26th August 2005: Tonga- Whales, Mats and the Mermaid

Tonga consists of 4 groups of islands, from North to South, the Niuas, Vavau
Group, Ha'apai Group, and Tongatapu, the capital in the south. They lie near
the dateline, about 20 degrees south of the equator, 150 miles south
east of Fiji. Tonga was never colonised by a great power, and is still a
royal kingdom, but perhaps for not much longer - there is a rising democracy
movement against the 87 year old King, and more specifically against his
autocratic and apparently corrupt and incompetent son, the Prince. Crowds in
Tongatapu burnt the Revenue Office last week, and there is a travel advisory
notice, warning travellers not to go to Tonga - this has the effect of
invalidating all travel insurance, so tourist numbers are down. This is a
shame, for whereas Niuatoputapu  is one of the poorest islands we have
visited, Vavau is one of the most beautiful.

Niuatoputapu (Tongan for very sacred coconut) is 150 miles north of Vavau
and 150 miles south of Samoa - neither exactly a metropolis - so its
remote - and poor. In fact if it weren't for the coconut palms, Vaipoa, the
middle of 3 small communities looks exactly like an old English village in
say 1000AD: tethered horses graze the central green pasture, chickens, pigs and
muddy half clothed children run around, the dwellings are made of thatch,
and covered with thatch, there are no roads, only tracks worn down to bare
earth by horses and people, dogs growl protecting the small piece of land
surrounding each dwelling, fenced with wicker work to keep the pigs out. No
TV or radio, no generators or power station, a few children play games with
bat and ball. Women gather in a larger dwelling to weave mats and make cloth
out of bark. Men sit round in separate groups, drinking, singing and

They haven't had a ship in 3 months, the last plane landed 5 months ago.
Unsurprisingly the only small tourist resort ceased last year - the 2
owners - man and wife - came back to collect their last possessions earlier
this year, and are now wife and girl-friend - the man had a sex change to
become a woman. There are a few cars, but little or no fuel - until a
private motor cruiser Sea Jac arrived with 800 litres of gasoline and 400
of diesel in 6 x200 litre drums, lashed to the back of his boat. Nico, one
of the more enterprising residents had persuaded a contact in Vavau to
persuade Jack, the NZ owner to buy the fuel and carry it with him to
Niuatoputapu - a generous act since Jack had to spend some $2500 on the fuel
with no guarantee of getting the money back when he arrived. About 100
villagers gathered to watch the transaction as cash was handed over, and the
drums swung out onto the waiting trucks. Bessie, the Tongan Customs lady had
not been consulted and was hurt but no-one cared, and since Government
Officials were supposed to be on strike anyway, people cared even less.

Nico and Sia his wife held a Sunday feast on a small islet for the crews of
the 7 yachts in the wonderfully protected anchorage, and we arranged for an
exhibition of weaving the next day, as this is one of the very few sources
of money for the island. The women work in teams of 2 or more to cut fronds
into 1 cm wide strips, then weave them over/under into mats. Surprisingly
neat and robust work. Useful for sitting on or for hanging from walls
perhaps? No. The Tongan men (and sometimes women) wear them as wrap around
skirts or kilts, full length, often twice round an ample stomach. A full
size mat will take a long time to make and will sell for about US$150 - a
lot. Perhaps because of their apparent impracticality there is already a
growing trend in larger towns like Vavau towards the executive mat (only 6
inches long, worn over trousers), mini-mat (thigh length), the slit mat (to the
thigh) or the tasselled mat (20 or so matlets hanging from a waist band over
a skirt). But in Niuatoputapu tradition rules, women work, and men sit
around in groups of 10 or so, in long mats and drink kava.

Kava is the ground root of the pepper plant, looks and tastes like soapy
water, and induces a drug like calmness/lethargy. For a short time it was
the legal drug of choice in Germany which imported some $20 million of it,
but the Government spread a rumour that it damaged the liver and demand
dropped right off. The rumour turned out to be ill-founded but kava demand
never recovered. Kava is drunk from elaborately carved wooden bowls
about 0.5 metre diameter, on 10 or so small legs. Cups or more often coconut
shells are passed round, and in the short time between drinking and
lethargy, the men sing exquisite 6 part harmony.

It was tempting to stay longer in Niuapotapatu's secure anchorage, but Jan
and Craig had only a limited time, and to be honest the lack of resources on
the island was even to our untrained eyes leading to tensions between the
islanders, and it was also disquieting to see the affluence of the local
clergy, and the amount of time spent by the men sitting and talking, rather
than fishing or working in the plantations (although I guess if a
Niuapotapatan were to visit a western office he would see..............lots
of men (and women) sitting around and ..........talking). Nico arranges a
team of 15 or so men to go to New Zealand for 4 months/year to pick fruit
and grapes, but this is a rare burst of entrepreneurship. So out of the easy
exit passage, and we sailed south 160 miles aiming for Vavau, beating into a
head wind, dodging reefs and volcanoes. Yes volcanoes. There are a number of
active volcanoes on the direct line south, marked on the chart with things
like 'volcanic activity (1999) - 10 metres depth'. The chart was printed in
2000 so the question is how much higher the volcanic activity has pushed the
tip of the volcano? We heard of one fishing boat that nearly sank because
the gas bubbles aerated the sea so much that the boat lost flotation. We
tried to avoid them altogether but it wasn't possible
with the wind direction, so we compromised by zigzagging through them (at
night - its always at night) leaving as much room as possible.

At first sight Vavau looks like the white cliffs of Dover, Intrepid's home
port. Huge 100 metre high white limestone/chalk cliffs jut up from the
ocean, to make the main island of Vavau with smaller islands
scattered south of it. Having passed the white cliffs, the rest of Vavau is
like the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, or perhaps the archipelago of
islands round Stockholm (but warmer). And sure enough there is both a
moorings and Sailing Safaris charter yacht operation, which is plucky
because its not an easy place to sail around, and Tonga cant be the easiest
place to do business in. But the sailing is delightful, the Moorings chart
describes 40 anchorages alone, all within 15 miles sail of each other and
all different. The big pull in addition to the sailing, is the whales.
Humpback whales come to Vavau to breed, and to show off - so from Intrepid
with Jan and Craig we saw a huge adult whale leap clear out of the water just 100 metres from
us..........followed a few seconds later by a baby whale 10 metres long
imitating it, over and over again, getting slower and lower as it tired.
Good for Jan and Craig to see before they flew back to Samoa.

The main anchorage at Vavau in the winter (May to November) is home to
perhaps 20 charter boats, and 20 or so
visiting yachts, most on mooring balls (15 Pa'anga/night, about $7) as its
deep (30 metres). There is also the Mermaid - one of those bars which
qualify in my humble and eccentric opinion for inclusion in the '10 of the
best bars in the world'. (Others include Peter's Bar in the Azores, the Panama Canal Yacht
Club Bar in Colon, Te Mahana in Huahine, Charleston YC Bar, the Swan in West
Peckham, Kent (on a good day), the Schooner Bar in Key West, El Gatto (The
cat) in Valencia, the Lamb and Flag in London...........any I have missed?)
The Mermaid's dinghy dock with grey dinghies bobbing up and down like piglets at a sow is
as rickety as the gangway leading up from it (which leans at
30 degrees and is held on by thin string), what appears to be the main bar
is the bow of a boat, but actually that's just for leaning on, and the main
bar with coloured lights over is behind that, its open to the elements, and
the floor boards over the dock have cracks in them so wide you can see the sea below, the rest of the floor is
rough concrete. T shirts and flags with varied and exotic signatures and greetings from all nations and boats
hang from wires strung between the rafters, and by 5pm there is
already a roughly dressed group of casual boat repairers mostly from Sailing
Safaris hanging onto the boat/bar, Happy Hour ends at 6pm with a cannon.
Draft Ikale (Royal Tongan Beer which is
actually pretty awful) is on tap at 4 Pa'anga ($2) glass, and the food
specials follow a weekly rotation including excellent fish and chips (18
Pa'anga /$9). About 60% of the crowd are drawn from the
100 or so expats living in Vavau making a living from boats (although many
other expats seem to have retired here -  they dont seem to frequent the
Mermaid). The rest are Tongan men and women - there are quite a few
Expat/Tongan couples, and visitors either from charter yachts celebrating
the start or finish of their vacation, or yachties just, well, celebrating.
It hums and buzzes, Holly the Manager sings birthday songs for locals, and
there is always something going on.

Tonga is (I believe) one of only 2 places in the world where you can legally
swim with whales (the other is Silver Banks 200 miles off Dominican
Republic). We weren't sure about the ethics beforehand, but in the end
decided to do it on the strong recommendation of friends. Only licensed
operators are allowed to  put swimmers in the water near whales, and all of
them limit to 1 boat  with a max 4 + 1
guide/supervisor in the water at any one time, and swimmers behaviour is
controlled to minimise splashes and crude behaviour eg trying to touch them. My conclusion was that
5 small life forms were of little distraction to them, no more than other
fishes swimming round them, especially if we kept to the side and not
directly in front. I think the whale watching boats and especially if there
are 3 or more are probably far more distracting, and I dont think anyone is
trying to ban whale watching.

And it was magic! Very serene peaceful, and stunning to see such creatures
when you are in the water snorkelling with them - we were perhaps 10 metres
from a mother and baby, and watched as they dived then slowly reappeared from the
depths right next to us and ...seemed to go to sleep on the surface. These are humpback whales,
the mother about 40 feet long (and weighing 40 tons although this was off
the limit of my scales), and baby lying with its head next to its mother's
flipper about 3 weeks old and 12 feet long, the mother with one eye closed,
covered in barnacles, huge 4 metre long flippers and tail with pure white on
the underside (N hemisphere whales are blacker there). After maybe 10
minutes they dived again and swam off about 200 metres, and we left them
after perhaps 30 minutes. I have some photos which I will put on
www.intrepidofdover.co.uk as soon as I can.

About an hour before we had seen (but not been in the water with) 2 males
bumping and barging competing for a female in heat, much grunting and
blowing and thrashing and for all I know, mating - the preferred tactic is
to swim on top of your rival and force him down. And then by chance I was in
the water by myself listening to whales singing, when a large male swam
right up to me, and passed by only 10 metres away - great tail moving up and
down. Unforgettable.

We went with Alan from Mouana Island Resort who started swimming with
whales (the other good responsible operator we saw is Sailing Safaris). Both
charge Pa'anga 150/person/day ($70). Mouana Resort is special too, beautiful
small island, only 4 Falles (so max 8 guests in total), $150/Falle/night.
The water in Vavau is similar (large sandy bays 10-30 metres deep) to Semana
Bay (Dominican Republic) where we also saw humpbacks at the same latitude
north as Vavau is south.

And Intrepid met her twin here - another Westerly Oceanlord owned amazingly
by Gjalt and Corinna, 2 Geo/Petrophysicists who resigned from Shell in late
2004. We compared notes on boats and concluded we had made very similar
modifications. They were really quite upset about what Shell had become in
the last 10 years, the attitudes and approach. Interesting.

Neiafu the 'capital' of Vavau is without question a tourist town, (albeit a
bit faded and shanty-town), but walk 1 mile out and we found ourselves in
plantations of yams, cassava, taro, banana, coconuts...and on the small
outer islands people still live on subsistence farming and fishing. Perhaps
because of Tonga's status as a Kingdom, expats still have a large role in
Neiafu running most tourist businesses, and on Thursday we went to the
annual Library Fund Raising Dinner organised by Holly (at the Mermaid where
else?). Much raffles, auctions, donations etc raised Pa'anga 3100 ($1500).
In the end we decided to stay longer and visit the outer islands, we have a
schedule but try not to let it dictate our pace - if somewhere is good, stay
a bit longer.......we meet James on 8th September in Fiji.

We send you our best wishes for your own vacations, sun, sand, skiing
sailing or just stress free sitting around.

Andy and Nicky

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