Tonga Times

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From French Polynesia, we sailed over a thousand choppy miles (in 7 days and 7 nights) and were magically launched into the future 24 hours as we crossed the international dateline. When we arrived in the Kingdom of Tonga, the place “where time begins”, we were thankful to be ahead of the rest of the world to catch up on our sleep deprivation. In addition, it was a Sunday and the local tradition imposed complete repose on this holy day of the week. So, with all due respect for our new host country, Kazaio’s scrub down would have to be postponed. As for our cravings for fresh foods, we would have to settle for sprouting onions and brown bananas. Impossible to venture out in dinghy either because even the rumbling of the engine would be frowned upon.

The next morning we woke up in the sheltered bay of Neiafu, where about 60 boats were moored. Similarly to us, most of these boats were in transit, waiting for the perfect weather window to sail off to Fiji, Australia or New Zealand before the start of cyclone season. As we approached the dinghy dock, we made our way through the web of dinghies and joyous kids jumping from the docks into the crystalline water. The town was unquestionably back to life and shockingly different from French Polynesia. Having been a British protectorate, the English influence could be felt in the spoken language, the food (fish & chips, nachos and burgers were back on the menu!), the school children uniforms and the way the businesses were run. The town was geared towards cruisers and all was made practical in a good old American/English way.

With immense pleasure and just a few pa’angas we filled our baskets with a huge variety of locally grown scrumptious fruits and vegetables at the laid back daily market. Some women played cards while patiently waiting to sell taro, sweet potatoes, yams, watermelons and bouquets of herbs. Others weaved elaborate baskets and mats out of pandanus leaves. Women and men wore them around the waist over their clothes as a sign of social status. Several women sold tapas cloths made from the bark of mulberry trees and decorated with intricate patterns. A man skilfully carved whale bones into pendants in the shapes of gracious sea creatures and fishing hooks. By the side of the road, people walked in the shade of colourful umbrellas side to side to domestic pigs that roamed freely everywhere. Having satisfied our thirst for civilization, we were once again hungry for nature, and more raw beauty.

Through a labyrinth of uninhabited luxuriant islands and shimmering sapphire lagoons, we discovered Vava’u. We swam into extraordinary caves of firry-orange walls and cathedral ceilings with dangling limestone stalactites. The sun-rays penetrating into the mouth of the cave gave to the water a neon blue color and an incredible clarity down to the depths. We chased clouds of schooling fish into different shapes and sometimes succeeded in being part of the “whole”. Other caves were accessible only underwater and offered a surreal atmosphere with fog forming and vanishing on every swell.

Over beach BBQs, candle-night dinners and jam sessions we got to exchange tales of circumnavigations and unknown lands with a bunch of fascinating cruisers. Brice and Martha aboard Silver Fern completely inspired us with their inexhaustible energy and joy of living. In their seventies and after an 11 years voyage through the oceans of the world, they still had the dream and fire to set up a kiwi farm in the New Zealand countryside! After sailing to Tonga some 20 years ago from Spain, Maria and Eduardo, choose a simple life on one of the many virgin islands. They bring a bit of Spain to the Pacific by cooking for guests and putting up a show: Kenza and Rocio were honored to help Maria with the tapas and paella while Tristan admired Eduardo’s fervent singing while playing the guitare and harmonica! Ben sailed over ten years ago and set up an ecological tree house resort, mainly for retreats. Kjell and Adriana also came with their sail boat and ended up staying to establish a hotel. There is no doubt that there is something special about Tonga that makes people stay….

Our newfound playground was great fun but we had to jump back on our intransigent cyclone schedule. The cyclone season was approaching and the next step promised to be challenging. For the first time since we started sailing, I felt too tired mentally and physically to confront the big blue. Our dear friend Rolf and his team of avid sailor buddies from Victoria,BC came to the rescue! And just like that, for the first time I skipped an episode and flew to Auckland with the kids. There was no doubt that the 3 musketeers (Gonzalo, Rolf, Richard and Rich) were up for some serious rock and rollin’on board…

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The Tuamotus

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A speedy two night sail from the Marquesas brought us to a whole new world. Escorted by hundreds of dolphins and a whale from afar, The Tuamotu Archipelago appeared like a blue desert. As high as the tallest coconut tree on them, the islands bathed in crystal clear waters ranging from turquoise to deep blue.

Approaching these paradise atolls, surrounded by coral reefs, was always quite tricky. Hearing reports of so many boats stranded and lost on reefs made us extra cautious.
The majority of the atolls have at least one break in the reef, acting as the front door to these mini-paradises. But the passes are often narrow and the tidal streams are very strong. Before approaching any pass, we relied heavily on tables estimating slack time, that is the moment when the current is nor entering nor exiting. We also had to take into consideration the swell and wind. Once in the calm lagoon, the next challenge was to bypass the coral heads (visible and awash) scattered throughout. A good lookout in the bow or higher up on the mast was essential. When we finally anchored and released our guards, we could finally soak up the beauty of the place.

Fakarava particularly charmed us with its motus of fine white and pink sand . The visibility in the water was so spectacular we could see exactly where the anchor dug in the sand. Within minutes Kazaio was surrounded by five black-tip reef sharks. At first we were slightly intimidated to join them for a swim but rapidly they became just another element from this postcard-perfect scenery. Fakarava was our playground. Gonzalo, Barbara and I did a few splendid drift dives in the famous north pass where a colony of 600 grey sharks were cruising around us. It was a very special experience to be amongst so many sharks and be able to observe them for a good 45 minutes. To add to the show, there were hundreds of groupers already settling in the pass for the mating season. Gonzalo and Olivier (from Zorba) went spearfishing a few times and had to give up their catches to voracious predators. They bounced back in the dingy at the sight of an agitated lemon shark and called it a day. Tito snorkeled and was stunned by the quantity of sharks and big Napolean fish. I began kite-surf classes with a fellow cruiser as a teacher. Kenza and Rocio built coconut forts and crab farms with their friends on the beach. Tristan, obsessed with hermit and coconut crabs, miraculously still has his ten fingers. The Tuamotus are the home of the famous Polynesian black pearl and we all enjoyed a visit to a cultured-pearl farm. We watched in awe as meticulous Chinese workers (or surgeons better said) made incisions in giant oysters to remove the pearl and implant a new nucleus.

We regreted our speedy passage through these picturesque islands of Polynesia but there is so much to see in this vast territory before cyclone season arrives! Next destination: Tahiti and the Society Islands (French Polynesia).

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