Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Port Maurelle and Lape Island

Port Maurelle (Mourelle)

Port Maurelle was named after the first European to visit it, Don Francisco Antonio Mourelle of Spain (Lonely Planet:  Tonga, p. 151)

One of my favorite anchorages (as well as other people’s) in the Vava’u group is Port Maurelle, just off Kapa Island. Because it is popular, it can get crowded, but we were fortunate enough to spend two nights there in the company of only six to seven other boats that were well spaced out. 

A typical islet in the Vava'u Group, en route from Hunga to Port Maurelle

On the third night, there was an influx of boats from other, more exposed anchorages that were looking to get out of the wind and swell. Port Maurelle got crowded but still retained its friendly feel.

Anchoring in this bay is difficult, and if you can’t get one of the few moorings, it is best to anchor inside the moorings, where there is enough sand to hold the anchor. The outer edges have only small sand patches, and the bottom is like concrete with only a thin layer of sand over it. If you have enough chain/line, you can anchor in deep water behind the moorings, but since there is coral everywhere, you are probably destroying it if you do that.

In addition to being protected from most weather, the anchorage is very scenic.

Excellent snorkeling can be found on the ledges on both sides of the bay
From Port Maurelle, you can also stage a variety of short, interesting excursions.

Popular trips include visits to nearby Swallow’s Cave and Mariner’s Cave. We only visited Swallow’s Cave. Sadly, the cave (unlike the many caves we saw on Niue) was defiled with local graffiti. Here is a picture of the entrance to Swallow’s Cave in which I cut the graffiti outside of the cave entrance out of the picture. 

Kayakers from S/V Misty in entrance to Swallow's Cave
However, the blurred white smudges on the column inside the cave are also graffiti. These caves are like cathedrals, and it is beyond me why anyone would desecrate them. 

Ceiling of Swallow's Cave
Swallow’s cave is misnamed because the mud nests that line the ceiling of the cave actually belong to white-rumped swiflets not swallows.

Swiftlet nests adorn the ceiling of Swallow's Cave
You can take a kayak or dinghy into Swallow’s Cave or enter by snorkeling. The cave entrance in only partially underwater. 

Shadow's oar dips in

Patrick exiting Swallow's Cave by dinghy:  note the oar and prop near the entrance
Tongans used to hold feasts in this cave for important visitors and, in addition to the water opening, there is a top opening to the cave through which foods were lowered. 

Top opening to Swallow's Cave
Once inside, there are several chambers to explore, but you need a flashlight to explore all but the main chamber.

After having a look around the cave by dinghy, I jumped in for a snorkel. Peering down, I saw limestone columns extending to the dark floor of the cave, 50 to 100 feet below me. It would have been creepy if not for the late afternoon sunlight coming through the cave entrance, which created a shaft of magical blue light in the water. 

Late afternoon sunlight entering Swallow's Cave

Beam of sunlight penetrating through the water to the rocks underneath

In addition to exploring caves, many snorkeling expeditions can be made from Port Maurelle. There is excellent snorkeling along either edge of the anchorage, unlike at some of the other outer anchorages. We also made a dinghy trip to nearby Ava Island, whose west side had some of the most amazing snorkeling of our entire cruise. A steep wall dropping down to the bottom held myriad fish and invertebrates, but most interesting were the pelagic invertebrates I encountered on this exposed island. I will post pictures of these snorkeling expeditions in a separate post.

There are several villages on nearby Kapa Island. We visited the village of Falevai. On the way there, we passed cows, horses, and pigs grazing in the forest and more mangoes ripening on the trees. Falling coconuts were a hazard at the beginning of the footpath, so we had to keep our eyes peeled. 

Wild pig and piglets on Kapa Island

Entering the village of Falevai

As we entered the village with its cluster of homes, we met a woman who waved us over. She told us a little about herself, asked about us, and then invited us to church the next day. We took some pictures of her and her children.

As we walked on, we noticed some interesting trees that we had first seen on Hunga. 

Cotton tree
They looked like cotton, but they weren’t the low shrubs we are used to seeing in the United States. I asked a local man what they were and he replied, “Cotton.” I was wearing a cotton dress that day and pointed to it as I asked if the villagers made fabric from the cotton. He said they didn’t because they didn’t have the “machine” to make fabric. (I’m not sure if he meant a cotton gin for cleaning the cotton or machines for spinning and weaving the cotton.) The villager told me that the islanders currently only use the cotton (which was soft as lamb’s wool) for pillow stuffing.

We soon came to another cluster of buildings, a cemetery, and a wharf. 

Village wharf with net piles

I wasn’t sure if these belonged to the same village or a different one. Here, we again saw a colorful quilt hanging by a recent grave like we did on Hunga. Back in Neiafu, we asked about this Tongan custom. We were told that Tongans believe the grave is the deceased's home, so they try to make it homey. We were again reminded of the television set we saw sitting on a grave in Niue.

Tongan grave

We did return to the village for church the next day. I will also cover our experience there in a separate post.

Lape Island

We wanted to visit several places in the Lape Island area and because it was more sheltered from the east wind that was blowing at the time, we took a mooring at Lape Island instead of anchoring at neighboring Vaka’eitu.

We spent several days here mostly hanging out on the boat, but making a major snorkeling excursion each day to either “The Coral Garden” or the “Coral Wonder.” These two huge banks, carpeted with some of the most beautiful coral gardens we’ve seen, lie on the outer reefs (west and south, respectively) of the "bay" in which Lape Island is found. Their location and approaches are well described elsewhere (Tonga Cruising Guide, pp. 7-8), and I will cover them in more detail with photos in a separate post on snorkeling in Tonga.  

We also visited the village the first day we arrived at Lape Island to let them know we had taken a mooring. The moorings at Lape Island are on a donation basis, paid directly to the island. Lape is one of islands outside of Neiafu that hosts a Tongan feast for yachties, and their feast is also on a donation basis. The donations paid to the village are being collected at this time to build a floating wharf for the village. The current concrete wharf, also built with donations from cruisers, is almost level with the surface of the water at high tide. One can imagine that in rough weather or cyclone season, waves sweep over and across it making it very dangerous; so it is easy to understand the need for a floating wharf.

We attended the traditional Tongan feast at Lape Island. It was their last feast of the season and was well attended by about 40 cruisers. 

Cruisers enjoying a Tongan feast

Tongan kids having a sand fight on the beach

Cruisers were met by the islanders at the wharf and wreathed with leis upon their arrival. Patrick and I arrived after the village had run out of leis, but Jess on Oyaraugh let me wear hers for part of the evening.

Island welcome
After an aperitif of a drinking coconut while people arrived and socialized, it was time to eat. Before the meal was served, grace was sung and said in Tongan. Small children were served first; then, the rest of us were served. The islanders kindly explained the order of the evening to us in advance, so that we were spared the embarrassment of making any faux pas. 

The feast buffet:  The woman in the purple shirt is carving the roast pig

The feast was served in plates made out of halved banana stalks.

Drinking coconut with dinner plate

I suspect that in a true Tongan feast, people use their fingers to take the food from the banana plates, but we were given plastic-ware rolled in a napkin. Traditional dishes included roast pig, breadfruit, and cumala (sweet potato) baked in an earth oven, fried and raw fish, and a variety of salads. Some of the salads may have been included to satisfy the tastes of cruisers, because they did not all appear to be traditional foods, but I didn’t inquire about each dish. 

P's meal left to right:  sweet and sour vegetables, taro-wrapped corned beef, vegetable salad, green salad, roasted sweet potato, fried fish, roast pork, sweet and sour sweet potato

K's meal left to right:  sweet and sour sweet potato, raw fish salad, fried fish, taro-wrapped corned beef, green salad, roasted sweet potato, roasted breadfruit, roast pork
After dinner, the event organizer and his wife performed a song and dance they had learned while spending time in Samoa. 

Tongan feast organizers and hosts

Then, the donation hat was passed around. 

Getting ready to pass the hat for the floating wharf

Cruisers remained on the beach visiting until well after dark. We met up with several boats we hadn’t seen since Bora Bora and met some new people as well. It was a very enjoyable evening.      

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Visit to Hunga

After spending almost a week in Neiafu, where we acquainted ourselves with the Tongan people and language (most people also speak English in addition to Tongan), we headed out of the port city to explore some of the outer anchorages. The Vava’u Group is a cluster of wooded islands not unlike the San Juans or the Gulf islands (familiar islands to many sailors from the Pacific Northwest.) Neiafu is found on the largest island, Vava’u, but there are over thirty other islands in the group. The islands are picturesque; the anchorages are relatively secluded; and everything is close together, making this a wonderful cruising destination.

The first island we visited is on the far west end of the group:  Hunga. 


Hunga appears to be the old fringing reef of a volcano. Hunga almost completely encloses a lagoon inside a sunken caldera. There is a narrow opening between the rocks on the west side, through which boats can pass on an incoming tide. Two mooring balls appear to be the channel markers shown on charts.

Lagoon entrance (to left of rock in gap) as seen from inside the lagoon

The views from inside the lagoon are exceptionally beautiful.

View looking south down Hunga's lagoon

Islet in Hunga's lagoon

Ocean view from inside the lagoon

One of the first things you notice as you approach the anchorage on the northeast side is a steep road running from the village down to the wharf. The soil tracked on the road gives it an earthy yellow color when viewed from a distance. 

Steep road to the village

When I first saw this yellow road, I imagined the villagers weaving an ingenious mat out of pandanus to cover the road surface with. Upon inspection through binoculars, it looked like the road was made of lumber. It wasn’t until landing in the dinghy that I could see that the road was made of sections of concrete.

A villager we met at the church later told us that building the road was a project led by an American who spends part of his year, every year, at the village.

In the harbor, we saw the villagers’ traditional outrigger canoes...

"Popao" in Tongan well as some other old salts.

As we walked through the village, we noticed many scenes typical of Tongan life. We saw two churches. Both had bell towers, which we could hear from the anchorage. 

Bell tower with church at left rear

A second church and bell tower

Bell in bell tower

We didn’t find the path to the cemetery but saw it from a distance. Colorful quilts were hung by some of the (we assume more recent) graves. School was in session as we walked by, and you could see and hear the uniformed students reciting something through the open classroom door.

Rain water is stored in cisterns on Hunga, and the majority of cisterns there were stone or cement. 

Apparently, there is no universal sewage system, because we noticed that many homes had an outhouse/pit toilet. Corrugated tin, along with stone, wood, and plywood, was used as a building material for homes and sheds. 

Corrugated tin shed
The pigs on Tonga are allowed to roam free. Those we saw in the Marquesas belonged to individual families and were tethered. I don’t know whether the pigs in Tonga are individually owned or communal (some are clearly wild); but in any case, pigs wander through front and back yards and forests freely. They are much cleaner and look much healthier than pigs whose movements are restricted by being tied up. Another consequence of unrestricted movement might be the large numbers of piglets we've seen in Tonga! 

A common village sight
A similarity between Tonga and French Polynesia is that there are mangoes everywhere. The crop was ripening as we arrived.

Nature's bounty

It is difficult to anchor in Hunga due to the fact that most of the lagoon is covered with reef. We didn’t feel like we had a good set after multiple attempts in several different locations, so we moved on after one night in this peaceful anchorage.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

More News About Niue

September 24-September 30

In the previous post on Niue, I mentioned that there is much more to the island than its caves and family graves. We spent a week on Niue getting to know the island, and we could have easily spent more time there. The people are so very friendly, and there are a number of things that make Niue a unique and special destination.

One of the exceptional things about Niue is the depth, color, and clarity of its anchorage. Since it is a “high island” or upthrust atoll, Niue is steep to, right up to its fringing reef. Due to the lack of rivers or streams on the island and the fact that it has very little soil, there is not much in the way of surface runoff from the island. This results in water so clear, you can see right down to the bottom, whether you are moored at 50 or 150 feet. Here is Silhouette’s mooring buoy and line leading 139 feet down. 

Lucky # 13 mooring buoy

Shadow in Niue---drifting over mooring line

The anchorage is so deep, the humpback whales that visit Niue from June to September (during their annual migration from Antarctica) sometimes come right into the anchorage. Here, you have the opportunity to simply jump off your boat and snorkel with the mother whales and their new calves, if you are so inclined. It seems like you would have to keep a respectful distance in order to avoid being slapped by one of the humpback’s great flukes or fins (and also not to upset the mothers with newborns); but what a treat to be able to see the whales up close!) We arrived in Niue in late September, and most of the whales had already moved on, so we didn’t get to experience this thrill; however, whales were reported in the anchorage one afternoon while we were there (unfortunately, it was the day we were away visiting the east coast of the island.)

We did catch some glimpses of Niue’s famous gray and black-striped sea snakes. The first time we saw a sea snake, we were in the dinghy, and it was on the surface of the water. Upon being startled by our dinghy, the sea snake dove down to the depths. Later, I went snorkeling on the outside of the fringing reef. The reef was replete with life, but it was unusual in that everything was so far below you due to the great depth. I didn’t approach the wall on the outside of the fringing reef because I am still a novice at snorkeling on the outside of reefs. I was afraid I might not be able to swim against the surge and would end up dashed on the reef. I saw a few more sea snakes in the gullies and chasms on the outside of the island. The picture below showing two sea snakes following a purple fish is underexposed due to the fact that it was taken in the late afternoon on an overcast day, when the light was beginning to dim. I didn’t have a chance to return and snorkel the area in better light.

Sea snakes

I also saw another (small) spotted eagle ray.

Spotted eagle ray

Another unique aspect of Niue is that when you are hiking through the forest there, you are basically hiking over and around the former sea bed. Huge mounds and pinnacles of coral limestone are scattered throughout the island’s coastal forests:

Spider's web with egg cases

These lizards were everywhere along the coastal forest trails

Forest light

We rented a car to tour the east coast of the island. Cruisers be advised…if you rent a car to tour Niue, you are required to have a local driver’s license. This can be purchased at the police station (NZ $22.50 in 2012.) The car rental service did not advise us of this policy when we rented our car (Patrick showed them his Washington State license), and we were stopped by a police barricade on our way to return the car the next morning. After inspecting Patrick’s Washington driver’s license, we were told to stop by the police station for a local license after returning the car. We ended up having to purchase a Niuean driver’s license after the fact for the use of a rental car for one day. The driver’s license and expensive fuel on Niue brought the $50/day cost of a rental car to just over $100. 

Niue’s distinctive geography includes sea tracks, chasms, and caves. Sea tracks, in the form of small coves with coral sand, take the places of long sandy beaches found on other islands and are found inside the reef. Chasms are the deep canyons formed by limestone walls and pinnacles. Scuba divers report that the topography offshore is very similar to the onshore topography of Niue.

On the east coast, we visited Togo Chasm which was located in a landscape of tortured coral pinnacles that reminded me a bit of Bryce Canyon in the southwestern United States.

Entrance to final descent to Togo Chasm

Approaching Togo Chasm

Coral pinnacles at Togo Chasm

From the outside of the chasm, you could get a glimpse of the palm “oasis” located on the canyon floor.  

Bird's eye view into the chasm

To enter the chasm, you had to descend a steep but sturdy wooden ladder.

K descending the ladder

P descending the ladder

Once inside, you could see the entire oasis.

Palm oasis in Togo Chasm

There was also an interesting “flip-flop wall.” The picture below only shows a part of this impromptu outdoor sculpture.

One person's garbage is another person's art II

Togo Chasm contained a small sea-facing cave, pictured in the previous post.

Entrance to cave at Togo Chasm

Patrick topping out over the ladder

Once we exited the chasm, we clambered over the rocks for awe-inspiring views of the sea battering the shore.

We did not visit the (by all reports) magnificent Vaikona Chasm. Niueans recommend going there with a guide, and the guide was unavailable the day we were on the east coast. I’m certain we could have managed the hike and descent into the chasm on our own, but finding the underwater entrance into the cave there was not something I wanted to attempt without “local knowledge.”

After making some other stops on the east coast, we continued around to the north coast and the hike to Talava Arches. The beginning of the trail to the arches was carpeted with bromeliads. 

Bromeliads along the path to Talava Arches

Coral limestone was also a feature of this rugged trail...

....however, rest areas were provided

We had to travel through a cave and traverse the outside wall of the cave to get to the arches,
where we were rewarded with another spectacular view:

Talava Arches

On another day, we rented bicycles to tour the west coast. We spent some time snorkeling in Limu Pools...

Limu Pools and fringing reef

Triggerfish in Limu Pools

....and descended into Palaha Cave.


Along with its impressive natural history, the people of Niue are what make it such a special place to visit. Patrick and I got to experience a little more of the local color here than we have at some of the places we visited previously.

One rainy day, we walked down to The Pacific Way Bar, which has a “happy hour” from 4-5:00. Here, the owner and proprietor reminded us of the character Bloody Mary in the musical South Pacific. That particular evening, the bar was hosting Bingo night, and shortly after we arrived, the place began filling up. The women from the village started trickling in, dressed up for the occasion. The Bingo players were 98% female and 2% male. As we sipped our happy hour beers (NZ $2.50), we watched several rounds of Bingo. The bartender sat near us so we could see how the game was played. Not surprisingly, the Bingo cards in Niue are a bit different from those in the U.S. There are no letters, only numbers. To get a “Bingo,” you have to fill in all three lines of numbers (at least in the game being played that evening:  we were told there are different versions.) People can play one, two, three, or six Bingo cards at a time. When people got a Bingo, they didn’t shout, “Bingo;” they just said, “Yep!”

Instead of chips or other concrete game markers, players just used marking pens or highlighters to mark the numbers called on their cards. I don’t know how they would have been able to keep up otherwise! Both Patrick and I were amazed as we watched the Bingo caller simultaneously drawing bits of plastic with numbers on them and calling them at an amazing rapid-fire pace. The patter went something like this (imagine a New Zealand accent with a Polynesian twist):

"Two, six:  twenty-six; three, four:  thirty-four; next door, thirty-five; legs---eleven; half-way, forty-five; all the two’s, twenty-two; five, eight:  fifty-eight; upside-down, sixty-nine; top of the house, ninety…"

It was creative and engaging Bingo calling, but it took awhile for our unskilled ears to catch on to the fact, for example, that the highest number on the cards was ninety.

While in Niue, we also attended one of the island’s “show days.” Niueans are obviously very proud of the show days, because we started hearing about the Alofi North (that month's hosts) show day the moment we arrived in Niue from almost everyone we encountered. The show days are part of what keep Niuean traditions and customs alive by showcasing their culture. Attending the show day reminded me in some aspects of attending a state fair. Local agricultural products were on display…

Breadfruit (green) and coconuts are in the baskets at center

Taro roots and coconut crab are island staples

Village men sitting in front of large manioc roots

Taro leaves and roots

….as well as local handicrafts.

Ebony (black tips) grows on Niue

Unfortunately, I didn’t get pictures of the beautiful handmade quilts, many of them featuring the island’s flora, which were also on exhibit.

The show day was held on a field at the high school, and food booths lined the outside perimeter of the commons. Niueans get up early on show days (which are held on Saturday), and food service begins around 6:30 a.m. By the time we got there around 9:30 a.m., almost everything was gone.

The morning began with speeches from the village elders, who are dressed in coordinated traditional costume for the occasion. (The theme for this month's show day was "Orange.")

This village elder invited us to the show on market day. She is 92.

After the speeches, the entertainment segment began. The female elders opened the show with some traditional dances featuring hand motions (like hula) and song.

Village elders opening the show:  the choreographer is wearing a black top

Afterwards, there were both traditional and modern acts.

Compared to some of the South Pacific islands we’ve visited, Niue has a more multicultural population, and this was reflected in the acts on the program. 

This dance possibly had an Indonesian influence

...and this....

Eligible bachelors and bachelorettes perform a chair dance

Niuean hip-hop act
I was transported back to my teaching days at Denny Middle School in West Seattle (now Denny International School) and reminded of my former students in the talent shows we held there.

Watching a show like this, it was difficult to escape some of our cultural biases.

For example, one of the ways in which adults encouraged these tots was to come up to them while they were performing and stick money down various articles of their clothing. In the picture, you can see one girl wearing some Niuean currency under her leaf crown, and another girl with some currency sticking out of her blouse. It turns out that the adults did this for performing youth of all ages, but since this was the first youth act on the program, the behavior seemed a little odd by our Western standards.

Another way in which male youth were encouraged/supported was that whenever someone got up to put money in the boy’s costume, the giver remained on stage for a few minutes, dancing alongside the performer. I didn’t have my camera ready to capture these awesome moments. The picture below was taken just after the man in the orange T-shirt (at left) and the man with the rainbow mohawk had left the stage after individually dancing with the adolescent pictured.  


At the end of the program, the MC said, “Don’t go away. Now, since you did not participate in the entertainment, we have something for the visitors!” The “something” turned out to be a coconut-husking contest and the “now” meant that now it was the Niueans turn to be entertained!  I volunteered to participate, because I have been almost all the way across the South Pacific, and I still have not learned how to husk a coconut, drink the milk of a coconut, or grate the meat of a coconut. It seems like those are essential survival skills in this region, and I would be ashamed if I completed my entire South Pacific cruise without knowing how to access the innards of a coconut. I was the only woman who volunteered in a line of men.

Well…I did learn how to husk a coconut….eventually. During the contest, however, I kept beating a dead horse:  My strategy was to pound the coconut repeatedly against the sharpened wood stake (stuck in the ground) that was provided for husking. It wasn’t working, but I kept doing it. Thus ensued much hilarity when I penetrated the part of the coconut holding a liquid similar to water, and the coconut water spewed out all over the place, including all over me! In my embarrassment, I exclaimed, “I’m killing this coconut!” A few minutes later, the MC (a humorous sort) passed by me and shouted, “That is one dead coconut!” The Niueans were videotaping all this, of course (as was Patrick), to be aired on their local T.V. station, furthering my humiliation at the hands of a seed.

During the contest, I kept looking around to see what the other contestants were doing. (It’s not cheating when you’re in a foreign country and don’t know what the heck you’re doing.) I saw them peeling the husk off the coconut with their bare hands (but did not see them first prying the husk against the pointed tip of the stake to get it started.) I tried to peel off my coconut husk where I had created a hole with the stake, but it was too tough. I couldn’t budge it. We were each supposed to husk two coconuts, and by the time most people had husked their two, I still hadn’t managed to remove the husk from one coconut! Finally, they called time, and I was spared from continuing.

The winner of the contest (who had previously husked coconuts on Huahine, where a local showed him how) patiently taught me how to get the husk started by levering it with the pointed stake, and then removing it with my hands. Thank god! If I am ever stranded on a tropical island, I will survive!

Husking a coconut the right way after the guy to my left showed me how

After the visitors had their go, the locals showed us how it was done. The winner of the women’s contest husked her two coconuts in 30 seconds. The men had to husk three coconuts, and the first place winner did it in 25 seconds!

One of our group of cruisers refused to give up on his coconut and had taken it back to where we were all seated on the field, where he continued to try to husk it. The MC came by and said, “Still working? Let me go get my coconut crab to help you!” There’s always gotta’ be a comedian…

It was all good fun and we gave our hosts on Niue a lot of laughs. The show day was an enjoyable culmination to our stay on Niue, and---after a quiet Sunday spent preparing the boat for departure---we sailed for Tonga the following Monday.