We are anchored in the main harbor of Niuatoputapu (translation: Very Sacred Coconut), about 160nm north of Vava’u. We made the overnight trip last Tuesday uneventfully and pulled into the main anchorage early Wednesday morning, having been entertained during the night by an iPhone app called pUniverse which located us by GPS satellite and then offered up a view of the night sky – showing stars, planets and constellations in live view mode as we pointed the phone in any direction!
After catching up on our sleep, we cleared in at the administrative center north of town, met a few friendly locals and were brought up to date on this week’s upcoming events. There are about 12 yachts anchored here at the moment and the local villagers seem well-organized with plans to keep the yachties entertained and occupied while generating a little cash flow. So far on the schedule is a pig roast, a dinner party at the one and only local resort, a tapa weaving demonstration (dinner included), and lunch Sunday on a nearby motu (little island). One of the yachts is here from France by way of Cape Horn with a family of four aboard – mom, dad, teenage son and daughter. Another sailed here direct from Seattle – 6,000 miles non-stop and single handed, a voyage of some 2+ months at sea. Another, en route from Canada to New Zealand, has a cat aboard who does not like sailing!
The weather forecast is windy and getting windier each day through Sunday, then a couple of nice days, then a big storm with rain due later next week. That makes it a bit hard to whale watch, although there are lots of humpbacks cruising the six mile stretch of water that separates the main island from a neighboring island named Fatahi, formed by an old volcano and classically cone-shaped.
Yesterday a local guide named Niko took us in his open boat across the strait to Fatahi for a day’s hike up the volcano. Overall it was a death-defying day and today we are resting our sore muscles and taking it easy in recuperation. Actually I think my muscles may require more than just a single day to recover – I am definitely stiff and creaky!
Niko picked us up at 7:30 a.m. and we headed straight to Fatahi, trolling two fishing lines during the crossing. Sure enough, a mahi mahi struck Rod’s line. He reeled it in while I videoed. Niko turned the fish over to a village woman living on Fatahi to be cooked up for our lunch at the end of our hike. When I get back to internet service I’ll post the video – Niko has asked me to burn it on DVD for him and his family.
Before our big hike we spent a little time in the village while Niko ran errands and made a few deliveries. Biggest laugh of the day was the telephone “switchboard” service. Niko’s brother is employed by the Telecom company on Fatahi, housed in a small shack with the one and only phone line for the island, a big antenna and a bullhorn. During our wait a phone call came in for one of the villagers. Niko’s brother took the call, then used the bullhorn to bellow out a summons throughout the village to alert the recipient.
Off we went on our hike – Fatahi is a perfectly cone-shaped volcano rising up from the sea to nearly 2,000 feet. The start of the hike was somewhat moderate, but finally we were going straight up – impossible on just two feet, we had to pull ourselves along the track with whatever handhold came our way – tree branches, ferns, rocks! At one point we took a coconut break – Niko skinnied up a handy coconut palm and brought down one each, whacking them open with his bush knife. Drinking coconut juice is extremely refreshing, and when it’s gone the shell is cracked all the way open revealing the coconut meat inside for a quick snack. Fortified, we continued on – as things were looking hopeful Niko told us only another 5 minutes to go. An hour(!)later we did actually get to the very top! Great view – we could see across to the main island, and looking down we could see the flying sea birds below us and at the base of the extremely steep cliffs we could see tiny humpback whales among the whitecaps in the sea. The guidebooks say on a really clear day (this wasn’t) it is possible to see all the way to Samoa some 150 nm to the north.
Mike and I were pretty proud that we managed to hang in there and actually make it to the summit, figuring it was all downhill after that! But we didn’t count on our guide leading us literally downhill – straight down! First we descended into the actual crater which is now a verdant rain forest, back up the far rim, and then we launched ourselves straight down a steep open slope of fern and bracken. Not a switchback or traverse in sight! I finally resorted to sitting on my rear end and scooting downwards using both legs and arms to avoid hurtling head over heels.
That took care of about 1500 vertical feet of the return trip (and ruined a perfectly good pair of shorts) but we had descended on the opposite side of the island and still had to hike a narrow forested path (Niko referred to it as “the road”) back to our starting point at the village. Luckily our mahi mahi was still waiting for us – we thought it might have been completely devoured by the time we showed up around 2 p.m. However we were treated to a nice lunch of coconut milk mixed with mango, fried chunks of mahi mahi, and baked plantain. A plantain looks like a large square banana but tastes more like a potato!
Mike and I were both pretty beat, but we straggled back to the harbor to board our boat home. A dozen or so Tongan men were waiting for us at water’s edge with a boat of their own waiting to launch. Two of them were in hunting mode, running gracefully along the jagged reef, one with a net and one with a sharpened stick for a spear, pursuing small reef fish. They brought several in to the beach and the Tongan men knifed into them, still flapping, and ate them raw seasoned with sea water. Yum?
As we loaded our boat and donned foul weather gear for the return trip, the Tongan men launched their boat (dry on the beach) by rolling it down a path of rolling logs. Then both boats put out to sea. We had 3 or 4 of the men aboard our boat but the second boat still looked top-heavy with some dozen or so very large men perched aboard.
The trip home was pretty adrenalin inducing in itself – the wind had kicked up to some 20-25 knots and big swells were rolling through the strait topped by white caps and occasional breakers. Niko was obviously a skilled navigator and the boat seaworthy – we just kept a good grip on the boat as it plunged through the sea, doused by wave after wave. Although it was clear a capsize would be life-threatening, Niko tells us he routinely goes out in even 40-50 knots of wind so this was just routine to him. The foul weather gear did absolutely no good – water just poured in through the neck and soaked us anyhow. It was about an hour’s passage, and by the time we cleared the entry channel into the protected anchorage Raven and a hot shower were looking really good!
And just to add the final punctuation to the day, it turns out the Tongan men were prisoners along with a couple of guards sent to Fatahi as a work force to harvest kava before returning to “jail” (really just a house) on Niuatoputapu.