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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.