Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Arrived in Vava'U group of the Kingdom of Tonga (we have been here before on a charter boat)

2008-08-30 to 09-02   Saturday to Tuesday

Latitude 18.39.40S
Longitude 172.59.03 W
Distance traveled: 247 NM

We departed Niue at 0500 on Friday, August 30, 2008.  Sailed 247 miles in extremely confused seas for 33 ½ hours and arrived in Tonga on Sunday afternoon, September 1, 2008, averaging 7.2 knots of VMG (velocity made good).  The hours do not match the days of the week because we have crossed the International Date Line and are now one day ahead of you folks back home.  At least this time change does not involve any physical adjustment.  Niue is GMT minus 11 hours; Tonga is GMT plus 13 hours.  So really we are on the same time as when in Niue, except one calendar day forward.

Heavy weather was predicted for this entire region and every boater wanted to be tucked into wherever they wanted to be by Saturday or Sunday, depending on your time zone.  We had planned to anchor in Anchorage #7 (Port Maurelle) upon arrival in Tonga, but that anchorage was full when we got here.  So we motored on into the main harbor at Neiafu – where we found more boats than we could have imagined.  The charts indicate 2 anchorage areas in this harbor but they don’t really exist.  Most of the harbor is 130 feet deep or deeper and anchoring is extremely unlikely.  Plus, there are mooring balls all around the harbor near the shore here now; so if you do find a spot shallow enough to drop the anchor then you are too close to a mooring field and would not have sufficient swinging room.  There are about 4 boats who have managed to anchor, but the other 70-80 of us are on moorings, plus the fleets of Sunsail and Moorings charters.  This is a very large harbor.  Still, we were surprised to find so many boats here.  We chartered here in June 2002 and there were very few boats here then.  Of course, there should not have been many, if any, cruisers here in Tonga in June.  Cruisers follow a pattern determined by the weather and would not normally reach Tonga until August or September.  So we are here at the highest cruising season of the year.

We managed to pick up the last available mooring, which was on the farthest side of the harbor away from the town.   Everything is closed in Tonga on Sundays.  The law states that no business of any kind can be conducted on Sunday.  Monday morning there were many boats double rafted up to the Customs wharf to clear in.  About 15-20 boats had arrived in Tonga over the weekend and all needed to clear in.  You are not allowed to get off your boat until you have officially cleared in.  Since we plan to stay in Vava’U group for about a month, we were in no hurry to clear in.  So we stayed on the mooring and waited for the Customs wharf to clear space for us. 

Never happened.  More and more boats kept motoring over to the wharf to clear in.  Finally, just before noon, we radioed another boat that we know that was tied up at the wharf.  They said we could come over and raft up next to them.   As we were motoring over there, yet another arriving boat got there first and rafted up to our friends.  So we rafted up to that boat.  Now there were 3 boats tied side-by-side to that one place on the Customs wharf, plus 3 more boats farther up the wharf, each with a second boat rafted up.  It was a very busy morning for the officials.

In Tonga there are 4 officials who board your boat when clearing in – Customs, Immigration, Quarantine and Health.  The first to arrive on our boat were Immigration and Quarantine.  Each man commented that he was working through lunch because there were so many boats needing to clear in.  So, what could we do but be polite and offer to feed them lunch on our boat.  I made sandwiches with chips and sliced apples.  Quarantine asked if we had any fresh vegetables on board and I told him that all we had were tomatoes and apples and they were eating the last of those.  Planned our fresh produce supply just perfect for arrival; there was nothing to remove from our boat.  Quarantine does remove your garbage, which is always a welcome thing to any boater; saves us from having to pay for disposal elsewhere or having to burn or bury it on a lonely beach.

After they left the Health official arrived.  Since we had already cleared Immigration, Bill left in search of an ATM so we could obtain Tongan money to pay the clearance fees.  I completed the necessary forms and visited with the Health official and offered him chocolate cookies while we waited for Bill to return.   I told the official that all we had to drink was cold water or beer.  He responded, “Is it cold?”  So he drank a cold beer with his chocolate cookies.  Beee-yuck!!!

Soon after the Health guy left, the Customs official boarded and we completed his paperwork.  You do not pay Customs fees until you depart from here.  BTW, you must clear in and out of each group of islands in Tonga.  This is somewhat of a hassle; sort of the same thing we had to do in Panama except there are 4 officials to deal with instead of only Immigration and Customs.  This also adds more cost and might discourage some cruisers from stopping in some of the Tongan island groups. 

Earlier in the day Bill had radioed The Moorings and arranged for us to get a mooring ball there.  The Moorings does normally rent moorings for a daily fee but they also need most of their moorings for their charter fleet.  A few weeks ago Bill had email correspondence with a friend of ours who just happens to be in charge of all Moorings and Sunsail worldwide.  Our friend emailed us that we should contact a certain person at The Moorings base here in Tonga and tell him to help us in any way we might need while here.  Well, a little name-dropping paid off handsomely.  When we left the Customs wharf we motored straight to a mooring at The Moorings base which is right in the heart of everything for the town.  This was more like it!  Would not have to dinghy way across the harbor in the high winds; restaurants and bars and markets right in front of us.  Heavy weather is predicted through Wednesday so we will stay here at least until the winds calm down before moving on to some of the outer islands and anchorages.  There is internet here but not anywhere else in Vava’U.

On Monday night we visited The Bounty Bar for a jam session presented by musically talented cruisers.  The place was packed beyond standing-room-only capacity.  We arrived early and snagged a place at the bar, where we remained until it was time to go home.  Bill developed a taste for the local Ikale beer and they even had Diet Coke for me – a truly rare treat out here.  We shared some fish and chips.  Later we both did not want any more to drink but did not feel right about taking up seating space in the crowded place unless we were either drinking or eating something, so we ordered a vegetarian pizza.  Figured it takes awhile to bake a pizza and also could take us some time to eat it.  They made the pizza from the same fresh vegetable mix that they used for the vegetable stir-fry dishes, so it was unusual.  Anyone ever had a pizza topped with cauliflower and carrot?  Actually, it was very good and even Bill enjoyed it until I mentioned that it contained cauliflower.  Then he would not eat another bite.  He does not really like pizza and he absolutely detests cauliflower.  We passed out the remaining pieces to people standing nearby and walked back through town to our dinghy, which was tied outside a competing restaurant – not a nice thing for us to do.  The next day we found another dinghy dock closer to The Bounty Bar and will park there in the future.

The music at the jam session was okay and it was a lot of fun.  There were at least 5 people playing guitars, one mandolin, one flute-looking instrument, and one saxophone.  The guitar players were more into what I would call mountain music or folk music.  The saxophone player was more to our musical taste.  But we enjoyed it all and hope they do it again.

Today we walked around the town and refreshed our memories of the lay of the land.  Not that big a place but certainly more buildings than we remembered from our visit here in June 2002.  We were last here 6 months after a class 4 typhoon had hit here.  The eye of the storm passed just north of this island, and Vava’U islands were almost completed denuded of vegetation.  The 500-feet sheer cliffs on the northwest side of the island were silvery bare stone and sand.  Now there heavy green shrubs and small trees grow all the way down those cliffs to the water edge.  The islands looked brown right after that storm but everything is lush green now.  Also, the locals tell us that it was very hot here that year after the storm, although we certainly did not think it was hot when we visited – it was way cooler than Houston in June!  They must be right because what we are experiencing now is considered normal temperature for this time of year, and it feels quite cool to us.  Temps range 73F at night to 79F during day right now.  We have changed from shorts to long pants and thicker shirts.  Loving it.

I have included a couple of photos from our last visit to Tonga.  One is a gorgeous sunset at Anchorage #11.  Another is a woman in the airport at Nuku’alofa, which will be the last town we visit in Tonga before departing for New Zealand.  This woman has some woven matting wrapped around over her clothing.  She is in mourning for a family member.  The top part that goes over her shoulder indicates that the deceased was either a parent or a grandparent, or possibly a sibling – a very close family member.  If the deceased had been a lesser family member, like an aunt/uncle/cousin, then she would wear only the bottom wrapping.  Both men and women wear these mourning “mats.”  The mats are worn over all black clothing.  The Quarantine official who visited our boat yesterday was wearing mourning attire.  I asked about it and he explained the custom.  He was in mourning for an uncle and planned to wear the attire for a full year to show honor to his uncle.

The sunset last evening was incredible.  We watched it from The Bounty Bar but could not get a photo because the place was so crowded.  The sky turned lavender with orange streaks, then pink tones which are impossible for me to describe.  Simply gorgeous with the rolling hills of various islands and the reflected water of the harbor.  Tonga definitely has the most beautiful sunsets that we have ever seen.

BTW, we did not get our visas from the New Zealand High Council office in Niue.  We happened to get a girl who was on her second day of a new job and she did not explain our application correctly to the Immigration office back in New Zealand.  The main office said we did not need visas.  We highly suspect that is an error because several other cruisers we have met obtained exactly the same visas in Raratonga that we applied for in Niue.  I asked for a copy of the email from the main office in NZ stating that we did not need the visas.  We might try again in Nuku’alofa if there is time.  Otherwise, we will deal with it after we arrive in New Zealand.  Oh, the joys of officialdom when cruising.

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