One week in Nuku’alofa, meeting up with Bandit and memories of Narlee


Monday 6 October 2014

After having spent two weeks sailing in the most idyllic islands of the Ha’apai, Susie and I headed south to the final group of Tongan islands called Tongatapu which includes the country’s capital, Nuku’alofa. It’s taken us some weeks to get our heads around the Tongan names and how to pronounce them. The people who run the yacht radio nets we log into daily have a real tough old time as sailors announce all sorts of names as they anchor in the many islands of Tonga.

Tau Island - picture perfect

Tau Island – picture perfect

Expectations were a little low as we’d read many articles saying Nuku’alofa was dirty, full of burnt out buildings, unfriendly, the harbour had rats and so on. In fact I started questioning why we were going there at all but we think it’s important to make your own impressions and see a country warts and all! After a smooth seven hour crossing between the island groups and managing not to bump into any humpback whales, we anchored off the tiny island of Tau. With it being only 15 miles from the capital I’d expected to be sharing it but no, here was another picture perfect island and we had it all to ourselves. Sundowners are a tad special when you look out at palm trees and white beaches on the one side of the boat and on the other side whales are putting on a show, playing, flapping their tails on the water, breaching. So we spent a weekend of walking the beach, snorkelling and taking in the sun before we knew our ‘holiday’ would be over and we’d hit the city and get back to work on Adina, getting her ready for the crossing to Fiji.

Sunrise Pangaimotu Island

Sunrise Pangaimotu Island

Having been told the harbour was ‘rat-infested’, we anchored off an island close by called Pangaimotu, location of a yacht club with the grand name of Big Mama’s Yacht Club. Places in Tonga are called yacht clubs but truth be told they are watering holes for sailors. Come to think of it, isn’t that what all sailing clubs are? And cricket clubs and rugby clubs? Maybe not knitting clubs but I wouldn’t know. We strolled in and it was all a cruising sailor wanted. Floors with beach sand, flags everywhere, coconuts which past sailors had written on, good beer, good food, sunshine. And Big Mama Ana was the real deal! Maybe Nuku’alofa wasn’t so bad. And the whole area even has fibre optic cable boosting 3G+ capabilities so we could catch up on world news, social media and get some weather forecasts. Actually it was the best internet we’ve seen since leaving Europe.

Whales enjoying flapping their tails on the surface of the water

Whales enjoying flapping their tails on the surface of the water

The next morning we headed in to see this allegedly awful place, Nuku’alofa. We found new buildings, a fabulous fresh fruit and vegetable market, good coffee shops, modern shops and so on. Somebody is either spreading stories to keep sailors in the north or Nuku’alofa has undergone a bit of a facelift.

Back in the Ha’aipai islands we’d met David Hunt who had promised to show us around. David has lived in Tonga for more years than he cares to remember and we took to him immediately. He runs, amongst many, many other things, a super yacht agency and was a busy man, but true to his word he took a day off to show us Nuku’alofa. Well, we had to make a stop in the vegetable market to get some lettuce to be flown to a super yacht in Vava’u in the north who didn’t like the lettuce in the market there. Hang on, I miss Lea & Perrins Worcester sauce – think I’ll make a quick phone call.

We enjoyed seeing some of the sights of Tonga but truth be told we just loved all the stories David regaled us with. He’d built a resort with the King, owned a charter boat, owned land, had an electricity box for boats, was working with men putting in poles in the street – he was the real deal. And in the evening he introduced us to people so we got a good flavour of what it was like to live there and we were a little tempted.

Bandit were big fans of the Ha'apai islands too

Bandit were big fans of the Ha’apai islands too

Back to the boat in the dark and we noted someone had anchored next to us, thought nothing of it and went to bed. Waking up in the morning we were delighted to see it was friends David and Brenda on their yacht Bandit. Seasoned sailors, they had been sailing for well over eight years and were about to embark on their final leg back home to New Zealand. What we like about David and Brenda is not only are they wonderful company but will happily help you and you can learn so much from people like them. So we did what cruisers do and hosted each other for dinners, breakfast, coffees etc. In many ways, it’s sad as we realise our so called ‘moving village’ is slowing breaking up as cyclone season approaches and people branch off to various countries to sit it out. You live in fear of not seeing these people again but David and Brenda love travel and agreements have been made to meet up again.

The most interesting refuel we've ever done!

The most interesting refuel we’ve ever done!

With departure day arriving we headed into the harbour to check out and pick up duty free fuel. It was ceremoniously dumped in two large drums on the wharf and we were left to get it into Adina. With help from our local friend David we got a large hose, but the pump didn’t last long. To the rescue, seasoned sailors Bandit had the brain wave of using our dinghy pump to pressurise the fuel drum through the hose and the fuel slowly made its way into Adina’s thirsty tanks. A final farewell dinner with Bandit and we weaved out of Tonga, setting course for Fiji.

I had decided to dedicate the sail to the memory of Narlee Clever who sadly passed away. I did my Scuba diving Divemaster course with Narlee way back in time in Cairns, Australia, when I was taking some time out. Narlee was a lot more responsible and was doing it to try and make a new life for herself. I’ll never forget meeting her. Four of us, all from England, including the instructor Chookie, in the classroom. John and Sauf were already friends and so it was clear Narlee and I would be divemaster buddies. “Aw right Tom, where are you from?” with a big beaming smile. “Errr…London”, “I know London, whereabouts?”, “Central”, “Come on, where?”, “Errr…Chelsea”, “Chelsea boy hey! Nice… I’m from Windsor! Well, a council flat in Wimbledon!” and reels off laughing.

Over time Narlee would regale me with stories that opened my eyes, in fact my eyeballs would often nearly pop out! But I loved her no matter how rubbish a divemaster buddy she could be. I lost count of the times I’d pitch up at the swimming pool to practise and Narlee wasn’t there. I’d find her in her flat, giggling away, I just couldn’t get upset. We had some theory exams to do and asking her how her studies were going, she pulled me aside and confided she couldn’t do maths. I was stunned, heart broken and actually angry all in one. How does this happen in modern England? So we sat down and did mathematics. Good girl, she passed.

Doing our practical exams were just pure entertainment. We had to do one exercise meant to demonstrate how you handle stress and you had to swap diving kit with each other underwater in the pool. John and Sauf, well-practised, pulled it off. Narlee and I winged a quick practise. Come the real thing it was a shambles; things were dropped, kit was on the wrong way but it was so funny, tears were rolling in all of our eyes. We did it again and passed.

In one test we had to demonstrate assembling dive kit onto a scuba cylinder. Narlee and I, side-by-side facing our instructor/examiner Chookie. For the divemaster exam you just had to demonstrate kitting up but you were encouraged to do it like an instructor and talk through what you are doing. Old clever clogs here decided to talk it through. Off we went, Narlee choosing not to talk. There was a slight delay between us as I got a little ahead but we did exactly the same things, Narlee looking sideways at me from time to time. In my head a slight fear started that Narlee could just possibly be copying me. Come the end of the test, Chookie turns to Narlee and says “Now Narlee, you didn’t simply do what Tom was saying and copy him, did you?” Priceless, Narlee just looks up sheepishly, smiles and says “Yes!” I laughed so many times with her. Narlee went on to achieve her PADI Scuba Diving Instructor qualification and I shan’t forget the joy many people had on that proud day. She was one lovely big hearted girl with the biggest laugh and I’m so sad I only saw her once more in London. I do know she would have loved the sail to Fiji.

Sunset, Tonga

Sunset, Tonga

We went through every point of sail, it rained, it got seriously hot and best of all we had the spinnaker up. So now we are in Fiji and loving it already. Just like good old Narlee, the people are friendly and outgoing. I think we are going to like it here. We have around five weeks here before heading off to Vanuatu.

David, thank you for sharing Nuku’alofa and how you love Tonga with us. David and Brenda, bon voyage our good friends, safe travels, we’ll be following your progress and we shall most certainly meet again. Narlee you shine bright in heaven special lady.


Narlee Cleaver, much missed, always remembered





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3 responses to “One week in Nuku’alofa, meeting up with Bandit and memories of Narlee

  1. Mike says:

    Lovely story Tom. Narlee sounded like a really good sort! A laugh and a lovable larrican! I hope she rests in peace.

  2. John Wheeler says:

    Nuku’alofa has obviously had a facelift. In 2003 when we were there it wasn’t anything more than an ugly place to wait for a weather window. We followed the 2006 riots and heard as much as 80% of it was burned to the ground. It would appear that rebuilding was spectacular! Glad to hear it. We loved Tonga, especially the people. We were able to get a good supply of school books sent from the US to Ha’apei, thanks to the generosity of schools and the US Post Office.
    In Fiji don’t miss Beqa (pronounced Benga) lagoon, south of the main island, next to Astrolabe reefs. We were there probably 2 weeks. Tamo was chosen by the chief to be our guide and she, along with her grandson was fabulous. We couldn’t get a permit to the Lau Group because of religious holidays, but heard that was a great place to visit.
    Keep enjoying the South Pacific!

  3. Rob says:

    Thanks for the post Tom. I had the pleasure of meeting Narlee a few times and she was a lovely woman – I didn’t know her that well but I do remember that her PADI certificate was proudly on display in her flat. I was so sad to hear of her passing – definitely someone I’ll never forget. RIP xxx