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!


1st Mate said...

You folks are wonderful, feeding and liberating animals along your way. We need more like you in the world.

Josh Burker said...

It must be disheartening to see so many animals along your journey that aren't being well cared for. At least you and Ben are making the noble effort to feed and water them and when necessary jailbreak 'em. Bravo!