giovedì 15 ottobre 2015

Kingdom Of Tonga Sailing and Cooking


“where extraordinary days just happen”

I'd love to the describe a great arriving at the Vava' u group of Tonga, but after an other challenging crossing from Niue, we just arrived in the first sheltered bay of the island and dropped the anchor in the complete darkness. We obviously trusted our electronic devices and the very useful tips of Ken Hellewell and his cruising guide “Kingdom of Tonga”, however the feeling to anchor seeing nothing around was quite awkward. Our stomachs were still rolled over and after a hot soup I just remember I crushed on my bed with Alice's arm over my chest.

We can consider the next day as the real arrival, with a weird sound waking us up. You know, we are used to hear dogs, chickens, birds, wind, waves and any other kind of noise around us. But waking up with a whale song, that was special. I haven't said anything for minutes, staring at the sunrise over my window just listening, and trust me when I tell you there are not so many things that can keep an Italian with his mouth shut.

I mean, am I really experiencing this? I am the kind of guy who grew up watching animations on TV and falling asleep at night during documentaries. But then a few times when I was a kid I tried to kick a ball over a three football field distance or jump higher than a car and it never worked. Somehow now, little things from that boring night show of Piero Angela, such as wild animals from the blue ocean, birds with blue foot and any kind of landscape I could possibly imagine, are real. They are around every day, not just a memory or something just saw on TV. Whales are waking us up on our first day of Tonga Islands and one more time I ask to my self:

“So what comes next today?”

I have very hard time to understand what the Real Life is. Especially when someone warned me about how hard it will be to be back at “the real one”. When I take a look at these blogs, at the number of great experiences shared with lots of amazing people, I end up to consider even meeting with an old friend for a pizza in my home town as a special event. Probably the secret of life is really to shift our life from what we think is the right thing based on someone else experiences, not be scare and live our journey. Learning from our own needs, without ever forgetting where we come from and trying to understand who we are and who we will be.

So I thank the very few who could cope with my philosophical moments and keep going to read this text but these whales touch me deeply.

The first day it was just the gate or better “The Pass” for a new world. These islands are the final stop for the Humpbacks whales. The real destination after thousands of miles of cold and deep ocean. Here 3000 of them come every year to swim into a crystal blue and warm water. Perfect place to rise a little calf, to scratch some shells from their belly and play with the few lucky people who decide to swim with them. As Alice always says “If I were a whale, I would also like to come here!”. This is one of the only place on earth where journalists, biologists, photographers and enthusiastic whales lovers come to find their perfect shot. Whale-watching is definitely the main attraction and laws, like in Niue, are very strict to avoid people go swimming with big mama and her calf independently, without paying the standard 250/300 Pangai Dollars (local money 150euro) for the local tours.

If you ask me: “Are the tours worth?” I'd definitely say: YES!!!!

And if you ask me if the laws kept me far from the water every time I've seen a whale around: “Hum, well that's all another story!”

I am far from being the bad guy who brakes the law just like nothing. However there are situations when you have to ask yourself: how much do you want it?

Tonga islands are the perfect place if you like to swim, snorkel and dive. Other than these activity you can hope to fish something, surfing some impossible waves or chill out in one of the many expat owned restaurants and bars. If water is like your sixth element here it's a kind of paradise. Corals are different from beach to beach, fish are nearly friendly and come really close by and if you like octopus just bring with you a spear gun, they are everywhere and big. Then, if you may like strong emotions, don't miss to free dive into Mariner's Cave. On a very sheltered side of one of the Motu, the entrance lays down 2mt underwater, and the tunnel before to breath again is aprox 4mt. Nothing really difficult, but you'll be amazed to experience how your mind will refuse to let you push your body into that dark hole underwater. Especially if you don't go with a tour guide but you take your dinghy or kayak there with nobody around and you are trying to guess where exactly the spot is.

“Mariner's Cave”

lat 18° 41' 450” S

long 174° 04' 479” W

When we arrived there, the spot was not more than 15mts far on the right side from the GPS indication. Don't expect a signal or some weird rocks telling you “here is Mariner's”. With sunny conditions you'll have to try to look for a dark spot of deep blue water right close to the coast. From the water it looks like a hole on perfect flat vertical rocks. Trust yourself, breath deeply, and see you on the other side. For the bravest ones, you can also try the lower entrance aprox 8mts deep and lot more narrow.

Sailing around the Vava'u group is a kind of playground. It was not hard to understand why lots of foreign people from all over the world tried to stay. Winds are always between 15 and 20kts, daylight navigation quite easy and a lot of anchorages: just perfect holiday pictures. People are nice and friendly and seem to be really happy even in tough life conditions. My first step in land was obviously the Neiafu's market and the hair-dresser. Top the first and even better the second, situated into a “food court” I had my hair cut in the middle of young punk students and people frying fish, vegetables and any sort of food they could serve deep fried wrapped in rice or bread. I couldn't resist to have a 1 dollar fish burger and the next day high fever and vomit!!!!!

I'll never learn but I never lose hope.

Here in Neiafu we welcomed Miss Zus and Mr Jaques, old friends of the Captain that will sail with us south trough the “Ha'apai Group” until “Tongatapu”.

They were lucky enough to experience a lot of different vibrations on board. Starting from swimming with the whales (with a tourist boat from blue lagoon resort), sailing trough a storm, seeing the breaching whales close the boat and even some breathless anchorage. Unfortunately the weather was not the friendliest but we could cope thanks to a good storage of good food and a nice atmosphere on board.

Tonga are very special islands, out enough from tourist tracks to make me feel a real Robinson. If I have to pick a memory off the many from this place: I'll say the moment when we were sailing we saw two whales diving right in front of us. Alice and I rapidly but kindly went into the blue deep hoping to see them but nothing happened. After a few minutes of snorkel, the current of the open ocean dragged us far from the point where we originally saw them and we were slowly going back to the boat when suddenly a weird white stain 30mts below us started to become always more clear. When I knocked on Alice's leg she knew what I meant and I could feel her breath becoming louder and faster. Honestly I think I was never so close to have a stroke like in that exact moment, but the excitement and the adrenaline when I saw the two Humpbacks rolling on their belly underneath us and slowly coming up from the abyss was nearly too much. The biggest one was just staring the two humans gently swimming around, while the other was coming to us from the deep water on a vertical position with her pectoral fins crossed as if she was coming to hug us. She was not going anywhere else than to take a close by look to us. We have been followed by them. No fear, no aggressive behavior, maybe they just saw from our eyes that we were not Japanese, and they relaxed. I couldn't really relax, however I could really understand how much I was looking for a moment like that.

Uziwaonboard Discovering Niue Island

Learning the geography of the Pacific is a new discovery everyday. Islands just grow on our charts like mushrooms in the woods. We left Mopelia on a non-wind condition and motored for two days in direction of Palmerston. The most southern island of the Cook archipelago, where apparently a man saw his dream place and brought there 3 wives and had dozens of kids. For the ones who sail west, it's a nice stop over, that can be chosen also after Suvarov, another island a few miles north. Also that one has a nice story of a man that decided to live there alone and wrote a book that inspired lots of sailors to arrive there.

It was only after 24h navigation that we realized we couldn't make it. The wind started to blow over 30kts and even if LJ was proceeding between 12 and 14, the feeling was to be into a washing machine. The girls on board were doing well though the noise of the sea, the drop of temperature and the waves that were making navigation quite tricky. We tried to push hard the boat but approaching the island at night was not on our plan so, we rapidly set up a new route and calculated that with this kind of weather maybe we could push LJ over his record of miles made in 24h. So we headed directly to Niue with full sails in bad weather. LJ was pushed really hard and we were staying all the time close to the pilot to correct in case of stronger wind. At the end we made it on time. 255Nm in 24h, the record of the boat. Welcome to LJ at Niue, one of the smallest countries of the world and at the same time the biggest coral block in the world. Even if it's independent, Niue has very close bounds with New Zealand: for example their currency is the NZ dollar. All the crew was extremely happy to be on a buoy after being bumped by the agitated sea and the consequent big stress. The first inhabitant of the island to welcomes us was a big sea snake, than the dolphins and apparently we also had few whales close our boat by the sunset. Although we didn't even realize it because we were already asleep.

After a mighty night of sweet dreams we filled our empty and needing stomachs with a rich breakfast: Alice and Mme Nicole were so hungry that they decided it was omelet time!! We all definitely needed a good meal after a 5 days and 5 nights of bumpy navigation. With our belly full of good stuff and the smile on our faces we went to discover this totally unknown island and what we found is another little corner of paradise. People smiling and slowing down to say hello even from their cars (that they drive on the right, God save the Queen!), green and variegate vegetation, one fantastic supermarket with local and western products (TWININGS!!), gorgeous natural caves and pools and even a fancy Indian restaurant!

Meeting people from the Pacific Islands makes you really feel like something in western countries went really wrong. We eventually find ourselves once again amazed and astonished at the same time, because here people are not scared of you and you can feel safe as never before. But there is more than a safety issue here: people have different needs than in Europe, or we can better say that they have needs that can be satisfied completely and that's it. I feel like we are trapped in a vicious circuit after which we have always more needs that create further needs. So we never reach a total satisfaction. Here life has different rhythms and, above all, totally different priorities. We are honored to learn and happy to share what we discover.

It's only after the sunset of our second day in Niue that we have finally the chance to meet the “sacred” treasure of this place: the humpback whales of Niue. Every year they come from the cold Antarctica and go to the warmer waters of Mexico, French Polynesia, Cook Islands,Tonga to breed and raise their calf. Here in Niue these mysterious mammals are not only respected, but also jealously protected. They came really close to the boats in the wharf, we could hear their blows when they came up to breathe. In the middle of the night I woke Alice up and together we were pleased to hear them singing! This was a very good signal for us, because when we woke up in the morning here they are!!! Two blows on the horizon but not far from the boat and two big tails diving in the water. With no hesitation, all the 4 of us jumped on the dinghy and went to meet these gorgeous creatures. We still didn't know that what we were doing was totally unlawful and the risk was a 5000 dollars fine or 18 months of imprisonment!! It seems crazy, but it's the LAW!!! In Niue you are not allowed to do whale watching activities without a licensed operator. So we took advantage of our ignorance and, following our exploding enthusiasm, Alice and I took the kayak and paddled towards the whales after lunch. All day long they stayed in the bay right in front of the boats and jumped, played, breached, made so many things to show off that even Hugo, the Niue diver instructor, was astonished and didn't believe his own eyes! We lived the most exciting day of Niue whale season! So far so good! Our enthusiasm cannot find limits. Mme decides to make me an early birthday present and gives me a whale swimming day trip, but it's a very risky and hazardous one. The Niue Dive Center asks 150 for an interaction with humpbacks, but if they don't show up or if there's a mother with a calf you cannot jump in the water and swim with them and the center doesn't refund a cent of what you pay. So, of course, we take the risk and on a chilly, cloudy morning we leave the bay with Hugo and his beautiful girlfriend Maria and go to sniff some whales. After one our with no signs of them, even our enthusiasm dropped a little bit., but at least we got to know very nice and interesting people. Right when we were starting making a hot chocolate to warm our bodies, here they are! Very close to our boat, 2 blows indicated their position. We got a bit closer (not too much, it's the law) and only when the instructors were in the water we could gently slip inside as well. The adrenaline was powerful and I swam faster than the instructors. Suddenly something happened: the young male we were all staring at in front of us turned around and, like a curious dog, came straight to us as if he really wanted to see what these creatures were. Everybody pulled back, even the instructors were disoriented and told us to go back to the boat. But our little new friend was just curious and was already taking his path far from us. Everybody was so excited! The second time we can jump in the water we meet two big adult females and it's so wonderful to see them play around, flip upside down and dive together that it seemed still a dream. After few good shot with the whales, we still have time to snorkel on a well protected reef and spot even some sea snake, a group of barracuda and a very curious turtle.

So I really have to thank Mme Nicole for the perfect birthday present that I'll surely never forget. Before to get back on board, I felt my beautiful girlfriend staring at me with the chicken killer look, so took her to eat a lamb curry with a coke to celebrate the day!!!

What else could we ask to this place?