Jump to Another World

It’s only about fifty sea miles from the southernmost little islets of Vava’u to Muitoa Point at the northern tip of Ha’ano Island. Ha’ano Island itself lies at the northern end of the Ha’apai Group, Tonga’s central region where a collar of low-lying palm frond crowned islets sit atop a barrier reef stretching out for over sixty miles in a Northeast to Southwest direction. The wait for a weather window to go there lasted over two weeks for us, making us feel like a bunch of coward fair weather sailors chewing a tarry pipe in a rocking chair. In the end the window did come and open wide. Not the day we got ourselves ready and started to take the sail covers off. That morning the wind howled gusting to thirty knots across the reef behind the strip of ironwood clad limestone rock that sheltered our anchorage. Neighbor John on the lovely wooden boat Maristela invited us over for coffee before we could proceed any further and get ourselves in trouble once again. The next day though all possible excuses for staying any longer had vanished into thin air. A fresh breeze was blowing clearly out of the Northeast promising a quite unusual downwind sail on a course of almost 200 degrees true. With her big mainsail up Aluna shot out of the anchorage so fast, we almost forgot to wave goodbye to the handful of friends we had made in the cozy anchorage North of Tapana Island. By the time we lifted our arms they were already reduced to little figurines standing on their decks and waving hands. There were Curly and Evi on the slender yacht with the wonderful name of Wonderland, then Sheri and Larry on their brightly painted floating art gallery/houseboat combo from where they look after a flotilla of lonely boats in a cyclone proof mooring field of their own making, and finally Brett on an also Wharram designed Tiki 30 named Dolphin Dream, who will certainly continue to try his best at convincing us to undertake the sometimes gruesome passage South to his homeland, the land of the mighty Maoris, the Southern Alp and many a fickle Kiwi. Once we had escaped the maze of bigger main islands of the Vava’u archipelago we sailed amongst smaller islands with gleaming beaches under succulent strips of green, invisible reefs with only snow white breakers rolling over them giving away their locations, and the occasional puffs of whale spout drifting downwind between the waves and vanishing away faster than the fleeting thought of a lonesome lover.

Soon what had been our home for the last couple months begun to shrink and was reduced to a thin strip of jagged outlines dragged slowly below the horizon by the straight shot laws of perspective. A more downwind sail you could not have wished for as Aluna spread her sails wing to wing, mainsail to port and mizzen to starboard for a maximum surface to harvest the force of the wind. This quite rare situation did come at a price though as anything else in life. the weather gurus had explained in the morning broadcast that a trough associated with the South Pacific Convergence Zone was distorting the usual East to Southeasterly trade winds and low-pressure troughs are hardly ever a sailor’s friend. The fair weather behind us over the disappearing islands was walled off ahead of us with menacing grays of all shape and forms. By some sort of mysterious heavenly magic however that menacing wall seemed to be able to escape our grasp. In spite of moving straight towards it, its rim continued to stretch out above us straight from northwest to southeast and stubbornly remained suspended there like locked to our own movement. Only at nightfall did a separate arm of it approach us from the Northwest and douse us with some showers and fluky winds. I hunkered down under the protective cover of our deckpod and Beatriz went below. We left the sails flutter on their own. After a short slumber I woke up and things had stabilized, some twinkly stars peaking out from between heaps of black darkness smeared across the sky.

By midnight it was clear that we would be at Muitoa Point way before dusk, so I had Aluna heave to until four in the morning while my habitual one hour slumber sessions on the watch bunk produced some interesting hallucinations. In one I was the happy owner of a young, red brown stallion, which let me embrace his Centaur-like upper body of steaming muscularity while galloping through a landscape of otherworldly beauty. In yet another I awoke within the dream terrified to see the sailboat rushing under full sail towards the bottom of a harbor with a rock pile breakwater dead ahead and land and a breakwater to either side of it. I frantically looked for ways to dowse the sails and spin the wheel in time to keep her from crashing onto the rocks. Awaking from that stimulating vision I found everything calm, Aluna peacefully bumping up and down adrift perfectly on course. Two faint little lights to the West hinted at the presence of a local fishing boat, so I turned the navigation lights on and went for the next sweet piece of slumber.

Morning broke with the cloud cover alit in pinks and purples before a thrashing gleam of gold revealed the burning eye of every Earthen life’s source and origin, once more guiding her merciless gaze across one cheek of Planet Oceanus. The flashing beacon of a lighthouse had confirmed for the last ten miles that we were approaching land, albeit just a little slither of it. But to that we had gotten used by now, it had been like this since entering the watery world of the Pacific Ocean over two years ago. The sea around Ha’ano Island’s northern tip proved to be a whirlpool of eddies and steep, short wavelets. The tidal currents in the Ha’apais are well known, in places running at up to five knots. Here the current was colliding with the Northerly winds, which had thus far been our very best friend. It took another three hours to sail down the island chain and reach the port of Pangai, capital town of the Ha’apais.

Our first walk on land made us aware that we had left the capitalistic exuberance of touristy Vava’u for good. Before our heavily tired steps a veritable ghost town emerged with quite clearly more than half the housed abandoned. People seemed to drag their dusty legs in slow motion like shadows in the luminescence of a youthful crescent moon. The official in a musty backroom of the termite-tired timber framed government building sat amongst enormous stacks of wrinkled paper and gave us a jagged smile of welcome. He then with an air of grave importance inspected our passports, took possession of our clearance certificate and ordered us to come and visit him before leaving the Ha’apais. He promised to issue a new clearance paper then for our journey onwards to our next destination. We had now fulfilled our obligations to the authorities and were free to roam about. Roam about we did in an aimless stroll of discovery, a tour of houses with no people, flashy buildings of a Tongan Development Bank, funky cemeteries with plastic flower spiked mounds of ochre sand and bright banners in rose and red announcing the names of human remains buried underneath the scorching sun. A lifelike statue in black marble clearly wished to continue walking the earth with a Bible clenched in the right hand and a trench coat flapping in the tropical heat. Reverend Shirley Baker, local missionary of the Wesleyan Church during the 19th century and advisor to King George Topou I in matters of writing constitutions had apparently found its final earthly resting place underneath this restless statue. It stretched its left hand out towards the setting sun and its gaze transfixed onto more lands full of heathens to convert and civilize.

Back in town after a long stroll along a rust colored sand beach and through banana plantations we stopped in the store of the inevitable Chinaman. Even the smallest and remotest little island in the Pacific has a store where a stern and ruthless Chinaman sells goods of dubious use to the local population. That Chinaman does never speak any of the local language and his domain of English is marginal at best. Somehow though he does wield sufficient power to make the wrinkled pieces of currency accumulate in his shabby pockets. This local version of the notorious Chinaman just came around the corner of the hut from somewhere and entered the small store with us. To smoothen out the business transaction as much as possible I inquire about the presence of a slab of rather delicious New Zealand butter amongst his merchandise. “If I have what?”, was his clearly angry response. “Do you sell butter?”, I repeat my simple inquiry, our present supply aboard pretty much at an end. This time the merchant’s astonishment is reduced to a snippy “What?”, and he turns his strained face towards his employee, a local saleswoman. She stops sweeping the floor with her palm frond broom and goes through the same series of expressive astonishments as her slit eyed boss: “If we sell what?”, then “What?”, then they both look at each other with an air of total incomprehension? I try on last and desperate time, pronouncing the words sharply and clearly just as I had learned during my training as a language interpreter: “Do you sell any butter? Butter?” All of a sudden the woman’s eyes illuminate as if the spirit had awaken her primordial intelligence and she exclaims: “Oh! Batta! Batta! Sure! Back thea in da freeza!” In the shade before a whitewashed concrete wall hummed a top load freezer. In there I found a stash of cool hand sized blocks of premium export grade New Zealand batta wrapped in shiny aluminum paper on which some fat cows calmly graze in front of snow capped mountains. I extracted on of them and put it gently in front of the Chinaman who has now taken his pole position on a high chair behind the store counter. I carefully extract a bill of twenty Pa’angas from my wallet and hand it to him. He looks at it, then at me through his tiny eyes, behind which quite clearly some thinking is going on, then leans towards me and whispers slyly: “Don’t you need any beer?” I’m tempted to go: “If I need what?” but I refrain. You don’t want to make enemies the first day in town!

3 Responses to “Jump to Another World”

  1. allan aunapu Says:

    ARRR… With the patience and diplomacy
    of true blue water sailors
    who chance along on a north east wind
    meeting folks on far out islands
    and knowing everybody smiles in the same

  2. allan aunapu Says:

    What do you think of the oil spill on the east coast of New Zealand?

  3. wildflowerinla Says:

    Love this! I would like to send you my link to the blog I am currently posting about the preparations of my move to Vava’u! http://www.escapetovavau.wordpress.com

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