same.

For those of you who are invested in the little stowaway traveling with us, all continues to go well. I’ve just survived one bout of food poisoning, but other than that our diet has been good and activity continues to increase (along with the belly size!). I’ve seen two midwives while here, each concluding that all fares well.

And for now, that’s it from Yacht Atea. Over and out.

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.

Come Hell and High Water

When John and I made public our plans for taking our yacht up to the islands this season, we didn’t tell people we were going on a holiday. We called it an adventure, and that is exactly what we got.

Adventure, by its very definition, stipulates that the expected shall not happen and the unexpected will be wrought with challenges to overcome. Without these, you’ve taken a holiday – a respite from routine for another routine, the latter filled with lazy days, piña coladas, books and bronzed skin.  This is not what we asked for, and so, this is far from what we got.

We have just come in from a 1400-mile passage from Auckland, New Zealand to Neiafu, Vava’u. The work we did prior to departure was intensive, given we only gave ourselves three months from idea to execution. As a result, we purchased a yacht not tested on the open ocean, and did all we could do to prepare her for the demands that full time cruising would place on her. To compound our situation, John and I found out that we were pregnant around the same time that we placed our purchase offer, and so we required more of our yacht than we ever had before.  As a result, systems were put in that we would not have allowed the luxury of before – freezer to allow a balanced diet of protein during our months away, watermaker to keep a fresh supply of purified water, etc. The workload was intense before departure, but with a date set for completion and the skills of an amazing project manager heading up the work, we accomplished what we needed to by our departure date.

We set sail at 16:00 on 4th May from the custom’s dock in Auckland. We left the day after a tornado hit the North Island, thinking we would head out following a high pressure zone and get good wind to carry us north. We got what we planned for, with rough seas for the first several days of the journey. What we also expected was that some of the crew would experience seasickness, which is exactly what we got. Myself exempt, all members of our party suffered seasickness and some were laid down for the count. So amidst a maze of sprawled bodies and personal heaving buckets spread throughout the ship, we continued our trip north in rough seas and strong winds.

In those first days we were joined by the brilliance of a night sky without the haze of pollution or the repression of city lights, dolphin in our wake and pools of phosphorescence around our boat.  The shift from land to sea was uncomfortable, it was more a matter of keeping the crew intact than the boat intact – Ātea was performing beautifully.  Our boat was competent and sailing strongly.

I was not to be spared from the trials of ocean travel. Seeing that the sea could not undermine me by the slow twisting of gut, she decided to try a less tactful approach. With vengeance, she picked me up by foot on an unexpected swell and upended me, tossing me from galley to chart table and landing my face square against two large metal battery switches. The result of this incidence left me with what was either bone bruising and swelling to the outer bone of the eye socket or a hairline fracture. Either way, I was left with a chronic headache for most of the remainder of trip, swelling of eye and skin and bruising enough to show me as survivor of some heinous crime; alas, we had all been undone by the Pacific and were put in our rightful place.

One-by-one the crew slowly recovered – bodies slowly starting to creep out of hiding places, cries to the spirits of mercy ebbed, the watch schedule slowly resumed. By day four all members of the crew seemed fully restored, the weather had settled into 10-15 knots of breeze during the day, dead calm at night resulting in relying on the motor to move us forward along our track.

These days of relative calm were filled with ocean swims in beautiful refreshing temperatures, lazing about in the sunshine reading books, social banter, settling into a relaxing routine. We had gone through steep swells and strong wind, perfect for the sound sailing vessel that Ātea was proving to be, not so ideal for a crew adjusting to the constant shift of surface underfoot; the following few days mother nature graced us with the tranquility that she is less renown for in tales of voyages on the high seas. She rocked us slowly forward to our destination, gracing us with blue skies and star-filled nights, giving the crew a chance to appreciate the other side of what an ocean passage can offer. Greg termed these our “Ground Hog” days and all experienced how peaceful the ocean can be with a lazy rolling swell and gentle flowing breeze.

Our period of peace was soon replaced by a secret pledge of mutiny by our internal systems, which set upon themselves a schedule of mechanical failure for the reminder of our trip.

First to be noticed was the gradual taste of salt in our water tanks – ocean water what had seeped through the air vent on deck. We started rationing our water from a separate jug kept for such emergency, slowly draining our infected water tanks so that we could replace it with one of our luxury purchases – now a key player to one of our essential needs – the water maker.  Professionally installed, we soon picked up the scent of burning rubber and inspection revealed that the pulley for the drive belt had slipped and ruined the belt tensioner in the process.  The water maker was taken off-line, and the rationing resumed while the captain set upon his first major project in the trip – reengineering the components for a stand-in solution so that we weren’t stuck in a barren desert in the middle of the ocean.

Day eight the weather had filled in and established itself; occasional squalls rolled through and a 3-meter swell had set in and rocked the boat as she picked her way up and over endless mountains of water, slowly making her way nor’-nor’east. Fortunately, we had passed through our period of becalmed evenings by then, a slight concession for our next system failure.  On 11th May, our beloved and thus far reliable diesel engine decided to take its last breath, and has been silent since. Through all practical solutions have been made, we have been unable to get our trusted steed back on the scene. To date this remains the case.

The following day the batteries decided that the boycott of working conditions was a worthy gripe and decided to join allegiance. Again, with a lot of pluck and pulling, theorizing and head scratching, we have been unable to come to any resolution. With the departure of our house batteries, we bid a bitter farewell to many of the comforts to which we had become accustomed. We turned off the refrigerator, shut down the autopilot, electric heads and navigation lights and resorted to the days of old… sailing the old fashioned way.

During this time, all the minor incidences of wear and tear were starting to show up. We did not have use of our electric windlass and the hand-crank had seized. Our head, rendered useless earlier in the passage as the automatic flush refilled the bowl and as a result, filled the heads and left a slosh of sewage on the floor. A bucket it t’was, and there is no more poignant moment of intimacy on a boat than having to share what I called, “the public toilet,” (or bucket) on the aft deck.

There is an upside to every down. The result of the battery situation forced us to hand-steer for the remainder of our time at sea. While a reliance on an autopilot allows for a much more relaxed ride, it also diminishes the time spent at the wheel. Because we did not have this option, we were forced on shift to stand watch and helm the boat. While the thought of three- and four-hour watches standing behind the wheel with no break was daunting, it proved what an excellent sailing vessel we had at hand and gave everyone a true appreciation for the joy of sailing. Actually sailing in the true sense of the word.

And so, at long last, the crew was fully and ceremoniously entrenched in their Sailing Adventure. During the last days as salty stewards of the sea, we ran the range of conditions that the elements provide – we had becalmed days, knock down squalls, big seas through to light air and inconsistent wind direction.

We managed a few moments of excitement during this period. We ran a “search and recovery” mission when a hatch cover came off its hinge and flew off into the ocean. While this may seem like a rather minor mishap given the trials we had been through, John was damned if he was going to let it slip away. All hands were called on deck and we rallied to rescue this prized two-foot board. The dramatic finale was when the captain strapped himself by line to his safety harness and dove overboard. Mission Accompli!

Another memorable event moment was when our fishing guru Greg caught a Marlin on 25-kilo wire… we were all amazed that Greg managed to keep the scaled-beast hooked, though it finally outsmarted us 20 minutes later when it dove under the boat and twisted the wire around shaft, forcing us to cut the line.

On 13th of May we finally reached the conclusion of this “Adventure Extraordinaire” – Land Ho!! At 03:00 we were at the entrance to the Vava’u chain of islands, and our destination. We hove-to to wait for sunrise so that we could prepare the tender, as we would be relying on her and her 15-horse outboard to bring us in the final leg. Day was just breaking as we sailed through the archipelago, and it was truly a beautiful sight as we pecked our way through the rock-cliffed islets covered in palm trees listening to the sound of birds chattering at daybreak and the gentle lap of water on shore.  We inched our way through her entrance and just as the soft breeze dies, we tied the tender alongside and revved up the engine, giving Ātea steerage through the channel. However, just one final punch to the gut – the dingy motor has seized through two weeks of sitting on the rail with saltwater in her system – the motor wasn’t running water through the engine and thus, unable to keep her cool. This problem was temporary, much to our fortune and relief, and we were soon under way again.

We dropped anchor in Neiafu and by 11:00 John was in custom’s clearing us through while we all sat back to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. It wasn’t a problem free trip, but it gave us all the full range of the cruising experience –seasickness and personal injury and the self-reliance needed to endure; ever-constant mechanical failures and self-reliance required to resolve issues; the teamship required to get each member through; the constant demands of a ship in ever-shifting weather conditions as it continues forward toward the endless blue horizon.

I think we all sit back with an incredible feeling of accomplishment. Our next few days will be focused on repair work and getting Ātea put together again. And then – we cruise.

The Sanctity (or is it Sanity) of Friendship

While it has been a lot of focused dedication over the past two months to get turn dream into reality, the contributions of friends helped us to keep our sanity. Thank you so much for contributing; for sharing time, enthusiasm, and the occasional task allocation, and the occasional excuse for a break from the daunting list of line items required to get Atea ready for voyage. A few reminders are included of moments along the way…..

Sailing Adventures of Two Traveling Nomads (and a Stowaway)

As we begin the next chapter in our lives, it is probably best to start this new journey with a preface of how it all came to be – where and when the idea for a return to the cruising lifestyle began, what prompted such a rash – yet in our minds totally rational – decision. It began with a picture of a lovely yacht in California, which sparked a dream and after mulling through, realization that it could become reality. And so, in February, we began our quest of finding a yacht of our own.

We spent several weeks on a global campaign for a yacht that would suit. No sooner than we had marked our sights on a sailboat in Virginia, east coast of the USA, that we had another unlikely surprise, which turned us on our heals and we promptly put an offer in on another boat, closer to home.

The note home sums up the second discovery:

“Dear Family,

John and I have some exciting news we want to share. As of this morning, 10AM, we got confirmation on our offer of a 50-foot Ganley – photos attached. We are both incredibly excited as we are planning to head north into the South Pacific this May for the Tongan and Fijian islands. Pictures attached for sight and feel of our new precious baby.

Two hours later, at 12AM, we got confirmation of a second, much smaller, addition to our adventure. Again, pictures attached for sight and feel.”

And so, with news of a third coming our way and the decision to proceed with our dream of anchor hopping the Pacific isles intact – albeit with modifications to suit the demands of cruising with a baby on the way – we quickly geared up to turn dream into reality.

On 4th March 2011 we became the proud new owners of our new yacht, Atea, a centre-cockpit steel-hulled cutter-rigged sloop. Aiming to depart this 2011 season, we had much to do to prepare this coastal cruiser to qualify as a fully equipped offshore ship. Amidst full time jobs, preparing the house for rent and household items for storage, the flurry of visits to doctors and midwives, we kicked into an ambitious schedule of boat preparation. Thanks to John’s skill as project manager, and the wonderful support of friends who have offered their hand in helping us see this project through (Simon Kendall – you are indeed a God-send!) we are now a few days off departure and ready to turn to the first page of our new chapter in life: Sailing Adventures of Two Traveling Nomads (And a Stowaway).