25 Jun 2019

25/6/2019: Bay of Islands, Vanua Balavu, Lau Group, Fiji

Breathtaking. That's the best way to describe the scenery on the twenty miles trip to the Bay of Islands on Vanua Balavu 's north-west coast. Of course it was helped by a vivid blue sky reflecting on the azure and turquoise seas.

The geology is interesting on the islands with dramatic and high undercut cliffs surrounding the bays and smaller, scattered rocks within them, again undercut and looking a bit like mushrooms.

The area would be very quiet indeed without the presence of the World ARC fleet. Most of us enjoyed a few nights at anchor here, making the most of the snorkelling at the 'bat cave', probably the best coral reef we have ever seen. And also enjoying rafting up in the dinghy to watch the large fruit bats take flight at dusk for a night hunting.

There's a pretty significant weather system heading our way in a few days time which has impacted all of our plans. Instead of heading for the island of Taveuni for a few days we're heading overnight to SavuSavu, one of the larger towns on the second d largest island of Vanua Levu where we can tuck away up a creek and ride the high winds out. Such a shame that the forecast is interfering with our plans but not a lot we can do about it.

We have had to say farewell to a few boats in the last couple of days, ones that are dropping out of the rally, and a few tears have been shed. Intense friendships have developed in a relatively short period of time, engendered by the shared experience and crazy amount of socialising we have all done. In fitting fashion we enjoyed a farewell beach bbq today with special friends, saddened to be saying goodbye but knowing we will all meet up again in the new year in New Zealand.

21 Jun 2019

21/6/2019: Lomolomo, Vanua Balavu, Lau Group, Fiji

After 48 hours at sea we entered the lagoon surrounding the island of Vanua Balavu with Paul keeping watch for coral reefs on the bow as we approached the main settlement for the Lau Group of islands, and probably the most remote part of Fiji.

One flight a week and nothing in the way of hotels, has resulted in a very traditional culture where the village chief is definitely the head man. Visitors must present themselves to the chief and take a gift of cava powder (a root crop) to mix with water to make a muddy coloured drink. This is shared with visitors in a formal sevu sevu ceremony, a cultural experience to behold apparently and one we will probably partake in several times. We have to dress appropriately, with covered knees and shoulders so Paul chose to wear a sarong, again part of the local culture.

The sail down was good but rolly and we were tired by the time we arrived. Fijian customs clearance is a strict affair and we had to remain on board until our turn in the queue to clear in. That turned out to be over 20 hours after our arrival but given we slept 11 hours of that it soon passed!

Venturing ashore this afternoon we strolled through the village, chatting to locals and watching the high school students playing both netball and sevens rugby. The island is very tropical with palm trees framed by vivid blue skies, lovely. The locals are very welcoming: one man scaled a palm tree to harvest coconuts for us which he opened and we gratefully drank the coconut water.

We rounded off the day hosting dinner for 8 on board Tumi, an international mix of French Canadians, Germans and Brits. A lot of fun with everyone contributing a dish of food to share. Tomorrow we'll move on to the Bay of Islands, reputedly stunningly beautiful. A few days rest and relaxation beckons!

16 Jun 2019

17th June 2019 Vava'u Tonga

We had a busy day yesterday: joining a tour to see the local botanical gardens in the morning and the World ARC awards dinner for leg 5 (which of course we were disqualified from for not going to Suwarrow!) that evening.

We actually awoke to some blue sky, such a pleasant sight after almost a week of cloudy and at times very wet weather. Piling onto a coach we set off for the other side of the island where a former Tongan Minister for Agriculture has developed a botanical garden in what had been virgin forest. It's been his life's passion, cultivating native and imported plants and trees and as he escorted us around it was obviously still a big part of his life.

Driving across the island, passing through small villages, we were once again surprised how like parts of home it looked, give or take the odd palm tree, with cows grazing in meadows.

Sone of the land was cultivated where the major crop is a root plant called cava. After harvest this is ground down into a fine powder which, when mixed with water, forms a muddy-looking, earthy-tasting hallucinogenic drink which is very popular with the locals on many Polynesian islands. In fact we have needed to buy a few kilos of the stuff to take with us to Fiji where, when visiting inhabited islands, there is an expectation that we will take some along as a gift for the chief. Paul and I ended up with more than we needed and so we've travelled around the anchorage selling the surplus, rather feeling like drug dealers!

After touring the garden the rudiments of weaving, tapa-making and coconut processing by hand were all demonstrated to us. The palms from the coconut trees are woven into baskets and screens which are used for roofing, privacy screens, table cloths, matting and, after being dried and stripped, even traditional clothing. A very versatile plant indeed, especially when you consider how they use the nut itself for coconut water, dessicated coconut and coconut milk (from squeezing the shredded coconut in the fibrous husk to extract the liquid). All of the work appears to be done by the women, including making the tapa-cloth from repeatedly banging the stripped bark of a local mulberry tree with a wooden club. After a day of hitting a 10cm wide strip of bark, a 30cm wide length of cloth is produced which is reasonably soft and is used for clothing and blankets for warmth. The women need an awful lot of patience and arm strength to produce each piece.

After a being served a local lunch (chicken curry, shredded beef in taro leaves, fish patties, karava cakes, rice etc) we were entertained by local dancers while our host and his friends got into the cava …. and appeared to get very mellow! Say no more!! It is traditional for the dancers to cover themselves in oil and the audience to stick currency to their limbs during the dance. The dancing itself is far gentler in style than that we have seen further east, more akin to the flowing movements of Hawaiian dancers in many ways. The accompanying music was also unusual and didn't sound very Polynesian to us! All in all an interesting few hours.

The awards dinner last night was a big event for the local Tongans with the deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Tourism attending, together with the dance troupe that travels internationally representing the kingdom and a local brass band! It was also a big night for the fleet being the last time we will all get together for an WARC event as 6 boats are dropping out in Fiji for a year, and a few tears were shed by the boats concerned. More local food, punch, chatting, laughter and prize-giving followed before we headed back to Tumi tired but happy.

Yesterday, several of us went to church to enjoy the wonderful singing during the service. The choirs' voices made the hairs stand up on your neck. We left about half way through the service as we were taking up seats from local people and they were reduced to sitting or standing outside which didn't feel right. Many of us then went on a hike to the highest point on the island, involving a final climb of 189 steps to reach the pinnacle.

Last night one of our toilets blocked and refused to function. Repairing toilets is not a job we relish but we got stuck in and pulled out the waste pipe (not an easy task). It turned out to be completely choked with scale, no wonder it wouldn't work. An hour later we had broken out all the scale and flushed the pipe through. Reassembling the system went reasonably easy without the solid core preventing any flexibility in the pipe, and now we just have to rebuild the cupboards that hide access to the pipe.

Today is a provisioning, refuelling, and clearance day. Once that is done we will move to an anchorage nearby for the night so that we are ready to leave Tonga for Fiji in the morning - approximately 2 days sail.

We have made a decision about our future plans this week and have decided to remain with the rally and sail directly to Mackay this year rather than drop out in Fiji and slow things down. It will be nice to continue in company and have a few months cruising Queensland before flying home in early November. Lots of land-based adventures await including our first one in NZ for the first few months of next year and then back in Australia in the Spring.

14 Jun 2019

14/6/2019: Vakaeitu Island, Vava'u Group, Tonga

Tonga is the Pacific's last remaining monarchy and is culturally very strong - Tongan society is hierarchical (royalty, nobility and commoners), is devoid of materialism and 'borrowing’ is a way of life! Even school uniforms feature a sarong for boys, as did the uniform for the clearance officials on Monday. It was under Britain's protection until 1970 when full sovereignty was re-established and it joined the Commonwealth of Nations. It isn't a wealthy country at all, with little tourism infrastructure, and largely survives on international aid (primarily from Australia and NZ but also China) and remittances sent from Tongans living overseas.

The Tongans themselves are extremely religious with many churches of various Christian denominations. We were chatting with two young Californian girls, both dressed in long floral dresses with braided hair, a few days ago who are here as Mormon missionaries for a year. They told us that over 99% of the population are Christian, and that great energy and creativity is put into decorating graves. As in Niue, Sunday is truly a day of rest: it is actually illegal to work on a Sunday. No flights arrive, no shops are open and sports are prohibited. A few tourism businesses do operate but generally the island grinds to a halt while the nation attends church, feasts and rests. Attending a church service has been recommended to us for an amazing cultural experience where the singing is unbelievable. We'll try to go to one on Sunday, and Paul would like to attend a rugby match too.

The Vava'u Group of islands comprises myriad small rocky islets covered in vegetation and palm trees. Protected from the ocean by reefs, it makes for a lovely cruising ground and is apparently world famous, although we have never heard that it is before. As with Niue the water is very deep and shelves steeply and quickly near the shore making finding a spot of anchor quite challenging. On Wednesday/Thursday nights we anchored off a small island called Vakaeitu, remote and beautiful and all we could hear was the waves lapping against the overhanging rocks and sounds of the jungle … crickets, the occasional roosting bird etc. Very tropical indeed.

Sadly Tonga has been more of a tropical rain forest than anything else with yet another day of pouring rain yesterday … we awoke to 20cm of water in the dinghy yesterday morning and it continued to rain most of the day and night as well. No water shortages here! Even this morning is overcast and showers but there are bright patches around so hopefully it will clear up.

Last night we were invited to the birthday celebrations on one of the other boats … a fun and informal affair where we all took a dish and alcohol and shared it with all the other guests. Despite the rain we had a great night and finally made it back to Tumi at 1am this morning!

10 Jun 2019

10/6/2019: Niefau, Vava'u Group, Tonga

We left Niue on Friday evening at 6pm for our 36 hour sail to Tonga after a very enjoyable lunch with two other boats. The anchorage at Alofi was becoming very rolly with the shift in wind direction and so we were glad to be on our way.

We had a good passage with winds all the way that enabled us to sail, all apart from three hours when the breeze switched to being from behind us in the night, and that would have needed us to deploy the whisker pole. Needless to say, we would need daylight to achieve this under our present circumstances, so we put the engine on until we had a decent enough wind angle to sail again.

We arrived in Tonga at 11:00 am on Monday. Yes, those mathematicians among you might say that is a day longer than 36 hours. Well, we crossed the date line and lost Sunday altogether! We are now GMT+13 which with BST in place puts us 12 hours ahead of the UK whereas in Niue we were 12 hours behind .... true time travelling! All the clearance forms I had completed in advance were one day out, but the officials didn't seem to mind, they just had wry smiles on their faces. Interestingly, two of the officials were wearing sarongs, obviously part of their culture. Anyway, they cleared us in and we are at anchor in the bay which is swarming with jellyfish. I'm not going swimming today!

The temperatures are dropping as we move farther west and on the overnight passages we have resorted to wearing jackets on watch. Of course, it's winter in the southern hemisphere and as the sun moves ever northwards it is getting steadily cooler. Our wardrobes simply aren't geared for cool weather!

We've got a week in Tonga and plan on exploring some of the many small islands making up the Vava'u (pronounced Va..Va..Ooh) group, one of several groups of small islands united as the Kingdom of Tonga. The Vava'u Group is believed to have been settled for around 2000 years and was first visited by Europeans in 1781 when it was claimed for Spain. Captain Cook missed it when he was sailing past ten years earlier, being told by islanders in the neighbouring Ha'apai Group that there were no islands further north!

Tonga is a an important breeding ground for humpback whales which are often dubbed 'singing whales’. On the final night of the passage here I thought I could hear something, rather like in  the movie Finding Nemo when Dory is talking to the whale that has swallowed them. Maybe a passing whale was courting Tumi! Luckily for us he didn't do more than sing to her!!