Our Diary Tonga & Fiji (Part 1)

Cruising is a life full of contrasts; Poco Andante sometimes feels like a protective bubble, providing us with all the mod cons that we all expect to have in the first world. We are sitting in a gorgeous anchorage, Albert Cove on Rabi Island, Fiji. Dotted on the wide sandy beach are three families living in third world conditions; grass huts, woven mats on the floor, one meal a day. But when asked if they need anything, you are met with a smile and polite refusal. The waters are full of fish, lobsters and octopus on the reef. There is no road, so no interruptions except for the odd yacht and small cruise boat. The children are playing happily - it's the school holidays so they have come to visit Grandpa. During term time they stay in the main town, a few miles along the coast. We have made new friends on this island - we bring gifts of sweets, cakes and fishing gear, and in return receive shells, coconuts and papayas and a chance to go fishing with the grandfather. After which he gives me the only small fish he has caught - how do you repay such kindness?

The current inhabitants of Rabi Island were originally from Banaban Island, Kiribati, which was invaded by the Japanese in 1942. After the war the island was mined for phosphate and the government bought Rabi Island (part of Fiji) as a home for their people. Although some residents have now returned to Banaban, others like Banea stayed on Rabi.

This simple life is in contrast with the complexities of living that follows us even here. A problem has arisen; the funds we transferred to pay for our autopilot repair have not arrived. Emails, via satellite, are sent back and forth, trans-global phone calls are made on our behalf - all instigated from this little bay on a Fiji Island.

Anyway less of this philosophising! What have we been up to in the last couple of months? Our sail from NZ to Tonga was uneventful weather-wise and we completed the trip in eight days - our new sails have certainly made a difference! We had SE 10-20 knots all the way, excepting a calm period at the start when we passed through the centre of the receding Low Pressure System so that we could pick up the start of a nice High off Australia. However a mishap occurred on the third day which created a bit of a rumpus; a shackle parted on our main sheet traveller sending all the bits and pieces overboard! Luckily the winds were light to moderate, so we hastily dropped the main. It's surprising how a minor calamity can turn into a major problem so quickly. Picture the boom swinging free, not restrained by the mainsheet, I'm trying to get the sail down, Christine trying to head up into the wind. Finally the main started to come down, slowly at first then a bit too quickly, I became smothered in sail cloth and had the presence of mind to drop to the deck and crawl back to the cockpit so that I could tame the boom. This done we looked up and saw why the main had come down so quickly - the main halyard had become detached from the sail and has now knitted itself in a huge tangle halfway up the mast ! The wind, having done it's dirty work, picks up to twenty knots - a bit too strong to make any attempt to sort out the tangle so we continue under jib alone. Two days later, the winds die down sufficiently for me to climb the mast and for us to untangle the mess. A jury-rigged mainsheet traveller was soon attached and we were on our way again. We then attempted to contact Carol in NZ, (Christine's sister, who was flying out with Trevor to Tonga that week to meet us), we found that our satellite system was not sending messages to her. Via radio contact with Maritime NZ we ascertained that our system was working OK but there was a screw up by our service provider. Maritime NZ were great in relaying messages and via them we sent our shopping list to Carol for the bits for our mainsheet. We arrived in Nuku'alofa, Tonga the day before Carol and Trevor were due to arrive - and hoped that the email message to rendezvous "opposite the fish market" reached them.

Often "checking in" to a country can be a long drawn out affair - this certainly was the case in Tonga, especially as our arrival coincided with a National Holiday. One also learns to keep the process simple. I was sitting in the Immigration Officer's car filling in the multitude of forms and declaring that there were only two people on board, no pets, etc. when a taxi pulls up alongside and out jumps Trevor, full of the joys of spring announcing their arrival… The Official looked at me questioningly. "I'll check what's going on," I said, so I popped out of the car, discreetly indicated to Trevor that he was "not associated with us", and jumped back in to complete the form filling. "Friends of the boat next door," I lied! Immigration formalities were soon completed so we could relax and give Trevor and Carol a real Tongan greeting. (It took us a further day to complete the check in process!).

Nuku'alofa is the capital of Tonga but had little to keep us there and our plans were to cruise the Ha'apai Island group and to spend Carol & Trevor's last 10 days or so in the Vava'u Island group before they flew back to NZ. The low-lying coral atolls which comprise the Ha'apai islands are largely ignored by tourists as they are difficult to get to and don't have much to offer sophisticated tastes, so it was great to get a chance to explore them. Unfortunately the wind kicked up and we ended up stuck at anchor for 3-4 days before we could move on north to the Vava'u group. In contrast, the volcanic islands of Vava'u offer lots of great anchorages, protected waters and some reefs to explore as well as a reasonable selection of restaurants and shops. It was interesting to note how much prices had increased since our previous visit in 2006. But we did shout ourselves some "Tongan Dirt" T-shirts - an enterprising local business selling T-shirts dyed with local mud and then screen-printed to order. So we have some lovely Poco Andante T-shirts to commemorate our 2008 season.

It was sad to say goodbye to Carol & Trevor but they surprised us with a lovely gift from the "Tongan Dirt" store! We had lots to keep us busy, though - our autopilot was playing up and so was our 240v battery charger - plus a few other chores needed doing before we headed off to Savusavu, Fiji. We also wanted to see the arrival of the humpback whales, which come to Tonga every year to breed. Just a few days after Carol & Trevor's departure, a pod of four whales appeared off our starboard bow when we were sailing between islands. We followed and watched them for about an hour which was a great treat. Our visas were up so we checked out of Tonga for the 2-3 days sail to Fiji. A cold front gave us a boisterous ride for the last half day, although most of the way was in 5-10 knots. Our autopilot gave up the ghost completely so we had to "hand steer" a lot of the way - plus I broke a tooth!

We arrived at Savusavu on Vanua Levu, the second largest island of Fiji. Savusavu is a lovely harbour, a reasonable place to hang out for a while - lots of cruisers congregate here and there is a lively town with good shops. Our first task was to get my tooth sorted out, which entailed a four hour bus ride over the central mountain chain to Labasa on the north coast of the island. The bumpy drive was picturesque passing through lush rainforests, mountain scenery and onto the sugar cane growing coastal plain. The bus passed through clean and well maintained villages serving the copra industry - often picking up sacks of 'dalo' (a starchy root vegetable) and kava root for sale in Labasa market. My tooth was repaired efficiently and promptly (although I did suffer a few days later when my gums became mildly infected - maybe their hygiene was a bit suspect or a "foreign bug" got me! Anyway it cleared up in a week or so.)

Our next task was to sort out the auto pilot. Following a diagnostic check, a few emails and phone calls to the US, we ascertained that the flux gate compass was at fault and the unit had to be sent back to the US for repair. Easy enough, one might think! There was a DHL office in town and it only takes four days to get to the US. So we parcelled up the device, took it to Customs to be checked, and then along to DHL. Unfortunately the staff at the DHL office put someone else's Airway Bill on our parcel and our's on theirs! In due course it transpired that the company who was to repair our unit received a box of clothes and other household items! It took three weeks to sort this mess - and in the end our parcel was returned to Fiji and we started the process again!

Hanging around in Savusavu was no great problem, it allowed us to get back into cruiser mode and complete a number of jobs which we hadn't got around to before leaving New Zealand - cleaning all our canvas, polishing the stainless steel, and a multitude of minor fixes!

We also met Morrison from Lucky White Heather, a first time cruiser who is making a pilgrimage from NZ to his home town of Glasgow. He completed a dive course in Savusavu so I was able to buddy dive with him on the reef at Cousteau just outside Savusavu (so called as the Cousteau family has created a resort in this great diving area).

Once we were satisfied that the autopilot had arrived safely in the US, we "escaped" for the weekend with Lucky White Heather to Viani Bay to dive the Rainbow Reef, one of the worlds best reef dives. Teaming up with Bill and Linda from Creolawe employed the services of local guide Jack Fisher. Jack pilots your boat out and anchors you ON the reef - a nerve wracking experience! Thankfully Creola volunteered for this exercise since they have their own dive compressor and could fill our tanks. Yes, the diving was superb (although it was full moon so the currents were a little strong), fish life abounded, the coral was healthy and magnificent, sharks, turtles and other large fish were active. We'd even seen a pod of pilot whales and dolphins on the way.

Our weekend stretched into 5 days, but we had to check on the progress of our repair. An hour's trip to Taveuni, the next island, and a four mile taxi ride into town found us in an internet café. The quote was there but the US company would not accept payment by credit card (amazing!). So started a 4-5 hour battle with the over-night staff of our UK bank to try and transfer some money to the US. Due to their security precautions and the 11-hour time difference they wouldn't do the transfer unless the 'day' staff could telephone us back within the next two hours. We're not sure what part of, "No we do not have a phone, No you can't phone us in two hours", they did not understand, but they refused to do the transfer. Thankfully Emily my daughter helped out and paid the bill for us. (This is only the second time in 5 years that we've had such a problem, which, I suppose is not bad.) Somo Somo, the main town, didn't even have a bar or restaurant and the whole town closed at 5pm. We stayed overnight at the rolly anchorage and set off the next morning to Rabi Island, where I am writing this missive!

It is now 1st of September and we have been in Fiji for nearly 2 months - we hope our part arrives this week and we can start heading west!