The Wonders of Tonga

By Derek On September 25, 2015 Under Post


After three weeks in Tonga we have yet to get a handle on this place. Perhaps this is because all our time has been spent at the northern end of the country in Vava’u which is where all the yachts congregate and pool like salmon before swimming upstream. In this case the congregation is before big jumps down to New Zealand or over to Fiji, New Caledonia and Australia. In fact, there are about 100 yachts milling around here right now which is 95 more than we like to see. This is not because we hold misanthropic views of fellow yachties but the more a garden is trampled by the herd the less the flowers are able to hold up. Vava’u is trampled. The herd has arrived.


To be sure, there are plenty of water activities and anchorages to hold one’s interest. Equally attractive to those who have crossed the Pacific under sail are the foreign-run cafés and laundry services available to us along the waterfront. As Vava’u is one of the most, if not the most, secure anchorages in the South Pacific it is easy to see why people linger. Some have been lingering here decades.

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With so many foreigners out and about the local people are harder to get to know. However, beneath the reserve there are moments of levity and we glimpse how the Tongans may have been before all of us Palangi (whiteys) rocked up. The local people keep to themselves and are not nearly as welcoming or charming as their Samoan cousins 350 miles to the north. Yet, while I hesitate to compare Tonga to Samoa as it would be a disservice to our current hosts, doing so quickly encapsulates some essentials.

When you are the best you might as well shout from the rooftops:


On the surface the people look similar and while the Tongans are not petite, Samoans are even bigger. Both Tonga and Samoa are strict religionists and towns are deserted on Sundays. Even fishing, mind you we are talking about islands in the middle of the ocean, but even fishing is illegal on Sundays. Both peoples have amazing singing voices which they hone to harmonious perfection in church several times a week. Indeed, heavenly hymns gently waft down around the anchorage in the early mornings as the faithful call on their god while we aboard listen in deep admiration. If only that were enough – but in Tonga, we are left wondering if it really is.

Shopping in Tonga, the Hillens are dwarfed by the locals:


Every village in Samoa, no matter how small and off the track, is clean, open and manicured. People proudly front their gardens with a profusion of tropical flowers, lawns are cut and leaves are raked daily. Everywhere there is clear and evident pride of ownership. There are no fences between neighbors. The towns in Tonga that we have seen however, are more disheveled. Most houses have erected straggly fences around their tiny plots capped with hands-off-get-lost barbed wire. The depressing scenery reminded me more of the rural Nicaragua I experienced during the Contra regime (on an ill-timed motorcycle trip years ago) rather than a warm, tropical Polynesian island.

Rural blight found around Vava’u:


Tonga is a Kingdom, the only one in the South Pacific. There is a king and there are 33 nobles. As I understand it, all the land belongs to the king but an earlier king in the 1950s, Tupou I, embraced land reform and gave away at least a third of his holdings to commoners. Every man was allowed to apply for plots of land 100 furlongs square, or the amount of land measured by a man extending his arms out 100 times which equates to about eight and a quarter acres. A minimal tax (about a dollar a year) is required to be paid on the land and it is inheritable by his eldest son. Despite this, there is a distinct lack of pride in land ownership here which results in sometimes aesthetically challenging scenery.

The pigs are well fed with this smug exemplar being truly the fattest we have ever seen:


Tonga’s attractions, while somewhat absent on land, can be found in their multitude hidden under the water and it is for these people come. The water around the island is clear and a breathtaking deep, deep blue color. The cobalt sea is several degrees cooler than other places we have traveled through as we are now, at 18 degrees south, ever farther from the equator. Like us sailors, this is where a lot of whales rest before the greater journeys which lie ahead of them, particularly mothers with young calves. The youngsters cannot yet survive the colder waters of the Antarctic which beckon and need to put on layers of fat here at the edge of the tropics before they can leave. This provides us with plenty of opportunity to see – and swim with them.


Tonga is one of the few places on the planet you can swim with humpback whales. The whale swim industry, such that it is, is pretty low-key but fairly strictly regulated. Boats are not allowed to chase whales, swimmers can only be in the water with a whale four at a time and no scuba is allowed as the noise of bubbles disturbs them. Adriana was not well so Asmara and I went on a day trip to swim with our large cousins and it was awesome.

Across the South Pacific we have seen signs proclaiming aid donated by Japan and more recently, China. This is the first one we have seen “From the American People.”


Aside from the ones I will forever carry in my mind I don’t have any other pictures of our whaling experience because I lack an underwater camera.


As we were a little late in the season we only found one whale, a lone male whose plaintive calling for a hopefully equally lonesome female echoed through the boat and which became deafening once we got into the water. He made many interesting sounds which were a combination of groaning, moaning, gurgling, sighing and wailing. The closest noise which approximates his vocals is that of Chewbacca in Star Wars. And sometimes “Chewie” sounded like a table saw going through an eight by four. But this is a language. The Romans referred to non-Latin speakers as “barbarians” because their languages to the Roman ear sounded like “bar – bar – bar.” We listen to whales and think all they do is make sound but these are curious, sentient beings who talk to each other across vast distances. In our linguistic isolation we can only wonder at what they say.


Asmara and I swam to within 50 feet of him as he rested below us, head lower than his tail. Every five minutes or so our lonesome leviathan would surface, get some air, and then resume is sad, head down posture of moaning, gurgling, sighing and wailing. Humpbacks have very long, jagged edged pectoral fins and his were white while his body was mostly black with some white patches. Extending these fins and then bringing them slowly and gracefully to his side while lifting and lowering his tail just once caused our friend to go from standstill to maybe 10 knots in an instant. Imagine floating over something the size of a school bus and it suddenly and silently shoots ahead of you into the deep blue disappearing with only the vague outline of those white pectoral fins the last thing visible.


Asmara and I swam hand in hand with our sad cetacean for half a day and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments we are so lucky to enjoy with some regularity here on the boat. I hope it will be a fond memory Asmara carries with her when she grows up and remembers her Daddy.

A highly poisonous sea snake came over to the boat one morning to say hello. (Those toes are far, far away from our slithering friend). As we watched it investigate our home Adriana asked me, “Daddy, who would win in a fight, a sea snake or a saber-toothed tiger?


The anchorages here in Vava’u are all “numbered” thanks to the Moorings charter base which puts out a simple guide for their customers. “Anchorage #36 is a day anchorage and one of the easier to use.” Instead of saying, “We are anchored off Avalau Island by a beautiful white sand beach,” people say, “Hey, check out 41, it’s good.” This “sailing by numbers” sucks out all the romance of the experience and I just can’t get into it. I tell other cruisers about sonorously named Avalau Island and they all ask, “What number is it?” I don’t know and I don’t care.


The guide itself is amusing to read. It is written in rather odd English which makes me suspect the original writer was possibly French and not a native speaker:

Vava’u has gem-like islands that are a perfect setting for all your dreams of a pacific paradise. The islands, like women, must have something more than beauty if they are to continue to attract.


While here we had a little celebration of my 50th birthday and invited several boats over for cake and beer. Sunstone, Saliander, Sequoia and Vela were kind enough to come and help us sing Happy Birthday.


One half of the boisterous crowd:


The other half just getting out of control:


One of the highlights of our time here was swimming inside Swallows Cave.


The water was a rich royal blue and filled with “trillions of fish” according to Asmara, who kept chasing them around the inside of the cavern like a hungry seal.


The main island of Tongatapu is the home of the capital city, Nuku’alofa, where we are just checking out of the country. We are anchored off “Big Mama’s Yacht Club” as I write this (yes, she is not tiny).

We will now leave the tropics and sail south over 1,000 miles to Aotearoa; the Land of the Long White Cloud.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom
    October 2, 2015
    7:52 am #comment-1

    Wishing you a fast and comfortable passage to NZ, T.

  2. Andrew Clarke
    October 9, 2015
    4:23 am #comment-3

    Great stuff! You guys look like you are having loads of fun! What a great education the girls are getting. Hope to see you if you get out to Singapore.

    Best Andy

    • Derek
      October 13, 2015
      7:09 am #comment-4

      Thanks. It is an education for us all. We are now in New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud.

  3. Colin
    October 16, 2015
    12:42 pm #comment-5

    Miss you guys! Thanks for sharing your inspiring journey! Really enjoying living vicariously. You all look great. I’m sure it is challenging at times but that’s an ingredient of an adventure too, and the girls will grow immensely as a result. Happy birthday, big boy. Here’s to your next half century! Love to Ariel. Colin

    • Derek
      October 16, 2015
      5:16 pm #comment-6

      The most challenging aspects are the weather and the passage making, the rest is pretty great. We are in New Zealand now and really enjoying the wonderful people, scenery and food. Cheers.

  4. Tom T
    February 1, 2016
    4:07 am #comment-7

    Hi Derek… been following you all the way.. what an interesting adventure for you and the girls… seems like you have been gone a long time… whats the plan… you sailing back home from New Zealand or coming up this way?

    Sending all our love and best wishes for 2016 from the Turner Family

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