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Tongan Village Life in Niuatoputapu

We had been based in the Marina during our stay in Samoa, which had made socialising and getting ashore very easy. It was a novelty to just be able to step ashore. With a great ice cream parlour across the road and a few Samoan Tala left rattling in our pockets, our final meal was a Samoan sized portion of ice cream, washed down with plenty of local beer aboard a friendly fishing boat in the Marina. Not the best way to prepare yourselves for an early start and offshore passage, but it seems we are still young and stupid (okay… just stupid).

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Calm seas and a beautiful sunrise whilst leaving Samoa

As we silenced the 5am alarm with blurry eyes, we were already beginning to harbour regrets. Luckily the wind shadow from the huge mountainous islands of Samoa meant we had a gentle start and even had to hoist the spinnaker for a few hours to make some progress. Neptune then decided he had been far too easy on us and as we came out of the shelter of the islands we found ourselves close reaching in 25 knots of wind and a horrible cross swell. Florence pitched violently and each wave pounded into the side of the boat, sending a constant flow of water over the decks, into the cockpit and sometimes down our necks. Although we have been in much rougher seas, the motion was the most vomit inducing we have experienced. The conditions were not dangerous, just plain miserable. Amy soon couldn’t even hold down water and Matt was ill for the first time on Florence. The only way to find even the slightest relief was to lay horizontal in the hot sea bunk below deck, or wedged in the cockpit, outside in the fresh air with waves over your head. Watch change overs were lighting quick as we raced to switch over, getting dressed/stripping off on deck in order to spend as little time as possible sat/stood up in the hot, airless cabin below. Simple tasks like going to the toilet involved the dilemma of choosing to hang over the side of the pitching boat or get thrown around in the stomach lurching head (toilet) below. On the positive side, only eating 3 dry crackers in the space of 33 hours, probably balanced out the beer and ice cream consumed before we left, plus the waves were warm and as it was only a 185 mile passage, the misery would end before long.

Tired, dehydrated, hungry, and dreaming of an easy 9-5 land life, we finally spotted the beautiful island of Niuatoputapu (aka New Potato Island by sailors unable to prononce it). A couple of rusty looking posts marked the extremely shallow looking, narrow entrance through the reef. On closer inspection, we realised that the water was much deeper than it looked, it was just so incredibly clear that we could see every rock/coral patch below us. Thoughts of returning home vanished the moment we entered the shelter of the lagoon, with turtles popping their heads up to greet us, palm covered beaches and views of an extinct volcano behind us. Suddenly sailing around the world returned to being the best idea we have ever had.

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As always when entering a new country by boat, the first challenge was checking in. The trouble was we were not allowed to step foot on land until we had done so, and the customs/immigration office (hut) was in the next village. We waited aboard and hoped someone ashore would spot us and kindly inform them of our presence (there had been no response to our radio calls), after 5 months in the south pacific we have learnt to be patient when it comes to formalities. Around 11am the following day, we heard a tooting car horn and spotted 3 people waving at us from the village wharf. We quickly rowed to the dock with our documents. Looking doubtfully at our little dinghy, the officials politely informed us they actually needed to complete the paperwork aboard our boat. Ferrying two Tongan ladies and a very large Tongan gentleman was a challenge for our little dinghy, even with multiple trips. It was a comical sight watching Matt trying to scoop the trailing ends of the ladies grass skirt out of the water as they precariously made it towards Florence. Luckily their enthusiasm to get back onto dry land made the paperwork unusually prompt.

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Our beautiful anchorage was shared with just one other yacht; another 37ft boat owned by a New Zealand couple the same age as us. They came aboard for a chat which turned into dinner and drinks, in return for which they introduced us to some of the locals they had met, who then shared some local fish, fruit and vegetables with us.

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The only other boat in the bay

With only 800 people living on the island, Niuatoputapu was a great opportunity for us to experience Tongan village life. A complete circuit of the island could be completed in an afternoon, but in reality took much longer, as everyone stopped to greet us. The children were some of the friendliest we have met, although our lack of Tongan and their lack of English stopped the conversation at Hello and Goodbye. They do not see many pelagi (foreigners) so seemed content for us just to wave madly and repeat these words over and over.

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Some of the remaining damage from the 2009 Tsunami

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The island suffered a huge Tsunami in 2009 which devastated the island, killed 9 people and caused the majority of the population to move to other islands. The community is still busy rebuilding it’s churches but new pre-fabricated houses, that resemble posh garden sheds, were erected a few years ago. Locals are no longer short of food as the foliage has recovered; trees are full of coconuts, papaya, banana. The lagoon is full of fish while pigs and chickens seem to outnumber people.

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A typical family home

Each day (except Sunday) the men of the island could be found fishing, harvesting crops or rebuilding the church, the women cooking or weaving. We learnt how many weeks it takes to produce a traditional Tongan mat which is worn around the waist to church or formal gatherings as a sign of respect. The reeds are soaked in the sea, dried and split before being painstakingly transformed into intricate designs. Formal/church gatherings are a big deal in Tonga. Every morning at 5am the church bells would ring out across the bay and we would hear the singing from the boat. With at least 3 churches in every village and several services a day, it seemed there was a constant harmony drifting across the bay (not quite so harmonious at 5am). We were told that a group in the village had been practising their singing and dancing for months in order to celebrate a Bishop coming to reopen their tsunami devastated church. Leaving our flip-flops at the door, we were welcomed into their community hut during a practice, where we sat cross-legged on woven mats among the group. The drum beat teamed with graceful dancing and beautiful singing was even more mesmerising in such an intimate setting. Our presence provided plenty of entertainment for the local children, with those who were not brave enough to sit with the strange pelagi’s, peering in at us through the gaps in the reed hut.

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Bark for weaving drying outside a community hut
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Traditional singing and dance practice

Amongst the seemingly traditional way of life, we were surprised at how many families on the island owned a car or truck. To us it appeared totally unbalanced on an island you can easily walk/cycle around in half a day, especially when most families lived in a one room house without electricity. We were told that even more cars were arriving on the next ferry that visits the island once every three weeks.

As the sun was setting we would often see humpback whales breeching outside the lagoon. Too far away to catch on camera but incredibly exciting to watch. We also experienced our first whale song, diving down into the ocean when snorkelling outside the reef. Although they were probably over a mile away it was easy to think we might bump into one, they sounded so close. The whales come up to Tonga to breed and give birth before returning back to the Antarctic for ‘summer’. We are very excited to see more of these amazing creatures on our journey south through Tonga.

Having recovered from our sail here and had a taste of Tonga, we were keen to make the 170 mile passage to the Vava’u group, the next islands in Tonga. Luckily this time there were no ice-cream shops and we were running low on beer.

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3 thoughts on “Tongan Village Life in Niuatoputapu”

  1. How wonderful to be able to fill your boots on ice cream and beer before your next sail. My heart goes out to you for your Mal de Mer moment, thank goodness you had a world tour to keep you going. I have suffered all my life with sickness but still I look forward to the next voyage. However I am sorely tempted with the ice cream and beer. Enjoy your wonderful voyage, I will be heart broken when your bloggs finally finish.

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  2. Hello, having read about your sea sickness during your passage I wonder if you’ve ever used hammocks instead of bunks when you’re sailing in rough seas? I have no personal experience yet of the rolling you have to put up with in your yacht, but I wonder if hanging a hammock in a front to rear position in the cabin would allow you to at least more or less negate the rolling motion for whoever is in it? Meanwhile, I’m enchanted by your fantastic photos, videos, and very descriptive narrative in your blog. Keep up the good work! I may never emulate your odyssey myself as I don’t know that the rest of the family would either join me or let me, but your blog is absolutely inspirational to those of us who can only dream. 🙂

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