Thursday, October 23, 2008

Aotearoa Awaits

Back in Neiafu we’ve had our hands full. Sixteen ligatures and eight snips equals four castrations. Voilà! Tropicana café was closed for the day so we commandeered a café table and Moppy, Reynold and Solitia were anesthetized and prepped, assembly-line style, and the deed was done. Rusty (DaMojo’s rescue) was castrated at Mala Island Resort, his new home, with a couple of guests playing curious onlookers. We were invited back the next evening to partake in the resort’s beachside “Tongan feast,” food for medicine, as usual. All pooches fared well and don’t seem the wiser.

Kiara, owned by Treena and her husband Scott, the pharmacist, has been a greater challenge. She has an ovarian remnant producing estrogen willy-nilly despite a spay, and a second exploratory surgery, by the vet from Tongatapu (he visits Neiafu twice yearly from the capital down south). Unfortunately the problem isn’t solved and she experiences heats, male “advances” and, most recently, vaginal hyperplasia. A third surgery isn’t an option so I’m investigating hormonal therapies. In the meantime she has had a little procedure at the vulva and has the distinction (and humiliation) of being the first Tongan dog to wear an E. collar.

Now that we have provisioned, fueled up and checked out we are close to saying our farewells to Tonga. Sunday is likely the day for departure, but the plan, as always, is open to revision based on the weather’s whims. The passage to New Zealand should be a challenge—1200 nautical miles with a transition into temperate seas. We anticipate an added layer of cloths for every degree south, and will likely be decked out in full foul weather gear by the time we get there. Every cruiser has an eye to the “weather window” so it’s the talk of the town. The trick is to time the passage around the brisk advancement of lows blowing in from the southwest. We’ll play it safe and report on our progress…

Aotearoa awaits!!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Lord of the Flies

We left Lofanga to get situated in a more protected anchorage and dropped anchor a couple hours away off Uiha island. Some exploring there revealed more churches and more pigs—lots of pigs. Then came the rains and a couple days of dreariness. A partial break in the weather gave us an opportunity to head south, where we anchored off a string of pearly, pristine islands: Uonukuhihifo, Uonukuhahake and Tofanga. The Uo’s are joined by a sandy strip, and are separated from the latter by a narrow and turbulent channel, striated by blues and greens.

We walked around Uonukuhihifo on our first afternoon, enjoying occasional outbursts of sunshine whenever the cloud cover faltered. The next morning we woke to an unusual sight: two cows, yes cows, taking a stroll, without a care to the incongruent image they presented, across the Uo’s sand bar. There is one human inhabitant on these islands. His beachfront shack on Uonukuhahake showed recent signs of habitation but no one was to be found. To our delight, our approach was met by a 9-month old puppy scooting toward us, obviously overjoyed, at a gallop, tail wagging and peeing submissively. She was beside herself. A few minutes later a sickly piglet showed up. It was clear that whoever lived here was not on the island, probably making a trip to town, we figured. The puppy looked well fed but the piglet, on the other hand, was emaciated. Ben found a hatchet and set about cracking coconuts. The piglet ate hungrily, attracting a horde of hogs to the scene. Coconuts for all. Cow manure was scattered about but the manure producers never showed themselves after that first morning. We filled the parched water trough and took the puppy on a walk around the island.

Each morning thereafter we made our way to the shack to feed the puppy (nicknamed “Pooper”) and the pigs. We loaded Pooper up in the dinghy and took her to neighboring Tofanga, where we beachcombed a treasure trove of seashells—the best we’ve encountered so far. Finally Pooper’s owner returned and the weather forecast showed improving conditions (more sun and less wind)—time to move along.

Limu was our next destination—yet another uninhabited and diminutive island. We crashed a party of black-tips sharks as we landed our dinghy and they scattered. We circled the white sands, startling terns, harassing hermit crabs and downing coconuts along the way. A few more shells found their way into our pockets; hopefully NZ customs will find it in their hearts not to confiscate them. The little island, like most others here in Ha’apai, sits on the leeward side of an extensive line of reefs. The coral branches off in an intricate web, striping, spotting and checkerboarding the turquoise shallows, effectively surrounding the islands on all sides. Bare sandy stretches here and there are a haven for boats, accessed by the pale blue trails we scent out, with a lookout on the bow, pointing port, starboard or straight ahead as we approach. Unlike the other island groups we have visited so far, these islands, for the most part, are not volcanic in origin. They are being steadily and infinitesimally shoved up from the sea floor by a tectonic struggle of sorts. Skirting the archipelago to the east lies the Tongan trench, the second deepest of all oceanic trenches. Imagine what bizarre creatures from the deep must wash up on these shores after a cyclone blows through.

For those lovers of trivia out there: Tonga is comprised of 176 islands. Thirty are inhabited. Twelve have electricity. Seven have cars.

We took the dinghy out a narrow break in the reef, with a wary eye to the breaking rollers on either side. Passes are usually a lovely spots to snorkel. All you have to do is float and the current does the rest. We drifted along, towing the dinghy alongside, and enjoyed a view of the deeper, and bigger, pelagic fish. They looked meaty and mighty tasty. Wayne fetched his spear gun and the hunting began. His efforts landed us a medium-sized parrotfish and we ate well that night.

A couple days later we sailed to Kelefesia, the most southerly, and most stunning, of Ha’apai’s islands. Here we were delighted, once again, to be greeted by dogs. They looked to be young siblings, perhaps 9 – 10 months of age, with a tag-along puppy of about 12 weeks. They were skinny, but not as emaciated as some of the more obviously owned dogs in Tonga. But, where was the owner?? The older pair didn’t look to be of the breeding age as of yet. Who was this puppy’s mother? Where were the other puppies? We knew the island to be owned but the residence did not look recently inhabited by our estimations. Were they really fending for themselves? Could they subsist? We were more dismayed, even, when we came upon a small enclosure containing 2 pigs and a piglet. They had no food or water. They were emaciated and weak. Why, why, why? The island was otherwise crawling with portly pigs. These evidently were fending for themselves quite well, thank you. What was the point of this? Certainly this was no type of effective quarantine, if that was the thinking. Perhaps a culling measure? Well, we cracked more coconuts, filled up a water trough from the island’s rain-water cistern, and took the dogs on a walk. And whom would we encounter along the way but a cat, of course. He was of the purry, lovey camp of cats and he accompanied us on our walk as well.

Later we brought a rice and kitten kibble mélange, laced with dewormer, which became our daily routine. The dogs lived on the beach by day, scouting out new arrivals and giddily greeting dinghy-loads of cruisers as they came and went. They howled and barked whenever we motored back to the boat. The enclosed pigs weren’t in good shape but they seemed to be gaining in strength. Still, we fretted about the dogs in particular, uncertain whether they were adequately feeding themselves or were making-do with handouts from cruisers. Should we steal them? NZ won’t allow them. In reality, most Tongan dogs back in town look worse off—skinnier, mangy and criss-crossed with dog-fight and vehicular scars—and eventually end up on the dinner table. Are they better off here? We were somewhat relieved to see feathers in their poops, and we watched them dart after scolding terns on the beach. We thought they might manage to pick off a roaming piglet now and then (but mostly they just played with them). We had found our Lord of the Flies.

We spent our days feeding the pigs and the dogs, playing with the dogs, photographing the dogs, and snorkeling (without the dogs). We were fed by the fruits of another spear-fishing spree and managed to avoid any encounters with sharks. After much discussion we decided the dogs were best off being their own bosses on this lush tropical island. But before we said our farewells we masterminded a jail break. Ben dismantled one side of the enclosure and the pigs were liberated. Even if they don’t make it, they’ll be nutritious eating for the dogs and the other pigs if their time comes.

A couple more stops after Kelefesia found us heading back north, back to Vava’u. As Ha’apai blurred into the distance we were lucky audience to a breaching humpback. What a finale. Quite the encore. Bravo!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Whale Song Serenade

We weighed anchor in predawn silver blue hues, with enough light to grope our way around Euakafa Island. The dimmer was turned up as we hoisted our sails, giving us the visibility we needed to avoid the litter of coral patches and reefs, and the Vava’u island group fell away to the north. With obstacles behind us we braced ourselves for a joy ride, sailing a close reach in 18 knots of wind, and averaging 8-9.5 knots of speed.

This day trip, a 70-mile passage to Ha’apai, was made caravan-style, a novel experience for us. We had departed Vava’u with a bevy of boats, namely Libertine (Dutch), Shilling (British) and Moonduster (Californian). So, we spent a good deal of the passage comparing notes on the VHF and, since testosterone was involved, racing each other to the “finish line.” We are happy to report we left everyone in our wake.

The welcome committee was especially welcoming that day. As we approached the northern tip of the Ha’apai a humpback whale made a spectacle of herself, parting the waters with sheer force of bulk and will. The portentous display lasted several minutes and left us giddy.

The Ha’apai island group is known for its navigational hazards. As a result many mariners avoid it altogether, rendering Ha’apai rarely visited and sparsely populated. What with imprecise charts, about a quarter mile off, it makes avoidance of charted coral a greater challenge. Compounded by the presence of many uncharted coral heads, a lookout on the bow and the sun overhead is paramount. Lucky for us, so many sailors don’t know what they’re missing.

Sadly, the weather has been a little glum. Ho hum. Overcast skies, gusty tradewinds and intermittent downpours have limited our enjoyment of these wondrous outdoors, keeping us in hunkered-down mode more than we’d like. And yet, when the sun shakes off its veil and the whitecaps wander away, all the more spectacular the scenery becomes; simply put, it shimmers. We anchored off Pangai village, the most populated, on Lifuka Island, to check in with customs. We wandered through town, confirming that, as warned, there’s little there. And then we hunkered down. The horizon closed in, wind and rain blew through and we sat it out. After a couple nights the sun made its appearance and was forecast to stick around for a few days so we high-tailed it out of Pangai to get the most out of the clement weather.

Our first stop was an anchorage at the southern end of Uoleva Island, a short 6-mile journey. En route we passed by a whale cow and her calf, no more than 100 feet from our stern. We dropped anchor in turquoise waters along an expansive white sand beach, slipped into our bathing suits and dinghied to the reef opposite the shore. There the coral grew in life-affirming, orgiastic profusion. The rippling sunlight fractured into a dazzling confetti of rainbows, like paparazzi flashbulbs. It’s tricky to smile with a snorkel in one’s mouth but possible, I found. We swam with Wayne who reported, after we plopped ourselves back in the dinghy, that he had spied a shark following Ben (unawares) at a steady 15-foot distance. Evidently it was a small one (~4.5 feet) and probably just satisfying its curiosity. Without any major hemorrhage, I guess he didn’t find Ben all that interesting after all.

The next morning, in the midst of preparing a departure to the next anchorage on our agenda, we heard a distress call on Channel 16. The sailboat Talismano had run aground, on a reef just outside Pangai village. They requested assistance with wavering voices that underscored how very afraid they were. We were anchored about an hour away but we heard no other response to their distress call. Ben and Wayne took the dinghy to board Shilling, anchored nearby, who then set a course for the grounded vessel. We were all relieved when, 30 minutes later, Talismano reported that a local powerboat nearby had managed to dislodge them from their rock-jawed snare and all was well. Shilling turned back and we shared a morning coffee aboard before the three of us (Shilling, Moonduster and Pangaea) set out for Huaka Lehi, another 6 miles away.

Our approach to Nukupule, one of two diminutive islands that share Huaka Lehi’s lagoon, was auspicious. Once again a whale greeted us, as we skirted the reef and found the bight in which to drop anchor. We jumped in for a cool-off swim and then jumped in our dinghy to explore the sands of Nukupule. As we neared shore a cloud of flying foxes (fruit bats) scattered from their arboreal roosts with some scolding chatter. They circled above as we circumambulated the tiny island, and finally settled down in resignation.

We agreed to a little afternoon entertainment to follow our explorations, as Wayne offered us flying lessons (ie, spinnaker flying) aboard Moonduster. He retied his anchor to his stern to invite the wind from behind, hoisted the spinnaker, tied a boatswain’s chair through a line connecting the spinnaker’s two clews and told me to jump in the water. I wriggled into the boatswain’s chair and adjusted the two ends of the line from which I was suspended to fill the sail. With a little trial and error, and with a soft gust of wind, I was lifted out of the water, in front of the bow, dangling from the billowing spinnaker above. The motion was so gentle I felt almost cradled. After some squeals of mixed delight and terror, I settled in and enjoyed the view. The excitement was short-lived as the soft gust blew by and I was lowered back into the tepid water. Janet from Shilling was next but her lift-off was a little feeble as the afternoon winds were settling down for the night. Ben gave it a go, but it was a no-go. We agreed to reconvene for a potluck dinner aboard Shilling and returned to our various vessels.

Right upon clambering back aboard our cockpit we heard a shout from Shilling. “Whales!!” We watched excitedly as a cow and her calf sauntered lazily into our anchorage – Mom alternately floating and diving, while Junior practiced his belly-rolling, tail-slapping and flipper-flapping, to our delight. After a few minutes it was evident the whales would be sticking around. Ben jumped in the dinghy with his mask and snorkel, paddled over to the whales and quietly slipped in the water. He watched from a reasonable distance and the two took little notice. Eventually, Junior’s curiosity was piqued and he decided to check Ben out. Mom thought better of this and approached Ben as well, effectively steering Junior off his intended course. Close encounter! Ben paddled back to the boat while I hesitated. Should I? Shouldn’t I? I half expected the whales to drift away but instead they approached closer, weaving their way between our boats and that decided it for me. Time to swim with the whales. Apprehension lingered about but I swam to the whales nonetheless. Other than the occasional “PHWhoooosh” of their blows, and Junior’s carefree splashing, there was no sound to be heard besides my heart trying to beat out of my chest. I could see their bulk above water. They seemed close by but below the surface the water was a slightly murky blue facing into the slanting afternoon sun and it required a continued approach before their forms solidified into view. It was pretty shallow here, about 30 feet deep over sand. Finally I could make them out, a few whale-lengths away. A rush of exhilaration flowed through my veins and tickled my nerve endings. Afloat in the shadow of giants. Mom hung in animated suspension close to the sea bottom while Junior performed his acrobatics above her. He continued to belly-roll, flipper-flap and tail-slap, but his favorite position appeared to be upside down, a vertical dangle. I kept a constant distance and simply observed. Mom and Junior took no notice and eventually my heart rate slowed to a comfortable rate and rhythm. Eventually Wayne joined me and, just like a man, thought he’d see what would happen if he approached. I hung back, more respectful, less intrusive (and more fearful, to be honest). Needless to say, mom had the final word and removed a little further out.

Our dinner plans were slightly delayed by the cetacean encounter – no complaints there. We enjoyed our evening, toasting the whales into the night. Before heading back to our respective homes we heard the familiar “PHWhooosh,” and suspected we’d be having a sleep-over with whales. Ben and I lounged at our bow, watching the sleeping mother’s bulky shadow in the moonlight, and watching Junior cautiously explore in his midnight insomnia. We sent up our words of thanks.

The next morning, sipping coffee in the cockpit, another shout of “Whales!!” was issued. This time a pod of 5 or 6, traveling through the channel adjacent to our anchorage, was greeting the morning with exuberance. We don’t know if Mom and Junior had joined their number but we suspect so. For close to an hour we watched as they breached, and breached, and breached, until they were dots on the horizon. The forecast foretold of crummy weather on its way, to be expected late in the day. We wanted to eke as much play time out of the sunshine as possible. Shilling needed to head back to Vava’u so we parted company and caravanned with Moonduster to Lofanga Island, a 3 mile trip across Ava Mata Nukupule channel, where the whales had just passed us by.

We saw another whale lingering at the point, adjacent to our new anchorage, but couldn’t pinpoint where he’d gone. As soon as we dropped anchor in this beautiful cove we jumped in the water for a snorkel along Lofanga’s southeastern reef. Here, too, the coral was on proud display with a veritable side show of piscine freaks to entertain us. Wait….I heard something. Was that a squeal? “Ben? Did you hear that?” It took a couple minutes before it dawned on me—whale song!! A whale song serenade. I couldn’t pick out whether it was two voices, one deep, one shrill, a mother and calf I suppose, or if this was the range of one whale. And what is the range of a song, to a human’s ear? How far away? Her voice echoed all around us but the diva that crooned this lullaby remains anonymous.

After our swim we hiked along a trail up a hill from the beach, worn through the grass into a skein of red soil. After letting ourselves in through a sliding gait we wandered our way through Lofanga village. Tongan villages are encircled by fencing to keep the pigs from wandering away, and each home, in turn, is fenced to keep the pigs from wandering in. It seemed a languid day. Our arrival prompted some glances and a few timid waves. “Malo e leilei,” a Tongan hello. It wasn’t until we passed a residence swarming with children further along that the interactions began. Tongans are taught English as a second language throughout their schooling, but the use of English is so limited here in the remote Ha’apai that conversation doesn’t tend to extend much beyond the niceties. We learned the children’s names and ages, determined that they were home from school (in uniform) for their lunch break, explained where we were from and that we came by sailboat. We were offered mangoes, and then their mother approached us with smiles and a gift of bananas. The life here is simple, scratched out of the earth and shared with pigs, chickens and dogs. There is a notable lack of industriousness, but little pressing need as the fundamentals are easily obtained from the surroundings. The quality of life is spare and could use some improving—the Peace Corps sends its troops for this purpose—but whether the locals feel it needs improving is a question we can’t answer. Some Palangi (ex-pats in Tonga) are cynical, as incoming aid to Tonga is evidently quite plentiful, but funds seldom make it to their intended target. The village of Hunga received aid to create a more usable and sorely needed track from the beach; it went instead to a big screen TV. Oh well.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Blame it on the Weather

After nearly a month in the Vava’u group of Tonga we have finally made our short farewells to explore more southerly shores of these South Seas. We have our sights on the Ha’apai group, the lonely and lovely Cinderella step-sister to Vava’u in the north and Tongatapu in the south. But our goodbyes are to be short-lived, as we will return (just a short 70-mile sail) to Neiafu, in Vava’u, in a few weeks’ time to pick up a package and check out of the country before our departure for Aotearoa (New Zealand to us white folk).

We do a have a couple engagements that draw us back to Neiafu as well, namely castrations. Lisa, the Kiwi owner of the Tropicana café in town has asked that we neuter her newest rescued puppy, Moppy. Also, if our paths cross, we’ve got our eyes on the gonads of little Rusty, another rescue fostered by the folks on DaMojo. Just a satisfying snip, and one less contributor to the gene pool. I’ve been dispensing dewormer as if to satisfy a personal vendetta against all nematodes great and small (insert wicked snicker). DIE, parasites, DIE!

As we gybed our way out of Neiafu in 18 knots of wind, I reflected on the taste this part of Tonga has left in my mouth so far – fruity, with a touch of halitosis. The backdrop is beautiful, with coves, islets, bays and lagoons tightly clustered in a labyrinth of sea, sand, spits, caves and false passes. You clear a point and set quickly to reorienting, as the landmarks by which you navigate rearrange themselves in the blink of an eye, luring you to the reef that you thought was a pass – something like tracking the stone under the coconut. Keep chart in hand and all is well. While the nautical mileage from anchorage to anchorage never exceeds single digits, we always take the trouble to hoist the sails because the prevailing winds and comfortable temperatures (mid- to upper seventies, for the most part) make the sailing quite a pleasure here.

In some ways, though, a gray pall dulls our experience of Vava’u—literally, the clouds hang low and overcast skies, bathed intermittently in sprinkles or downpours, draw a damp and mildewed shroud over the mood of the people and the place. In Vava’u our social interactions have centered more narrowly than we’d like around fellow cruisers and palangis (expats in Tonga). Of course, as I’ve described, this harbor is a bustling one, in the way of yachties, so it is a good opportunity to meet and be met, discuss future routes and compare notes. And yet, it’s no surprise that this creates a vortex of gossip and melodrama, not-so-intriguing intrigue. It doesn’t take much of this before I need “OUT!” And yet the conveniences of town tend to draw us back, back into the thick of things. *Sigh*

Then of course there are the palangis, who we encounter as the, seemingly, only business owners in Tonga. So, internet, laundry, restaurants and shops—palangis of British, German, Aussie, Swiss, American or Kiwi provenance, always a recipe for nationalistic comparisons and complaints. *Yawn* The invisible barrier between palangis and local Tongans is barely invisible, and really quite discouraging. Often a barrage of complaints about local lassitude, thieving and ignorance is peppered with “but we love it here” and, as I’ve mentioned before, alternates with complaints about other palangis of whatever other nationality. So, whatever. But then, when we think about it, what about our own interactions with local Tongans? Well, that’s been pretty spare as well. In general, the Tongan’s keep us at arm’s length, in contrast to the welcome embrace of other Pacific islanders we’ve met. Not to say we’ve encountered any type of open hostility, mind you. Perhaps that can be easily understood as a sort of “foreigner fatigue.” But even when we castrated “Beauty” for the immigration official, his attitude toward us was hardly what you’d call warm. While we have met some open Tongans, our interactions are simply more aloof than any we had with Samoans and French Polynesians, who were quite easy to get to know. Samisi, a Tongan married to a German Palangi, summed it up nicely. He felt his horizons had been broadened substantially by his mixed marriage, to the now unfortunate position of feeling disdain for his fellow Tongans, and for the quibbling Palangis as well. In other words, he belonged nowhere outside of his own household.

And then there are the pigs and dogs. I won’t go into detail but the Tongan relationship with animals is not only negligent but openly abusive. With few exceptions my veterinary skills are only sought out by palangis, no wonder.

Here’s the scoop on George Tupou, V, recently crowned King of Tonga. Evidently he’s a drunk; when he travels, he carts his booze along. He is known to pad his pocket and, while his grandmother, conscientious when queen, extracted a modest salary from the Tongan government (she even took out, and repaid, a loan of $20,000 to buy her NZ residence), the monarch is now worth ~ 500 million US dollars. An international agency has rated the Tongan monarchy the 4th most corrupt government in the world. Interestingly, but not uncharacteristically, when paying a visit to Ika Lahi Lodge (where we’d met the friendly Kiwi proprietors Steve and Caroline), he racked up a tab of $2000 and left without paying the bill. Recently, while falconing in the middle east, he made a disparaging remark in an interview about his “ignorant” subjects. Word got out, inciting numerous riots, and spurring New Zealand to send peace-keeping troops. Not to worry, all’s quiet on this front at this time.

Call me “Debbie Downer” but here’s my last complaint: we came in 4th on the Friday night regatta! It was a hard fall with all the inflated expectation of our fellow cruisers, who had laid it on thick and assumed we’d leave everyone in our wake. Unfortunately we guffed the start with a poorly-led jib sheet and that’s all she wrote—couldn’t come back from that. But, we had an upbeat crew (9 of us altogether) and had a great time. We were awarded a Vava’u whale-watching DVD for our efforts and spent the night out on the town, celebrating our 4th place in grand style.

Anyway, time to move on—toward sunnier climes and sunnier moods.