Wednesday, 20 August 2003

"Happenings" Number 8 - 2003

Landfalls in Paradise

‘Races to the swift, Fortunes to the brave’ - goes an old ‘saw’ (adage) to which one might add, certainly in our recent experience, ‘Paradise to the seekers’, for wandering about and going the extra mile off the beaten track brought us its rewards in northern Tonga. But I’ll come to that presently.

Continuing on from our last report, ‘Envy’ spent a further two weeks moseying about more of Vava’u’s sheltered island anchorages, indulging the marvellous scenery of small secluded bays with their palm lined beaches, whilst enjoying making the acquaintance of both the local village peoples and some newly met fellow cruising yachties. However, not every day is a Valhalla in paradise, for we must admit to some yucky unseasonal wet weather, and a few horrible windy days as well, which kept us holed up in snug anchorages.

Captain Cook named Tonga ‘the friendly islands’ (although unbeknown to him the local chiefs were planning to kill him) and that moniker holds true today, for we met such friendly people everywhere we went. Whilst village lifestyle, away from the towns, is basically one of subsistence, these Polynesian peoples are a picture of beaming health and happiness, and their smiles, so pleasing in themselves, are further enhanced by the nicest pearly white teeth you’d ever hope to see. Such a contrast to their beetle nut chewing Melanesian ‘cousins’ with their orange and black stained teeth.

After 35 days of sailing around the many islands of the Vava’u group, we departed these excellent cruising grounds sailing out from Port Mourelle (not a port at all – just another lovely small sandy palm lined cove) on a moonless night at 2:30am to arrive in daylight the following afternoon 177 n/miles away at Niuatoputapu Island, the administrative centre of Tonga’s isolated far northern Niuan Islands group, and whose unlit dogs-leg entry through the reef is a ‘daylight only’ exercise.

The 33 hour trip was good sailing until mid morning the following day, just 15 miles out from our destination, when we entered the ever moving Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and it rained so heavily out of almost black clouds that we couldn’t see 100 metres ahead (on and off) for the next two hours and, fearing it may not stop in time, we took the decision to abort Niuatoputapu if necessary and sail on the further 180 nm to Samoa, but then the rain cleared 5 miles out and we had lovely sunshine and light airs to negotiate the narrow channel into the lagoon.

What a magic place this turned out to be. Very few yachties, or anyone else, bothers to go to Niuatoputapu, in their hurry to reach Vava’u or Fiji. It’s so small, so undeveloped, and so well off the ‘tourist track’ that almost no one’s ever heard of it, but little do they know what they’ve missed. Mind you, not much really, since there is not much here – no Bars, Restaurants, shopping opportunities or Hotels, etc. other than the small Palm Tree Island Resort, which seldom has many, if any guests, on tiny adjoining Hunganga Island, to which we waded across at low tide and were towed home in a motor-less dinghy at high tide, with the resort employee walking across the 200 mtr wide clear sandy channel with water covering his shoulders and only his head showing above it!

But what Niuatoputapu does have is a superb lagoon surrounded by a tropical island with a most excellent anchorage that looks across royal blue water to the perfectly conical volcanic island of Tafahi five miles away. It’s an absolute picture postcard setting and the perfect epitome of what our romantic “South Pacific” fantasy is all about.

Niuatoputapu has no sealed roads, indeed most are just 2 wheel grassy tracks, but then there are only about 1000 people on this small 9km by 4km Island, and very few vehicles. We walked 4.5 km each way from our lagoon anchorage at Falehau village, past Vaipoa village and on into the principal village of Hihifo to ‘clear in’ with Customs, and saw only four cars the whole time.

The few official government administration offices are located in old single level timber buildings, sorely in need of maintenance, paint, and ground works, but they ooze charm and character like something out of a Mitchener novel. Hihifo, with its grassy wheel-track streets, just wouldn’t have the same ambience if the place were ‘tarted up’!

The attractions here are nature and people, and especially the people, who were so ‘down-to-earth’ friendly that it was a pleasure to be with them. We noticed very few domestic pigs running around here, in contrast to the rest of Tonga, nor is there any television or internet cafes, but you can ‘phone anywhere in the world from the local TCC office.

The tropical scenery matches the beauty of the lagoon, with a high hill a little back from the sandy beach offering magnificent views of it all if one can survive the steep climb up. These three villages are the only places we saw in all four Tonga Island groups where traditional housing of bush material construction dominates. We felt privileged to be here in this wonderful ‘out-of-the –way’ part of old traditional Tonga.

But time and a good weather window beckoned us on, so after an all too short a stay, we sailed on a further 185 nm Northeasterly arriving in Apia, capital of Independent (Western) Samoa 40 hrs later, having lost a day enroute as we crossed the International Dateline into the Western Hemisphere. It was exciting to see all the village lights as we traversed the northwest coast of Upolu Island at night, and to arrive at Apia just after sunrise.

And what a surprising difference we found here. Clean, bright and on the move is the way we see Samoa, a nation that has reversed its fortunes in the past decade from having one of the Pacific’s poorest economies to being one of its success stories, and in that respect such a contrast to Tonga. Apia is buzzing with commercial activity, has numerous new buildings, mostly newish vehicles and a smartly dressed business community. And, of course, there’s a McDonald here, which Tonga doesn’t have, so we figure that’s another economic barometer as well.

Soon after arriving we visited ‘Vailima’, the former residence of Robert Louis Stevenson, located 4km out of Apia, and it took an hour to climb up Mt.Vaea to Stevenson’s tomb with its magnificent hill top vista overlooking Apia and the sea. Stevenson was a small framed sickly man most of his life, dying at 49. We’ve all heard his requiem inscribed on his tomb, but it warrants repeating here.

“Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie
Glad did I live, and gladly die
And I laid me down with a will.”

“This be the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he longed to be
Home is the sailor, home from the sea
And the hunter home from the hill”.

That evening we went to the weekly ‘Samoan Cultural Dance & Fire Show’ at Aggie Grey’s Hotel, a famous institution in its own right throughout the South Pacific, dating back to WW2 when Aggie ran a burger joint here for US GI’s. It is now a new, modern up-market ‘5*’establishment.

Then we rented a small 4WD Suzuki and spent a day driving around the eastern end of this main island of Upolu. Stopping to chat at a few of the numerous coastal villages along the way, we came across some very interesting places and met some interesting people. All roads are bitumen sealed, and many villages have clean, white painted rocks lining both sides of the road, which looks quite striking, supported by their well kept lawns and colourful gardens.

All the waterfront land is privately owned either by individuals or the village, there are no public beaches as such, and you have to pay to go onto any nice white sandy beach. The usual rate is 10 Tala each (Aust$6), and by the time you’ve got out of the car, there’ll be a local telling you that if you stay more than 2 minutes then you’ll have to pay.

Other highlights included swimming in waterfront ‘cave pools’, where fresh water springs bubbled up into crystal clear rock pools at such a rate as to prevent salt seawater from flowing into them. We visited two different waterfalls up in the hills, sat and chatted with village chiefs, and inspected a large church three years under construction by local village tradesmen.

The villages comprised a mixture of both traditional and western style housing, but spotlessly clean and often painted in bright colours. The traditional Samoan houses were totally open, with no fixed walls, and a large overhanging thatched roof. There is little furniture in them for the people sit, eat and sleep on woven Pandanus mats on the floor, though some do have wooden easy chairs.

Each village has its own privately run bus service, and there are scores of them around Upolu. What these (tray-back truck) buses lack in their modest design and construction, is more than compensated for in their livery. Like the taxis in Manilla, Samoan buses are a blaze of colour, with no two the same, and the central terminal beside the seafront fish market is a kaleidoscope of colour and design as the buses constantly come and go, on the right hand side of the road, as in the USA. We rode one back the 4km to town following our visit to R.L. Stevenson’s ‘Vailima’ house, and they sure look better than their hard seat ride.

This time of year is known as the Dry Season here, rather than winter, since it’s always warm to hot in these latitudes (13º S), with daytime temperatures of 30º+C reducing to a warm 26ºC overnight. Thank goodness we have fans in the yacht. There have been a few showers but generally the weather has been favourable.

We plan to depart this vibrant South Pacific jewel in a few days time and, hopefully, from here onwards it’s the downhill, mainly downwind run back to Oz, albeit over 2000 miles of ocean sailing.

Our next stop will be at Savusavu, in Fiji’s northern island of Vanua Levu, and we expect the 580nm passage will take five days. We will probably spend several weeks cruising Fiji, so we’ll tell you about that later on.