Tonga is a Polynesian kingdom of more than 170 South Pacific islands, many uninhabited, lined in porcelaine-white beaches and tropical coral reefs.
Zuzana has cruised, chartered and captained in most areas of the world. Here, she reports on her cruise around Tonga, where she is charmed by genial locals living a modest island life.
Ruben rowing in Tonga. Image credit: Zuzana Prochazka
Setting Sail In Tonga
Raymond, our charter base checkout manager in Tonga, kept looking behind me as if he was expecting the real captain to walk down the dock at any minute. When it finally dawned on him that this boat was going to be run by a woman, he was equal parts astounded and delighted.
Our Sunsail 440 (Leopard 44 catamaran) named Kepa had just been brought up from New Zealand and she looked raring to go explore the Kingdom of Tonga, which is made up of three island groups: Tongatapu with the main town of Nuku’alofa, Ha’apai where Captain Cook very nearly ended up being the buffet, and Vava’u where today, you’ll find Sunsail, the only charter base.
Vava’u has 170 islands and islets in compact cruising grounds that measure roughly 20 x 12 nautical miles. You can easily criss-cross the whole thing in a week which is how westerners like us tend to take on a new challenge. Experienced Tongans settle in to watch tourists mellow out to a snail’s pace, eventually learning to savor every day as a gift. For some, it takes more than a week.
Local Life In Tonga
Tonga must be today, what Tahiti was 50 years ago. Time seems to have stood still as has progress and that’s refreshing. Over and over again, we were astounded by the generosity, patience and faultlessly honorable demeanor of the locals.
Provisioning was tricky. There are no supermarkets like in the Caribbean and no high-end delis like in Europe. In Vava’u, shopping is part hunt and part luck to find the right stuff. We went to five stores that carried everything from beer to flip-flops but fresh produce and olive oil were tall orders. We finally found the open-air produce market manned entirely by little old ladies and the fish market that consisted of a few guys in a parking lot with large coolers full of fish, eels and still-moving octopuses.
Because it was raining and visibility on the water was limited, we opted to stay ashore on the first morning and take an island tour. Our driver, Steven, was a soft-spoken gentleman with a lovely singing voice and the patience of Jobe, He taught us a few Tongan words like malo (thank you), malo a lelei (hello) and palingi (Europeans or white people), which is what we were called by everyone. Very proud of his daughter’s education at the Mormon school in town, Steven even gave us a tour of the pristine campus where teenagers in green uniforms (the colors vary with church ownership) practiced their English as we came by. You’d have thought we were aliens given the interest we generated.
Heading Out To Sea
On our first afternoon we enjoyed a lovely beam reaching down the Pulepulekai channel until we hit more open water and the winds got seriously blowy. Having gotten a late start, we were running out of daylight, so we made our way up Hunga Island’s western side to find the opening into the bay. The entrance is narrow and we just about kissed the rock that guarded the channel. Then, we turned to a course of 115-degrees magnetic and wound through the reef to the anchorage.
It was from one extreme to another as we managed not to touch bottom on the way in, but then wound up in an anchorage where we had to toss out 150 feet of chain (everything we had in the boat) and even then we still only had a 2:1 scope. Anchoring in Vava’u is an adventure. You’re either in three feet of water or three hundred. When I snorkel on the anchor, I usually find it lying sadly on its side, the tip poking weakly into four inches of sand that just barely covered a coral pan. Luckily, the nights were blissfully calm so there was no breeze to pull us off our precarious perches.
Travelling By Dinghy To Nuapapu Beach
Before departing the base, we had asked Sunsail to set up a dinner with a Tongan family and so Saturday night we pulled into the bay at Nuapapu, a horseshoe-shaped island with a total population of 82. We dinghied to the beach and were greeted by the patriarch, Kolomaile, who gave a short presentation that none of us understood and then let us loose on a dozen dishes that probably took the village all day to cook. Plates of curried chicken, grilled octopus and a papaya dessert were passed around before a small dance ceremony took place on the beach. A generator hummed in the background providing power for the only light and speaker. As Kolomaile prepared the music for the dance, he stood next to the giant speaker pairing it to his smartphone. Given the remoteness of the setting, the juxtaposition was surreal.
Kolomaile was the pastor of his church, one of five on the island, and the next day being Sunday and Tongan Father’s Day, he invited us to join his sermon. In the morning, we set off on foot. After a half mile of muddy path over a hill, we stumbled into a village with a few small houses, lots of dogs and a gaggle of squealing piglets. I’ve never thought of pigs as being particularly active, but Tongan pigs are downright athletic. They gave the dogs a workout.
We finally came to the tiny church that seemed to be standing only by the will of God himself. Inside the one-room building were a few rows of pews and an altar decorated entirely with synthetic flowers. These are big in Tonga and are used on the above ground gravesites along with banners showing images of the deceased. You may not be able to find olive oil but you can always get a bouquet of wildly colored silk flowers.
Kolomaile arrived in a three-piece suit, which he kept on throughout the hot and muggy morning. He beat a large stump with a stick to call his flock to mass because the village was too poor to buy a bell. His wife appeared in a fancy red dress, holding their 11-month old son. At one point, I turned around to see mom, with her eyes closed praying, while holding her junior with one hand and a bottle to his mouth with the other.
The girls from the night before made sure we stood to the front and center, a place of honor. As we sat through the long sermon (all in Tongan), one girl shyly snaked a finger over to my arm and ran it up and down my shirt. I’m not sure if it was the nylon material she liked or the fact that she could later tell everyone that she had touched the palingi with the yellow hair and green eyes.
Zuzana Prochazka at church with local girls. Image credit: Zuzana Prochazka
Navigating Tonga By Boat
Navigation around Tonga can get exciting. The charts are sketchy and many places are simply labeled ‘Inadequately Surveyed’. We found that to be true as we wound our way through two channels to get to Kenutu Island, the easternmost anchorage numbered 30. The base distributes a chart that has numbers so that the palingi don’t get tongue-tied trying to pronounce the Tongan names.
Kenutu Island. Image credit: Zuzana Prochazka
Tonga is also the place of rainbows. Every day there were so many beautiful swaths of color usually ending on top of postcard-perfect islands, that we grew jaded and started ranking them.
An arc of a rainbow shining over Tonga. Image credit: Zuzana Prochazka
This is also the land of the indescribably beautiful white sand beach. An especially fabulous example was Ngau. We picked our way around coral heads into a lagoon between two islands and bordered by a beach that grew larger as the tide went out. In fact, over a couple of hours, enough sand surfaced that you could walk from one island to another. It was a hedonistic paradise and not a soul was there besides us.
A crab on Ngau Island, Tonga. Image credit: Zuzana Prochazka
The morning of our second to last day, we woke up to hip-hop music coming from the beach, a sign that not all is as it once was, even in Tonga. A small boat approached with a couple of kids dressed in red school uniforms. We were offered coconuts and a guided walk. Due to our schedule, we declined but asked if they needed any of our food since we had only one day left and plenty of provisions. “Anything,” came the answer from the father. We gladly unloaded our sugar, rice and beans. When the scowling girl on the bow saw a sleeve of Oreos coming her way, her eyes lit up and she finally cracked a smile. I guess teenagers are the same everywhere.
Ngau Island, Tonga. Image credit: Zuzana Prochazka
Anchored At Nuku
That night we anchored at Nuku, a favorite beach of the King of Tonga. Just a tiny spit of sugary sand, Nuku also serves as a destination for local school and church outings but that day, we had it all to ourselves. Nuku is striking and it was nice to be ending on such a highlight. We relaxed, watching a fabulous sunset. That’s when I reluctantly opened my email only to find that our flight the next day had been moved up by four hours. I’d heard that Real Tonga Airlines was a real adventure in terms of impromptu schedule changes and they didn’t disappoint. The next morning we raised the anchor still in the dark and motored back to base. We made it to the one-room airport with an hour to spare.
Nuku Island. Image credit: Zuzana Prochazka
I’ve been to many parts of the world but until now, I didn’t know places like Tonga still existed. The hospitality and civility were easy to adapt to. The pride Tongans show in their education system (98%+ are literate) and their beautiful islands are impressive. Time hasn’t exactly stood still in Tonga, but it certainly has dragged its heels- the result is that every day is a gift.
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