“Oh... These stupid foreigners. They don't know how to sing and dance...”
Throughout the South Pacific, whenever the islanders entertain the tourists, most of whom do not comprehend the local dialect, inevitably the natives will sing at least one song that they, and they alone, find unusually amusing. Loosely translated, the words might be something like this: "Oh... These stupid foreigners. They don't know how to sing and they don't know how to dance..." The buffoonery is all in fun, though. And so it was that a group of islanders were staging a zesty musical, strumming guitars, banjos and ukuleles. A half-dozen gaily costumed young women, suggesting their allure, danced in the demure style. Meanwhile, the attendants served coconut-shell cups of kava: a muddy liquefaction concocted from the roots of a pepper plant. Admittedly, to our western palates the brew was invidious.
The afternoon's ensuing feast proved the usual Tongan extravaganza, and when I recognized some of the victuals as products of our recent fishing excursion, I had to give the Tongans a lot of credit. They had wanted to night dive on Maninita, despite the threat of sharks, primarily to provide the foreign visitors at this feast with lobster.
Siale and Naomi
Siale accompanied Jenny and I back to Lisa Bay via his plantation. Stashed in the branches of a tree was a basket of fresh drinking coconuts, several papayas, colas, and a few sweet potatoes, and this he carried to the dinghy and presented to us. We invited him aboard for a visit, and he returned home not until well after dark.
Siale and his dug-out canoe, work in progress.
Our Tongan days passed quickly, each being filled to the brim with interesting events. One morning, while we were anchored in Matoto's bay a knocking came at the hull. "Siale," said a local boy standing in an outrigger canoe, and pointing ashore.
We had accepted Siale's invitation to come to his house for Sunday umu, and he was here to remind us. The night's heavy rain had transformed the dirt road into one of soft clay. This material adhered to our bare feet like glue. With every step it grew thicker in persistent layers that formed comfortable, if somewhat ungainly and unsightly walking attire.
“Naomi dried our feet with a towel. This was the humble way they treated their guests.”
Siale's home was a well-built, wooden framed structure replete with a tin roof and a few magazine pages for wallpaper. At the doorway Siale offered us a large bowl of water to wash hands and feet, then Naomi, Siale's sister, dried our feet with a towel. This was the humble way they treated their guests.
The small, two roomed interior featured floors covered with attractive pandanus mats, woven of course by the girls. Naomi spread a sumptuous meal on a tablecloth, Tongan style on the floor, then sat with us nibbling while Jenny and I sampled the several entremets wrapped in banana leaves. Surprisingly, Naomi supplied us with forks, but in deference to their customs we set the tonsil-pokers aside. One dish was fish; another: octopus in coconut milk; and another: clams, onions and taro leaves. The side dish was an umu-baked blend of cabbage, onions, taro, tapioca, and a vegetable Naomi called capé. The drink was fresh-squeezed orange juice, and dessert was the traditional baked papaya, well seasoned and ensconced in a coconut half-shell.
|Siale and Naomi were brother and sister, and were raising a flock of children. The children were in fact their own brothers and sisters, younger than them by 10 years or so. The mother and father had passed away, leaving Siale and Naomi to raise the youngsters.|
After dinner they pressed us with little gifts: leis cleverly woven from brine-bleached tree bark, a woven coin purse, and a geography cone shell that Naomi had found on the reef. "Malo aupito, ma'-lo!" (Thank you very much, thank you!) we expressed. Then after the meal, bashfully some of the younger family members began appearing.
Rain was pouring down, and Siale explained that after the long dry season his crops needed the moisture. He wished to accompany us on the long walk back to the anchorage, and as we had only one umbrella, Naomi loaned us hers. Siale covered himself with a piece of coated nylon tarp. We presented the family with a few gifts, then Naomi sent us away with samples of the leftovers: banana-frond wrapped fish and octopus with taro root on the side.
Once back at the beach, Siale withdrew from his pocket two large white-cowrie shells, and presented them to us. Was the generosity of these people unbounded?
The wind was blowing a miniature gale obliquely on-shore, and we found ourselves unable to paddle the dinghy back to the yacht -mainly because Siale had insisted on manning Jenny's oar, and frankly his agrarian arms were neither as strong nor resolute as Jenny's. Back ashore after our first attempt, we walked along the water's edge to windward, then managed to power out to the ship on the second attempt, but only just. With Siale's help we weighed, then motored back around to the calm and protected waters of Lisa Bay.
“Typically, we could not return aboard without finding some small gift in the dinghy.”
While anchored there, typically we could not return aboard without finding some small gift in the dinghy. First it was a little basket Rosaline had woven, then it was assorted fruits or sweet potatoes.
That evening Isaiah came rowing out in a borrowed dinghy for a long chat over a warm beer. As we sat talking he asked me to set his watch, given to him by a previous visiting sailor. It was more a conversation piece, being scarcely readable, but when I pressed the proper combination of buttons and actually produced the date, Isaiah's eyes lit up.
Warmhearted and cordial, he was good company, despite his sometimes scheming manners. Understandably, he was always asking for some little thing or another, and tonight it was matches. "What's wrong with the lighter I gave you last night?" I asked. He held it up and flicked the striker a few times to demonstrate that it no longer made fire. I examined it, then asked, "Empty? Already?" He must have used it as a lantern. Several times he implored me to pour kerosene into it, and my explanation that the lighter did not use kerosene, and that it could not be refilled was met with obvious disbelief.
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Come daylight the next morning, Jenny and I sailed to Port Maurelle, where in 1781 Francisco Maurelle had anchored his Spanish galleon, occasioning the first European "discovery" of the Vava'u group. Here we found not actually a port, but a large bay featuring quiet, crystal clear water. The conditions were superb for snorkeling among the coral heads. I managed to spear a trumpet fish. Fried, it afforded a tantalizing breakfast.
King Taufa'ahau Tupou visits Neiafu for the annual Agricultural Festival.
Cruise Ship Day
Cruise ships come to Vava'u mainly from Australia and New Zealand. They tour the Fijis, the Tongas, and perhaps a few other island groups. The following day one was due to arrive, so we sailed to Neiafu for the occasion. Cruise ship day is something of a phenomenon in the Vava'us; once a month on the average, one and a half thousand tourists lay siege to the otherwise tranquil island, and for the occasion the villagers come from far and wide to congregate in a large open-air market and vend their wares. We enjoyed meandering between parallel rows of booths, where Tongans were selling their handicrafts in a bewildering variety. These included attractively fashioned baskets, wood carvings, woven mats, tapa cloths, sea shells, and a host of assorted trinkets. No welfare for these industrious folks. Waiting until the final 15 minutes before ship departure, we bought about all the souvenirs we could carry home.
Siale had been there with his horse, proffering rides to tourists; and as usual he had a gift for us: a precious little white cowrie, rare hereabouts.
Lape and Matamaka
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After provisioning at the mid-August, Saturday Neiafu market, we set off for the nearby islands of Lape and Matamaka. With chart close at hand we worked our way between reefs and islands, and found a quiet and secluded setting to spend a few hours. But no sooner had we anchored when visitors came knocking on the hull.
Standing in a canoe, two characters, apparently not yet having applied the finishing touches to their manners and senses of propriety, at once called for coffee and other items. Their nefarious attitudes put me ill at ease, and I sent them away. Five minutes later the same canoe returned, occupied this time by two boys who presented us with a few shells and a coconut. The more outspoken of the two said, "those men no good" referring to our first visitors.
I invited the youngsters aboard. The older lad asked for a piece of paper, onto which he then wrote their names. Both boys were proud of the English words they were learning in school, and were anxious to impress us with them. I tape-record their pronunciations of some of the island's names. With the chart spread before us I pointed to the printed names, and the boys would chime the pronunciations in unison. We gave each of the boys a bag of peanuts, a pen, a pencil, and a plastic fishing lure.
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Jenny and I moved to nearby Sisia Island, uninhabited and blessed with a charm all its own. And at sundown we pulled ashore and built a small campfire. Indulging in the splendor and the solitude, we agreed that this was, indeed, the cruising life at its best.
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A few days later we relocated to Euakafa (you-ah-cough'-ah) Island, subsequently deemed as our favorite Tongan anchorage. Not that the holding was exemplary, nor was the protection from the fresh breeze anything special; but this uninhabited island is a jewel among South Pacific islands. Neighboring inhabitants worked modest but lush plantations here, and we followed their trails leading through the farmlands and deeper into the vegetated hinterland. Also, we found the skin-diving on the nearby reefs magnificent.
Return to Neiafu
We returned to Neiafu the next day to indulge in a hotel restaurant meal, and to join with friends in the mezzanine to watch a movie. We all agreed the movie, "African Queen" was appropriate.
An empty and derelict dinghy found floating in the sea is a consternating discovery, and when a native fishing boat motored into the yacht basin bringing just such a find, we sailors became distraught, as were the fishermen. They had discovered the half-deflated boat drifting east of the Tongas, empty and surrounded by sharks. Had this dinghy been used as a life raft, we wondered in horror?
Imagine our surprise when the crew of a newly arriving yacht recognized the old tattered dinghy as theirs. It seemed that the painter had come untied, and the boat had blown away from their anchorage at Bora Bora. The free-floating dinghy had actually arrived at this landfall a day ahead of them!
With the moon waxing gibbous we began preparing to embark for Fiji. So after one more Saturday market shopping spree to buy fruit and vegetables, and after mailing gifts of woven baskets galore to our parents, we set off.
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Before we could leave the Tonga Islands altogether, though, we wanted to visit Mariner's Cave, an attraction much touted by those who have been inside. Of itself the cave is not much to rave about, but entering the cave is a unique experience reserved only for adept swimmers. The entrance is fully submerged.
In the cave's vicinity the shoreline is steep-to, and the bottom plunges away into the depths. So while Jenny stood at Suka's helm motoring around in slow circles, I swam along the cliffs in search of the cave's entrance.
First, I inspected a blow hole that with each ocean swell hissed like a steam locomotive while spewing a great rush of water. This phenomenon was caused by an internal air chamber being pressurized with each oncoming comber. But the hole proved only that; it was not Mariner's Cave.
Continuing on, I found and inspected a larger underwater cavern, perhaps 5 feet in diameter. Taking a deep breath, like an inverted spider I crawled upside-down along the ceiling. Farther inside I could see an air pocket. Back outside I replenished my lungs, then with a final deep breath I dove and swam in quickly toward the air pocket. It was a calculated risk, and one that relied on reaching the air inside.
Attaining the air pocket, I surfaced, and found to my dismay that the cave's ceiling was only six inches above the water. Nevertheless, the air was breathable. I waited a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. With each surge the water's surface rose, compressing my air supply distressingly. This was obviously not Mariner's Cave. Taking a deep breath, I returned outside.
While Jenny kept pace, motoring Suka alongside, I swam along the cliffs and reef wall. Then at last I came to a capacious underwater hole: obviously the cave I had been looking for.
After diving downward four feet, I swam halfway along the tunnel entrance. Again I could see that farther inside was an air pocket, but that this one was far larger than the one in the previous cave. I swam back out to collect my wits and to rest a few moments, then with lungs full I dove the four feet downward and swam quickly the twelve feet in. Rising to the surface I suddenly found myself swimming inside a large room, dimly lit only by what light effused through the underwater entrance. The chamber, about 20 feet in diameter, appeared sealed from the outside, as I could sense the pressure changes with each surge of ground swell. While spending a few minutes viewing these inspiring surroundings I felt cut off from the world.
Taking a deep breath, I descended into the depths, and returned outside. After swimming to the ketch I returned aboard and encouraged Jenny to swim into the cave. With no little trepidation she jumped into the sea, and swam to the entrance. At some of our anchorages Jenny had practiced for this dive into Mariner's Cave by swimming underneath Suka. But she was not yet a proficient skin diver, and the prospect of diving alone into this cave frightened her.
Calculating Suka's set and drift, then motoring up-current a short distance, I abandoned ship, and swam quickly to join Jenny. In so doing, though, I arrived too winded to carry through with the dive. The brig was drifting away rapidly, and seemed in dire need of a helmsman. So I swam hard for her, and Jenny took this as an abandonment of any further plans, and reached Suka ahead of me. "I don't want anything to do with that cave," she demurred. "Besides, if we go in there together we'll lose Suka for sure. I'm more afraid of that than of going into the cave."
"No," I consoled, "that was just a practice run. The boat will be fine out here. You can do it, I know you can. There's air inside; we'll go in together, and I'll be right there with you." Soon I had her re-infused with the courage for another attempt. Having better knowledge of the currents, I placed Suka more strategically, then we jumped overboard and swam, slowly this time, to the cave.
"OK, ready?" I asked.
More assured this time, Jenny nodded affirmatively.
"OK, we'll take three deep breaths, then go... Swim as fast as you can. One, two... Three!" ...Down we went.
I had planned to assist her if necessary, but again she outpaced me and broke the water's surface inside the cave ahead of me. Because we had left Suka drifting dead in the water, unattended, we dared not linger. So after a minute's assessing the cavern's interior we coordinated three deep breaths, submerged, and swam back outside.
“Climbing aboard, Jenny was ecstatic. "That was incredible!" she exclaimed.”
Suka lay close at hand, and we easily reached her. Climbing aboard, Jenny was ecstatic. "That was incredible!" she exclaimed. And I was very proud of her.
Anchorage of Port Maurelle
The conditions off-shore were too boisterous for comfortable travel, so we ducked back into the quiet and protected anchorage of Port Maurelle. And a report of an approaching trough kept us weather-bound one more day.
Departing Tonga, bound for Fiji.