Published: November 16th 2007September 16th 2007
The appropriately named "Bliss"
Our home for eight days was this 49 foot four cabin four head huge benateau
Tonga - unique among Pacific nations - never completely lost its indigenous governance. The archipelagos of "The Friendly Islands" were united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1845. Tonga became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900; it withdrew from the protectorate and joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970. Tonga remains the only monarchy in the Pacific.
Tonga has a land area of about 750 square km, which makes it a bit smaller than metropolitan Melbourne. It’s 115,000 people live on 36 of its 169 islands. Tongans are huge, friendly and poor. With GDP growing at the same speed as the population, kids constantly snacking on junk food, and everyone smiling, it’s unlikely anything in Tonga will change in the foreseeable future.
So why Tonga?
Following the Keusgen boys’ sailing trip to Nha Trang in Vietnam in 2006, Herbert, Michael, Peter and Tony headed off to the tiny kingdom of Tonga for a bigger and better sail in this Pacific island paradise. Not only was the yacht bigger (49 foot) and faster, but the islands promised great fishing (Tony’s trawling gear in didn’t score even a minnow in Vietnam), desert islands with unspoiled beaches, and
unpolluted crystal clear waters. With a population of only 100,000 in Tonga as compared to 70 million in Vietnam, this seemed a pretty realistic expectation.
The four of us met up in Sydney International Airport on the afternoon of September 6, 2007 for our flight to Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga.
Arrival in Tonga
As expected, the international airport at Nuku’alofa was tiny and we had no trouble at all in finding Nu, our driver, who would be taking us the five minutes to our guesthouse for four or five hours of sleep. Or so we hoped.
The guesthouse was cheap and basic but suited our needs - beds, showers, and mosquito-proof rooms. The sleep, however, was a bit harder to come by. Like all islands, Tonga has hundreds of dogs running around with no conception of sleeping hours or a barking curfew and Herbert and Tony were treated to several loud running conversations of the local canines discussing politics throughout the night. Michael didn’t notice the dogs because the roosters grabbed his attention at about midnight when they began announcing the dawn that was merely six or seven hours away, and kept up their
announcements at five minute intervals until, ironically, just before dawn. Being a bit of a traveller I had managed, after many months, to tune out to all the farm yard banter and would have slept very soundly if Michael hadn’t been snoring all night. I didn’t find his story of being kept awake all night by semi-domesticated fauna especially convincing. Herbert also had to put up with his neighbour, Liz, screaming when a small lizard wandered into her room. She survived without being eaten.
Heading to Vava’u
At about 5:15 we were all aroused from our sleep (except for me - I was still awake and waiting for the clock to reach wake up time so I could turn off the snoring machine in the other bed), had a shower to wake up, grabbed a bite to eat, and headed to Nuku’alofa Domestic Airport, which was 200m from the international terminal and shared the single runway.
Tony, who had arranged the boat and flights, had a few moments of panic when he couldn’t find the tickets (which he had secreted in Herbert’s carry-on) and a few minutes of consternation when he was told that only two of
us were on the flight. Eventually we boarded the fifteen seater and it took off only an hour late with the four of us all on board, including one rather stressed Tony.
I took an immediate liking to the pilot, plane, and airline when our safety briefing consisted of, “There are life jackets under your seats, please keep your seatbelt fastened at all times, please read the safety instructions in front of you, I hope you enjoy the flight.” All fifteen passengers wanted to applaud what was probably the best safety briefing any had ever witnessed.
It was a rather stress-relieving one hour flight over beautiful reef-ringed atolls and cotton-wool clouds to our destination and second largest island in Tonga, Viva’u. Much to our delight and the pilot’s evident pleasure, we spotted humped back whales off the coast of Viva’u. The pilot, who must have a natural flair for tourism, banked sharply to the left and right so that we could all see the whales broaching 700m below us. It was an amazing sight and experience, and just what we needed to prep us for a week of sailing.
The approach to the small landing strip took
us past the town and the bay full of about 80 yachts. Clearly this was to be a yacht-friendly area. After enjoying the novelty of watching the landing through the open cockpit door (there wasn’t actually a door, but it would have been open if there had been one) and collecting our bags, we exited the shed (“Viva’u airport”) and hopped on the Moorings courtesy bus to Moorings base, through which we had chartered our yacht.
Eight days of sailing in paradise
Sailing day 1
As we unloaded Tony’s fishing gear which had failed to snag even an old boot in Vietnam we witnessed a local pull a 12 inch fish from the jetty with a hand line. This, even more than the crystal clear waters full of bait fish, boosted our confidence that we would be able to feed ourselves this time.
Our $800 budget for food and drink was blown in minutes, in part due to wine costing about three times what it does in Australia, and we spent another $600 before we were satisfied we wouldn’t be going thirsty or hungry (providing we caught some fish).
After our midday briefing Tony decided to
catch live bait rather than bother buying any which turned out to be a poor decision when the bait fish swimming around the boat refused to be caught, so we set sail at 2pm with plenty of lines and lures but no bait.
Our 49 foot yacht sailed very sedately in the 15 to 18 knot wind and took us to our anchorage in two and a half hours past numerous lush tropical islands surrounded by crystal clear deep blue water.
On arrival Tony and Michael visited the locals and a nearby catamaran to scrounge some bait but returned empty handed except for an invitation to join the three girls on the catamaran for a drink. Michael, Peter and Tony weren’t interested but Herbert was very sorely tempted.
Despite the absence of bait, Tony and Peter went fishing on the broad shallow reef that divided two islands, Tony with a lure and Peter using banana as bait. While the lure got a few bites from the local squid but no catch, the single bite on the banana by a small queenie solved our bait problem.
Unfortunately, it was too little too late and we had to
survive on Tony’s vegetarian pasta to accompany our wine, beer, rum tonics, and maitais.
Sailing day 2
Peter cooked up a health food breakfast of eggs fried in butter topped with cheese and served on buttered white toast with local coffee. Herbert chased breakfast down with his anti-cholesterol medication.
Because Sandy, our contact at Moorings Base, had told us to expect a storm to develop on Monday morning with the wind swinging to the north and west, we headed south towards some small islands he had recommended as day time anchorages. The weather was very kind to us this day, with winds of 15-20 knots (which in a fifty footer seem very moderate) and sunshine lighting up the beaches reefs.
At around ten o’clock with Herbert at the helm we were visited by our first whale. Less that fifty metres off the starboard bow the massive black shape of a humpback whale rose from the sea and stopped for a moment before crashing down on the surface of the sea. Unfortunately, Herbert was the only one with eyes forward at the time and the three sons saw only a massive splash and felt the wash as the
whale sank beneath the waves. Pity.
We moored at one of the many desert islands which looked idyllic places to get marooned (along with a year’s supply of fresh water and some mermaids) and went for a snorkel before Peter fixed up a delicious lunch of salad sandwiches and beer.
A few hours sailing after lunch saw us to a bay at a small island where we would spend the night and hopefully catch some fish. After two days of trawling two lines we hadn’t got a bite and Tony was wandering whether the fishing gear would be wasted again, although he tried to hide his fears and put on a brave face. Well he should because he had borrowed his brother-in-law’s $4,000 game fishing rod and had talked up the fishing in Tonga.
Herbert and Peter headed out to the village to buy some fish for dinner (something that we had all promised ourselves wouldn’t happen) and were met by the only woman in the village who spoke English (according to her, at least). She took us on a tour of the village, sold us a couple of overpriced coconuts and invited us to church. We
weren’t sure which church she meant; this village of 200 souls had five churches. We promised to consider church on the following day (a lie) and told her we were desperate to buy some fish and, if possible, bait (not a lie). We took her up on her offer of a cooked meal from fresh fish and anything else her husband may have for us.
Several maitais later she motored over with a delicious meal for three, a whole octopus for bait and, at a request from Tony, a promise to deliver carver the following morning.
Sailing day 3
The day started with Peter’s artery stopping breakfast, Herbert’s artery unstopping medication, and a visit by the lady from the village with a bucket of carver whose effects on arteries and other organs is probably still unknown.
As we decanted the toxic mind-altering devil-spawned fluid into bottles, a tender with a well dressed American family of four stopped by to ask directions to church. We pointed vaguely to one end of the village and suggested they begin a five church tour from there. They thanked us politely in a proper Christian fashion and motored off as we
continued to bottle our wicked potion.
First stop was Swallows’ Cave which is a nice large cave you can swim into and see where swallows nest. Evidently the Chinese haven’t arrived here yet because swallows nests are worth something like $5,000 per kilogram on the Chinese market.
Another sail and snorkel saw us to the aptly named Blue Lagoon which is a huge lagoon with a 5 metre entrance and probably the most sheltered anchorage around. With a draught of 1.8m we were rather limited in our entry and exit times given the four hour window where the entrance had two metres.
The three brothers headed into town to enquire about food and lures because the lures we had hadn’t caught any food. Unfortunately, being a Sunday and the Tongans being as religious (and, dare I say it, lazy) as they are, nobody had caught any fish during the day and there weren’t any shops open. We headed back to the boat empty handed but with the promise of a visit later by an enterprising local who would take a shopping list from us and obtain whatever we needed. In retrospect, we’d rather head back empty handed
and have someone else do our shopping for us than have to do our shopping ourselves.
Despite the promise of food on the morrow, this still left our four heroes sadly lacking in the necessary protein for another grueling day on the boat. Having already caught the only fish of the trip and organized nearly every meal to date, Peter once again proved his worth by once again saving the foursome from starvation, or at the very least, another of Tony’s vegetarian meals.
Peter’s keen eyesight had spotted a one metre mahi-mahi (dolphin-fish or dorado) and he dived off the boat in pursuit of it with nothing but his bare hands, charm, and well-practiced bambi-eyed begging routine. Sure enough, the girl who was cutting it up on the neighbouring catamaran parted with a quarter fillet which Tony and Michael turned into something delicious by drowning it in lime juice.
Dinner was followed (and preceded) by alcoholic beverages, the local carver, and more alcoholic beverages to remove the taste of carver. While we didn’t experience any particular benefits from the carver there must be some rather significant benefits to make up for the taste. Or maybe not -
Australians eat vegemite after all!
Sailing day 4
Morning again greeted the four explorers with a clear blue sky, moderate winds, and a marvelous healthfood breakfast of the last of the eggs and toast. Soon after breakfast and true to his word, one of the locals came out on his boat in the morning to offer to buy some provisions for us.
We headed out immediately after placing our shopping order to catch the tide and sailed toward Mariners’ Cave which is considered quite special for its beauty, love-story history, and underwater entrance. The literature with which we were furnished described the distance from the point variously as, “about half to three quarters of a mile” and, “600 metres from the point…” We didn’t have a snowflake’s chance in Melbourne of finding the entrance. After much snorkeling and motoring in the tender we did finally locate a narrow entrance to something, but the surge made it far too dangerous to enter with any degree of safety.
Mildly disappointed (what’s a cave compared to a wide blue ocean dotted with green islands and slim island girls, or even Tongan girls?) but enjoying the weather we sailed west towards
the deep waters where fish like to get themselves caught on rods.
About ten miles out from land we happened upon a short line of buoys that marked the Fish Attracting Device (FAD) which is anchored in about 1,000m of water. While there is little doubt that it works, it didn’t work for us on this occasion and we headed back to Blue Lagoon empty handed and hungry.
Our spirits lifted once anchored, however, when our English speaking contact arrived with our shopping, including several lures that the locals use. Tony cooked up our last vegetarian dinner and we looked forward to catching some fish on the morrow.
Hedging our bets, however, we also asked our contact to buy and slaughter a porker for us in the morning in case the tuna remained shy. At AUD80 it wasn’t a cheap hedge.
Sailing day 5
Even at $80 nobody was willing to sell us a piglet, so we would have to depend on our wits, raw strength, new lures, and Tony’s fishing tackle to fill our stomachs. We were a bit late setting out in the morning and were punished for our tardiness by running aground
at the lagoon entrance on our way out. A ding in the keel didn’t slow us down much and we took advantage of the windless day to head out to the FAD and catch dinner.
After a few runs around the FAD we had a stripy tuna (bonito) which would feed the four of us. We were thinking of catching a second one but Herbert kindly let it off the hook when it got close to the boat.
All the time we were fishing we had almost no breeze and wonderful sunshine while a huge cloud hung over the land. Once we had motored level with the first island we were able to turn off the motor again and sail to mooring number 25 whose main attraction was its proximity to town. Even though we had tuna and eggs, we were running out of wine and tonic water.
Our trip into town was pretty fruitless as we arrived after 5pm when everything except the bars close down, so we decided to send in Michael and Tony in the morning for supplies.
Now, bonito isn’t the best eating fish, and most of the fishermen in these parts
will put it on a larger hook while it’s still alive and try to catch a marlin or sailfish. Not us. We ate that bonito and it tasted better than the mahi-mahi we hadn’t caught!
Sailing day 6
After breakfast Michael and Tony headed into town for provisions while Herbert and Peter cleaned the boat. Late in the morning we headed towards Mariners’ Cave for a second try at locating it.
A second glance at the notes on the cave revealed a second page detailing exactly how to find the cave. Essentially, the page of instructions described the location as beneath a palm tree next to a striped rock half a mile or more or less from the point. The cliff was dotted with striped rocks and topped with hundreds of palm trees. The notes even had the temerity to end with, “You can’t miss it.” Yeah right.
After a half hour search above and beneath the waves a commercial day boat motored past and the crew pointed to the location of the cave with the air of familiarity that suggested that pointing out the cave to lost yachties reading ridiculous instructions is a daily occurrence.
As per the instructions, the cave was beneath a bit of striped rock and had palm trees above it. We had passed it several times.
The entrance to the cave was a five metre swim underwater - the easiest of entries when wearing fins - to a pretty average looking cave. It was only when turning around and looking back towards the entrance that you noticed the magic. The sun shone on the sand beneath the entrance about six metres down and turned the water a beautiful luminous turquoise which lit up the faces and smiles around us. And then everything blurred.
Because the cave is airtight the pressure is constantly changing with the surge of the sea in the entrance, which in turn affects the maximum humidity in the cave. As the pressure rises the air exceeds its maximum humidity and the excess moisture condenses as amazing turquoise vapour (much like the compressor in an air conditioner but far more beautiful). And then the surge would retreat, lowering the air pressure, and the air was clear again.
Of course, after ten minutes there wasn’t really much to see, especially once the day boat had left with
all the young ladies and their wonderful legs, so we headed off to mooring 15 for an early night and an early rise to catch fish.
Sailing day 7
Herbert, Michael and Peter were all up at 0530 for a quick breakfast and headed out towards the FAD to find the rest of our fish.
The wind had freshened overnight to 30-35 knots which suited us fine. Once out of the lagoon we cut the engine and were trawling at a comfortable 7 knots on jib alone. Michael had only just finished putting the lines out with our new lures when we hooked a bonito. The timing was perfect as it was at the drop off (where the depth rapidly drops off to 1,000m) in the lee of the land, so once the jib was down we were in pretty calm water and made easy going of catching our second fish (not counting Peter’s tiny queenie that he caught with banana). It was a pleasant wake up call for Tony who had somehow managed to sleep right through breakfast, weighing anchor, and motoring out of the lagoon.
A few minutes after letting go the jib to
Peter with a tiny yellowfin
It may have been small, but two small yellowfins were more than enough to fill the four of us to the skin.
head to the FAD, Herbert saw an 8 foot marlin jump out of the water behind us. Luck we got the bonito aboard because none of us would have been prepared to fight a marlin and Tony’s brother-in-law wouldn’t have been impressed by the loss of the rod.
Once at the FAD we furled the jib and motored in circles around the FAD and chummed the water to attract a few bigger nicer fish. We landed two yellow-fin in a short space of time and hooked a mahi-mahi which bit through our trace, but not before giving us a demonstration of how to dance on the waves.
We decided that three large fish would be enough for four and went for a sail to enjoy the remainder of the day and the wind. In 33 knots the boat handled beautifully and was clocking nine knots into the wind with a reefed main and half furled jib. It was perfect sailing weather with Captain Araldite (Michael’s moniker for Herbert because he couldn’t be pried from the wheel) at the helm. We found an anchorage reasonably close to Neiafu for our last night and gorged ourselves silly on tuna sushi,
tuna sashimi, and tuna steaks. We managed to get through most of it and threw the rest into the water for the sharks. We didn’t go swimming that night.
Sailing day 8
We spent some of the morning cleaning the boat and headed out for one last sail before returning the boat to Moorings at midday.
Once again the wind was blowing 30 to 40 knots and we were racing along at over 9 knots under reefs over coral and through shoals. That would be reefs in the sail, coral under the keel, and shoals of fish.
The whales were kind enough to pay us a visit on our last day sailing, though none were showing off with the stunts of the first day.
When cleaning the fridges we found that we had 14 beers left, so from 11am we started rectifying that mistake and had fixed most of the problem by 12:30 when we stepped off the boat at Moorings base.
After telling the truth about all the equipment that wasn’t working and lying about running aground we headed to Paradise Resort for a beer and a bite to eat. Although tuna was on the menu, none of us was tempted.
A beer and a bite later and Michael and Tony headed off to the airport for their long trek back to Australia which Herbert and Peter enjoyed another beer before heading out to town for a beer.
One could easily get the wrong (or right) impression about the alcohol consumption on the trip, but that was only a small part of it. If the trip was about Herbert enjoying himself then it was definitely a success. If the trip was about the three sons getting along then it was a success. If the trip was about being better than Vietnam then it was successful by nearly any measure. And if the trip was about three sons heading out for a sail with their father and enjoying a boys’ week away with all the swearing, smoking, drinking and fishing that that entails, then the trip was perfect.