Tonga 2003 (275)

SAILING: OCTOBER 2004
“ON TONGA TIME”

I gripped the steering wheel and tried to feel confident as our Tongan skipper Raymond cheerfully pointed out a narrow gap between the northernmost tip of Nuapapu Island and the tiny islet of Kitu and told me to aim for it. From my vantage point, Alouette looked significantly larger than the gap, and I wasn’t entirely thrilled about facing this particular challenge so soon after leaving the Sunsail base. Yet the side trip had been my idea, and the charter cruise was supposed to be all about new experiences.

This was the first of five days aboard a chartered Beneteau Oceanis 411 in the Kingdom of Tonga, 400 square miles of ocean studded with more than 170 lush, hilly islands. Divided into four groups — Tongatapu, Ha’apai, Vava’u and the Niuas — these spectacular South Seas gems comprise a unique kingdom steeped in ancient Polynesian history and culture. Still a traditional monarchy, Tonga is the only Pacific nation never to be colonized by a European power.

My fiance Richard and I also learned that Tonga is the only place in the world where visitors are allowed to swim and snorkel with humpback whales in protected near-shore waters. The whales typically return to their breeding grounds off Tongatapu in June and off Vava’u in July, where they remain until their annual migration to colder waters in November.

The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these leviathans with our own eyes, as well as to sail in one of the last untrammeled destinations in the South Pacific, clinched it for us. We booked our trip to the other side of the Earth.

Tonga’s Vava’u Group has been a longtime favorite of intrepid charter sailors and the South Seas cruising community. This cluster of 50-plus islands is a sailing paradise, renowned for its friendly people, warm climate, steady trade winds, sheltered waterways and dozens of idyllic, well-protected anchorages.

The three of us cast off the docklines at the Sunsail charter base in Neiafu, capital of the Vava’u Group and, with nearly 6,000 people, its major population center. Raymond, a Vava’u native and 30-something father of five, turned the helm over to me while he hoisted the genoa. The southeast trades, blowing at 15 to 20 knots, quickly sent Alouette off on a brisk reach through the bustling Port of Refuge.

Boat traffic gradually thinned out as we left flat-topped Mount Talau to starboard and its missing peak, which legend says was stolen and dropped into the sea by a Samoan devil spirit, to port. Called Lotuma, the islet is used today as a Tongan naval base.

The seas became confused and choppy in the open stretch of water between Vava’u and Nuapapu islands. Although the plan was to head to our evening anchorage off Kapa Island, I asked if we had time to visit a celebrated Tongan attraction called Mariner’s Cave. We did, and since the cave was conveniently located on Nuapapu’s leeward shore, Raymond put me on course toward our new destination.

Now I was on the verge of maneuvering Alouette through what looked to be an impossibly tiny break in the rocks. Frothy waves threw themselves against Kitu’s base, creating a surge that seemed to pull incessantly toward the toothy shore as we sailed closer.

Before I knew it, we were through. Peeling my white-knuckled fingers off the wheel, I was congratulating myself on this admittedly modest feat of seamanship when I noticed the wide-open water on the other side of Kitu. We could have easily sailed around it. Raymond grinned at me.

What a way to break the ice.

At that point I was ready to commemorate the official christening of Heather’s Gap with a cold Ikale beer, but we were on a mission to see the inside of Mariner’s Cave. Then I saw the black hole under the surface that marked the cave’s entrance. Apparently the sail to Nuapapu’s leeward side hadn’t been the only adventure of the day.

The entrance was six or seven feet beneath the surface, with the cave itself tucked nearly 15 feet inside Nuapapu Island. We free-dived down to that ominous-looking maw and, in a true leap of faith, swam underneath the rock into the pitch-black stomach of the cave.

In an instant, the oppressive darkness morphed into a brilliant neon blue, and we emerged into a cathedral-like room, frosted with mineral deposits, adorned with stalactites and filled with an eerie, dense fog that came and went with each ocean swell. The only light came from the tunnel, illuminating the gin-clear water from underneath. It was an ethereal place.

Downshifting to Tonga time

The magic of Tonga only grew with each passing moment. Mornings meant waking up to fresh breezes through open hatches and portlights and the rich aroma of Tonga’s Royal Coffee brewing in the galley. One day, as the sun’s first warm rays chased away the watery chill of dawn, a woman and two men arrived in a small skiff filled with handicrafts. Tongan handicrafts are rumored to be the best in the South Pacific, so I selected a hand-carved totem featuring the faces of the Tongan gods of love and peace.

The villagers moved on, smiling and waving goodbye. Then, with the sun creeping higher in the sky, we raised the anchor and ghosted out of our anchorage’s snug embrace toward a new day’s adventures.

Vava’u’s coral reefs are in virtually pristine condition, making the island group a haven for snorkelers and divers. One of the many benefits of having a local skipper on board was that Raymond knew all the best spots: the Japanese Gardens between Mala and Kapa islands; the Blue Lagoon — named for a nearby resort but just as lovely as the famous movie’s Fiji location — between Foelifuka and Foe’ata; and the impressive reef wall off A’a, which unnervingly plunges more than 150 feet straight down into what looks like a true abyss.

The underwater world was every bit as brilliant as that on the surface. Pink, green and blue starfish draped themselves across the reefs and seafloor like so many multicolored Gumbys, clownfish hovered near their waving anemone homes and damselfish, angelfish, pufferfish and multicolored wrasses blended into a surreal Dr. Seuss landscape of hard and soft corals. We even found a small lionfish, who was in no particular hurry even under the insistent gaze of our underwater camera. The strange, gritty sound of critters munching on coral filled our ears.

Splashing aboard Alouette’s swim platform after each snorkeling trip, we were greeted by sandwiches, cheese and crackers, cold Ikale and a shady spot beneath the Bimini. Maybe a nap would fit in somewhere, or perhaps a shore excursion to the shimmering sand beaches of uninhabited islands like Ovalau and Nuku.

Tonga quickly taught us the concept of island time, fully living in the present moment and savoring every sight, smell and sound. Some visitors have adapted so well to island time that they have made Tonga their permanent home. Anchored overnight off Vaka’eitu Island, we paid a visit to the Popao Resort and its owner Benny, an Austrian expat who bought the resort on the Internet, married a Tongan woman and never looked back.

The Popao Resort’s dinghy dock was a rickety assemblage of wood teetering in Vaka’eitu’s shallows. Climbing out of the dinghy, I watched my feet as I walked so I wouldn’t step between the weathered planks. Once ashore, I was convinced we had arrived at Gilligan’s Island. A thick forest reached right to the edge of the broad, empty swath of beach, and a simple sign mounted on thin poles announced the resort. Beneath it, a dirt trail wound into the verdant foliage.

Since the resort is perched on the backbone of the island, we hiked upward for quite some time. With each bend in the trail, however, we could see widening views of the postcard-perfect anchorage spread out below. Seemingly out of nowhere, a handful of traditional thatched Tongan fales appeared. We had arrived.

Benny served our cocktails in an open-air bar, then resumed preparations for the authentic Austrian meal he would serve guests that evening. Joined by the resort’s resident dogs, an odd couple consisting of an ancient, overweight golden retriever and a feisty terrier with matted white fur, we wandered to the edge of the property and watched the sun set in a blaze of glory over the islands of Hunga, Fofoa, Foelifuka and Foe’ata in the distance.

With delicious meat-and-potato smells wafting from Benny’s kitchen, as well as an overheard promise of apple strudel for dessert, part of me wished we could stay for supper. When we climbed back aboard Alouette in the deepening blues and purples of twilight, however, there was nowhere else I would have rather been.

The cozy saloon echoed with laughter as we invented a fish-and-pasta dinner of our own, sipped smooth Australian shiraz and swapped stories. Masthead lights twinkled across the water, which was riffled with only the slightest breath of air, and reflections of the southern constellations merged with the phosphorescence in that velvety liquid darkness.

A close encounter

On our last full day in Vava’u, Alouette was charging across a rolling sea between Kapa and Tapana islands under main and genny when Raymond spotted a telltale dark hump breaking the surface off our port bow. We dropped the sails, started the engine and cautiously powered closer. Then we saw the motorized whale-watching boat… too bad. In Tonga, if a commercial operator is with a whale, private yachts must keep their distance.

I was reaching for my binoculars, hoping for a better view, when the VHF crackled to life. It was ‘Aunofo Havea of Sailing Safaris, who we later learned is the only female skipper in Tonga. Raymond turned to us.

“Would you like to swim with the whale?” he asked.

Yet another benefit of having a local skipper on board: All the skippers know each other.

I didn’t think we could move quite that fast. In seconds, we had our snorkel gear and fins in hand, jumped into the deep water that separated our boats and swam to the transom of Whale Song.

While the whale-watching tours may see whales on 90-plus percent of their excursions, guests are only able to swim with the whales on approximately 50 percent of them. Opportunities depend entirely on the weather and the whales’ cooperation, and Tongan authorities work very hard to ensure that the humpbacks are not subject to undue stress in their breeding grounds.

In this case, Whale Song discovered a mother humpback and her calf earlier that day, and the two whales had kept the vessel company all morning. That was our green light.

We entered the water calmly, one by one, and swamp slowly toward the dark hump on the surface. The Whale Song crew instructed us to move smoothly, without any splashing that might startle the whales, and to avoid swimming within range of the powerful tail in case the mother might decide to dive. We could look and take pictures, but we could not touch or interfere in any way.

I stared hard into the distance. A dark silhouette gradually coalesced, and suddenly I was in the presence of the most enormous living creature I have ever seen. Then I saw her calf, and I accidentally sucked water through my snorkel. He was lying peacefully across her shoulders, where he could rest within easy reach of the surface.

The mother humpback graciously tolerated our presence, and she eventually allowed the curious calf to swim alongside her so he could get a better look at us. But all too soon it was time to leave them in peace. I studied the two whales carefully, trying to sear every detail into my memory.

Then the mother humpback opened her eye. I can’t be certain she was looking at me, but I know I will never be quite the same after gazing into those unfathomable depths.

Tonga’s lessons

On our last night, we anchored in Kapa Island’s picturesque Port Mourelle, a captivating bay rimmed with little caves and grottoes that was named for the first European to visit the Vava’u Group. Richard set up the grill on the stern railing, and Raymond volunteered to cook the steaks we’d saved for our final supper on board.

As the succulent filets sizzled over the coals, Raymond told us about his recent visit to New Zealand.

“I liked New Zealand, but I like Tonga better,” he said.

He explained that, in Tonga, villagers fish, grow root crops, pick local fruits and raise animals for food. Clothing and even housing can be created by hand and available materials. And, perhaps most importantly, the social structure of families and village life is very strong here. No one will be in need for long.

“In your world, you must have money,” he said. “You can’t live without it. Here, you can still live.”

And here in the heart of the vast South Pacific, unplugged from the frenetic pace of everyday mainland life and far from all that’s familiar, you also can simply breathe.

To go barefoot every day, to have the sea whisper to you in your sleep, to delight in the traditional rhythms of an achingly old Polynesian kingdom, to experience those sacred moments in the water alongside humpback whales — that is the magic of Tonga. It’s no surprise that many visitors are so deeply impacted by this place that they stay in the islands and make them a permanent part of their lives.

Others take the islands home with them. Long after our return to Wisconsin, the Tongan gods of peace and love still keep watch over our house, and I must confess that my travel watch is still set to Tonga time. It stays with you, and it never lets go.