After nearly two weeks in the company of fellow sailors in the northern islands of Vava’u, Tonga, it was time for Adina to head off and explore the middle group of Tongan islands known as the Ha’aipa islands. We’d added these to our itinerary a long time back when another boat we know had written to us waxing lyrical about them. We’d also read ‘Ken’s Comprehensive Cruising Guide for The Kingdom of Tonga’ in which he scratches his head at why people skip them and vows they should not be missed. Yes, they come with a health warning of lots of reefs for which you need good eyeball navigation to avoid, they are low lying islands and so you need to pick your anchorage carefully in strong winds, and yes, you even need to watch out for whales. But Adina has done some miles now, we’re all too aware of keeping a good look out and by gum we love a bit of off the beaten track!
9pm at night we set off, an overnight sail given we needed to arrive in daylight with the sun overhead to pick out the many reefs surrounding the island of Pangai where we needed to check-in with the authorities. A full moon lit up the sky and helped us slowly pick our way out of the islands of Vava’u. A quick sail, we applied the brakes come dawn as we waited for the rising sun to get to a position where we could easily see our way in.
Adina now has some wooden steps built in the shrouds to help us get a higher view to see any dangers lurking in the water. Most of the reefs are easily spotted some way off as you can see small breaking waves on them; it’s the hidden coral heads (so-called “bommies”) that glow green and yellow in the water that you need to keep a good look out for. A few lefts and rights and we anchored, got the dinghy out, and zoomed off to the town. Pangai was hit by a cyclone in February this year and is still showing the effects with a lot of buildings still left wrecked. Customs and Immigration closed despite listings that they would be open, we had a bite to eat, took advice that we don’t really have to bother with check-in and finding no reason to stay upped anchor to move 5 miles south to Uoleva Island. The first of many beautiful islands; a long swooping bay lined with a perfect white beach backed by palm trees, we were intent on staying a few days to enjoy it.
Heading to the middle of the bay we found ‘Uoleva Yacht Club’ run by Craig and Kristin. Nothing more than a kitchen, a few tents, some vegetables growing, laid back, a wooden bar in the sand and happy hour was rum or beer! Perfect. They were being visited by a good friend called David who not only runs a super yacht agency but was friends with the King and seemed to have investments all over Tonga. He promised to show us Nuku’alofa when we get south and also took our papers and got our check-in done. Nice.
Tongans are deeply religious and on Sundays everything but everything closes (not even planes fly). You are advised not to work on your boat so we took it to heart and did nothing other than cook pancakes for breakfast. In fact, the only effort for the day was to join Craig, Kristin and a now hungover David for a BBQ they were hosting. Those South Africans sure know how to do a BBQ (braai)!
Armed with more advice from Craig, it was with heavy hearts we left for our next island, Tofanga. Uninhabited, we thought we’d end up finding Robinsoe Crusoe lurking behind some palm trees. It was bliss. So started our routine for the next two weeks of swimming or taking the dinghy to the island, trying to circumnavigate it on foot, taking in the joy of walking in soft sand, snorkelling in crystal clear water and soaking up the sunshine. Tofanga is known for being a good place for collecting sea shells and Susie was soon scooping up some nice specimens.
Two nights and then time to move onwards. A quick stop on the island of Limu and with Adina bouncing overnight due to strong trade winds and not the best shelter we decided to head off to the next island of O’ua.
Anchored in a pool in the middle of reef protecting us from the sea on all sides, we sat comfortably. O’ua has a small village and we set off for a walk to investigate. We’ve found Tongans always to be polite and will wave but not many actively engage. It’s probably a language thing as those who could speak some English would bounce up and have a go – especially the younger ones. But we did get speaking to a couple who were fluent and they invited us for lunch the next day. We’d read Tongans consider it an honour to offer hospitality to visitors and we gladly accepted the kind invite. The next day we arrived to find Manase and Annie had put on a very generous spread. Their little daughter Ofa (meaning “love” in Tongan) was a real charmer and we’d brought her some colouring pencils and hairbands which she proceeded to parade around. Annie had seen some of the world and while we’re all used to airports, it was fascinating hearing her story of being in an international airport for the first time, scared out of her mind. We tried to reassure her that when not knowing the local language we’ve had similar struggles in local bus stations before! Filled to the brim, we left armed with gifts of coconuts, promising to attend church the next day where Manase was the minister.
Sunday we donned the best clothes we could, Tom wearing trousers for the first time since leaving London, and arrived back in the village. The tiny village had five churches and everyone was dressed in their finest, many wearing the traditional weaved skirt fronts. We tried to sneak in the back of the church but Annie shimmied us forward. Our guidebooks had informed us a church service in Tonga was a must do just to hear the singing. The men arrived wearing Tongan skirts and jackets and ties. Women were dressed at their very best, special outfits in glorious pinks, oranges and bright greens. And then the singing started. Talk about lifting the rafters off the roof! We were mesmerised – it was one of those moments you just wanted to last and last. The men would sing deep and low, the women voices spiralled up and then together they would meet halfway. Thank goodness it was all in Tongan for I fear we would have been banished from the island if we’d had to join in. A real joy. One hour later we offered our thanks, said our farewells and, armed with another gift of a watermelon, headed back to the boat.
The next day, another island by the name of Nomuka Iki – and there was another yacht anchored. What?! We had to share this piece of paradise! Never fear, they left the next day and off we set for a walk on another uninhabited island with palm trees, mangoes and more shells. Randomly there were even two cows! We’ve now obtained a spear gun and decided to head for the outer reef to try it out. Crystal clear water and some lovely big towering coral heads. But the big fish saw us coming and would swim off very quickly. Good practise but more work needed, we returned empty handed but still happy for a good walk and long swim. We were relaxing more and more, taking a break from boat work, Adina was behaving, and we had the most beautiful islands all to ourselves.
Off we went again, aiming for what in theory was the hardest island to get into, the island of Kelefesia. We had managed to see whales every day, just adding to that picture of perfection but when we sailed we were a little wary. We’d just unfurled the genoa and had the engine still on when a now familiar very large black back appeared on the surface no more than three boat lengths away. Genoa away fast, change course sharp. A little frightening. We waited for it to surface again before heading on knowing it was on a different course to us! I don’t recall covering ‘avoiding moving wild animals’ as part of the RYA Yachtmaster course.
Kelefesia is surrounded by reefs and what are known as blind rollers – these are waves you don’t see until they suddenly break. We had timed our arrival to get the sun overhead, could see the breakers on the reef at the entrance and went for it. Not that bad, we were quickly in and looking for a nice sandy spot to dig the anchor in. The coral heads were impressive towering up 10m. Looking around our anchorage nearly totally enclosed by reef we realised it wouldn’t be a good spot to be caught in strong winds as you wouldn’t be able to get out.
But never mind that, Kelefesia somehow managed to outdo all the other beautiful islands and go straight to the top of our favourite islands. Again uninhabited, we had it all to ourselves and immediately falling for it, Susie decided it was her island and she was now Queen of Kelefesia! It was slightly unique in that it had a limestone outcrop and looked like a mini-Gibraltar, but that’s where the comparison ended. Palm trees lining the beach, lush vegetation in the centre, snow-white beaches, turquoise clear water, blue skies, white tern birds flying around in pairs, quite frankly it was paradise found. Our circumnavigation of the island resulted in some wading and swimming as not all of it was surrounded by sand. We even managed to startle some baby black tip sharks swimming in the shallows. Kelefesia was our last island in the Ha’aipa and a fitting end to our trip.
The Ha’aipa islands are certainly remote but that’s a good thing as for now they remain unspoilt. The islands were the South Pacific paradise we had so desired but had feared in our modern world was now vanished. The truth is, we’ll probably never see such beautiful islands again but our memories are treasured memories, imprinted forever, days we will think back on. If you’re fond of footprints on soft silky white beaches, swimming in crystal clear blue waters, and soaking up the warmth of the midday sun while the seas break in the background, the Ha’aipa islands are our idea of living the dream.
Adina is now in the south of Tonga in the Tongatapu islands where we will stop for a week to check out the capital of Nuku’alofa, get some provisions, a little wifi and explore before heading off to Fiji. The South Pacific is delivering in bucket loads right now.