Wow, what a difference a week makes. The sun came out, the wind settled and we set off to play amongst the 60 islands comprising the cruising grounds of Vava’u. What’s great about this place is that the islands are all within a few hours’ sail (or motor) of each other, and there’s always somewhere to find shelter if the wind kicks up.
The Moorings/Sunsail charter group have a base here, so they’ve conveniently numbered the anchorages for ease of reference (and presumably to stop people getting tongue-tied trying to pronounce the Tongan names). Our first stop, just an hour and a half motoring from Neiafu was Port Maurelle (Anchorage #7), a beautiful, tranquil and well-protected anchorage with crystal clear water.
Apart from the natural beauty of this place, the other draw-card is that it’s just around the corner from Swallows Cave, a popular snorkelling and diving spot. We took the dinghy round and tethered off inside the vast cave. Bruce was suffering from a cold so he chose to snorkel, but Audrie (Rehua) and I dived, together with Nicolas and his son Oscar from a fellow cruising boat. Wow! Inside the cave are thousands of fish congregated in ‘bait balls’. Just near the entrance to the cave, about 5 metres down is a swim-through to the outer reef wall which we explored for a little while, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the cave to experience swimming through all those fish. The afternoon light filtering through the water made it a magical experience. Sadly we don’t have any underwater camera ability any more, so I’ve had to borrow images from other cruisers blogs to give you a sense of what it was like. Truly memorable.
From there we made our way further east to Tapana (Anchorage #11), which again is a very sheltered spot where many boats stay on cyclone moorings during the summer season. Sheri and her husband Larry own the moorings and mind the boats left there, and also own “The Ark” art gallery, a tiny little houseboat where Sheri displays her works. They sailed in here from the States about 15 years ago and this is where their voyage ended. I can’t say I blame them, it’s an idyllic spot.
Tonga seems to have this effect on a few people – Maria and Eduardo arrived on a sailing yacht from Spain 26 years ago, and now run La Paella Spanish restaurant on Tapana Island. It’s not much to look at from the outside, but what a great night we had with our cruising friends. They provide a set menu of tapas and paella which seemed a bit steep at $100 Tongan dollars a head (about AUS$75) until we found out how fantastic the food was, dish after delicious dish kept coming until we were well and truly stuffed. After dinner, the curtain in the corner of the restaurant was swept aside and Eduardo and two of his buddies entertained us with some great blues music, finishing up with Spanish salsa music that had everyone on their feet. Even Chiquita, the pet goat (definitely not on the menu!) seemed to enjoy the music! A unique experience that will stay in the memory banks a long time.
After Tapana, we headed back towards the western islands, keen to find some diving spots, while Rehua and the others headed to the eastern group. We found a promising anchorage at Taunga (Anchorage #22) surrounded by reefs, but they proved a disappointing dive so instead we took the dinghy into the beach and spent an hour or two cleaning all the grime off the bottom. They do say cruising is boat maintenance in exotic locations!
We visited a couple of other spots that could have been good dives, but the wind was blowing too strong to anchor in safety, so we made our way into the lee of Vakaeitu Island (Anchorage #16), site of the coral gardens. Another very protected anchorage off the extensive drying reef which surrounds the island, inhabited by just one family, David and Hika and their son, who subsist on fishing and selling Hika’s woven work. It seems their pig also likes a daily swim when the tide is high!
To get to the dive sites at the coral gardens you have to cross the reef between two islands, at or near high tide, to get to the western side of the islands. We did two dives here, the first on the NW side of Vakaeitu which was OK but not spectacular. For our second dive we went further down on the SW side and this was much better – lots of coral canyons with an abundance of fish life and more colourful coral than we’d seen for a long time. We’re even starting to see some soft corals now the further west we go.
All too soon a wonderful week has been and gone, the food and grog is running low (yikes!) so it’s time to head back into Neiafu to stock up, stay to watch the Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand, (Go you Wallabies!) and then make tracks further south to the Ha’apai group of islands, our last stop before the Land of Long White Cloud.