Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Kayaking Tonga

Tonga is like space. It’s hard to find a good map or nautical chart of Tonga for the same reason it’s impossible to sketch the galaxy in its proper scale, see it, and still have it fit in a book. Or even a room. There is more distance than substance.

The Tongan universe is organized into solar systems of island groups. Vava’u, Ha’apai, Tongatapu, which we visit in that order. During a 19-mile paddle among the Ha’apai group, the simile of space ccurs to me. I leave our anchorage and head toward the longest island on the horizon, which I believe is the final destination, Ha’afeva.

Navigation for the day is pencilled on my kayak deck in degrees and nautical miles:
270 8
217 11

I scour the horizon and nearby sea for Lofanga Island, which should be smaller and closer. I hope to stop there for a break, about halfway. It should be slightly north of Ha’afeva. But my compass seems to be a little off, and my eyes blind.

About a mile out from the anchorage, I crawl forward on my deck and open the front hatch to be sure the repair kit has not slid forward under the compass. Nope. But it does sit at a slight tilt towards the south, a southern hemisphere phenomenon. Then I turn on the hand-held GPS that I carry for emergencies. If I need Henrick’s help, I can tell him my coordinates. It’s virtually impossible to see a kayak on the open sea. I’ve been within a quarter mile of him, told him my bearing from him, and still been invisible. I can see his sail clearly at 2 miles in most conditions, and up to 8 miles in calm seas with clear air or a solid dark background. This GPS has no chart of the area. Last night I entered the two waypoints of Lofanga and Ha’afeva. The two dots and the triangle that is me sit in a blank screen. But it’s enough info to confirm that my compass is not wrong; I was.

Blame it on the vagueries of our shipboard GPS, the dearth of detailed printed charts aboard, and the 8-16 degree discrepency between the ship’s compass and the GPS, but the fact remains that I was mistaken. The island I’m seeing is Lofanga, and Ha’afeva is far beyond the hazy horizon. I actually cannot see it until 3 miles after I leave Lofanga. It’s a small feeling, paddling fervently on a compass bearing towards an imaginary dot beyond a blank horizon, but we’ll get to that later.

Islets and reefs glide along my horizon, appear, rearrange themselves, and disappear. They are nameless mysteries. Behind me a vertical white smudge moves along the dark line of horizon which is Uoleva Island. A sailboat heads out. It’s not Henrick since he won’t go until after I reach Lofanga. He calls me every hour on the VHF to check each other’s progress.

The east and south sides of Lofanga are cliffy, according to the shipboard GPS. I choose to head around the north side of the island, a longer route, but more likely to find a landing. Sneaking through the reef between breakers of slightly less than a meter, I cruise along the shore until I see a small dugout canoe with an outrigger tucked under the branches of a tree. Elation! I beach the kayak next to it. Light blue paint, red paint, just small patches left, and those peeling off. A stick rests in the canoe with a plywood oval held to one end with a bent nail. The paddle. A 2x6 board rests across the narrow dugout opening. One must sit above the canoe since the width would not even permit a child’s hips. Legs only fit one in front of the other. Various colors of string bind the outrigger to the canoe.

I follow a footpath inland to a clearing planted with banana trees and taro. A kettle and a shirt hang in a tree branch, but I see no people. I paddle further around the coastline of craggy volcanic rock etched by the sea, topped with grass brilliant green in the sunlight. Palms and jungle trees beyond. Tiny inlets, pocket beaches of tan sand. I nose into one and hear a chirpy squeaking. The trees hang dense with ripe fruit bats. Gigantic brown pears with golden faces. They fuss at each other until one drops from its grip and flaps away with thick hawk-like wings.

Another dugout outrigger on another beach. Bare wood, with just a hint of black paint in spots. The paddle is an old plastic blade, cracked in the middle, bound to its crooked branch with black rubber. The trails here lead to a clearing moguled with unmarked mounds of white sand. The graveyard. One grave at the base of a red-flowering tropical tree is covered with plastic flowers and has an engraved headstone.

AHO 24, 10, 98.
(arrow pointing right) 1998

With this, I no longer wonder if there is a permanent population on the island. Around one more rocky headland, I see a moored motorboat, plus two on the beach, apparently pulled up for repairs. A girl runs up a grassy clearing towards a village. Eaves and corners of roofs peek out of the foliage. I don’t think the girl saw me. There are no signs of anyone else at the waterfront. I am torn--it’s time to move on if I will keep to our planned schedule of meeting up at Ha’afeva while we still have good light for anchoring. Besides, I’m alone, carrying an obscene amount of expensive borrowed equipment, compared to the local standards.

Historically, Tongans were notorious raiders of other islands and passing ships. Not to mention their cannibalistic tendencies. The ”Friendly Islands” were misnamed by Captain Cook when he was invited to a feast, without realizing that the feast was supposed to be a trick to capture and eat him. It failed due to internal disagreements among the planners.

I linger a few moments, see nobody, and reluctantly raise my sail and paddle away, still feeling torn. Next time I might have the chance to visit a village, I promise myself, I will carry something as a gift. Food, or something I can part with. To that I am faithful.

But first, I must get to the rendezvous with Henrick, 11 miles towards a perfectly empty horizon. Oh, the faith that ocean travel requires. Conditions are ideal for paddling, if not for visibility. Complete overcast with a light drizzle. Quartering tailwind of 8-12kts. Ocean swell from the NE about 2’, and wind waves E about a foot. Just a mellow day’s cruise. I swim every hour to cool off, just before turning on my radio to listen for Henrick. I can see him most of the time, over my left shoulder. Sometimes I have to stare at the pale horizon for a few minutes before picking out the sail some 3 miles away and closing. It’s reassuring to see him out there, heading towards the same featureless haze. Is this somehow like life? We set a course we hope will intersect and work our ways expectantly towards a future we can only imagine?

Suddenly we’re there. I study the reef as I approach, and decide to shoot what looks like a gap in the worst breakers. It saves me almost a mile, and provides the needed adrenaline to bring me home. Henrick takes the long way and meets me at the anchorage, just minutes apart.

It’s an odd phenomenon. Going there and ending up here. But it happens every time. The distant, mysterious unknown becomes the present. The unnoticed. The boring. So we plan the next adventure. Do we even have to go, or is planning the real satisfaction? Oh, we must go, or we are but dreamers. Or worse. Failures. Or.... Is the enduring quest, the biggest challenge, the lifelong goal simply to notice the present? Would we still go adventuring?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Quick Visit to a Freckle

The sea was building up an uncomfortable multi-directional chop that required a lot of effort to keep the kayak moving in the direction I wanted to go. So I decided to stick with Plan A, and let Henrick pick me up beside Tokulu Island instead of paddle the last 10nm to Nomuka Island. I had already paddled about 10nm and visited a couple small Tongan islands.

Tokulu is just a freckle on the chart with a 39’ navigational tower on it and a reef completely encircling it. I arrived some 30 minutes before Henrick would, and thought I’d go ashore just for kicks. Pattern-less breakers on the reef kept my anxious attention until I reached the lagoon. I’d come in with the wind behind me, and knew that unless there was an escape on the other side, my exit would be challenging.

I beached quickly. Wearing all my kayaking gear, I ran up the sand into the edge of the forest. I happened into the long unused entrance to a trail, or more like a tunnel through the tangled growth, curtained by spiders. I raised my arm in front of my face, and plowed on to the base of the aluminum tower, then up.

I saw Henrick approaching, and a few other sailboats skimming the horizon. Wind tousled the tops of palm trees below the tower. A reddish reef encircled the little island. Hollow breakers dumped hard on the fortress of shallow coral. To the NW, where I’d snuck in, there was more randomness to the break, revealing a deeper, more broken section of reef. From the tower I could see a dog-leg channel barely wider than a kayak. If I could find it from water level, it would provide enough depth for my paddle to get a full bite with each upwind stroke.

Down I climbed as fast as I dared, and hurried to get back on the water. I was halfway out the channel, fighting hard against the wind and waves when the radio crackled with Henrick’s voice. He was approaching the island and couldn’t see me yet. I asked him to hang on until I got clear of the breakers.

As I neared the boat, Henrick turned the engine on and pointed Misty upwind. I paddled alongside, tied the kayak on a line, and scrambled up over the railing. We hoisted the kayak on board. I tied it down, and off we sailed, swapping stories of our brief solo journeys.


It was a mission to turn New Zealand contraband into some tropical fun.

I landed my kayak through wind-driven breakers at the foot of a row of palm trees. Just beyond the palms, the Tongan island village of Ha’avefa collected concrete houses with corrugated metal roofs. A small flatbed truck with a young family inside drove across the grass to park overlooking the sea. Though the island was only half a mile wide, there were some vehicles. I pulled 3 one-gallon ziploc bags out of my hatches and carried them into town.

Our South Pacific voyage, which had started in Mexico 6 months earlier, was about to head for New Zealand, land of strict biosecurity regulations. Much of the well-planned long-storing food we carried on board would be confiscated on arrival, so I was on a mission to trade the offending food items for something we could use up before arriving in New Zealand. In the bags were dried beans, dates, whole cumin and coriander seeds, textured vegetable protein, nuts.

Fences of corrugated tin roofing and crooked posts protected small yards from roaming pigs. A few skinny papaya trees grew in corners, and an anemic mango or two. A stunted breadfruit tree waved its lobed leaves like giant green hands. Down one road I saw promise: a cluster of healthy banana trees in a garden of bounty, canopied by a majestic breadfruit tree. A man in a button-down shirt, ankle-length skirt, and flip-flops tinkered with a small motor in the shade of the banana trees.

”Malo e’lelei”, I said over the decorative concrete fence. He turned off the motor and eased himself closer to the fence. Most Tongans speak some English. He listened patiently as I explained that I had some foreign foodstuff to trade if he could spare a few bananas and perhaps a papaya.

It was only later that I realized that the garden belonged with the most well-kept house in town. He was the minister of Ha’afeva and the surrounding islands. His wife Maria was away in Nuku’alofa, the capital, visiting one of their children in boarding school and doing some errands. Nuku’alofa is a full day trip by local motorboat, a low wooden and fiberglass contraption with partial cabin top not high enough to stand up under, and wooden benches along the side. The trip must be a penance of sorts, in the choppy seas that can blow up around here.

His garden didn’t lie. Vilitonu, the large and soft-spoken minister, was a tender of plants as well as parishioners. He loved the idea of planting the beans to see if they might grow, and the coriander. ”Thank you for bringing more flavor to our kitchen,” he said slowly as we sat in the living room among upholstered couches draped with bright lengths of fabric. I sat comfortably on the wood floor since I was still wet from kayaking in the wind.

After a chat, I followed him back to his happy garden, his wide feet slapping softly in their rubber flip-flops. He cut a bunch of green bananas with a machete and handed them to me, still dripping white sap from the cut. A tall, hearty papaya tree got a good poking from a long stick until a football-sized fruit dropped to the ground. The papaya was just starting to blush yellow through its green skin. Finally, he led me to a row of shoulder-high shrubs that had been regularly trimmed of their pointy-lobed leaves. Like Saint Peter on judgment day, he tenderly chose this leaf, that leaf, and not that one, thoughtful yet decisive. He handed me a fist full. Like spinach, or kale, or Swiss chard, they were to be lightly steamed until just wilted before eating.

There have been moments when I keenly miss the communion of plants in my home garden. The foray into Vilitonu’s tropical oasis was tonic to the spirit as well as nourishment to the belly.

The next day I returned with Henrick to visit with Vilitonu. We walked across the island from the protected anchorage on the other side carrying another delivery of foreign food and things that might grow.

The day after that, I set out early in the kayak to explore some nearby islands on the way to Nomuka, the next anchorage some 20nm away, with the last New Zealand contraband in my hatches. Many little islands along the way are too small to have protected anchorages, so kayaking is the perfect way to explore. A few islands have villages, satellites to the central Ha’afeva.

I stopped at an uninhabited one, in a pocket of sand between sharply eroded limestone formations. A sandpiper of some sort poked among the crags. It climbed and hopped within a couple meters of me, unbothered. In the rocky holes hid crabs, scratching and clambering back from the advancing camera. The hillside behind rose too steeply to climb, too tangled with jungle growth.

I left the island and crossed over the protective reef. Just as the water began turning to deep-water blue, a sea turtle sniffed the air. It saw me trying to sneak past and dove, flying down, down below the kayak. A pair of white terns looped over the palms of the little island. Icons of freedom and playfulness.

From there I headed another couple miles southeast to an island called Tongua, according to the shipboard GPS. The locals call it Tomua. I approached over a long shallow reef. Two figures waded, then bent over, straightened, put something in a bag. The first, a teen whose gender I could not determine, stared, but hardly responded to my greeting or smile. The second, perhaps the mother, beamed a most welcoming smile. There are moments when the universe feels in balance and nothing else matters. Such was the warmth in her face at that moment. I smiled back from the depths of my heart.

”Malo e’lelei”, we exchanged greetings. Then we had no more words in common until ”Bye.” No matter. They were picking urchins. They were just beginning, or it was tough going, judging from the emptiness of their bags. I wished them well, whether they understood the words it or not, and paddled on.

Around a curve in the coastline, a village came into sight. Green fields were crossed by the occasional dark pig or white goat. A few low-profile motor boats moored in shallow water. Wood and corrugated tin houses. Footpaths.

In Tonga, as in the rest of Oceania, boats have always been the way to get around. Exploration, settlement, trading, raiding. Outriggers, double hulls, sails for distance, paddles for day trips. This British sea kayak, though its roots anchor in the cold northern reaches of the planet, fits the tradition of human- and sail-powered boat travel for visit and trade.

Motors power the modern Tongan inter-island vessels. Not everyone has a boat, but everyone who leaves the village must travel in somebody’s boat.

Here the boat isn’t peripheral or recreational. For those who operate their own, there is a common understanding, a language of the sea. It is something one will always have to share with the newly arrived visitor. Freddy met me on the beach in front of a huge tree. In very good English, he introduced himself as the captain of the sea cucumber fleet.

”How is the sea today?” he said as if he were asking about the health of a relative.

Sea cucumbers processed for the orient are the basis of their international economy, and a wide-leafed grassy plant softened by soaking in salt water was sold locally for bedding and matting. Of course he knew Vilitonu, the minister. Right there was the church, across the field.

Freddy gave me a walking tour of the village. Like many homes, most of these had a sheet hung in the front doorway, and no door. The breeze blew through to the back doorway opposite. Inner walls and doors hardly existed. Many people smiled and waved from their places in the shade, and some kids ran up to the fence to look and smile. The most striking thing that shaped this community was the complete lack of motor vehicles. Footpaths wove unstraight lines through the grass, People and animals walked about or lounged in the shade. Things were done or moved by hand.

Freddy, like Vilitonu, was well traveled, having been to the US, Australia, Asia. His cell phone chirped almost constantly in his pocket. He answered usually with a few sentences in Tongan and hung up.

Two women sat beside a fire under a sprawling tree and worked at making some food. Tan piles of long soaked bedding leaves sat along a fence to be prepared for sale. Two young men lounged in the shade on a backyard trampoline and greeted me in good English. Pigs sprawled in dusty hollows under the eves of an abandoned shack.

The village, said Freddy, was growing. It had some 300 people, if I remember the figure right. We returned to the beach. Before I pushed off for the next island, I pulled out the last 2 Ziplock bags with the remaining contraband. Dehydrated vegetables, soy protein, cous-cous, and a few other bits. Appreciation for a fine tour. He seemed genuinely interested in it, and I left feeling satisfied with my first two village trading efforts in this remote Tongan island group.