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Ha’apai Group, Tonga

We left Mounu in the wee morning hours to head to Lifuka in the Ha’apai Group of islands here in Tonga. We arrived late in the afternoon under the cover of clouds and mist. It’s not the ideal way to enter a new anchorage but we did get just enough light to be able to see the bommies under the surface.

The following morning we headed to shore to do our official check in with the authorities. In Tonga you must check in with each island group even though you’ve officially checked into the country at your first port of call.

Once on shore we start to seek out the appropriate office for checking in. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge. One person says “go here” and another says “go there”. Ironically enough we stopped at the police station and were told to go to the building next door. When we got there they told us the office had moved. How is it that on an island of less than 3000 people the police don’t know where the immigration office is located??? Well, it turns out that the office had just moved to their new location the day before so I guess we’ll give the officer a break.

The key to handling the difficulties you experience in these third world countries is patience. We obviously wanted to get our check in done expeditiously but we also got a great tour of the village as we walked from place to place so we just tried to enjoy the adventure. Once we found the office we checked in and out at the same time. We didn’t plan to spend any time here in Lifuka as we are trying to work our way south to Nuku’alofa to prepare for our jump to New Zealand.

After checking in it was time to find some grub. The sweet young man who checked us in needed to make a copy of our paperwork and since the office was not yet set up with a copy machine he had to go back to the other city offices. He offered to drive us there and then to wherever we wanted to go. Once the copy was made he dropped us off at a restaurant we’d heard of from the cruiser guides. We went to the Mariner’s Cafe.

As with most of the little restaurants in the islands it’s not much to look at but it certainly has character. We sat at a table near the street and chatted for a bit. Across from us sat two Tongan men wearing their traditional Tongan garb that includes the taʻovala (woven mat that is worn around the waist). Before long we had struck up a conversation with them.

Davita and Kenny work for the Tongan Commission. Once they learned Dan was a retired officer we started a rather lengthy discussion. They talked of the problems Tongans face with drugs and crime. Yep…even in remote islands such as this drugs are a problem. ICE, methamphetamines, is their biggest issue. Apparently in the outer islands such as this one it’s not too bad but on the “big island” of Tongatapu it’s becoming a huge problem. How does this become a problem all the way out here??? The Internet! Since the internet has hit the islands the kids learn of all the things they don’t have but want. How can they get money to buy these kinds of things? Selling drugs. How to they learn the “recipe” to make crystal meth? The internet. It’s just unbelievable. And, the worst of it is that there are few jobs in these islands so the kids are sitting there with nothing to do so they form small gangs. It’s really very sad. It reminds me of an old saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Anyway, we had a wonderful conversation with Kenny & Davita. They gave us a gentle warning to be sure we keep everything locked up tightly in Nuku’Alofa as things disappear rather quickly there. We told them our plan is only to check out of the country, pick up some supplies and top off fuel so we won’t be there long.

After they left we struck up a conversation with Tonu. His wife who is from Poland, owns the café. Their young son was there as well. He was another very interesting person to talk with about the area. He had a slightly different take on things but then he may have just been trying to downplay the criminal side because their business caters to tourists and cruisers.

The following morning we headed back to shore for some quick provisioning before setting off to the next anchorage. There was a Tongan Navy ship in the harbor. They were pretty laid back and very friendly even allowing me to snap a couple of pics.

A typical store in the islands.

We made our way through town from store to store as always. You can never find one store that has everything you need. It’s like hunting and gathering in the islands. Once we had everything we wanted we headed back to the boat and hauled anchor.

We motored for just about an hour and anchored down at Uoleva Island. John & Lynn of SV Danika were there and Dan knew John from Mexico. John left there a couple of years ago and has stayed in the South Pacific. On the way we saw three or four humpback whales playing. That is always such a treat.

The anchorage here is truly beautiful and there’s actually a real sand beach…not crushed coral! That’s something to find down here as most beaches are not really sand. You actually can sink up to your mid calf in this soft, squishy sand. It’s quite a bit of exercise just getting from the shore up the beach.

We only stayed here for two nights. The first evening we had dinner on shore at the Sea Change Eco Resort with Lynn & John. The food was excellent but the resort is rather odd, at least to us. It’s an eco-friendly resort. Everything is solar powered and there is no indoor plumbing. It’s like high dollar camping. Sailing is more my idea of high dollar camping! LOL! It’s definitely not the type of resort I want to pay to visit but I guess if you’re into that kind of thing this is supposed to be one of the nicest.

While we were there I had to go to the little girl’s room. Becky, our server, led me there. It’s a grass hut about 50 or 60 feet behind the restaurant. You walk down a pitch black path and all you can see is the light in the hut. Once you go in you realize you have been transported back in time. It’s a composting toilet that is seated upon a raised concrete slab just like a royal thrown. HA HA . It is two tall steps to get to the toilet. I’m not sure why but when you open the lid there is a funnel in the front section of the bowl. Honestly, I had to go so bad I could have cared less. It smelled a little but you know…when you gotta go, you gotta go. To wash your hands there is a small bottle of soap and a hanging shower bag filled with water. Yep…this was different. When we got home I told Dan I don’t ever want to stay at an Eco Friendly Resort. He assured me that will never happen! LOL

One thing that is quite disturbing for us is the way the whale watching boats get so close to these animals. In Tonga, in particular, they sell these “swim with the whales” packages for tourists. In order to get the swimmer close to the whales they zoom up really close and then drop in the swimmer. What’s even further disturbing is the fact that the Sea Change Resort goes to great lengths to sell the fact that they have virtually zero carbon footprint and are all about the environment yet they have one of the largest swim with the whales businesses. So I guess if you are eco-friendly it’s okay to molest the whales? Yeah, this is not something that sits real well with us. Had we known this we likely would not have had dinner there.

We spent two days at this little island and then decided it was time to move on. I think we’re both getting a bit antsy about getting to New Zealand. And the passage there is not for wimps. We’ve heard it can be a bit rough if you don’t get the window just right so we really want to get to Nuku’alofa and get provisioned up and ready to take the best weather window.

We really wanted to see more of the Ha’apia Group but as usual Mother Nature had her own plans. It appeared that the best time to head towards the Tongatapu Group was about to be upon us so we decided we better reevaluate our plans. Dan began studying the weather and reviewing the charts as I prepared the cabin for our next passage.

Until next time…

Jilly & Dan

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The Rock

The tiny island nation of Niue is a large upraised coral atoll commonly referred to as “The Rock”. With a total land mass of just over 100 square miles and a population of around 1600 people you wouldn’t expect much to be here and you’d be right. There’s a handful of restaurants and shops, one large supermarket and just one petrol station in the entire country. But, what it lacks in some areas it more than makes up for with its stunning scenery and super friendly people. It’s like being in small town USA where everyone waves at everyone and will help you with whatever you need.

They even have a Code of Conduct list for visitors to let you know what they expect while you are visiting their country. Our personal favorite on the list is #3. Too often in our travels we run across people who complain that things are not the same as in their home country. Well, if you don’t like it don’t travel. The whole point of traveling is to experience new and different people and cultures. At least that’s why we do it.

Another successful dinghy lift at the wharf.

One interesting thing about Niue is that because it’s a huge coral rock there are no beaches where you can beach your dink. Instead they have a self-service lift where you actually lift your dink up on the wharf and park it like a car. This was certainly interesting. At first it didn’t seem like such a big deal. Dan fashioned a lifting bridle and we were ready to go.

Well let me tell you this. It was not as easy as it would first appear. No, the issue wasn’t using the lift itself. It was the swell that came crashing into the reef and the wharf. If we were doing this at high tide the stairs were under water and the swell was bouncing us up and down like we were in a bounce house. Oh no, this was not for the faint at heart by any stretch. The good thing is the concrete steps had a metal grate attached so that they weren’t so slippery but still it was treacherous at best. And, no one wanted to fall in the water as we’d seen several large sharks swimming around the wharf. Fortunately we didn’t take a dip in the drink but we did hear of other cruisers who did. Of course if you came in or left during low tide it was pretty easy so after our first trip in at high tide we timed our arrival and departure at the wharf for low tide. And, we never went to town or left town after dark. No one wanted to try this at night.

We read in the compendiums and other travel guides that there is a fee for the mooring balls in the anchorage. They were particularly well kept and since the seabed here is mostly coral, using a mooring was definitely the best option. We understood that the fee gets paid to the Niue Yacht Club. Now this is where it gets interesting. Apparently a year or so ago the formal office for NYC was closed. We even had one cruiser radio us and tells us this and said because of that you don’t have to pay for the mooring. Given the great condition of these moorings we were pretty sure he was wrong and yes, he was wrong. Right on the main road in front of the wharf there is a small plaza of sorts with several restaurants and shops. There, as plain as the nose on your face, is a banner that reads, “Niue Yacht Club”. Hmmm….I guess this cruiser was either too cheap to pay or just couldn’t read the sign. Anyway, the banner was standing right outside of Gill’s Indian Restaurant so we decided to go in and inquire. Just as we expected there is still a fee for the mooring. You sign in with Harry, the owner of the restaurant. You pay for the morning when you leave but if you want a key to the showers at the wharf then you give him $5 NZD (New Zealand Dollars) and he sends you down the street to the tourism office where they give you a key. The rate for the mooring was $20 NZD per day and was well worth it. 

Since they don’t have buses or other public transportation we rented a car for the week we stayed in Niue. This allowed us to travel around the island and explore. In order to rent a car in Niue you actually have to get a Niue Driver’s License. It’s not really a big deal and it’s more of a keepsake than anything else. You go to the police station and pay a fee. They take your picture and pop out a license. Of course with Dan’s background he always likes to chat with his fellow brothers and sisters in law enforcement. The young man that we met that day was very nice and Dan asked if we could bring back a CHP patch to trade with him. He agreed so several days later we returned. The funny thing is that they didn’t have a spare Niue PD patch in the station so what did they do? They actually got out a pair of scissors and cut a patch off of an existing police uniform! It was awesome! Dan’s Niue patch still has the blue edge of the shirt on it. 

A funny side note here is that in Niue they have a very tiny jail located outside of town near the grocery store and golf course. Yes, they actually have a golf course on this tiny island. Anyway, we heard a rumor that the jail currently has one prisoner and get this, they let him play golf every day! When we went to the station to exchange patches I asked about this and the officer confirmed it.  I decided if I ever have to go to jail this is where I want to be. 

One of the highlights of our trip to Niue was meeting Rupina of the Kololi Motel. She’s a friend of our Kiwi friends, Sean & Donna. They told us we just had to look her up. Rupina is an absolute sweetheart! She even allowed us to do laundry at her hotel and when we weren’t back before it started to rain she took it all off the line and threw it in her personal dryer at her house. And if that wasn’t enough she sent us away with a huge bag of fruits and vegetables and a pareo for Jilly. Yes, she’s amazing so if you’re ever in Niue and need a place to stay don’t look anywhere else. Go to the Kololi Motel!

At the Hikulagi Sculpture Park. It’s a living sculpture garden where people add to the sculptures and everything is made of things that would normally be sent to the dump.

Much to our delight our dear friends Lutz and Gabi of SV SuAn arrived in Niue a day after we did. It’s aways such a nice thing to meet up with friends along the way. The four of us spent a great deal of time together. Since we had a car we explored the island, found great lunch spots and just generally played tourists. By the way, if you like a good fish and chips then this is THE place to get it. It’s the only thing I ate when we ate out. Here they make it with fresh caught Wahoo and let me tell you, it was AMAZING!!! Haven’t had better even in the UK.

They have these things called Sea Tracks. Sea Tracks are paths that lead to interesting spots on the island. Some take you on beautiful hikes through the woods and others are sandy paths that lead to the beach. All of them lead to something worthwhile to see. Perhaps my favorite spot was the Limu Pools. What a beautiful place to view the ocean. 

One afternoon while sitting in the cockpit I looked out and saw a mama humpback whale with her calf playing in the anchorage about a quarter of a mile from Dazzler. Niue is known to be a spot with lots of humpback whale activity and we had seen some in the distance a few days earlier but this was a real treat. I made a cocktail and sat in the cockpit for almost three hours just watching the two of them. It was a fabulous show and it was one of the highlights of our stay here. 

We spent a week in Niue and it is definitely one of our favorite spots in the South Pacific. Like I said in the beginning, there’s not a lot here in the way of restaurants and shops but the landscape is simply spectacular and the people are too!

Until next time,

Jilly & Dan

We put together a short video so you can see more of this amazing place. Click on the photo below to be taken to our YouTube Channel where you can watch “The Rock” as well as other videos from our travels.