November 6, 2011

Ha'apai group

After 2 beautiful weeks in the Vava'u Group we made our way south to the Haapai Group.  The Kingdom of Tonga is a series of islands that lies north to south  over a distance of 350 miles with many different island groups with almost too many places to see. 

Our first stop on tour way south was Ofolanga, one of the small islands in the NW part of the Ha'apai Group.  We found ourselves motor sailing most of the way and of course I had to get the lines in the water since it had not fished in weeks.  Well you know that bait I caught the big marlin in Fiji had to be in the water along with my other favorites and for a while I thought I would actually get skunked.  We were 7 miles from our destination motoring at just 5 knots in bumpy seas with overcast weather, not the best fishing conditions to say the least.  And then, Bang the pole with the marlin bait came alive with what looked to be a monster fish!  Well 20 minutes later we had a 40 pound Sierra Mackerel  on the deck!!  This is only the second of these I have caught and this one was by far the biggest.  These fish look like a big fat Wahoo and seem to taste even better if that’s possible?  So much for getting skunked….

An hour later we rounded the island and anchored nest to Braveheart and another boat Dana with a couple from Austria aboard and one other catamaran.  We got on the radio and announced we had fish to give away and Dana replied so we invited them over for a drink and gave them a nice piece of Mackerel.   They told us their story over a beer and to sum it up, they left for a sail 9 years ago and are just fell in love with the pacific and have been all over from way down south to  Easter Island  and all the way up to Kodiak Island in Alaska!  Now that is doing some sailing!!

The next morning Daria, Bob, Veronica and I all went for a dive off the reef and after the dive we had a nice lunch which Bob from Braveheart fried up some fresh Mahi that he caught on his way down, what a meal!! 

 After lunch we pulled the hook and motored over to Luahoka which is a postcard perfect little island just 5 miles away and went for a walk around it and then went for a swim.  The coral around the island was spectacular with corral canyons and lots of fish swimming in the clear blue water.


Back aboard Downtime we were relaxing when we heard whales blowing just 200 yards in front of the boat.  We hopped in SD (Supper Dink for the new readers)  and went to see if we could get closer and swim with them.  Well, this was our lucky day!!  We followed a few whales and were lucky enough to stop where we though they would come up next and Daria slid into the water just as one whale swam by.  She was only 10 yards away from a 40 foot whale!! You should have heard the screams coming out of her snorkel!! Too Funny! 

Luahoko was no place to anchor overnight so we moved to Nukunamo Island  and anchored in baby blue water with the anchor stuck in white sand.  Later that evening we had Bob and Veronica over and played Monopoly Deal the short version of monopoly and enjoyed a nice fish dinner that Daria whipped up.  Wow what a busy day!  The anchorage was nice and calm and we tuned in early for some much needed rest.  About 4:30 the next morning I kept hearing  this strange squeaking sound?  I got up to see what was loose on deck and fond nothing out of order and went back to bed.  Then there it was again!  Then it dawned on me… it had to be whales singing!! The sounds gradually got louder and louder and soon seemed to be just outside the boat.  I went back topside and saw a mother and her calf just 50 feet from Downtime and they were singing away.  By now it was very loud in the boat and  the sounds were incredible to hear so close.  One sound was like a giant door hinge slowly creaking and the other sounded almost like a dog with a bone stuck in its throat and very raspy.  They say the volume can get up to 160 DB and travel for miles.  Our beds on Downtime are at water level and we heard them like we were in the water with them.  What a way to start the day!!  Later Daria and Veronica took the kayak to the beach and went searching for shells and returned with a bucket full of treasure.

The next stop was a few miles south at Ha Ano Isalnd and we went ashore to visit the small village there.  The locals had a nice attitude and invited us for a Kava welcoming party.  Well, having had the nasty tasting  kava before I was not to thrilled but we went anyways.  It was nice to be welcomed on the island and by its people.  The island itself appeared to be really poor.  The people seemed to have just given up and it showed. There really was not much else going on.  What they do have is electricity and a love for rugby!!  One house we walked by had 3 foot weeds growing around it with no doors or windows but amazingly had a 42 inch plasma hanging on the wall with the rugby tournament playing.  There were 6 or 7 guys gathered around a kava bowl watching the game but the other men on the island must have been out fishing.   There were not very many kids and we were told that when they get old enough are sent off to boarding school and only return on the holidays and school breaks.

Lifuka Island was our  next stop to clear in and as usual finding out where was half the battle.  We asked sever locals and each one gave us a look like we asked them the square root of 46 or something and had no freaking idea?  Heck the island is only 2 miles long and eventually we found the customs office right next to the post office!  Its funny how official an islander can get with a title of “customs officer” It is like giving the road worker a shovel to lean on!  Clearing in was easy just fill out  one page and a show of passports then we were cleared in and were out  in 20 minutes.  I Really see no point of clearing into a country again but it on the “your supposed to do it list” so we did.  The little town had at least 5 or 6 small shops run by the Chinese who practically or most times actually did live their little stores.  There are no prices marked and I think everyone gets charged differently,  for us the ones who looked like they had a few extra dollars we were charged $18  for a dozen eggs and a bag of onions.  Way too much but hey lets hope the next guy gets a break…. It was amazing how much trash was laying around this island.  Pigs ran wild rooting through the rubbish behind the stores and coke cans, chip bags and candy wrappers lined the streets. There was only one central place to put garbage and that was inside a big shed that was stacked to the ceiling with junk.  I guess they haul it when the building is full?  This is definitely a place less traveled and we only saw a few other tourists in town at the only internet café on the island.  Again this café was owned by a European and had a few locals working In the kitchen.  The food was good and internet was so. On the table next to us were some guys from South Africa and they has 20 packs of cigarettes on the table and looked to be recovering from the previous nights rugby game by drinking beer and chain smoking.  I really do not know why one would travel to such a remote place to vacation?

After clearing in we moved the boat to Uiha Island 8 miles down south.  Uiha had a small village that look similar to others we have seen so we just stayed on the boat.  It looks like the villages own a few boats and all the men go out fishing during the day. Just before dark several boats were coming back to the village and must have had 10 to 15 guys on a small 20 foot boat!   We anchored next to Braveheart again and that afternoon Daria and Veronica took the kayak and explored the area and that evening we had dinner together.  In the morning Braveheart was heading south chasing a Nov 1st arrival in NZ and we were heading to the Koto Group.

The Koto Group is 35 miles south and just a handful of yachts visit each year.  The islands have a bad reputation for having poor anchorages and bad charts.  We soon found out how bad the charts were and had to keep a sharp eye out for reefs that would pop up out of no where since they definitely were not plotted on the right place on the charts!  You hear stories of boats going aground and this is the type of place it usually happens, remote poorly charted islands.  Thankfully we had clear water and bright skies to be able to see the oncoming dangers. 
Ha Afeva was the first island we anchored at.  The pass through the reef was visible but did not line up with our charts on the boat?  We took it slow and safely made it through the reef and anchored on the south side of the island.  From our anchorage I could count 11 other islands and the next day we took SD for a trip to go see some of them.  A few had small villages and others were uninhabited. 
Driving around  I wondered what this place must have been like 100 years ago?  I had to be an even more amazing place back then…
The next stop was 10 miles away and we anchored in a little bay on “O” Va a beautiful little island just ½ mile across.  We took SD to the shore and spent a few hours walking around the island making the first footprints in the sand in who now’s how long?  All these little islands have beautiful beaches and on most you get the whole island to yourself. The islands are covered in dense vegetation and coconut palms so thick that it is impossible to walk through the heavy growth.  While walking around the islands I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of trees falling into the ocean where the shore is eroding on several of these islands.  The evidence that the oceans are rising is real here and you can see the affects in many of the places I have been.  They say the oceans have risen 10 inches in the last 40 years and will rise another 3 feet by the end of this century.  Three feet of water and most of these islands we have seen will disappear forever.

Next stop was the Nomuka Group and our first island was Iki and we tucked inside a mile long reef on the NE side and anchored in 15 feet of water.  The reef gave us good protection during low tide but when the tide was up we were rolling pretty good.  On the trip down we had lines trolling all day without a strike and just when we approached the island, BANG another Mahi hit just a mile from the island we were sailing to. Amazing!.  That afternoon the wind was blowing 15 to 20 so I got out a kite and wouldn’t you know it about the time I launched it dropped down to 12 and I did not have enough wind to pull me up.  It is so frustrating to go through all that work just to have the wind die …again…maybe next time.

After 2 days of stormy weather we set sail for the next island 30 miles south.  On our trip across we first caught a 3 foot white tip shark on a diving lour and just before we came to the island and were skirting a coral head we landed another Sierra Mackerel on the purple marlin bait. Kelefesia Island is surrounded with several other islands and many unmarked reefs.  The entrance to the anchorage has a 70 sailboat laying on the bottom to attest to the fact that this is a dangerous place.  Her mast is still laying on the beach picked clean of any thing of value, the rest of the boat just is laying on the bottom as a reminder to be extra careful in these islands.
We slowly motored over the sunken boat to get into the anchorage that was no more that a big open area surrounded by reef 100 yards from the island.  The island was amazing! There were sandstone cliffs that rose up from the beach that had 100’s of layers of different colored tan sand running in horizontal lines on cliffs that are over 100 feet tall.  What a contrast to the palm trees and jungle behind them and the turquoise blue water in front.
  We launched the kayak and paddled 2 miles around the island through the shallow lagoon and saw the whole island.  On the NW end we saw a make shift camp area but no one was around and on the far west side was a beautiful beach and a smaller pure sand island that would go under water at high tide.  

Later I was able to kite for a few hours,  luckily this time before the wind died down.  Afterward I left the kite ready on the beach for two days waiting for the wind to return but it never did?  This was the most spectacular island I have ever experiences. We had a calm anchorage, beach and island all to ourselves in clear blue water and perfect weather.

The next say we took SD for another adventure to Nuku Island just 3 miles away and found the reef to difficult to pass even in SD.  Next we drove out to Kefikana Rock which would be the smallest island we visited just 40 feet across and 13 feet high, we had time for a few pictures and then headed back to Downtime.  It is a strange feeling being 7 miles out to sea in a 15 foot dingy, I was thinking don’t fail me now SD!!  Well SD was true to form and the 60 Hp Yamaha never missed a beat and soon we were back safe in the anchorage next to Downtime. 

Later that afternoon our island paradise was interrupted by two boats full of fishermen from a nearby islands.  We went ashore to say hello and brought them hats and tee shirts to open up the trading floor. Also made few pictures from the top of the cliff.

Fishermen were preparing to spend a night there, so I asked if they were lobster fishermen and yes I was right.  I then asked what they would trade lobster for?  Naturally they replied “KAVA”  well, they were in luck and the next morning they traded 9 lobsters for 2 pounds (1 kg) of kava and everyone was happy.

We spent three days in this island paradise and then the weather forecast looked like the winds were about to change and we set sail for Nuku Alofa where we planned to pick up Tim and Chris on the 20th.  The 50 mile sail to Nukua Alofa was interrupted  by a monster Wahoo that Daria did a nice job reeling in all by herself, what a beautiful fish!!  When we arrived it was fresh fish for many of our cruising friends to enjoy…again!
Our next adventure will be discovering Nukualofa.

Until then live your dreams!!

Capt. Pete and Daria