Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dispatch 48 Tonga (Vava’u Group)

Sept 4 - Oct 17, 2009
Just 160 or so miles south of Niuatoputapu lies the next group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga, the Vava’u group. The Vava’u group consists of about 150 islands. We arrived there after a 2 day passage that was a bit rough (seems they all are in this part of the world) and featured a 4 hour storm with 20-25 knot winds and rain that ended with one lightning strike very near the boat. This island group immediately reminded us of the Pacific Northwest and the waters in the San Juan Islands. It consists of islands close together with protected waters between and many secluded and lovely anchorages. As this is a world renowned cruising ground with charter sailboat companies, there is not much privacy. At this time of year, there are hundreds of yachts here and we have hooked up with many of the friends we’ve met along the way. Dinners, potlucks, parties on the beach abound and a good time is being had by all.

On the second day after our arrival and about 2 hours after we had settled into the anchorage at the main town, a calm peaceful Sunday morning, we were just preparing to go to church to hear the beautiful singing when a drama unfolded. There had been a big party the night before after a sailboat race to an outlying island, part of the festivities of welcoming the cruisers, when, in the morning, one of the revelers had dropped a heavy hatch on his finger nearly severing the finger. He had immediate “first response” care that was appropriate and someone mentioned that we had a doctor on our boat. So help was rallied to race him back to town where we were moored and he arrived, via a large power boat at 25 kts., within an hour of the accident. The hospital, like nearly everything except churches, was closed on Sunday and nobody was able to locate the town doctor.

So, with our friends on a yacht named Solace, both of whom are nurses,
we put our equipment together, set up an operating table in their salon, and our patient William arrived for treatment. We had everything we needed, his wound was pretty clean and, to be honest, Solace’s crew Paul and Gina had an amazing first aid equipment supply. We irrigated the wound and I was able to suture the end of his finger back on with Paul and Gina’s great support. William was stoic and all went well and we are hoping he’ll be able to keep his whole finger but time will tell. So much for a quiet Sunday morning. The Tongan law says that there is no work done on Sundays so no services are open and people are not allowed to swim either. But sewing up a finger can’t wait.

Gina and I again visited the local hospital. Very similar to Samoa, the hospital equipment looks like donated old equipment from the rest of the world. The vinyl hospital mattresses were often torn with the stuffing hanging out. The exam tables were the ones most offices in the US had replaced 20 years ago. The head doctor was a jack of all trades (his own laughing admission “and master of none” or so he said.) He was trained as a GP, had some general surgery experience and had also had training as a radiologist in Australia. He was doing a pregnant woman’s ultrasound when we first arrived and did minor surgery, took care of patients on ventilators, did amputations of bad diabetic feet if it was required, managed the diabetic sepsis, and delivered babies or did caesarians when needed. There were 2 other doctors there and some visiting medical students, a dentist and, at the time we were there, a visiting team of eye doctors going to the outlying villages and doing exams and cataract operations. Edgar, the head doctor, admitted to us that he was often short of supplies, but, as in Samoa, they did the best they could. Definitely it looked like challenging work conditions.

We were amazed that Vava’u, this island group, seemed to have a good amount of supplies. When we had left Niuatoputapu, they had been nearly out of flour, gasoline, lard for cooking and most other basics. There was little hope of a supply ship there in the near future as the supply ship and passenger ferry had sunk a couple of months earlier, with a large number of casualties. By contrast, the stores here seemed extremely well-supplied and a ship came in soon after we arrived. We are told that the supplies are a little thin here as well, but, compared to N, this place is paradise for shopping. We can’t figure out why the King cannot arrange for supplies to be delivered just 160 miles further north from here, but that is the way it seems to be.

One of the highlights of visiting this part of the ocean is that, at this time of year, the humpback whales migrate here to calf and mate. Tonga is one of the only places where one is able to swim with whales. So one day we went out on a whale watching boat with friends from another cruising boat to swim with the whales. It was a very windy day, but, much to our delight, one of the only sunny days we had experienced in a week and a half. Whales are hard to spot on windy days, but a female and calf were spotted and we waited our turn to go in and swim with them. We felt a little guilty that boat after boat would drive up to the whales and let people in the water to look at them up close, but we were so eager to do it, we tried not to feel too badly about it.

While we waited for our turn, we opted to visit another “not to miss site” called Mariner’s Cave, a cave within the rocks that is only entered by going through an opening 6 feet under water and swimming about 15 feet into the cave under water. It is not a hard swim, but psychologically, especially on the way in where it is dark, it takes a leap of faith. We tread water outside getting psyched, then dive down to the blue underwater opening. We swam hard with anxiety, not sure when we could rise without hitting our head on the rocks, and finally surface, inevitably, many feet further inside than we needed to go, but the margin of safety is a good thing. The cave is huge and does not communicate to the outside, thus it has an airlock feeling inside. As the water surges with the waves, one feels the pressure in one’s ears and the air in the cave mists up then clears within seconds. It was magical. We could also hear the whales singing while we were underwater!

At last it was our turn with the whales. We slipped into the water and were treated to a view of a young calf (they thought maybe only a week old), its mother and an “escort” whale, likely a male waiting for the female to be receptive according to our guide. We have seen many whales in our boating and kayaking lives, with some quite close encounters from our kayaks, but there was still nothing quite as exciting as swimming with these huge animals so nearby. Like an iceberg, the major bulk of a whale is underwater and being next to them only underscored how small we are and how big they are. With lazy tail flicks, they move faster than we can swim and, despite their bulk, are amazingly graceful. It was a marvelous experience, but one we savored without the pressure of trying to take pictures too. Sorry.

We’ve become very fond of Tonga and Tongans. I love walking through the market and saying hello in their language (Malo e leilei), how are you? fine, thank you, etc. They have been gracious at teaching me these few phrases and appreciative when we try to speak their language. They are friendly and welcoming. I finally attended the Catholic church service one Sunday where a hundred voices raised in harmony through much of the service. It was heavenly. The produce market here has a welcome assortment of so many of the foods we like and many we haven’t seen for months: green peppers, apples (imported from New Zealand), lettuce of all kinds, fresh herbs including basil, dill, cilantro, thyme, parsley, beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini. There are the ubiquitous bananas, papayas, pineapples, and coconuts. Town has its gravitational pull on us all as the center of our social life—often we put off leaving after we come in for provisions because we are invited to just one more event—and the place where we can all access internet from our boat. We befriended most of the “palangi” (foreigner) restaurant owners and it would be nothing to sit down to a cup of coffee and a 3 hour conversation about how in the world they came to live and run a business in Tonga and share our experiences with them. With all the cruisers passing through they were always interested in our stories as well.

One of the restaurant owners is from Southern India and holds a weekly Indian cooking class. We returned to town specifically so I could take part in the class. Not only was it a marvelous bonding experience with various women from boats I had not met previously, but the dinner was delicious and has led to more tasty experiments on the boat. Richard has been quite pleased with the change.

Our last sojourn into town came days early when we experienced a “fatal error” with our shipboard computer with which we communicate by SSB radio for weather information. Indeed, the hard drive had crashed irreparably in this 6 or 7 year old computer. We had a distressing and rather expensive few days of learning the fate of the computer and making the decision to replace it via Amazon and have a crew member on another boat who would be flying into the capital city at the end of the month bring it with him. We have become so dependent on computer technology in general, and, at this moment on the verge of our passage to New Zealand, we did not want to do without a computer to download the weather information while underway. It was a “birthday present”, Richard said, a new Toshiba netbook, similar to the stove I and the boat got several years ago, also a “present”.

The outlying anchorages in this area of Tonga vary from very protected harbors to wild islands exposed to the tumultuous Pacific on their outer side. We have often seen whales with some of our friends having had close encounters while swimming. The coral in one spot was the most beautiful we have seen and we went back several times to enjoy it. At another anchorage, we spent the night alone enclosed in a “one boat anchorage” within a reef “lagoon” hearing the swell break just behind our boat. That island could be circumnavigated in a 20 minute walk on a white sand beach. There are so many “bite-sized” islands in this country that are little gems. We walked between two islands at another anchorage, carefully navigating the bridging reef in ankle deep water. As we walked across the reef in the flat water of low tide, just 30 yards away from us the ocean waves were angrily breaking “outside” so that it looked like the ocean water was several feet higher than the reef level. Mirroring the water, the beach was placid and flat on the “inside” and the terrain was wild and rocky on the “outside” where the ocean batters it. Fortunately, we timed the tide right and the waves didn’t approach us as we walked up and down the 2 mile other island and back across to our “home” island. There are many long sandy beaches that invite walks and hours of shell collecting.

Besides the whales, other wildlife is interesting. The flying fox, a type of fruit bat, is ubiquitous here, and, at sunset each night, they fly from their nests to islands where they can feed. They are the most bizarre flying animal we’ve seen, looking just like little foxes but with a 3 foot wing span. We searched for and found one of their roosting trees where they hang upside down grooming and sleeping during the day. While snorkeling, we’ve found lion fish, pipefish, sea snakes, squid and new fish nearly every immersion. And last but certainly not least, every little village has its collection of pigs, piglets and very mangy dogs along with chickens and roosters, occasional cats, cows and horses. Sadly for us dog lovers, Tongans eat dogs as well as pigs. In fact, one of the store owners we befriended told us how her adopted stray dog had nearly ended up in the “umu” (underground oven), having been plucked from the street and taken to an off-island. Fortunately, one of the passengers on the little “ferry” to the island recognized the dog as a pet, its collar and recent surgical scar from being spayed, and insisted the dog be returned to town.

Tonga is truly an endless playground with pleasures to enjoy in air, land and sea and wonderful, generous people living much as they’ve lived for centuries. We are so lucky to be able to enjoy it. And this island group has allowed us to sail placidly between anchorages (5 to 10 miles apart) in protected waters. This is as good as it gets!