Niuatoputapu Island, Tonga
S 15 57’ W 173 44’
Bad weather having brought us to Niuatoputapu, the northern-most of the one hundred fifty-island Tonga Archipelago, we didn’t expect to stay long, but little did we know what we would find. The twelve hundred island inhabitants live in three shore side villages in widely-spaced, mostly traditional ten by fifteen foot huts. Most huts have incorporated “modern” corrugated metal siding in lieu of the traditional woven palm fronds, but most huts still use traditional thatch roofs. Inside a typical hut, housing a family of five or more, you will find all of their possessions which don’t amount to much more than clothes, pandanus leaf mats for sleeping and exactly zero other furniture. Cooking is accomplished on open “camp type” fires, and a very small lean-to usually covers a crude shelf/countertop where the pots and pans are stored. You will find a few bowls and cups, but not often plates, as many of the meals are served on banana leaves instead of plates. Meals are taken sitting on pandanus mats near the cooking area in fair weather or inside the huts during rain. The fare coming from family-tended gardens produce tapioca (starchy tuber-like potatoes), yams, taro, papaya, bananas, mangos and coconuts. Meats come from free-range pigs (more on these later) and chickens and fish from the reef. The island does not have electricity or public water supplies but does have telephone service available throughout.
This island is so remote that the supply ship calls only every three months and, it so happened, arrived the same day we wanted to “check in” to the country. Going ashore we met the customs officer amidst the bustle of the ship unloading and getting loaded, and were informed we would have to return to our boats until the ship departed and the officials would be free to meet us and get us checked in. We took our time hanging out on the quay talking with locals and getting some great pictures of the people and cargo alike: pigs in homemade crates consisting of sticks nailed together, a pair of goats tied to each other to slow any escape attempts, huge bundles of pandanus leaves, boxes, crates and empty fuel barrels. Later in the day we met with the customs and agricultural officials whom I picked up and shuttled back and forth to the boat for the check in. The next day we were advised to head to the Treasury Office and Immigration Office to complete the check in. Conveniently, the above offices as well as the court, bank, post office and who knows what else all resided in the same small building, making it a quick and simple stop. After completing the formalities in the company of two other skippers, we walked down the street (dirt road) a half block and were greeted by a local guy standing in his yard. His English was perfect and we soon found out he grew up in Salt Lake City and had been deported back to Tonga for some crime and placed in prison. The prison was pretty lax considering the other four inmates were “out in the bush” collecting food. I asked how long he was “in for” and he said life. After this I didn’t ask too many more personal questions. The prison system on the island is clearly based on a lot of trust in the inmates who seem to have free rein. The inmates work on a kava plantation and live in a hut with bars on the windows that doesn’t appear to get the door locked too often. Further up the street was the Tongan king’s island home to inhabit while on official business on the island. The home was “European” and located on a flat, grassy acre lot and appeared to be in poor condition based on a few holes we could see in the front wall. The locals were, however, busy working on cleaning up the property and making repairs as the new king would be arriving within the week for a visit. I say new king because the previous king passed away about one month ago and the entire country is in official mourning. The mourning tradition dictates all adults and adolescents wear black and a traditional woven girdle called a ta’ovala. Stiff and dun-colored, the ta’ovala looks like a floor mat that had been picked up and tied, apron style covering the black clothes from knee to solar plexus. The garment appeared warm and uncomfortable but everyone was wearing theirs daily for a minimum of a month, again the official mourning period. The young children were exempt, and the very young wore nothing at all. The people were friendly, and the young children super bold shouting out “hello” and running full speed to greet you as you passed. Once at close range they shouted “hello,” “bye,” “what’s your name?” and “where’s my lollie?” hoping for a handout. We don’t give out candy, but instead a pencil, balloon or simply a rubber band all of which are received with vigor and enthusiasm. We did some trading with the locals and climbed the highest peak -- after several false trails, we met up with a young boy who led us through the jungle to the summit. The local shopkeeper, Niko, invited us to join him and his family for a potluck and later in the week for church services and a traditional lunch, which was served inside their hut on banana leaves as previously described. A great treat, and we have some great photos.
One particularly fun outing took us outside the barrier reef in search of a sunken 60’ sailboat. We found the wreck sitting in 51 feet of water on a sand bottom with good visibility. Sharing this adventure with Jens, a single-handed German on the sailboat “Moana,” and Matt and Ross on “Elsewhere,” we enjoyed great snorkeling. I mentioned the water was fifty one feet deep as I dove to the bottom; this was my deepest free dive yet and quite a thrill.
We were considering staying an extra five days in hopes of meeting the new Tongan king during his visit, but a good weather window persuaded us to move on as time is running short before cyclone season and the need to get south to New Zealand.