Lisa Bay, Walking Four Miles into Neiafu
“Jenny called attention to our arrival with an ear piercing scream.”
The day following, a freshening wind prompted us to return across the choppy, white-capped sound, to the protection of Lisa Bay. Then for exercise we walked the four miles into Neiafu and called in at the "Posti Offici" to mail a few letters. Here Jenny called attention to our arrival with an ear piercing scream. It seems that as she was passing through the doorway a wasp stung her arm.
After visiting a few shops, and now encumbered with supplies, we decided to hail a ride back to Lisa Beach, or at least as far as the village Panga. We approached the second in a line of four taxis, the driver of which seemed glad for the business. He spoke English, and as we drove through the countryside we enjoyed pleasant conversations. Charles, as he introduced himself, was curious as to why we had bypassed the taxi driver in line ahead of him. "He was asleep," I replied, to which Charles burst out laughing. Like so many Tongans we had met, he proved most personable: the kind of individual worth sailing 4,700 miles to meet.
Isaiah and Family Aboard for Dinner
Rosaline and Isaiah, their boys Tony and Willie, and their small girl Fou'a join us for dinner aboard Suka.
That evening we invited Isaiah and Rosaline, their boys Tony and Willie, and their small girl Fou'a for dinner aboard Suka. At the appointed hour they presented themselves on the beach, dressed smartly and awaiting my rowing ashore to collect them.
Jenny and I were curious as to how these Tongans would handle the tableware, and we watched askant but with amused interest as Isaiah and Rosaline politely grappled with the forks. After a short while, though, they abandoned the useless utensils, but with a discretion that suggested they hoped we wouldn't notice. Rosaline served the children's meal on a single plate, and the kids sat quietly eating with their fingers. As unlikely as it may seem, the Tongans eat with their fingers in a decorous manner.
In the cabin's corner, placed there long ago as a joke, squatted a large rubber spider. This had never failed to arouse incredulous comments from any visitors - when they finally happened to notice it. And Isaiah and his family proved no exception. In fact, they could hardly keep their eyes off the horrid bug, but they were politely saying nothing. The Tongans, we were to learn that evening, are extremely superstitious of spiders.
In an uninformed and admittedly inconsiderate act, I took the spider to hand and chased after poor Willie. He was terrified of it, and so were the others. Then for ten minutes I did everything but tear the toy apart in an attempt to prove that it was not real. But their minds were locked out of all reasoning, and they were having none of my game. Finally I persuaded Rosaline to hold the rubber spider; with utmost reluctance she extended her open palm, as though submitting it to the guillotine, and as I set the toy, legs a'quiver, into her hand, she became nearly panic stricken. Jenny and I were practically beside ourselves with laughter, and soon Rosaline was giggling with us, distrustfully, and only after I had relieved her of the hideous knickknack. The others were not so bold, and would not so much as touch it.
“Do you have spiders like this on Tonga?"
"Yes, but not that big!”
"Do you have spiders like this on Tonga?" I asked facetiously.
With scientific demeanor Isaiah leaned forward, shined his flashlight at the rubber toy, and examined it closely. "Yes," he admitted, "but not that big!"
Excursion to Maninita Island
A few days later Isaiah offered to guide us to Maninita, an island lying at the southern extremity of the group. There, he asserted, the snorkeling, spear fishing, and lobster hunting were unparalleled in all of Tonga. We could even camp overnight there on the beach, he offered. This seemed an excellent opportunity and we agreed to go, as soon as the cracking trade winds subsided. He scoffed at our insisting to await more favorable weather, and in passing asked if he could bring a couple of his friends who would night dive for lobster?
"...Well...sure, why not," I allowed.
On the appointed morning Suka lay to her bower directly before Isaiah's little hovel. Motoring the dinghy ashore, I found a cluster of native men milling about a pile of provisions and luggage. Malingering Isaiah informed me that he was once again ill, and that therefore he would not be able to accompany us; however, his friends, here, were ready.
Then I realized that his plan had been a stratagem designed to induce us to transport the native fishermen on an excursion. For some reason they had no boats of their own.
In three trips I ferried seven robust Tongan men and their supplies out to Suka. Only one spoke a little English: Isaiah's nephew, Siale (rhymes with Charlie).
At my signal, our eager and muscular crew hauled in the ground tackle with such alacrity that Suka fairly catapulted forward. Jenny made sail, I hardened in the sheets, and Suka heeled to the fresh easterlies. We were away.
Oddly, the Tongans were loathe to expose themselves to direct sunshine; they crawled into any available shade. Somehow, three men had squeezed beneath the upturned dinghy, a remarkable act considering that Suka's skylight, dorade vents, and propane box occupied most of that space. One man simply covered himself with a tarp, and commenced singing to himself. The merry group continually laughed about everything, particularly the singing tarp. But farther on the seas roughened, and some of these tawny Tongan passengers grew pallid.
These waters south of the main group were largely uncharted, and were reputedly dangerous to the mariner. Hidden coral reefs were said to abound, and we had been warned not to travel there without local knowledge. I felt confident, then, carrying seven local guides.
"OK, gang," I announced, "let's have a look at the chart." Onto the cabin top I spread the paper; the group huddled round and studied it assiduously. Moments elapsed in silence. Eventually I looked up at attentive eyes and found them, one and all, blank of understanding. None of the Tongans had the faintest notion of what they were examining. Then it dawned on me: of course, they simply could not read a chart.
"OK, what island is that?" I asked, pointing to one nearby.
"You-ah-kaff'-ah," they replied in unison.
"OK, now we're getting somewhere. Which one is Maninita?"
"Man-e-nee'-tah," they responded, each swinging an arm to the tiny blob furthest on the southern horizon.
"Great!" I asserted. "Now, what's the best route?"
Blank stares to the man.
For some ten minutes I grappled, trying to glean the proper course to sail. By their way of reckoning, though, one simply steered for the island. But the chart, lacking in detail as it reputedly was, indicated many submerged reefs en route. I came to the sinking conclusion that, remarkably, these seven guides were merely the same number of unenlightened passengers. So reverting to navigating by chart and compass, I steered generally south.
As we left the offlying, protecting reef far behind and approached our destination, the seas roughened. By now I was determined to show deference only to my own judgment, and with the strong easterlies and threat of submerged reefs at every hand, my anxieties and reservations were steadily escalating. Sailing these waters in such conditions seemed unjustifiably dangerous.
Nearing our objective we dropped sail and motored cautiously toward the lagoon's entrance. The fishermen stood excitedly at the bow urging me ever onward, but the pass was narrow, and I could see that after entering, a sharp right turn would be required. This turn would have put Suka beam-on to the forceful wind, and because the maneuvering space inside was limited, the vessel might have lost her steerage-way before we managed to set her anchor, only to collect the inside of the reef.
Zoom out to see where we are.
Sensing my trepidation, the Tongans began frantically coaxing me ahead. But my judgment suggested otherwise. So I throttled back, pulled the reduction drive out of gear, and let Suka blow back from the fringing reef. I explained that I considered it most perilous to take the ketch in there, and that I was not prepared to accept the risk. This was a difficult and reluctant decision, considering the rarity of such an opportunity to visit a remote and exquisite island. Jenny and I earnestly wanted to explore Maninita. As we motored slowly away, the group eventually, if begrudgingly, accepted my decision. After they had deliberated, Siale stepped forward. "OK, we go to PAH-ooh," he said, "but not good like Maninita."
“The Tongans found this brush with near disaster amusing.”
These dangerous waters were no place to be caught out at night, so we backtracked the eight miles to Pau under full press of canvas in order to reach an anchorage in what precious daylight remained. And while crossing a region the chart showed as clear of shoals, swishing along at hull speed we suddenly passed over a submerged reef covered with a mere fifteen feet of water. The Tongans found this brush with near disaster amusing.
Anchorage between Pau and Ngau
Zoom out to see where we are.
A quarter mile off-shore and directly between the islands of Pau and Ngau (Nah'-ooh), we set the anchor, then I ferried the first group of three men through the chop and drenching spray to reach the beach. By the time I had delivered the second group, the first had established camp, struck a fire, and gathered a selection of coconuts and green fronds. By the time I had returned from the third excursion the others had caught fish and placed them with the tapiocas and sweet potatoes in the underground oven. Also, using fresh-cut fronds they had woven large baskets to contain their hopeful catch. In a mere half-hour the resourceful fellows had constructed a comfortable camp using only the rudiments of materials and equipment--fish hooks, machetes and a match.
The wind and chop funneling between the two islands was buffeting Suka, so after I had returned aboard, Jenny and I weighed and moved to a more suitable location a mile north. Then we returned by dinghy to join the group for a few hours at their beach-side encampment.
Three men stood fishing from shore. Their technique was to walk along the beach paying out line, in order to prevent its tangling. A weight attached near the string's end was then swung around like a lasso a few times, then hurled seaward. Without delay the rig was reeled in, by winding its line around a chunk of driftwood. And as often as not, the hook would bring with it a fish. If the catch happened to be too small, the islander would put it into his mouth, tail first, and bite it's head off, aft of the gills, and while munching the body contentedly would toss the head, secured to the hook and now serving as the new bait, back out into the sea.
These fellows used the coconut palm to best advantage. Overhead, the green fronds provided the requisite shade. In hand, they were woven into fish baskets, placed as lining material inside the earthen oven, or spread on the sand as seats and bedding mats. As utensils, the half shells acted as cups from which to drink the coconut juice. As a comestible, the immature coconut flesh was scooped from the shell and eaten raw. As seasoning, the juice was sprinkled on the fish as it baked. As fuel, the coconut's outer husks burned long and hot at the campfire. And impaled, whole coconuts would serve as catch floats during their nocturnal spear fishing forays.
A Tongan Encampment
With the onset of darkness, one of the group unearthed the umu, and on frond mats we sat around the campfire eating supper. In addition to the fish and coconuts, we ate roasted tapioca and sweet potatoes brought from their gardens.
After a long and dark dinghy ride back to the boat, Jenny and I returned aboard and spent the night in vigilance. This impromptu anchorage was flanked tightly on three sides by vertical walls of coral, barely awash. Swinging room was lacking, and any wind shift in the night would have compelled us to weigh and re-anchor elsewhere.
Then at first light we moved Suka back to the pick-up spot, and in two trips ashore I collected our entourage aboard. The men had spent much of the night spear-fishing, and had collected half a dozen baskets of fish. Also, they had gathered a sack full of small clams. As they sat in the cockpit, Jenny handed each fellow a cup, bowl, or glass of hot coffee. One man complained of feeling ill, so Jenny gave him two aspirin, then of course the others rallied to receive the same medication.
Before we set off, one chap dove 40 feet to the bottom and somehow with his bare hands he ripped from the coral seabed a giant clam. How he then managed to swim to the surface with the massive load defied imagination. Nevertheless, with the help of a few others he wrestled the clam aboard. Then brandishing a sharp machete he sliced away the animal inside, and presented it to Jenny and me. We later sliced and sauteed the rashers of giant clam, and found them delicious.
Return to Lisa Bay
After a lively windward bash we arrived in the tranquil waters fronting Lisa Bay. Villagers were crowding the beach awaiting our return, and as we reached shore with the first dinghy load someone seized a basket and began passing its fish around. The islanders voraciously consumed the raw fish in a manner reminiscent of ardent baseball fans devouring hot dogs. Once I had delivered all ashore, Siale invited me to select whatever fish I desired.
How we lamented the boisterous weather, which had prevented us from anchoring in Maninita's lagoon. Nevertheless, the excursion had been most rewarding, although our safe transit of those reef-strewn waters seemed more providential.