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Kingdom of Tonga: Tongatapu

Written by Cathy Siegismund
October 2001

On Sunday, October 28, we left Vava'u for Tongatapu. We were sorry to skip the remote Ha'apai group of islands, but we've vowed to return next year and take our time exploring Tonga.

The trip from Vava'u to Tongatapu is about 175-miles. We picked the most direct route down the western side of the island chains. We did this so we could make the trip in a day and a half, requiring only one night at sea. This did however, take us through a fairly narrow path between the islands and a series of waypoints where there was reported volcanic activity. Tonga sits on the eastern edge of the Tonga Trench. This long oceanic valley running 2,000 km from Tonga to New Zealand is one of the lowest segments on the ocean floor, in places more than 10 km deep. Tonga is on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Tonga is moving east-southeast at a rate of 20 millimeters a year and the crack in the earth's crust that originally built Tonga has shifted northwest. There is therefore, a string of active volcanoes in a line 50 km west of Ha'apai and Vava'u. It adds another dimension to the watch schedule to have to keep an eye out for newly developed volcanic islands that may not be on your charts.

Our route from Vava'u to Tongatapu

We left Vava'u at dawn, at about 0530. We picked our way out through the islands into clear water. The winds had been blowing from the south, but we had timed our departure well. The day we left the seas were down, and the wind was slowly swinging from the south to east-southeast. Our first day we had light southeasterly winds of 10-12 knots. We had to beat into these, but the seas were small. The winds continued to swing east, and we finished the passage on a nice beam reach.

Sunset over one of the active volcanoes in Tonga

On Monday, October 29, we arrived at the outer motus of Tongatapu at 1300 and reached the harbor at Nuku'alofa at 1500. Layla and Rainsong had arrived earlier that morning, and Jason helped us Med-moor to the breakwater in the harbor.

Row of cruising boats Med-moored to the coral breakwater

Layla on the end and Felicity the third boat in secured in the Nuku'alofa harbor

Drew and Vernita, Jason and Tam, and Ken and I all went out for a great Chinese dinner and turned in early, still being tired from the passage.

Over the next few days we checked-in with the port authority, and scoped out the Internet cafe. We had sticker shock in Vava'u where internet connections were $1 USD/minute since everything was over a phone line. In Nuku'alofa where they have better connections, we are paying $4 USD/hour. Since it was such a bargain, Ken and I did some surfing and will try to update our Web site here.

Nuku'alofa is the capital city of Tonga and home of the Royal Family and Palace. We did a little exploring of town with Drew and Vernita and Jason and Tam. We stopped at a very trendy looking little restaurant and coffee bar that could have been in San Francisco or in downtown Seattle.

I was in heaven to be able to order a latte.

A very artistic and tropical Tongan latte

Some of the rest of the crew got lunch. Jason got the biggest omelet I'd ever seen.

Drew, Tam, and Jason with his Tongan-sized breakfast

Ken and I walked back to the harbor and did a little sight-seeing. Nuku'alofa isn't large and is a little shabby around the edges, but the people are extremely friendly and the town is hopping with activity.

Royal Palace

Royal Navy Base - there were two small but modern navy ships tied to the wharf

A lovely stone church, one of the many supported by this very religious nation

Three groups of high school girls in their different uniforms

All Tongan children go to the state run grade school, which takes them to the sixth grade. They then must take an entrance exam to attend secondary school, the equivalent to our high school. There is one secondary school run by the state and many run by different churches; each has their own uniform.

We also met a few of our new cruising friends. Most of the people here are like us and doing less touring and more running around with boat projects and errands to prepare for the big jump to New Zealand.

Ken with Laura, Laura has cruised here from the UK with her parents aboard Muna a 33' boat

Xen & Shalene, a Canadian couple cruising on Inetora, a home built catamaran

We found the cemetery on Nuku'alofa quite fascinating. The graves were decorated with as much exuberance as they were in Mexico on the "day of the dead", but apparently these graves are decorated like this all year. Some of the graves are fenced in and locked, others have quilts hung above them, and most are covered with plastic flowers.


Nuku'alofa cemetery

A friendly Tongan gentleman in typical dress took a break from sweeping the sidewalk to pose for a photo with Ken

A variety of boats in the Nuku'alofa harbor

The islands around Tongatapu look lovely; but unfortunately, most of our time here will be spent preparing for our passage to New Zealand.

This 1,100-mile passage will be our second-longest to date and could easily be our roughest. Watching for an appropriate weather window will occupy a good deal of our time. We also have a few repairs and boat maintenance items to do, as well as the standard passage preparations.

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