Ending the Year on a High

Our next stop in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, was a trip into the Kerikeri inlet as far as our draft allowed.  From the anchorage we could take the dinghy about 3km up the winding inlet to the final navigable point at “The Stone Store”, a grand building which dates back to 1830 and is now a museum and gift shop.

The river dries out at low tide in many places, but there is a buoyed channel to follow where the water is deep enough.  From the landing place at The Stone Store there are a few hiking trails and many waterfalls to see on the way, and it was also just a couple of km walk to the lovely town of Kerikeri, the largest town in Northland. This is a productive area with numerous farm shops selling their produce. Local oranges, potatoes, strawberries and lettuces are in plentiful supply. Our favourite was The Old Packhouse with great produce and a nice cafe.

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An impressive cloud builds over the riverbank

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Not everyone keeps to the channel and pays the price, this is the second boat in as many days stranded on the mud banks

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The Mission House was built in 1822 and is New Zealand’s oldest standing building. Primarily built from Kauri wood, it stayed in the Kemp family for 142 years before being gifted to Heritage New Zealand. I loved the beautiful cottage garden and veggie patch.

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Coq au Vin!

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The impressive Stone Store, built in 1832.

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Wharepuke Falls

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Rainbow Falls

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Charlies Rock

We spent nearly a week in this area, our daily commutes along the river at different states of the tide gave us regular sightings of Harriers circling above and Royal Spoonbills either rummaging in the muddy flats or settling in their tree at high tide.

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Spoonbills and Shags share the same roosting tree

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The Royal Spoonbill is one of six species worldwide and the only Spoonbill that actually breeds in New Zealand. Their numbers rose to around 2300 by 2012 after plummeting to just 57 birds in 1977 as they are apparently sensitive to disturbance.

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Early morning visitors, at one point I counted a dozen!

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As I was watching the Swallows I caught sight of a Pied Shag surfacing with a large fish!

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He struggled for some time and had several attempts before swallowing it whole

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Gone!

Just outside the inlet is another wonderful stopover at Oihi Bay where there is an interesting walk through Rangihoua heritage park. It’s the site of the first mission settlement and the first Christian service in New Zealand held by Samuel Marsden on Christmas Day 1814.

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The Marsden Cross

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Smoke from the Australian fires a 1,000 miles away makes our setting sun glow red

After a few days of waterfalls it was time for a change of pace and scenery, with a car rental to visit the oldest living Kauri trees in New Zealand at the Waipuoa Kauri Forest on the West Coast.

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The entrance to Hokianga Harbour on the west coast has impressive sand dunes on its northern shore

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Tane Mahuta or ‘Lord of the Forest’ is around 2000 years old! It’s difficult to appreciate the scale of him in the photos, he stands at 51.2m tall with a trunk girth of 13.77m!

 

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Another large Kauri in the forest

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This is Te Matua Ngahere, or Father of the Forest, the second largest living Kauri in New Zealand. At 29.9m tall he is smaller than Tane Mahuta but with an incredible girth of 16.41m he looked huge.

With the wind swinging to the southern quadrant for a week or two we took the opportunity for a cracking beam reach sail out of the Bay of Islands and headed north to Whangaroa.  On the way we stopped at a beautiful narrow cove called Whanaihe Bay so that we could walk the nearby Mahinepua Peninsula hike.

It was lucky that we came across a farmer on our way along a winding track from the cove, as we discovered we were on private land and it wasn’t a hiking trail!  After a chat about farming he very kindly gave us permission to carry on and even gave us directions.

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The Manihepua trail is one of the most beautiful we have hiked

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Back on private land

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Returning back to Joy

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Approaching the narrow entrance to Whangaroa Harbour

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Plenty of beautiful Gannets

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For Christmas dinner this year we thought we would have a nice plump bird on the BBQ

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Word got out we had roast pork left overs

To work off our Christmas dinner we decided to hike to the top of The Dukes Nose rock which stands proud over the anchorage.

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A steep climb

By the time we had almost reached the rock face I had just about talked myself out of getting to the top, I’m not really good with heights and knew I would be way out of my comfort zone.  But by the time we got to the difficult bit there were three young ladies waiting at the bottom, they had decided it was too tough for them.  That immediately spurred me on, so I followed Jez up the rock face clinging on to the pole for dear life. It wasn’t long before one of the girls decided it couldn’t be that bad, after all we were probably twice her age, and followed us up.

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Pole position. The tree puts the height of the first section into perspective

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Views from the top, looking over the narrow entrance to Whangaroa Harbour

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Our Christmas anchorage, Joy is far right

Going down was a little scarier as it wasn’t easy to see the footholds and of course it meant looking down. But with Jez guiding my feet as well as his own we got to the bottom safely and I was reminded of several leg muscles I had long forgotten about. To loosen things up we continued on the Stream track for another 2 hour walk until the tide was high enough for us to relaunch the dinghy without dragging it across the mud bank. What a tiring day!

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Most of the trails through woodland have boot cleaning and disinfecting stations to help prevent the spread of Kauri dieback disease.

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We saw plenty of California Quail with their tiny hatchlings

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The trail crosses the stream a few times

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We spotted this wasp attacking a bright green stick insect.

Apparently several species of wasp were accidentally introduced between the 1940’s and 1970’s and they are having a devastating impact on their native birds, bats, lizards and insects. Here they have no natural predators and NZ now has the highest density of wasps in the world.  They consume half of the honeydew found in beech forests, an important source of food for many birds including Tui and Bellbirds, as well as lizards and insects. But their threat doesn’t end there, when the wasps are done with the honeydew they turn their attention to insects for a source of protein and have even been known to kill and eat fledgling birds and bats.

The dramatic rock formations around Whangaroa harbour are remnants of ancient volcanoes that erupted 20 million years ago. So for our final ‘high’ of the year we anchored off Whangaroa marina to hike to the top of St Paul’s Rock, named in the 19th Century as it resembled the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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St Paul’s Rock seen from the north side of the harbour

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The tiny village hall was originally built as a chapel

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It’s so sheltered in the harbour that there are bananas growing

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The trail to St. Paul’s rock was steep and a bit of a scramble in places, with the last short leg of rock work aided by chains. What an amazing view of the bay and another wonderful lunch stop.

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Getting closer to St Paul’s Rock

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Feeling on top of the world!

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As we look back over another year of long periods at sea and exploring far away places, we feel so lucky to have had such wonderful opportunities and Joy to take great care of us. Wishing you all a very happy and healthy New Year!

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Royal Visitors to The Land of the Long White Cloud

November and early December were very changeable months weather-wise, it is still Spring in New Zealand and although we have had some wonderful sunny days at 25 degrees C it can get quite chilly at night when it drops below 20 (that’s a teeth-chattering temp for us tropical softies).  A few blustery storms have come and gone and we have ducked and dived, tucking ourselves into some protected anchorages. The Kiwi’s however are much hardier folk, swimming in the sea regardless of the weather with just swimwear and no wetsuits. We didn’t even do that in Tonga!

With Prince Charles and Camilla visiting Northland, we took the opportunity to join the crowd at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and welcome them to New Zealand. Afterall it was free entry and although we have been before we rather fancied wandering around the beautiful grounds a second time.

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It was great to watch groups of local kids practicing their tribal dances before the Prince arrived

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The cloak worn by Prince Charles was a gift to Queen Victoria from Chief Reihana Taukawau during a visit to England in 1863.  It has now been loaned back to New Zealand for display in the museum.

 With so many trails to hike, we have been out walking most days and quite often all day. Our longest trail so far was the 21km coastal loop from Russell to Paihia which involved two ferry rides. We left the boat anchored off Paihia and caught the ferry to Russell, then joined the trail which goes through ancient forests and across boardwalks in the mangrove swamps ending up at the Okiato car ferry.   Here the ferry took us the short distance across the bay to Opua, where we joined the 12km coastal trail back to Paihia.

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This huge fig tree on The Strand at Russell was planted in 1870 and stands outside the town’s first police station.

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A Town in Bloom – Russell’s high street is lined with these beautiful Jacaranda trees

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A ‘living wall’ outside a local restaurant

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A view of Russell from Flagstaff Hill

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A friendly flightless bird called a Weka

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Catching the ferry to Opua

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Opua Marina

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We have also been back out to the islands in the Bay, exploring new anchorages and islands and revisiting the wonderful island of Urupukapuka to walk more of its trails. The looped hikes on this island take you through farmland, woods, across cliffs and along beaches. They even have a bird-watching hide to view an inner lagoon where we spotted some brown teal, also known as Pateke, which are apparently recovering from threat having been reintroduced into predator-free islands such as this one. As we watched the teal a swamp harrier landed on the far side of the lagoon and stomped around in the water before hopping into the long grass.  We think he may have been eating a fish that he’d caught.

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The Tui belongs to the honeyeater family

 

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Otaio Bay, Urupukapuka Island

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This is a friendly North Island Robin, their numbers had declined on the mainland due to deforestation and predators such as stoats and possums. But their numbers are improving here on the islands thanks to ‘Project Island Song’.

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A rather scruffy Swamp Harrier hunts over our heads

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We also made use of the protection in a small anchorage called Awaawaroa Bay on Moturua Island when a north-westerly set in for a couple of days.  From here we could dinghy to the next bay to get onto the island trail and stretch our legs.

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Project Island Song is doing a great job of reintroducing native plants and birds to the islands and eradicating pests such as stoats, rats, mice and plague skink which are small lizards.

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A New Zealand Dotterel

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A cute little song bird called a Tomtit flits about in the forest. He seems a little out of proportion, with a large head on a tiny body.

And last but certainly not least, we have spotted this bird on both islands and even watched a parent feed its fledgling on a branch.  But they have been rather shy, and are quick movers, so we haven’t managed to get a photo until now.

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This beautiful North Island Saddleback was quite happy to be photographed, even stopped to pose several times. They are a striking black songbird with fleshy red wattles at the base of the bill and a burnt orange stripe across its back and under its tail.

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We haven’t managed to catch sight of a Kiwi yet (the feathered variety), although they are on many of these islands and in controlled areas on the mainland.  They are a nocturnal bird so I guess we need to stay out a little later next time.

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The Bountiful Bay of Islands

We don’t often spend time in marinas, preferring our space and tranquility at anchor, but it made life a little easier on arrival in New Zealand, we could give our traveling home a much needed hose down after a very salty passage and we didn’t have to inflate our rather tired dinghy to get ashore. It was wonderful to spend the day with our friends Ted and Barbara who are here on holiday, after a trip to the supermarket in the small town of Paihia they took us to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.  Here, on the 6th February 1840, the treaty was first signed between the British Crown and the Maori following the Declaration of Independence created in 1835. The document was then transported around the country to allow chiefs from other tribes to sign.  After a guided tour we had a lively cultural performance inside the beautifully carved Maori meeting house.


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‘Ngatokimatawhaorua’ is one of the largest Maori canoes (or ‘waka’) and 70 years old. At 35 metres long and weighing 12 ton it can hold up to 150 paddlers.  The Maori migrated to New Zealand in seven waka in the mid 1300’s, although the country was then known as Aotearoa “The Land of the Long White Cloud”, named by the great Polynesian navigator Kupe who had discovered the islands 400 years earlier.

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The tongue hanging out depicts an act of defiance

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Beautiful carvings inside the Maori meeting house. The meaning of the carving of three fingers varies from tribe to tribe, some believe that the first Maori man had only three fingers and carved all figures keeping that sign. Others say that the sacred rubbing stick to make fire was held with three fingers, and another belief is that it was forbidden to represent the complete human figure hence only three fingers.

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A lively performance of song and dance, ending with the ceremonial ‘haka’ dance

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One of the performers explains the Maori tradition of tattooing. Facial tatoos – moko kauae – are of particular importance as they regard the face and head as sacred.

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‘The Treaty House’ was built for the first British Resident in New Zealand, James Busby. He lived here with his family from 1833 until 1840, and was involved in the drafting of the treaty.

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With some less than favourable weather approaching, we decided to head off out into the bay and seek out some protected anchorages and do some exploring.  The Bay of Islands apparently has 144 islands in total so it’s pretty easy to find somewhere protected from any wind direction.  We spent a week exploring just a few of the islands, a personal favourite was Motuarohia (also known as Roberton) Island, as we entered the anchorage a pod of dolphins followed us in and played around us as we anchored.  They performed some impressive acrobatic leaps time and time again, often two dolphin would leap out towards each other almost colliding as they splashed back into the water.  After a fantastic 20 minute ‘front row seats’ show they headed off and visited each boat in the bay in turn. They clearly just loved to show off and have fun with each other.

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Kristen from neighbouring boat ‘O2/3’ very kindly shared her photos of us watching the show!

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‘Dolphin’ Bay

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A Variable Oystercatcher sitting on her nest at the high water line. The ‘variable’ refers to the frontal plumage which can be pied, mottled or all black. I prefer the Maori name, Torea-Pango.

 

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Looking east from the peak at Motuarohia Island

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A brief glimpse of a Yellowhammer

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More visitors to Joy at anchor

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A warm welcome from an inquisitive Welcome Swallow, a self-introduced bird thought to have flown here from Australia in the early 1900’s. They were named Welcome Sparrows because they appeared in South Australia as a herald of Spring.

Another excellent stop was Urupukapuka Island, the largest island in the bay. Although the anchorage was a bit rolly, we had access to the network of trails across the island with some wonderful views and plenty of bird life.

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The Tui bird has a two distinctive white tufts of feathers on its neck and an unusual call with a wide range of tuneful notes and grunts.

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A Ewe with a View

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The Pukeko is part of the rail family, we saw quite a few foraging in the paddocks

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One of my favourite New Zealand birds has to be the Fantail, it’s a small songbird with a long tail that it uses to change direction quickly when hunting for insects.

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It was a nice surprise to get a distant glimpse of an Eastern Rosalla, a colourful parakeet introduced from eastern Australia.

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And then a Sacred Kingfisher joined the Rosalla on the fence as we tried to get a closer view!

And all this in our first week in the very bountiful Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

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A New Arrival in New Zealand

The beautiful coastline of North Island, New Zealand, came into view at first light on day ten of our passage from Tonga.  We had motor-sailed for the last two and a bit days in 4-8 knots of wind making good time with our sails boosting our motoring speed by over a knot. It was blissfully hot on the western side of the high pressure system, now drawing warm air down from the tropics, and a flat calm sea made a welcome change from the previous days of awkward waves. We also finally caught a fish, having lost a lure and two other fish to something rather big over the last few days.

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Land Ahoy at sunrise on day ten

It was surprising not to have seen many shore lights the previous night as we approached the coast, quite often the warm glow of light pollution extends out to sea for up to 50 miles from more populated islands. Certainly not from the northern part of New Zealand.

Entering the beautiful Bay of Islands on our way to Opua to clear in, we dropped our sails and passed by the small town of Russell. Our dear friends Ted and Barbara are here on holiday,  so we gave them a wave in case they were watching, and arrived at the quarantine dock just before 8am.

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In the Southern Hemisphere it’s not just weather systems and draining water that go the opposite way to the Northern Hemisphere.  It took over six hours to clear in, with officials frustratingly working from the back of the queue forwards!

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The customs dog, wearing booties, shows who’s boss!

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A Pied Shag with a poorly foot

We are so looking forward to exploring, but first a good hose down for Joy, some extra sleep for her crew and a reunion with friends.

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Life on the Tilt – Day 7

It’s been an eventful week of sailing so far on our passage to New Zealand from Tonga.
Day two’s GFS GRIB file which gives us forecast wind direction, strength, surface pressure and rain, revealed an unfortunate change in the forecast. Our south east winds were soon to be south west winds for a 3 day period after a stronger than originally forecast trough passed over. This would mean beating into it in an attempt to make progress towards our goal, not our favourite sailing angle, as someone once said “Gentleman do not sail to windward”.

For the next day or so we made excellent progress just east of our rhumb line as the wind backed right around to the north west as the trough approached, and we watched the lightening display in the wall of clouds to our west. After clocking the wind settled in from the south west but light at first.

It was early morning and we decided in the light airs to take the reef out of the mainsail, but it wouldn’t budge. We could see from the deck that the car attached to the halyard and head of the sail was jammed just above the top spreader, but after some encouragement on the mandrel we managed to bring the sail down. Unfortunately it left two parts of the broken car in the track up the mast! There was only one solution so that we could get our main back up, and that was to hoist Jez up the mast to retrieve them. Not an easy task in a 2 metre swell mid ocean, swinging around up the mast isn’t a pleasant or comfortable experience but needs must. A few bruises later and slightly longer arms than when he started, success. Main hoisted again but without the car.

Shortly after getting the main back up, the wind picked up to 18 knots and we had to put that reef back in! But at least we had resolved the stuck sail which, as the next 24 hours panned out, was rather lucky. We tried tacking into the wind and waves which were now building even further, negative ‘velocity made good’ to our waypoint on port tack was depressing, sending us back up north towards Vanuatu. Starboard tack slightly better, 2 knots VMG but heading towards the Kermadec Islands way east of NZ. However this would have put us on the wrong side of the high making it a beat all the way and risking a large amount of time in the more dodgy area below 30° South. A few hours of trying different tactics and doing some calculations on arrival time if this continues for three days we decided we just couldn’t make the window. By this time the sea was running at 3-4 metres and the wind had built to 28 with gusts to 33 knots. We decided to run with it, not against it, and turned around.

It’s never easy making these decisions, and I think this is only the 2nd time in over 6 years that we have actually turned back due to not being able to make progress. We were quite surprised to find the wind backing to the South later in the day however, which made a slightly better angle if we headed west and tried to get further away from the squeeze zone that had developed between the trough that had passed and the following high pressure, so we changed plan again and set off on a port tack.

The next 24 hours were difficult, although we had a better sailing angle the wind didn’t let up and we were pounded by large waves across the bow making it quite uncomfortable. During the night the sheet attached to the reefed jib sail went bang and we quickly worked to furl the flapping frenzied sail away, replace the sheet and get it back out. Three hours later the second sheet exploded too, more frenzied flapping and our, by now, well rehearsed routine of furling and changing sheets continued in strong wind and water across the foredeck. Our main anchor, despite being secured to the capstan with a ratchet strap decided to work loose enough to bang with every wave, and required more deckwork in dire conditions to extra secure it to stop it crashing into the bow roller.

By morning we discovered that the flapping jib sail in the night had whipped a huge tear in the adjacent staysail, and two teak planks were missing from the dolphin seat on the bow, having been completely ripped off presumably by a smashing wave. In amongst these team building events were several other ‘incidents’ including the microwave oven door flying open and ejecting the glass turntable plate, smashing into smitherines on the galley floor as Jez prepared supper. Not to mention the smashed iPad screen when it shot across the cabin and down the stairs as I was lurched by a wave just as I was putting it back on its non slip mat.

We were pleased when, as expected, the GRIB files started to show light at the end of the tunnel, if we continued on our westerly course edging a little south of west as we went we would reach more favourable winds over the ridge of high pressure building beneath us. It was interesting to see that a gale force wind warning had now popped up on the surface charts on the back edge of the trough, and we know of another boat who were a little further south east of us before we turned around who actually hove-to to ride it out after damaging their mainsail.

Thankfully the next few days were not quite so eventful, the sea state has remained awkward but the winds have been mostly under 20 knots and south easterly so we have made progress to the south west.

Today the wind has backed further, now to the east at about 12 knots. We are almost at 30°S and still sailing towards our goal, Opua, at 5 knots, with a high pressure approaching Northland ready for our arrival in about 3 days time. We have covered nearly 900 nautical miles under sail with about 340 to go, although I think maybe soon it will be the turn of our iron sail as the wind drops.

I certainly agree that neither Gentlemen nor Gentleladies should sail to windward.

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Ha’apai Days

The Ha’apai group of islands are almost central with Vava’u to the north and Tongatapu to the south. They comprise of 62 islands which include barrier reefs, coral shoals and even active volcanoes.  Most of the islands are low lying coral atolls with long stretches of beautiful sandy beaches, and surprisingly only 17 of these islands are inhabited with around 8,000 people.

The main administrative centre for the group is in the small village of Pangai on Lifuka island.  A friendly village with several small chinese supermarkets and a rather sparse fresh produce market compared with Vava’u.  It was a great shame that when we returned to our dinghy after exploring and shopping, someone had stolen our long floating line that we had tied to the dock with.  Considerate thief though, they had retied us using the wire left inside the dinghy that we would normally lock it up with.  This is the first time in our 6 year trip that we have had something stolen and quite unexpectedly in the sleepy and remote Ha’apai islands, hope it has gone to good use!

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The main island of Lifuka

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A monument to British born Rev Shirley Baker stands in the European Cemetry on Lifuka Island. He arrived in Tonga in 1860 as a Wesleyan missionary and King George Tupou I made him Prime Minister in 1880. Rev Baker then had a disagreement with the Wesleyan Church in Sydney and formed his own independent body called the ‘Free Church of Tonga’.  He was deported to Auckland in 1890 when it was discovered that ‘he was using his power to the disadvantage of those who were not members of his church’!  He later returned to the island in 1900 and died here 3 years later.

 

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In addition to pigs rummaging along the verges, Lifuka has plenty of cattle too.

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We were surprised to find a solar powered Tuk Tuk in the village

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Jez pointed out that the blue tractor above,complete with car seat, is actually newer than this red one. They don’t build ’em like they used to.

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The productive island has numerous plantations

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With so many islands and anchorages to visit we were really spoilt for choice and many we had all to ourselves. Miles of deserted sandy beaches to roam and islands to circumnavigate at low tide, and interesting snorkeling with some of the healthiest reefs we have seen in the South Pacific.

Here are a few of our favourite places.

Uiha Island has a population of about 650 spread out across two villages on its west coast.  It was the first island we found to have extensive hurricane damage evident, at least two out of the four churches we found had bad damage and one had a concrete spire laying on the ground next to it.  We saw lots of concrete bases standing empty where a house once stood, and several small wooden one-room houses had been erected by the World Bank.  The most recent storm was Cyclone Gita which hit Tonga on 12th February 2018.

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The main road on Uiha

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Extensive damage with spires missing. Both badly damaged churches were still in use despite their condition.

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The most striking damage of all – the islands concrete wharf built over coral had been totally destroyed.

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Thick concrete slabs lifted and smashed in a hurricane

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Ha’ano Island is the northern-most of the barrier islands with less than 500 residents in three small villages. Shortly after returning to Joy after a day out exploring the island we had a strange event, short waves started to come over the reef and sweep through the anchorage. This was strange as the winds were light and the sea had been flat calm. The waves got larger and larger until they crashed right on to the beach smashing into the trees behind.  This carried on for twenty minutes before things gradually settled down. I knew instantly that there must have been an earthquake nearby, we discovered that 10 hours earlier an underwater earthquake measuring 5.3 had occurred 10km deep just east of Vava’u 60 miles to our north.

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The main road on the island

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The mini ‘tsunami’ sadly swept dozens of starfish onto the beach

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This hermit crab has a wonderful camouflage, his shell is attached to this entire jumble of weed and he drags it around as extra cover!

Tatafa Island is uninhabited and lies close to the northern tip of Uiha. At low water the island can be circumnavigated and is almost surrounded by coral reef.  The anchorage on its south side is very protected and we sat out two separate trough systems here when the wind turned to the north east.  The snorkeling is excellent with vibrant healthy reef and lots of tropical fish, we even spotted two lobster.

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Uonukuhahaki is one of three uninhabited sandy islands grouped together just a few miles south of Uiha.  Beautiful unspoilt sandy beaches and some excellent snorkeling on the maze of coral heads in between our anchor spot and the beach.

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Not just our footprints in the sand

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Sea snake tracks

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A family gathering of hermit crabs

We have used google earth on the Ovitalmap app to choose our anchorage spots, it’s been a great tool to locate a sandy patch with enough swinging room to avoid doing damage to the numerous coral heads.

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Google Earth image for the tiny island of Nukunamo shows up the dark patches of reef scattered around it.  The pass between this and Foa Island to the south had some fantastic healthy coral and an abundance of sea life including several moray eels.

Our three blissful weeks in The Ha’apai Islands have, as you can probably gather, been all about sandy beaches and snorkeling.  There is little else to do here except absorb oneself in the natural beauty of the place, our past time has been treasure-hunting. Beach combing has added to our collection of unusual sea shells, and there always seems to be another unidentified fish or critter to wonder over when we snorkel. Wildlife on the surface though is rather thin on the ground as we have found in most of the South Pacific, but this hasn’t stopped us from adding this group to our top destinations since leaving England.

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As I was looking at this unusual shell a moray eel poked its head out of its hole to check me out

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A beautiful clam

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Yet another trough hangs over the group bringing cloud and rain as we head off out into the ocean swell once more, bashing our way south to our last Tongan island, Tongatapu.  As we sail through the channel ‘Ava Pupu’, surrounded by breaking seas over the reef, I can’t help but chuckle at the name and hope that we can return to these special islands one day.

 

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Exploring Vava’u, Tonga

The Vava’u group of islands in Tonga isn’t just a wonderful place to see whales, it is a fabulous cruising ground for us yachties. With so many possible anchorages with reefs and islands to hide behind, protection from just about any direction of wind can be found.  Miles of sandy beaches to stretch the legs and hunt for shells, clear water to swim and snorkel, what more could we possibly ask for. The outer reefs do a great job of breaking down the Pacific Ocean swell leaving just wind-chop inside the group when the wind piped up, which was actually quite frequent.

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The entrance to the main harbour at Neiafu as seen from Mount Talau

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A view of the town with Joy anchored in the secluded Old Harbour, a huge empty bay to the east of Neiafu

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Going ‘off the beaten track’ requires a big stick and a watch out for these huge spiders

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One of many colourful Polynesian stories

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School children explore the reef at low tide during their lunch break

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Tongan burial grounds often have large posters of the deceased at the grave and are decorated with plastic flowers and colourful quilts. I like the fact that they don’t use the words ‘Born’ and ‘Died’, instead calling them ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Sunset’.

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Standard school uniform for the boys

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Working his plot

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 Dog-tired

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Tongan piglets are playful little creatures and bound about like excited puppies

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The Kapok tree is a member of the Ceiba family and produces a cotton-like material used to stuff upholstery and cushions

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A large  ‘cotton bud’ from the Kapok tree

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We found an interesting reef to snorkel off Mala island with dozens of starfish, hard and soft corals and plenty of colourful fish. We also spotted a few fascinating Crown of Thorns starfish which we have never seen before. Unlike an ordinary starfish it’s quite flexible and has multiple arms, up to 23 infact, and each arm is covered in thorn-like spines which are quite venomous.  It preys on hard corals, feeding on the polyps by extruding its stomach out through its mouth over the coral surface to about the same diameter as its body!  Digestive enzymes from the stomach are then excreted and the liquefied coral cells absorbed, leaving behind a bleached white coral skeleton. Apparently a single Crown of Thorns starfish can consume up to 6 square meters of living coral reef per year, so they can pose a threat to a healthy reef when found in large numbers.

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Spot the small pipe fish below the top coral, they are members of the same family as the seahorse but have a straight body with a small fan at the end of the tail.

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The pipefish playing hide’n’seek

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The beautiful Red Slate Pencil Urchin

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There’s a creature hiding under that shell!

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Crown of Thorns starfish

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Entrance to Swallows Cave

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Inside Swallows Cave – this is not a reflection in the water, the water is so clear the underwater world is clearly visible

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We particularly enjoyed the eastern islands which seemed far less popular, perhaps as to get there a yacht has to cross an awkward area of reef.  With the assistance of Google Earth (via a great app called Ovitalmap, which downloads Google Earth maps and stores them in a cache for viewing offline) we were able to define the best route to take across the reef.  I kept a lookout for coral heads at the bow as we zig-zagged our way across the reef without seeing less than 6 metres of water under the boat.  The reward was some beautiful anchorages and a network of small islands, some inhabited with a single village where the residents are certainly less use to seeing tourists. As we wandered through the narrow car-less streets of Oloua island to the beach, followed by a very friendly local lady who seemed to be keeping a close eye on us,  a small child pointed at us and said “Palangi, Palangi” which means foreigner!

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A noddy pays us a visit

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Some wonderful sailing between the islands

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Back on the main island at the town of Neiafu, we could stock up at the wonderful local fresh produce market where the lovely ladies often put extra ‘gifts’ of produce in our bags.

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The daily market at Neiafu

After the simple process of renewing our visas for another 30 days it was time to move on, with the wind briefly shifting from a strong southeasterly to a much kinder 10-15 knot easterly over night this would give us a better sailing angle to the next Tongan islands, the Ha’apai group just 65 miles south.

 

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Treasured moments with Tongan Humpbacks – The Video!

There’s nothing quite like video footage to animate an event where photos cannot completely portray the whole experience. Such as the articulation of the fins, the rotating joint tilts the fin almost like tabs on an aircraft wing, they also flex like a birds wing to gracefully add to their manoeuvrability at the surface.  To show the female’s interest in us humans, every time they surfaced she headed towards us.  As visitors to their world we are given rules, like no touching. These gentle giants have no reciprocal rules, they want to try and touch us. Humpbacks are clearly as curious about us as we are about them.  Then there are the sounds, the grunts and snorts that to me sound similar to an elephant, the male’s noisy, sharp intake of breath on one occasion makes me smile,  and of course there is the unbeatable haunting call as they dive. You will also hear our tour guide whooping for joy during the footage, he was clearly as excited with this encounter as we were.

We know that there are mixed feelings with regards to whether or not whale-watching or getting in the water to observe these whales is the ‘right thing to do’. Are we affecting their behaviour in any way and are we an unwelcome presence? The conclusion that we came to based on our encounter and what we observed suggests otherwise.  The first pair of whales we spotted that day weren’t particularly interested in us, and after a few breaches and some surfacing they quickly disappeared into the deep blue ocean.  When we arrived in the vicinity of this courting pair, it was clear that they wanted attention by heading straight for the boat as if happy to have a play thing, something to show off their acrobatic skills to. This is similar behaviour to the dolphins we have encountered, not only do they race to the bow to ride the wave but also they come along side the cockpit and leap out of the water as if to say “we’re here, come and watch us”.

So we are happy and comfortable that not only did we not invade their space, but for a few minutes we actually shared it with them and provided some sort of entertainment. Afterall, they have the ability to out-wit and out-manoeuvre us, when they want solitude they make it clear and disappear, when its play time they seek our attention.  It’s humbling to think that they may have forgiven the human race for once bringing them to the brink of extinction,  and are now seemingly comfortable in our presence.

And finally, apologies for the annoying dot on the screen, after six years of diving and snorkeling use our GoPro has succumbed to a tiny bubble of moisture inside the sealed lens!

 

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Swimming with The Gentle Giants of Tonga

Our 170 mile sail south from Niuatoputapu to the Vava’u group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga was a wet and bumpy one but we are, afterall, pretty much used to those conditions in the South Pacific.

The Vava’u group is an extraordinary labyrinth of around 60 tropical islands surrounded by beautiful beaches and coral reefs, each year its warm and protected waters attract humpback whales from their summer feeding grounds in the cold waters of the Southern Ocean.  The humpbacks come here to give birth to their calves after 11 months gestation and also to breed for the following year.

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Tonga is therefore not only a great place to whale-watch but also to get in the water and snorkel with these gentle giants, although it has to be on a guided tour as it is illegal to get in the water with them without a registered guide. We didn’t waste much time in booking ourselves on a trip and were lucky to join another British yachtie couple, Bill and Moira, on the same tour.

The ‘whale’ day came, I have to say I didn’t sleep much the night before due to excitement, and we roared out of the harbour on a twin-hulled aluminium motor boat with our skipper and guide. Despite a forecast of sunshine and low swell we had thick cloud cover and as the morning search progressed the sea worsened and we slammed into waves, certainly not good photographic conditions!   A pair of whales were spotted within the first couple of hours, but after a few breaches and tail slaps they disappeared into the deep blue. The search continued.IMG_8632B-squashed

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This one had the hump..

Skipper decided it was too rough anyway to be getting in the water here, so we headed back into the protection of the southern islands with our fingers crossed for more sightings. Lady luck shone down on us after another hour or so, with a call from another tour boat with the location of two whales, a male and female in courtship, allowing swimmers to share their space. When we arrived close by another boat had people in the water, we hung back and geared up quickly. As the other swimmers got out of the water the whales surfaced and came straight towards our boat. The shout went up from our guide, ‘now, now, get in’, and we all launched ourselves into the unknown.  My heart was pounding, as the soup of bubbles dispersed  there she was, swimming right past my eyes. I shed a little tear in my goggles. I cannot describe the intense feeling of excitement and magic as this agile 30 ton beauty glided right past me followed by her suitor.   The females are larger than the male, so it was easy to immediately distinguish between the two and they had very different markings. The female led the show and he willingly followed her lead.

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Eye contact, a surreal moment.

They took a breath and dived together, we hovered in the water just over them observing them far down in the clear deep blue ocean.  They rested together beneath us for some while, side by side, I could see gentle fins touching one another, we were perhaps witnessing some whale affection.  Then as the view of them beneath us became clearer and clearer, I realised that they were actually surfacing in the same position. After a quick breath the female headed straight towards me, my heart pounded even more.  I wondered if her 195 kg heart was pounding as much as mine, but it was clear as she came closer that she was really quite comfortable with us in the water with her. The guide helped pull me back out of her way, it was difficult kicking backwards to get away while still trying to keep eyes on the whale. It was a shock, I just wasn’t expecting them to be as interested in us as we were in them. They had surfaced pretty much smack bang in the middle of the group, separating us so that we almost surrounded her as the male followed suit.

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Coming in for a closer look!

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Then a shorter dive followed before they surfaced again with slightly more distance from myself thankfully, performing tail slaps and then some graceful water aerobics with each other.  After only ever seeing humpback tail slaps from the surface, it amazed me how effortlessly they achieve this underwater with their body completely vertical.

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Mr Whale is always close behind Mrs Whale

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After all that showing off, Mr Whale releases his breath as they descend together

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Bottoms up!

Getting back on board the boat, our group were obviously ecstatic at this encounter.  Half way through eating lunch our guide suddenly shouted again, gear up and get in!  We had another opportunity with the same pair,  as they surfaced close to the boat everyone slipped in for yet another up-close and personal encounter.  As the female glided towards Jez he too swam backwards to get out of her way, still trying to film and keep eye contact, each time he moved away she came in closer gently waving a fin, until she made the lightest of touches, seemingly satisfied she moved on.

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Our group get ready as she comes to the surface

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She was determined to make gentle contact with that fin!

We actually managed three swims with these beautiful creatures, I sure hope we didn’t invade their space during their courtship. I have certainly never thanked God for my life so many times in a single day, and we’re especially thankful to my Mum whose early birthday present to me helped pay for this memorable whale encounter!

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Our baleen Beauty!

 

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A Warm Welcome in Niuatoputapu, Tonga

Our weather window proved to be an absolute cracker, sailing from American Samoa to the northern-most group of Tongan islands was 42 hours of shear bliss. Sailing in a calm sea with very little swell and light winds, but just enough to keep the sails full. We wouldn’t have won any prizes for speed but enjoyed every minute of it.  The sky at night was so clear with millions of stars visible and an excellent view of the Southern Cross which we haven’t seen for months.

Conditions were perfect for fishing, and in no time we had a large mahi mahi fighting on the end of the line.  After a joint effort of reeling we successfully got our 4ft plus beauty on board, how wonderful to have fresh mahi mahi for supper.

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As the early morning light spread out across the blue Pacific ocean on day two the volcanic island of Tafahi, just 5 miles north of the larger but lower island of Niuatoputapu, came into view.

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The volcanic island of Tafahi, with a population of just 30, appears on the horizon

Birds swooped around Joy, a noisy jumble of boobies, noddies and terns, participating in a feeding frenzy triggered by what I thought may be tuna.  Then I saw a long brown fish close to the surface swimming alongside Joy darting back and forth, I had no idea what kind of fish it might be.  As we slipped towards a bubbling mass of fish and birds Jez threw out the fishing line, and as we sailed right through the frenzy the reel whizzed and the fight was on once more.  This time we had a wonderful chunky tuna, but something had taken a bite out of our catch as we reeled it in.  We instantly realised that the long brown creature I had seen by the boat must have been  a Cookie Cutter Shark, we have read about them but never before seen them.  They feed on whales, dolphins and other fish by taking a cookie-sized bite out of their fleshy victims!

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A fresh bite from the Cookie Cutter monster!

As we approached the reef surrounding Niuatoputapu the feeding frenzy continued, we thought that it would be nice to share some fish with the locals  (as well as the Cookie Cutter Sharks) so put the line back out and instantly caught another.  The main anchorage is in a large lagoon behind the reef extending from the north east shore, the entrance had two markers on the beach which, when lined up with each other, showed the safest route in through the breaking swell.  We felt that we had truly arrived in paradise.

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Approaching Niuatoputapu

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Entering the pass

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There were six other boats in the anchorage and the officials were already on board another yacht clearing them in, so within a few minutes of anchoring we had Immigration, Health and the Agricultural officers on board to complete the paperwork.  The Agricultural officer, Etuate, was quite a character. After offering them a whole tuna to share between them we were quickly invited to a pig roast picnic at the weekend on a small island in the lagoon and we were to invite the other boats to join us.   In exchange for a bottle of wine he also offered to take us on a tour of the island the following day and supply us with some produce from his plantations. What a wonderful welcome!

True to his word, Etuate appeared on the concrete dock the following morning in his truck, and the crew of another yacht joined us on the short tour of this delightful rural island. Niuatoputapu apparently means ‘Sacred Island’ and has a population of about 1000 in three small villages, with the main source of income producing woven handicrafts.

They grow and harvest Pandanus leaves and then the labour intensive process of preparing the leaves for weaving begins.  First they boil the leaves in a large pot over a fire, this removes the outer layer and allows them to split the leaves. Next they are taken at low tide down onto the beach, and laid out in the water and secured down by rocks. The rising tide covers them and they soak in the sea water which bleaches them and makes them softer to weave. Finally, they are rinsed and hung to dry, or laid out in the sun.  The leaves are then woven into mats and handicrafts and exported to New Zealand, Australia and the States.

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Splitting the Pandanus leaves after boiling

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Learning the ropes – a happy little helper

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The final two stages – Pandanus leaves are laid out on the reef at low tide to be soaked in salt water and in the background you can see some hanging out to dry.

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School children practice their traditional dance, the boys wear woven ta’ovala mats around their waists

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The cop shop!

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Etuate’s tractor sits under a bountiful bread fruit tree

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The islands freshwater spring

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I love the rural feel about this remote island, its residents share the land with their livestock, numerous pigs roam freely and are often seen on the beaches at low tide in search of food. Horses and foals graze at the waters edge, chickens scratch around in the undergrowth.   Etuate explained to us that this island was hit by the same tsunami that affected Samoa in 2009, here it killed 9 people and wiped out 100 houses in two of the three villages and destroyed the small health centre.  Nearly three months later the World Bank approved a grant to build basic wooden houses for the people made homeless but it wasn’t until 2016 that the EU provided funding to construct a new hospital with staff accommodation on higher ground.

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Coconuts, bananas and taro

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Both the leaves and roots of the taro are used in cooking

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These children helped load the coconuts into the truck after de-husking.

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Etuate opens a green coconut for us to drink

After visiting Etuate’s garden and a couple of plantations we returned to the dinghy laden with produce. He had picked for us three varieties of  banana, coconuts, green peppers, papaya, bread fruit and cassava (tapioca) root. We felt like ‘boat boys’ as we visited the other yachts in the anchorage offering a share of our generous exchange.

We awoke on Saturday to some pretty miserable weather, strong winds of 25-30 knots rattled across the lagoon and the rain lashed down, not a good start for the pig roast picnic preparations. Despite the weather Etuate, along with his helper, was keen that the show must go on so Jez ferried the two chefs across the lagoon to the desert island to build the fire pit and start cooking the pig. A little later another trip with three ladies and the little girl we had seen preparing Pandanus leaves, along with some pre-prepared local dishes.

Conditions were awkward, trying to anchor the dinghies in the choppy reef strewn waters off the island and get their occupants ashore without getting too wet was a challenge.

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The dinghy park

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Our desert island

With fourteen yachties and six islanders to feed, I did wonder how far the little piggy on the spit roast would stretch.  But we all managed to try some and two local fisherman who had arrived to set their nets also joined in. The women had prepared a traditional dish of Palusami, parcels of corn beef wrapped in taro leaves and cooked in coconut milk, as well as baked bread fruit and cassava, and each yacht had brought a dish and some drinks to add to the mix.

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Jez is quite at home turning the spit roast

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I gave the little girl a colouring book and crayons which kept her occupied for ages!

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Climbing a coconut tree to cut down some leaves to make a serving table

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A smile to melt the heart

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‘Carving’ the pig on the freshly laid table

We were really lucky that the rain held off for the picnic but the afternoon wasn’t so promising and so we said goodbye to our desert island and retreated back to our boats. Thankfully the weather improved after a couple of days and we managed a days hiking around the island before preparing for our short passage south to the Vava’u group of islands.

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The fuel station

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The missionaries landed here in the mid 19th century, introducing Christianity to Tonga.

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An ‘umbrella’ tree

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Pandanus leaves laid out to dry in the sun

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The leading markers on the beach to guide mariners through the pass safely

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Looking out over the coral barrier protecting the eastern shore

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A shipwrecked coconut sprouts into life on the windswept beach

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A plantation of Pandanus

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Niuatoputapu has been such a wonderful introduction to life in The Kingdom of Tonga and we will certainly treasure our memories of this remote island and its friendly people.

 

 

 

 

 

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