The harbour of Neiafu in the Vava’u Island Group of Tonga is well protected in case of high winds with no outside swell coming in. The fetch is not very long so seas cannot really build up very much. Cyclone moorings can be rented from several shore operators.
What a pleasure to explore all the anchorages of the Vava’u Group at our leisure without crowds and with much warmer weather than during the rest of the year. It was amazing to see air and sea temperatures get suddenly warmer in November. The Ha’apai Group is also a very nice and so little explored cruising ground (especially if you miss the remoteness and clear waters of the Tuamotus).
It was an easy entrance thru the marked channel and a nicely protected anchorage between the island and the barrier reef behind. After anchoring, we waited onboard until the local authorities came to clear us in (after we found out that they had been informed of our arrival). When the van honked ashore, I went to pick them up with our dinghy and we had them all onboard for paperwork, quick inspection and some chatting. Their offices are located a few miles away in the next village (customs, health, immigration).
A small grass landing strip gets rarely any planes and the supply boat normally comes only every 3 months! The road around the island is made of crushed corals and sand. Three villages line one side of the island with an approximate population of 600. The other side of the island has plantations of vegetables (taro, sweet potatoes, ..) and fruits (papayas, bananas, ...). Not too much money circulates on the island. They have no refrigeration in homes, so either eat fresh food or canned goods. Many pigs are living in all 3 villages and fishermen go out catching fish. A few telephones but no internet access. No radio or television but a few VCRs and DVD players!
We brought books & school supplies from the Pago Pago Seafarer's Center to two of the schools. (Please do the same if you can). They can really use any supplies you can bring them. We traded goods for fruits and vegetables and were quite surprised to see that each time someone told us he would bring us fruits the next day at a particular time, unlike at any other islands we have been,(or elsewhere in Tonga) they were right on time! Kids are cute and everyone seems very friendly.
The only tourists they meet are the cruisers. To our surprise, they had about 100 boats visit last cruising season. Reports about officials harassing cruisers for gifts kept several sailors away this season! Watch for those rumors that often poorly reflects the truth! We think much of the misunderstandings arise in the way people relate to others of different culture. The Tongans weren’t afraid to look at and touch things on board and to ask for things. We always give officials refreshments, try to keep it to 1- 2 at a time on board, and when they ask for things, we either propose an exchange of some kind, or smile and say, “oh, you know we really need this one, or sorry, we don’t have any to spare”. They will not insist if one remains polite but firm.
We were guided by two teenagers to the top of the hill: nice two-hour hike and some nice photo opportunities. Had umu (underground oven) potlucks on Sundays on a motu (small island) put on by Nico & Sia, the local couple that seek cruisers company and help them trading with the rest of the village. For one of these feasts, 18 cruisers chipped in $15 Tonga $ ea for Nico & Sia to buy and prepare 2 piglets, lobsters, fish and all the dishes local style!
We went on a day-excursion to Tafahi, the volcanic island 5 miles away with Nico. Got a group of 7 yachties together (about US$50 for all of us!) and we all made the hike all the way to the top of the volcano. Great hike (about 3.5 hours) even tho it was cloudy on top and we couldn't see the main island of Niuatoputapu! Met some locals climbing coconut trees (great coconut to drink) and met other members of Nico's family. Jackie and I did a little snorkeling (others were too chicken to swim thru the breakers) before heading back with Nico small boat (35 min trip). Didn't catch any fish during both trip but Nico tried!
We biked around the island in both directions: met some locals working their fields and traded for fruits & saw the grinding mill in action for making kava powder. The roots of the kava plants are ground into powder to make later kava drink. In this part of the world, they chew kava roots and mix it with water to make an intoxicating drink. It numbs the lips and palate ... then legs (so you cannot get up anymore) and get you sleepy when drunk in excess. Apparently, often in the morning, women find the guys all asleep where they left them the night before to their kava party! Kava drink is reserved for men, ... shows that ladies are smarter :) We did buy some from Nico for future gifts in Tonga & Fiji, We had a sip of mild kava drink in Pago Pago and it does numb the lips as they say! This island is a really nice way to break the trip from Samoa to Vava’u!
Vavau Island Group
If you come from Niuatoputapu (or from Tongatapu), you don’t have to go to the dock for the check-in, you can just anchor or pick up a mooring and walk to customs (at the wharf) and show your paperwork. Make sure you ask permission before picking up any mooring and find out if that particular mooring is suitable for your size boat. Everybody has quite a laugh when some yacht picks up a mooring buoy tied to a tiny mooring for dinghies and everyone goes ashore without checking any further!
A new small boat marina has been built by the EEC to make a safe & secure landing in town for tourism activities.
Scuba diving with Beluga Diving. Great fast aluminum dive boats with congenial Tongan crew. Most of the best dive sites around Vava’u are a long distance from any anchorage and too far or rough or unsuitable to take the dinghy. If you want to dive at the most unique sites or do drift diving, it’s always a good idea to go with a reliable dive center with long-time local knowledge. The Beluga folks have been around many years, and we like the fact that they have trained Tongans as guides and Captains. They have now 2 modern, stable, aluminum catamaran dive boats that take you out for 2-tank dives. Special sites include Swallow’s Cave, Split Rock, and Fo tula Rock, which has a natural tunnel carved through the middle of it. Beluga has also a number of yacht moorings in Neiafu Harbor for a reasonable fee. They’re green color and marked. Contact them on Channel 9 VHF.
Whale watching with Sailing Safari’s Whalesong boat. From about August to the end of October, Humpback Whales hang around the protected waters of Vava’u to have their calves or mate. The mothers and calves, and escort whales stay the season to fatten up the calves and protect them from sharks. Sometimes they just hang in one location resting and idling around, and they let themselves be approached by boats and even swimmers who maybe lucky enough to spend many minutes observing them with mask and snorkel. What a life-time unique experience! Often the whales keep moving, but on those special days, they stay, and you can see calves cavorting, or mothers nurturing, or exciting behaviors like spy-hopping, breaching, and tail slapping. We went twice with Whalesong, and the second time were rewarded by seeing up to 7 animals at once, and a couple times, had long in-water sessions, and whales rising and spouting an arm’s length from the boat! The crew and guides are very experienced and in tune with these animals. This season, SSCA members, Jim and Kelsey Yates and their sons (Lady Starlight) were the video/photo specialists on board, and they produced an incredible CD of the best footage of the season.
Bicycling around the island in several day-trips will reward you with great vistas and friendly encounters with local farmers (possible to trade). A easy walk to the summit of Mount Talau is also worth the half-day excursion (2hr each way). See the Tonga Visitors Bureau (TVB ch 16) for more info.
We won’t write about all the "numbered" Moorings anchorages as they are well documented. The TVB maintains moorings at many anchorages (more to be installed this season) and welcomes donations to help maintenance.
At the end of the cruising and whale watching season we were passed by the wave of yachts just before they made the home stretch to New Zealand. We decided to enjoy the warm climate of Tonga instead! We felt secure on a strong mooring in Neiafu harbor in case of cyclones. And the main advantage is that we were able to cruise anywhere in Vavau and still be less than 4 hours away from our mooring.
Vava’u is a great area to spend cyclone season cruising (water’s warm, balmy weather, anchorages to ourselves) but as to any shore services, it has been very disappointing after Tahiti, Rarotonga and Samoa. If you plan to stay the cyclone season in Vava’u, we recommend a stop in American Samoa to provision to the max (even basics) and get all your project needs shipped there by US mail duty-free, so you can be self-sufficient and just enjoy the good things about Tonga. Apparently Tongans never cared one way or another about visitors and the good thing is that they leave you alone … so if you want solitude, you will enjoy Tonga. Bureaucracy is still very ineffectual and thus cruisers are well left alone. Several times we had some shortage on the island lasting several weeks (gasoline, diesel, flour, onions …) quite surprising for a populous area.
The remoteness of the islands in this group was pretty appealing to us. Less crowded anchorages like in Vava’u during the sailing season, you visit communities little touched by palangis (white-folks) and modern society. One phone (if any) in the middle of the village! People work their land and do some fishing. Women raise kids, tend the house, and weave the famous pandanus mats. Most (but not all) anchorages are slightly rolly even tho protected from NE to SE trades; they are open to the SW and W. It is important to get daily weather bulletins to know which anchorages are appropriate or which to go to if the winds turn. If you do not have e-mail aboard, Rag of the Air broadcasts wx at 8:20AM local, on 8173USB. There are a few well protected areas and some W wind anchorages.
Eyeball navigation between the islands is important as many isolated reefs and blind breakers are present … easy to avoid if you see them! The cruising season this year was not kind to most of those who visited Ha’apais as there was frequently blusterly (30-35kts) winds and overcast conditions and COLD water, making for uncomfortable anchorages and limited opportunity for snorkeling and diving or beach combing. We waited til the month of Nov. when the weather settled and the migration toward NZ was over. The weather was balmy and settled a few days after our arrival in high winds gusting to 40kts. The rest of the month was idyllic moderate breezes and mostly, bright sunny days. Most of the anchorages visited, we felt would have been over crowded w/o enough swinging room for more than 1-3 boats. Another reason we were thankful to have avoided the crowds.
Nomuka iki: we arrived in 30 kts + and rough seas and were happy to find shelter from the worse in the reef protected anchorage (20d16’742 – 174d48’035). Our new 70 lb bugle anchor held us well in 15ft of good sand against 30kts and up to 38 kts gusts the next 48 hours! Very rewarding spear fishing all around the island and some wild fruits (papayas, oranges) to be found on this ex-prison island. We had a nice beach bbq with “Freefall” and “Jingle Bells 2”, the last boats of the cruising season that we saw.
Mango Island: deep anchorage (50-60ft) on the North side of this small island with less than 50 inhabitants. Traded for lobsters & fruits. A short (20min) and easy walk to the summit of a small mountain gave us great photo opportunities.
Kelefesia Island: very scenic island (rugged limestone cliffs) and nice, albeit small (3-4 boats?) anchorage in 30ft of good sand with isolated coral heads. Good snorkeling right in the protected anchorage (open only to the West). There is an old gentleman with a crippled arm who stays here year round to tend the land and fish camp. He is very discreet, but we made sure to ask him if we could walk the island, and gave him some cake and cookies. This island’s geology is so different from the rest, with reddish layered cliffs.
Lalona Island: we anchored in 15ft of water, good sand at 20d20’449-174d31’344 between 2 breakers and the reef. Easy island to walk around. Small temporary fishing camp, otherwise uninhabited.
Telekivavau Island: protected anchorage inside the tiny “lagoon” which could accommodate maybe 4 yachts at once. Anchor in 8 to 10 ft of sand with loose coral rubbles. The holding is not that great and we wouldn’t chance it in more than 25 kts! The small, well-kept resort is now owned by an American living in Hawaii. The resort mgr, Steve, has his own trimaran in the lagoon. The 45 nm to the nearest airport is a great difficulty to overcome to get tourists to book!
O’ua Island: follow the well marked channel to the South anchorage inside the lagoon for easy access to the village and the calmest and one of the roomiest anchorage we found in the Haapai! The reefs all around may give you a comfortable night. Small typical village with only 1 phone and only one house with TV and VCR! But with the solar panels/battery bank/6 lights/radio they received last year from the EEC/Australia … technology may arrive fast! Calm wx made it possible for us to sail approx 3 miles and anchor at Wickham reef for some good scuba on the south side of the long reef. (see Sailing Bird’s Guide)We anchored at 20d04’017-174d45’575 in 15ft of good sand in the small bight. At high tide we dinghied across the center of the reef area and passed over the barrier to the deep side. Later that day, we went to the Northern anchorage of O’ua mentioned in the guide books. Despite low light and clouds we had no trouble as the entrance is wide and the path straight and easy.
Uonukuhihifo Island: postcard scenery looking from our anchorage behind the sand bar! Easy swim ashore and walk around. Drinking coconuts easy to grab to quench your thirst during your short walk around. Good snorkeling and spear fishing outside the pass on the barrier reef and the numerous small seamounts (watch for currents and do not let the dinghy too close to rollers – keep an eye for blind rollers). The deep drop- offs and walls on the outside corner of the pass made a great drift dive. Be sure to go having someone on the surface in the dinghy and a drift float on the divers for security.
Tofanga Island: another nice deserted motu to walk around. Another good shallow sandy bottom anchorage!
Luhangahu Island: good west wind anchorage with reefs protecting some from the North and some from the South. Anchor in 15ft of good sand. See Ken’s Guide for description of entrance.
Uiha Island: we anchored off the dock in Uiha village in 15ft of good sand but with many coral heads around, so buoy your chain. Convenient to dinghy to that small dock. Check the very ancient cemeteries. Very nice people in the village.
Uoleva Island: anchor in 25-30ft, good sand … watch out for some coral heads reaching abt only 5ft deep! Great spearfishing in the pass south of the island. Wild orange trees between coconut trees on the south side. We did not visit the resort(s) which are hidden away from the anchorage. As a reminder to the volcanic activity around the Tongan islands, we found many pumice stones that floated and drifted on to shore from some distant (we hope) eruption.
Lifuka Island: anchor in good sand (20ft) outside the harbour entrance, without blocking the access (do not forget your anchor light). Some space at the dock inside in bad wx … you should check first with the harbor master. If you stop anywhere along Foa, Lifuka or Uoleva, you should visit the customs officer here in Pangai, to show him your clearance papers from Vava’u or Nukualofa. He is (rightly) quite upset to see (with his binoculars) boats anchored around that never check with him. It takes 3 minutes and cost nothing, why upset officials? We were quite surprised to see that Pangai, the main town in the Ha’apai was in fact very small and undeveloped. Do not expect any major provisioning or organized activities. Most tourists, in fact, leave the Ha’apai with almost as much money as they had with them arriving. Do not miss a visit to the Afa Eli Historical museum (opposite the customs). Virginia (a lady from the US lives here for over 20 years) created & maintains several museums on the island. You will enjoy talking with her! For local info, see Trevor (Australian here for 6 years) running the Mariner’s Café. You CAN get bread here, the only bakery in the Haa’pai.
Foa & Nukunamo Islands: anchor in good sand in front of the uninhabited Nukunamo or just off the Sandy Beach Resort on the North tip of Foa. Good sand, 20-30 ft, watch out for coral heads. The resort is not too accommodating to cruisers (dinner 29 US$) but we did enjoy meeting Herbert Mohr, who ran the Happy Ha’apai Divers. With 30 yrs of experience, he is a real professional! He runs a very good operation: he knows great dive sites, safety is well organized and the equipment is in excellent shape. We decided (even tho we are instructors ourselves with our own compressor and gear) to go with him to dive some top spots. We went for a day 2-tank dive to Ofolanga where we dove the Hot Springs Caves. Terrific dive with arches, caverns and great soft corals, nurse shark, big tunas and more. Even if you could find the site on your own, it is so relaxing and enjoyable to be guided thru the different places of interest by a qualified divemaster! After lunch, we went to Mo’unga’one island to dive the famous "Ofolanga Coral Arch" (mentioned in Lonely planet). The Tongan boat driver dropped us right on the spot (really close to the surge on the coral shore!) and picked us later. Great dive too with arches, interesting caves full of lobsters and a white tip reef shark … and more beautiful black coral & soft corals. The reefs were very healthy and we were pleased to see types of fishes and corals that we only remember from the Red Sea and the Maldives.
Next time, we will dive with him the Green Wall (Ha’ano), Lava lava (seamount) and the tunnel in Ha’ano. Last season, some cruisers anchored in Olofanga called him by phone and he came to Olofanga to pick them up and do those 2 dives we did! But we went with him from Foa, leaving our boat well anchored there. Nothing replaces local knowledge, as we all very well know! NOTE: Happy Ha’apai Divers has just changed hands and Herbert is no longer there, but he may still be in the area on his own. We have not received any reply from the new owner as to whether he will continue to pick up cruisers in nearby anchorages!
Ha’ano Island: anchor in 45-50ft in sand patches between corals. Tight anchorage as described by Ken and Sailingbird. Interesting snorkeling on coral heads along the coast. Very friendly villagers, had nice conversations, got fruits and made many photos! Glad we brought little things like samples of shampoo, body lotion, fishing hooks, … for the kids (as we always do when visiting villages).