October 2000 : Tonga and Fiji



Bula from Perdika in Fiji!

But first Tonga. Our arrival in the Vava’u islands towards the end of last month was not particularly auspicious. The Vava’u group of islands forms the top third of Tonga. Formed from one gigantic block of limestone, tilting down to the south, we had heard they were extremely scenic with a myriad of picturesque tussocky islands, curious rock formations, reefs and anchorages – claimed as one of the yachting destinations of the world. However, for the first few days it poured with rain, creating a miserably dismal scene – not improved by the sight of pigs rooting around on the beaches! Furthermore, the large yacht charter company based there, whilst admittedly providing an excellent cruising guide to the area, has given all the anchorages numbers by which they have come generally to be known – which did nothing for their appeal to us. We spent our first week in Neiafu, the main town of Vava’u – really just a large village of 4,000 people. Having come through French Polynesia and then ‘New Zealand’ Polynesia, we now found ourselves in ‘third world’ Polynesia. Proud of being one of the exceptionally few non-European countries never to have been colonised, Tonga has however missed out on the material benefits of association with the ‘first world’ and appears poor and primitive by the standards of the rest of Polynesia. The huge anchorage contained a vast yachting community of about 70 yachts – many of them charter boats, but also large numbers of cruising boats – a conjunction of those who had come across the Pacific like us and were waiting for the right moment to head south to New Zealand, together with many more from New Zealand and Australia, using Tonga and Fiji as their ‘local’ cruising grounds. We felt that the town and the yachting community sat very uncomfortably alongside each other. The local population were the least westernised of any we had encountered in the Pacific – the majority wearing traditional ‘sulus’ – skirts for men, over which many wore also the ‘ta’ovala’ – a straw matting overskirt. The attitude towards the western visitors was if not unfriendly, certainly indifferent and sometimes surly. It would hardly be surprising for them to see the fleet of ‘rich western yachties’ as in invasion and we certainly felt some awkwardness.

One advantage for us in encountering this great fleet was that we managed to replace our lost dinghy, buying one second hand, together with outboard from another yacht - an unexpected stroke of luck, solving a difficult problem.

The sun came out at last and we ventured out to the surrounding islands to explore, and found a very different story - the area was all that had been claimed for it. Our first foray out of Neiafu was a trip with some diving friends. They dived and we snorkelled. The highlights were visits to two famous caves in the area – Mariner’s Cave has its entrance about 4 feet below sea level and so to enter you have to dive down and then swim underwater through a passage several yards long before surfacing inside the cave. A challenging and scary experience! The advice was to practice by driving under the keel of a yacht. We hadn’t done this, not expecting to have visited the cave that day. I have to admit, being incredibly buoyant, I would not have made it without being dragged through by one of the diving instructors. A fabulous experience nonetheless – the water dimly lit by a fissure in the rock above. The entrance to Swallows Cave is both above and below water level – we entered in the boat. The silvery lighting and shoals of tiny silvery fish are indescribably beautiful. We meant to go back, but never did. Our first anchorage at Nuku (Number 8!) was in brilliantly clear water off a gorgeous beach and little desert island offshore. We visited the nearby village and found the locals there far more friendly than those in town. Their English was not good - but 100% better than our Tongan! We were met with some curiosity, and have gradually realised that villages in Tonga are not public places. People wondered why we were there, and whether we wanted something. The idea of simply wanting to have a look was quite alien to them.

We moved finally to the island of Hunga, which involved quite a daring entrance through a narrow gap in the rocks into a central lagoon. At the village there we met William, the minister of one of the five churches – for a population of 300! Like the first village, there were no roads - homes appeared scattered around randomly. Central ‘avenues’ of grassy land gave a spacious, pastoral feel, but were unfortunately reduced to a muddy quagmire by the huge numbers of pigs rooting around everywhere. Pigs are a problem in Tonga! We attended William’s church service – which took place immediately after a kava drinking session in his house – joining the congregation setting crossed legged on pandanus woven mats. We felt embarrassingly under-dressed as we noted first the sombre black Victorian style frock coats worn by the ‘leaders’, and then the congregation – the women in bright flouncy dresses and posh hats, the men in traditional Sunday-best sulas and ta’ovalas. The service was entirely in Tongan interspersed with the best version we had yet heard of the extraordinary singing style of the Pacific islands – a spell-binding experience.

We now felt we were getting ‘into’ Tonga after a slow start, and were looking forward to visiting the middle group of islands – the Ha’apai group. Unfortunately at the time we were ready to go, we ran into a period of strong southerly winds – not much good for a southerly course. So, mindful of time pressing, we decided to head west instead, and make straight for Fiji. We found Tonga perplexing, certainly the least accessible country in the Pacific for us so far. Our time there was short, and raised more questions than answers. The governmental organisation of the country is apparently virtually feudal. The royal family seems quite high profile and to be a real presence in ordinary people’s lives. Religion is also obviously a hugely dominant influence. It has appeared a little ‘thin’ culturally – a society stagnating? Primitive and poverty stricken, but without any obvious drive towards improvement, and a population not particularly interested in the outside world.

The 460 mile passage to Fiji was probably our most challenging yet from the navigational point of view. After the first 200 miles or so, on entering Fijian waters the route becomes strewn with small islands, atolls and reefs. Stopping at any of these islands is forbidden until a yacht has formally cleared into Fiji at one of the official ports of entry all to the west. The dangers of this passage had been emphasised forcefully to us a couple of days before we left Tonga, when another yacht making the same passage went aground on a reef. We happened to be the only boat to hear their distress call on the radio, and subsequently the only boat able to hear all sides of the radio communications attempting to co-ordinate a rescue. We spent a morning relaying back and forth between that vessel and everyone else involved. It was a salutory experience. The insurance agent was extraordinarily unhelpful. The salvage company wanted $60,000 to attempt the salvage claiming it would take them 15 hours to arrive at the incident - a mere 50 miles away - obviously not interested. We stood by in horrified fascination as the situation became more hopeless, learning if nothing else, not to get into such trouble over a weekend, since no one in authority could be reached, leaving the unfortunate skipper on his own, faced with decisions with who knows what potential legal and financial ramifications. At least the crew were never in any danger, and very efficiently rescued by the Fijian navy. The boat was a total loss.

Our passage was made in strong winds and boisterous seas in a very fast time averaging six knots for the whole passage of just over three days. We gave Mambulithi Reef an offing of a good five miles, making sure we passed that and the other main dangers in daylight . The timing of our landfall was not so good. We arrived five miles off Suva – a major port protected by a barrier reef, just as darkness had fallen, in a squall, to experience a nasty near collision with a small freighter. Coming straight at us, he made no response to our VHF call and our collision flare failed to go off. It was impossible to interpret his intentions and we missed by about 200 yards, doubting he even saw us. This was the third near collision we have experienced on our travels, and we remain very perplexed as to how to handle Rule 17(b) of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea : "When, from any cause, the vessel required to keep her course and speed finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel along, she shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision."

This was the first vessel we had sighted at sea for about 2,000 miles of empty ocean – a collision would have been somewhat ironic!

Feeling shaken, we approached the reef passage into Suva Harbour in a steady downpour, which considerably reduced visibility. The leading lights were said to be visible for 19 miles – but not on that night. We returned to our waypoint three times trying to locate them. Eventually we spoke by VHF to a yacht in the harbour who gave us a waypoint inside the harbour which he had used himself, giving us a course to steer through the reef passage. Close quarters navigation by GPS goes entirely against the grain and we felt extremely wary about driving the boat straight towards a reef we could not see. On the other hand, we were also anxious about the prospect of staying outside a busy port in poor visibility with the prospect of encountering other shipping. However, just as we were considering giving up the attempt to enter, the leading lights emerged out of the gloom and we thought we were home and dry. Not quite! As we proceeded through the channel, we were called up by a pilot vessel with the information that a container ship was about to leave harbour, and suggesting we retraced our steps! Not likely - we pushed on at full speed instead. The pilot boat came hurtling up to us shouting that we should head for "that" light, pointing to the thousand twinkling lights of Suva! We have never been so glad to get the anchor down. I was so exhausted I fell asleep holding my mug of coffee – the final straw!

We had left Tonga with a potential engine problem, anticipating that Suva would have far superior facilities for sorting out any problem than anywhere in Tonga. This happily turned out to be the case, with hundreds of interesting little businesses offering all sorts of engineering services in the port area. Chris spent some days working at various problems – as one seemed solved, another would arise and it was a tiresome time.

Despite the dramas and traumas, we have been having a great time in Fiji. We had been anxious about coming here since hearing news of the coup in May, but as Chris has a friend living here, we felt it would be worth the effort. We were very glad we did. Fiji is by far the most substantial country we have visited in the Pacific. It is comprised of 300 islands, with a population of nearly 800,000 - compared to only 100,000 in Tonga, and just 16,500 in the Cook Islands. We found the city of Suva – the largest we have visited in the Pacific, twice the size of Papeete – bustling and dynamic in comparison to anywhere in Polynesia. However, we were told that since the coup, it is a shadow of its former self, as economic activity has fallen dramatically. Virtually all the businesses are Indian owned. Superficially at least, there appears no obvious tension between the indigenous Fijians and the Indians, although they seem perhaps to live alongside each other rather than together. The country is still in some political turmoil following the coup. Given the opportunity of its prime economic position in this part of the world, it seems a disasterous waste for it to be so intent on self-destruction. The native Fijians in particular seem unrepetent and blissfully unaware of the damage done to the country’s image – crucial both for tourism and business generally.

We have been very lucky in having friends – Frazer, Fane and kids - here in Suva who have not only wined and dined us, done our washing and generally made us very welcome, but also given us a unique local insight into the political goings on here.

We decided – for the first time on these travels – to take a land trip in Fiji. It was a little worrying to leave Perdika at anchor on her own – but there were friends around, so we felt all would be well. Travelling by bus, we headed off northeast around the coast of Viti Levu – Fiji’s main island – and then by ferry to the smaller island of Ovalau. We spent a couple of nights in the small town of Levuka, once the capital of Fiji. This was a fascinating remnant of the colonial past although now sadly run down. Next back to the mainland and on north, through several army checkpoints, into sugar cane country. Sugar and tourism create Fiji’s main income. It was harvest time and the fields were alive with cutters – all the cutting is done by hand – and the roads busy with lorries piled high with canes en route to the mills. This part of the island is very beautiful – low hills with gentle slopes for the sugar cane, interspersed with interesting little rugged outcrops – altogether very pastoral. We stopped briefly in the Indian dominated northern town of Ba before going on to spend a couple of nights at the traditional Fijian village of Navala which we had picked out of our guidebook as being especially picturesque. We were not disappointed. Most village housing in Fiji is now made of wood, concrete or corrugated iron, with only a few traditional ‘bures’ left - bures being traditional Fijian homes made of thatch and bamboo cladding. We stayed at a small guesthouse just outside – a western style bungalow, without electricity - atmospherically lit by hurricane lamps. Arriving in the early evening, we were welcomed initially with a cup of tea and sandwiches, and then formally by the ‘Sevusevu’ ceremony. We had presented our gift of a kava root ‘bouquet’ – as expected on arrival. We sat on the floor and watched as the ground roots placed in the kava bowl were pounded into a paste with water by a huge ‘pestle’ and then water gradually added, before being strained through a swatch of raffia-like bark strips. Each person is given a bowlful in turn and must clap once while the server claps three times. Before drinking it down – preferably in one gulp – you say ‘bula’ and on finishing everyone claps. The taste is absolutely disgusting – like muddy wood - leaving a mildly anaesthetic feeling in the mouth – but no other obvious effect. The drinking of kava is a hugely important part of life here – though it is hard to understand why. The following morning, our host Seresio, a cousin of the chief, showed us around the village, introducing us to various friends – which involved us in several more kava drinking sessions! Lovely! The village was as picturesque and fascinating as we could have hoped for. Seresio was a thoughtful and interesting guide – explaining that the chief had decreed that only traditional houses should be permitted in the village – partly at least because of the bonding effect of the building of the ‘bures’, which is always a community effort.

We also had a taste of Indian life. The festival of Diwali was celebrated while we were in Suva and a young Indian panel beater working at one of the businesses Chris discovered in his engineering activities, very kindly invited to lunch at home with his family. This was a delightful and interesting experience with some delicious traditional Indian sweetmeats and curries. The family – we suspect like many other Indians – applied for emigration to New Zealand after the coup and are now awaiting the result.

Our final adventure in Fiji did not turn out quite as expected. We had agreed, while in Navala, to take Bulou – our hostess there, to the island she came from. Kandavu is a large island on the Great Astrolabe Reef about 50 miles south of Suva. It seemed a good idea at the time – she was very excited at the prospect of travelling to her home village by yacht, and we thought we would get more than the usual touristic insight into the place. We had a spectacularly good sail down to Kandavu – a boisterous beam reach averaging 7 knots for the whole 50 miles. Unfortunately it was a bit much for our passenger who was seasick, though stoic, nearly all the way. It transpired on arrival off the island that her village was a totally unsuitable anchorage, with a strong onshore wind, and so we had to divert a few miles along the coast to a safe bay. Although we had warned her of this possibility, she did not seem very happy about the situation, and abandoned us to socialise in the village there where she seemed to have friends and relatives. She reappeared the next morning, by which time we had decided that the next place she had asked us to take her to - a complicated reef passage to the south side of the island - was too far away for us, and so we parted company – not an entirely satisfactory experience on either side. We then set off exploring the islands of the Great Astrolabe Reef northwards. This turned out to be a glorious area of idyllic beaches and villages and testing navigation. We anchored off one picturesque village and presented our ‘sevusevu’ to the Chief as Fijian custom demands. This was accepted, but we were disappointed that the villagers seemed more interested in what they could get out of us – fishing equipment, fuel, Chris’ engineering skills – than offering any hospitality. While on this cruise, we heard news of new events in Suva – an army mutiny in which several people were killed. An all day curfew had imposed the following day in Suva, and we were thankful not to have been there at the time, with armed rebels on the loose.

We have mixed feelings about Fiji - reflecting mixed experiences. We loved the dynamism of Suva, even though apparently muted since the coup. For us the racial mix of Fiji creates a richly diverse cultural atmosphere. The country, so substantial in comparison to all the tiny Pacific islands we have visited, and with its rich agricultural and industrial potential should be a sure-fire success. Politically the country is clearly in a dangerously chaotic state – it is unlikely that the rebellion a few days ago is the last action we will hear of. The army is in disarray – were this not the case a military take over would seem the most likely scenario. The people have seemed exceptionally friendly and curious – at a superficial level - though at a personal level more disappointing. They have seemed interested in us mainly for what they could get, and to lack gratitude or generosity. Their loudly professed Christianity and strongly held traditions seem to amount to little more than empty ritual. Perhaps it is just that ‘yachties’ are not ‘real’ people to them.

We are now back in Suva which seems quiet again, although there is still a night-time curfew and schools are closed. We are busy with final preparations for the passage down to New Zealand - keen to get going, but at the moment there is no wind!