NIUATOPUTAPU, TONGA               Sept - Oct 2004

September 19, 2004

We arrived in Niuatoputapu, Tonga despite me being sick the whole way with some sort of stomach flu bug I picked up on top of my cold in Samoa. The passage was rough but I managed to carry out may watches but eating anything was out of the question.

This northern most island in the Tonga group, named "Very Sacred Coconut,"  is really beautiful, a flat luxuriant island with a steep central range of hills. Extensive reefs protect the anchorage which boasts a fantastic view of the steep, tree covered volcanic cone of Tafahi to the north. There are humpback whales outside the reef and turtles in the bay. 

I still can't get over losing a whole day as we crossed the international dateline. We entered into tomorrowland. (Yesterday is today) We actually celebrated Bro Bruce's  birthday a day late because September 18 never existed for us. We left Western Samoa early on Friday September 17 and arrived in Tonga the very next day, on Sunday the 19.  (A good way to get out of turning 50!!!!)

The night before we arrived the locals had a fund raising dinner and dance to raise money for a generator for the hospital. The hospital is currently without electricity or refrigeration as are all 3 villages on this island. Don't want to be sick here!


A Tongan Picnic

A potluck was put on for the cruisers by a local lady (Sia pictured left) and attended by many, many children. She held it on a nearby motu right after Church. Unfortunately Gord couldn't attend because he came down with my malady upon arrival. She suggested we bring baked items (cakes, cookies, lasagne, etc), I'm sure so her kids could get a chance to eat like American children do. However the Tongan children were much more creative with their food. The kids loaded their plates up with chocolate chip cookies, then poured chocolate pudding over the whole pile!


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Some cruisers with kids of their own brought kites for all the children... however the Tonga children were made to stop flying them because  they are not allowed to play on Sunday. 

Pets or Dinner?

We had heard the stories that dogs are raised in Tonga specifically for the dinner table. I was horrified that I might end up with Bowser on my plate so I was sure to ask what was rolled in the taro leaves laid out on the big woven mats for our potluck. Fish, coconut, vegetables, some kind of meat.......(whoa) WHAT kind of meat, I asked. "Oh, mutton, I think...." Okay, when was the last time I saw a sheep anywhere in the South Pacific?? Would that be Mutt - on? I passed on that one.

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Riding back in the dinghy, we noticed  huge birds flying overhead that we had not seen before. As they got closer and we got a better look, we realized that they were enormous fruit bats, known also as Flying Foxes.

September 20
Check-in day.

Boats in the anchorage have reported that cookies and coke are mandatory for a smooth check-in (Although the request for sandwiches has been made). Some boats had their fresh fruit and vegetable confiscated, others did not. And it was suggested not to leave anything lying around. Apparently the officials here take a quick liking to items like watches, sunglasses and just pocket whatever takes their fancy! 

When the 4 officials arrived and boarded the boat, they were friendly enough, although their English was very limited. Sure enough, cokes were in order. I had a large plate of cookies but they were 'cookied' out from the other boats they had checked in before us, and it was lunchtime. The best I could throw together was cheese and crackers. However the 'laughing cow' cheese from the Marquesas was a huge hit as they had not seen anything like that before.

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Life in the Village

Tonga Niuatop road.jpg (23621 bytes)The next step in the process was to walk to the third village about 4 km away to pay our customs and health fees. We walked down a hot dusty road, past meager houses that were little more than grass huts, through the first village and past the second, the whole way being accosted by the village children.

Yachties are popular and the sight of a palangi (the term they give white folk) sends the children into paroxysms of excitement. The standard questions of "What's your name?" "Where are you from," "How old are you" is ALWAYS accompanied by "Where's my lolly?" In the beginning, a pose for a picture rewarded them with candy, but I soon realized that they love having their pictures taken and were just as happy with a pencil or pen.

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There are no restaurants, bars or any other kind of commercial entertainment destination on the island. There was an airport but it has been unused wince the King decided to start an airline of his own and put Tongan Air out of business. A supply ship comes to Niuatoputapu a couple of times a year.

We stopped at the local bakery (which was usually out of flour) where Daphne  (Resolute) let us sample some buns they had just bought.

The Local Baker

Tonga Niuatop bakery.jpg (19937 bytes)I bought a loaf of bread from the baker cooking in a cinderblock oven in the tiny hot dark space. When I asked the price, he seemed unable to answer so I held out a handful of change. He counted it all out and nodded his head. (The next time I made a purchase, I handed him 2 Tongan Pa'anga and he gave me my change in buns!)

Village School

The school uniforms were very unusual. The boys wear a wrap around their lava lavas and the girls wear a woven Kia kia over their skirts. And all the girls have braids with bright red ribbons. I befriended some schoolgirls who were happy to show off their outfits for the camera.

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Niuto Springs

We decided to check out Niutoa spring which we heard was a great fresh water pool with 'friendly fish.' Some local boys took us to the pool and told us that although people swim in the crystal clear water, it is not fit to drink. We had a fun time with the kids hamming it up for pics.

When we stopped at the local hospital to pay our fees, we had an interesting time with the practicing doctor there. He was a very young man from Fiji, who was working on his internship for 3 years in Tonga. He spoke excellent English and explained all the difficulties he was encountering taking on the position. 

The hospital was pretty barebones, with wires hanging from the ceiling where there was once light fixtures. Because they do not have a powerful enough generator, there is no refrigeration. There is a severe shortage of qualified personnel to attend the hospital and very often cruisers are called upon to help out. Rick on Emerald spent some time doing dental work the week before, and Catherine on Outer Limits was helping out with her nursing skills when we were there. Cruisers also donated drugs, first aid supplies and books to the hospital. 

The most common aliment is diabetes, which affects 40% of the population as a result of diet and lifestyle. It is no wonder when the Tongans have such an appetite for sweets, candies, chocolate and cake.

Walking back through the middle village, a woman offered us some ripe bananas. We followed her back to her house where we started up a conversation and before we knew it, she had invited us to Sunday dinner. Her name was Fahea and she worked at the school. Predictably, when I asked what I could bring to the meal, she suggested cake, as her grandfather loves cake.  Unfortunately, we may not be able to stay here long enough to take advantage of her invitation.

TONGA - Land of Pigs and Churches
It was evident that Tonga really is the land of pigs and churches. Definitely more pigs than lunch puppies roaming around (taste preference?). The denomination is primarily Roman Catholic, although there is Protestant and the presence of the Mormon sect also. Church bells ring every morning at 6 am and everyone attends church every day, with an additional mass once or twice a week.
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Along the road, we met Simon who was using his horse to collect the palm fronds that had been soaking in the sea and were to be used to weave mats. Simon is about 14 years old and befriended us quickly.

By the time we got back to the boat we were pretty tired from the long walk so sacked out with a movie.

Local Handicrafts

September 21
Today was the day that the local ladies were having a handicraft fair in the middle village. Bob & Becky had arrived that day on Stardust so Becky came with us on the hike to the middle village. It was quite a feat trying to locate the out of the way building that housed the crafts but finally some local children took us there. The crafts consisted of tapa and weavings and lots and lots of children (looking for lollies).

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My friends

Fresh Coconut Milk
On our way back to the wharf, we met up with Simon again who was heading into the bush with his machete. He offered to get us some coconut milk to drink and it wasn't long before he was shimmying up the palm tree and hacking down the coconuts. Then he just slid right down the trunk to the ground. The soles of his feet were about 3 inches thick and looked like hands. He chopped the ends from the coconuts and insisted that we each have one. It was a refreshing drink that lasted all the way back to the boat and then some. What was left over in the husks, we mixed with rum for a cocktail.

That evening Sia and her husband Niko (the couple who put on the potluck on the motu) came to supper on Endless. I made vegetable soup and Donna made lasagne. We had an extremely interesting evening talking everything from what's grown on the plantations to the King's role in the lives of the Tonga people.

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Hike Up the Mountain

September 22
We decided that a hike to the top of Niua's prominent ridge was in order. Donna, Marv, Bob and Becky, and ourselves headed down the road to where the trail began at the second village.

We found Simon's house and he willingly agreed to take us up the mountain. The path cuts through sometimes dense brush... you really have to know the way and Simon made the hike much more lively with his bits of information, his singing, and his teaching us some Tongan words (including the swearwords). The hike took us through plantations and jungle but proved quite difficult and very steep so Bob and Becky decided not to continue to the very top.

We were pretty tired and sweaty when we reached the summit but the views were spectacular. We continued through the brush to the other side of the ridge for another view and a trip to the small cave in the lava rock.

The steep walk down the mountain, sometimes sliding on our butts, didn't take too long. Simon took us to his village and we met some women in his family (who's names all started with the letter "L). They were sitting in their fale weaving mats and got a kick out of having their pictures taken.

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Women stripping leaves and weaving. Each mat takes a month to make.

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View of second village

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Weeping Rock
Then Simon took us to the weeping rock. It is a limestone rock in a quarry on the beach that you can suck fresh water out of. It was obvious that Simon wasn't too fond of the 'soapy' taste as he did not swallow the water but gave us a great demonstration, ending up with a snoot full of sand.

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It was time to head back to the boat so we bade Simon farewell giving him presents of fish hooks, T shirt and rice for his wonderful tour.

Tonga Niuatop 077.jpg (22958 bytes)Trading for Fruit

We stopped at Sia's house to trade for some fruit. She gave us papaya, mangos, breadfruit and bananas in exchange for a plastic basket, rice, flour, garlic, T-shirts and ziplock baggies.

That evening we were invited to attend a community dance that was held very close to the anchorage. We were enthusiastic in spirit but by the time 8 pm came, we were just too beat and settled for listening to the music from our boats. We have found that our bodies really know that 8 o'clock is our bedtime now and it is a struggle to stay awake past that time!

September 23
In Search of Humpbacks

Donna and Marv decided to take a hike up the neighbouring volcano island. We opted out for a day of snorkeling and whale watching.

We joined Bob & Becky (Stardust) in a trip across the reef in the dinghy in search of a closer look at the humpback whales. We were not disappointed as they were soon seen frolicking around the boat. It was an awesome sight to see them flipping their huge fins out of the water, spy hop at us, then their tails would stand straight up as they sounded, to reappear again close by. We were hoping that the whales would come close enough for us to jump in the water and snorkel with them, but they were a little too illusive. So we opted to snorkel for a while on the reef instead, listening to their magnificent sounds that resonated underwater.

Touring the Island

Later that afternoon, Leuti (the customs official) picked us up in his van to take us for a tour of the island in exchange for the opportunity to practice his English. It was interesting to see the numerous plantations inland and get a feel for their meagre subsistence lifestyle. And Leuti's English improved significantly in no time at all.

September 24
We had planned to leave at first light but the wind did not cooperate as it was blowing directly from where we wanted to go. So we will spend the day on the boat, getting ready to leave for the Vava'u Group, Tonga the following morning.