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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Haapai Moray

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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