When we decided to spend this extra year in the South Pacific, we wanted to find the quiet places similar to the Tuamotus group of French Polynesia, where we were for two weeks in 2016. Two of the main island groups we missed that are less-traveled are the Ha’apai group of Tonga and the Lau group of Fiji.
We’ve been in the Ha’apai group for 3 weeks now, and it is EXACTLY the kind of place we wanted to spend time in.
There are five island divisions in Tonga (in order of population size); Tongatapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai, ‘Eua, and Ongo Niua. The Ha’apai group has 51 islands, but only 17 of them are populated by the 7,212 inhabitants. Ha’apai also has the tallest peak of Tonga, the Kao volcano, a dormant volcano standing at 3,432 ft. Tofua, next to Kao, is an active volcano. The volcanoes are a rarity though; most of the islands are small coral atolls or reefs.
Tofua is also the site of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty. Bligh and 18 other seamen were set adrift in a launch from the Bounty. They immediately landed on Tofua, 30 nm away. However, trouble with the locals led to the death of one crew member. Bligh led the remaining men on a 3,500 nm passage in the small launch to Timor, bypassing other lands where natives were rumored to be hostile.
Although I know there are divisions of the islands of the Ha’apai into groups, I’m not finding a map or detailed explanation of the groups. I’m going to assume that we’ve been spending our time in the Lifuka group of the Ha’apai, named after the main island where the village of Pangai is located.
There are three large barrier reefs in the Lifuka group on the eastern side of the islands. These reefs protect the islands from the typical ocean swells, and the anchorages are on the west sides of the islands. At low tide, the barrier reefs block almost all the swell, so the east side of the island become almost pond-like.
Our first stop in the Ha’apai was the north side of Foa Island, where we anchored off Matafonua Lodge for eight days. The bottom is spotted with bommies (coral heads), but our friends on Whistler were already anchored in one of the larger sandy patches. With us and Tika joining, it was crowded. There’s barely enough room for three catamarans, and with the wind shifting, we picked up and reset once, and so did Tika.
Matafonua Lodge is owned by Darren and Nina, they also recently bought Sandy Beach Resort just 300 meters down the beach. Everyone was very welcoming to us cruisers. We had pizza for lunch one day at Matafonua (which was so, so good!) and dinner one night at Sandy Beach Resort, which is upscale dining. I had duck breast and David had lobster risotto, plus four drinks and sides, our meal came to $120 TOP. Pretty nice for a swanky meal and stunning sunset view.
Most of our time there was very windy. The islands are great for blocking eastern swell, but because they are low sandy islands they do not stop the winds. Winds around 20 knots are great for our friends who wanted to get out and play in the wind – Monty from Whistler kiteboarded most days, and the whole crew of Tika was often out windsurfing all day. Whistler let me borrow their Kahuna paddleboard (a Canadian brand) to practice on, and I’m thinking about buying a paddleboard soon. David and I even tested it up on the davits to see if it would fit with our flag and grill on the stern rail (it does).
David and I went ashore to go for a walk along the beach. We took the road down about 200 meters where there was a path leading to the eastern beach. We followed the beach out to a rocky point, and then stayed on the beach back to Matafonua.
We also had several get togethers with our neighbors. We had a potluck on Starry Horizons, where the kids of Tika introduced us to a very fun word game, called Dictionary Balderdash. You pick a word from the dictionary that no one knows the meaning of. Everyone write down the definition they think it is on a slip of paper, while you write down the actual one. All definitions are read out loud and everyone votes on what they think is the correct definition. Points are given to the convincing made up ones and to the people who guess the right one. It was a pretty fun way to explore new words. We also had a happy hour on Tika and one on Whistler.
I should mention that Tika and Whistler are two very interesting boats (and people!). Tika is a 55′ early-2000s Outremer, and she’s fast! Russ and Greer have her well outfitted for their family of four, with lots of water toys and space for the kids. They bought Tika in Panama and are sailing back home to Perth, where the kids will get back into school. Whistler is about 10 years old and is a 44′ Antares. Margy and Monty bought her 3 years ago and have been sailing the South Pacific, but they still have a house in Whistler and go home for ski season (cyclone season in the Pacific). Whistler is in immaculate condition (I assumed she was new when we took the tour) and the story of their handover when they bought her is really interesting – the former owner stayed on board for over a week to show them the ropes.
We made a few snorkeling trips too. There was a large mostly alive bommie right behind us, and I went snorkeling myself and saw a large bluefin trevally, two peppered morays (I think) and large schools of unicorn fish. I took David once and of course we didn’t see the eels or the trevally.
On July 20th all 8 of us gathered to snorkel the pass between Foa and Nukunamo island. The big draw is zebra sharks, of which we spotted two. Often called leopard sharks (though leopard sharks are a different species), zebra sharks are named for the black and white patturn they have when they are babies. Zebra sharks are bottom-dwellers, and sat at the bottom at roughly 25 feet for quite some time until we got too close. One swam for a while with most of us tagging behind watching. The coral was good as well, though the ratio of live-to-dead was not very high.
Four of us (me, Greer, Monty and Margy) took one dinghy up to Nukunamo’s north west shore and snorkeled again. The water here was shallower, no more than 15′ and the bommies were large. Some had much higher live-to-dead ratios, and the coral was frequently in bright purple and greens. We saw lots of anemones and the inhabitants (anemonefish aka Nemos).
I even got a clear night to shoot some stars!
Finally, it wouldn’t be Tonga without more whale sightings. One morning I was cooking bacon and on the back transom dumping out the grease when Margy called over to tease us about the bacon smell. I looked up and behind Whistler was a giant splash! Sure enough, we watched several whales breach over and over again.
The King of Tonga makes a yearly visit to the islands, and while his visit to Vava’u coincided with ours, we skipped town to avoid the heavy crowds. However, we were anchored off Matafonua when he came to Pangai, and the resort had a few trucks going to the Agricultural and Fisheries Show, so we decided to hop into town and check it out. Margy came with us, and we hopped off the truck early so we could report our inner-Tonga movement to the Ha’apai group and give them a form from the Neiafu Customs agents.
We walked to the fairgrounds, which were lined with vendors showing off their produce, fish catches, or handicrafts. Mostly the crowd was locals, but handfuls of tourists and cruisers were milling about too. The produce was in baskets or hung, with (I’m assuming) the name of the village or farm nearby. The fisheries tent was definitely the most interesting. The vendors aren’t allowed to sell their items until the end of the show but you have to stake a claim to things early to get anything. We walked away with oranges and red peppers (note that I couldn’t even find red peppers in Neiafu).
We almost got to the end of the booths when we were told to take a seat because the king was coming in. Kids lined up the path to wave and cheer, matrons danced, and a marching band played. The king waved from under his umbrella and then the speeches commenced and the three of us snuck out to town. Margy showed us around to the harbor, where we will have to come to clear out of Tonga. There are two Chinese grocery stores in Pangai, with limited perishables, but a pretty good variety of dry goods. I bought mayonnaise and Margy bought double stuffed Oreos!
We got back to the fair just as HRH was starting to tour the booths. Once he was done touring, everyone took a seat again and then the tau’olunga (traditional dancing) started up. We didn’t catch all of it because we had to get our ride back, but the girls in traditional costumes were milling about for a while and happily posed for pictures. I was glad to see that the costumes and dancing were very similar to what we’ve seen at the “touristy” places (like My Tongan Home and Oholei Beach), so I feel that the authenticity is pretty accurate.
The people watching was fantastic. Yes, many people (especially youths) dress in a western style attire (jeans and t-shirts) but many people still wear traditional day wear and formal wear. Men wear tupenu (Tongan sarong or kilt), long sleeve button up shirts, and a taʻovala (woven mat) with a belt. They may also wear a tie and jacket with this outfit to make it more formal and modern. Ladies typically wear long dresses or skirts with sleeves to their elbows and ta’ovala or kiekie (belts with long dangling decor) tied around their waists.
The really traditional wear that the dancers had on is a wrap dress, made from ngatu (tree bark) and decorated with flowers, shells, or leaves.
Uoleva is a big wide anchorage, with reefs extending out from both ends of the island to a C-shape bay. There are three resorts, and we anchored off Sea Change Eco Retreat. The staff was welcoming and we had drinks a few times.
We went snorkeling on the reef on the south end of the island, on the inside of the reef (not out in the pass). There was nothing too spectacular to report about. The highlight was walking from Sea Change around the southern point of the island at low tide. The walk took us about three hours, and once on the other side there is a walking path to shortcut the island in half. That short cut is about 20 minutes. The view all around the walk was gorgeous, with the electric blues and sea greens inside the reef, to the deep blues of the pass between the reefs. A highlight was seeing a eel swimming in the shallows with a crab snack in it’s jaws!
Part 2, we head south and get an amazing whale encounter…