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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.