Tonga – Tonga the Kingdom Come
It was with a small amount of uncertainty when we decided to visit the Kingdom of Tonga, as it is not well known as a cruising destination within the superyacht circle.
Captain’s Log by Captain Walter Rowan – M/Y Major Wager
TONGA IS MADE up of four main island groups with the isolated Niuas to the far North. The Vava’u group which is considered to be Tonga’s sailing centre, is a beautiful cluster of waterways and pristine, sparsely inhabited islets – at the centre lies an immense land locked harbour, Neiafu. The Ha’apai group is the central island cluster of the Kingdom. It is an archipelago of low coral islands backed by soaring volcanoes and is surrounded by translucent turquoise water. Teeming with fish, Ha’apai is a diving and fishing slice of heaven. Tongatapu is the most populated and farthest south; it is Tonga’s cultural centre and has Nuku’alofa as the capital.
We started our Tongan cruise at the Nuku’alofa wharf on the afternoon of Saturday October 18th and were greeted by our agents Sue and Derek Leonard of Yacht Help Tonga. All current GPS settings and charts were accurate and we had no problems navigating the Islands or berthing our vessel. After the usual clearances, bunkering and provisioning, we discussed with Sue and Derek our itinerary for the week. With diving, fishing and sightseeing the main criteria, we quickly realized that this Pacific Island paradise needed more than one week to discover its treasures.
Derek an avid fisherman quickly gave us areas to hook up on Marlin, Wahoo, Giant Trevally, Skipjack Tuna and Mahimahi. We quickly worked out that the Marlin are of massive proportions and that fishing with light weight tackle was like trying to pull in a Mack truck with cotton!
There are many sights and activities in Nukualofa to keep you occupied and our time seemed to fly by with spectacular coral blowholes, Tapa demonstrations, amazing surf, royal palaces and ancient stone structures competing for our attention. But we were impatient to explore the famous Vava’u group, so after three days we steamed off 160kms north of the capital.
Vava’u is made up of seventy islands and is a mecca for the New Zealand and Australian Yachting fraternity – we soon understood why. The sail in was breathtaking. Picture dawn breaking with humpbacks breaching either side of you – it was truly an amazing experience that our guests and crew rate as the highlight of the trip. Neiafu Harbour is one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, and you enter through a fjord like channel chiseled out by nature over millions of years, it is flanked with dramatic coconut covered cliffs. The harbour is also known as Port of Refuge because it is so sheltered from the wind and waves with only two small inlets allowing access.
We found good port facilities and over 40 safe anchorages close to Neiafu the main township of Vava’u. Yacht Help Tonga once again arranged clearances and an itinerary that included visits to the Botanical gardens, dinner and floor show at the Princesse’s residence “Sovereign House” and some wonderful restaurants and bars for the crew and owners to sample the local delicacies. This combined with a couple of wonderful beach parties at The Tongan Beach Resort and the stunning Mounu Island ensured we left a trail of unused brain cells in our wake!
We then ventured out to explore the islands under our own steam with the magnificent 36 foot Grady White taking us comfortably out to the Spot X Fishing areas that not only supplied marlin, sharks, yellowfin tuna, but also Humpback whales by the hundreds. These beautiful mammals spend 3-5 months having their calves in the waters around Tonga from June through to November. It is one of the few places in the world where you are allowed to swim with these magnificent animals. To experience the graceful beauty of a 30 tonne whale and her baby calf is something that will never be forgotten.
Even though we had read about the water visibility in Tonga it is really something you have to see to believe, and being able to see a scuttled cargo ship in 40m of water gives you some perspective. So a definite on our “to see” list was exploring the multitude of underwater sea caves and dive spots for which Vava’u is famous. The caves are in less than 30m of water and are truly remarkable. Fish and coral life are as the brochures explain “Created by God, unspoiled by Man.” Fishing and Dive Guides are readily available and can be as entertaining as the activities themselves.
For our non divers on board we also explored Swallows Cave off Kapa Island, your best bet is to access the cave by tender in shifts as the depth outside is over 250 foot. It is definitely worth the effort, stunning multihued stalactites contrast against the vivid blue of the water. If there are adventurous ones among you, take a torch and further explore the cave by either scrambling or swimming to the shaft of light and discover a dry internal cave.
Mariners Cave is another sea level cave worth the trip to the NE tip of Nuapapu. You will swim through a fourteen foot underwater tunnel before popping up into this magical cave, if you go in the late afternoon on a sunny day you will be blown away by stunning light and ethereal fog. Only competent swimmers should attempt entering this cave during calm seas. As Mariners Cave is quite hard to find and there are many false entries close to it, it is best to either have a local guide with you or very detailed instructions. With an average of 4.8 islands every nautical mile of the Vava’u group it is not surprising that there are so many fantastic swimming and snorkeling spots that step right off postcards. In the same breath polarised sunglasses are essential armory in avoiding hazards and reefs.
What started as a one week visit quickly became two and then three weeks, we just couldn’t get enough of the culture, the people, and beautiful sights and produce that Tonga has to offer.
Once again the service supplied by Derek and Sue from Yacht Help Tonga made the experience a breeze. With their knowledge of the Kingdom and connections with Air NZ, Chatham Pacific Airlines and PFL Shipping it was easy to change our itinerary and have our guests fly in to meet us on a weekly basis. Their knowledge and contacts within the tourism sector is unsurpassed, from arranging flights, birthday parties, whale watching, to good old fashioned pub crawls, their expertise was a god send.
If it is a six Star holiday with all the modern tourist trappings that you are after then Tonga may seem a little primitive. Tonga time is as infectious as the people who live there, where time begins is the country’s catch phrase, for us is where time stands still. (One has to keep in mind that everything is closed on Sundays…. Yes, everything!) For entertainment on a Sunday all you need to do is follow the most beautiful singing in the world which emanates from every church throughout the Kingdom.(and yes you are welcome to join the congregation).
If its eco-tourism with a touch of joining the locals, rather than watching them is your thing, then Tonga is a must for any traveler.