Sailing Tonga’s Vava’u Islands
I don’t have much choice. Staring through the crystal clear water, it looks as though there’s a wide-open mouth about five metres below the surface. Once into the black I won’t have enough air to return. I remind myself I am in the Friendly Isles, as Captain Cook called them, and trust Nati enough to take as deep a breath as possible and follow as he disappears into the abyss.
It’s the longest five seconds of my life, but sure enough, up above, I see Nati treading water in a pool of green light. My lungs are almost empty as I kick towards him, somewhat regretting my decision to carry a camera. I surface in an eerie emerald cave half expecting the Wizard of Oz’s evil twin to be hanging from one of the many stalactites projecting from the roof. It is a bizarre feeling as the tide rises, my ears pop with the changing pressure and the light changes as the sunshine refracts through the underwater entrance.
“Welcome to Mariners Cave,” says Nati, his broad smile lighting the cave even more.
One of the many secrets of Tonga’s Vava‘u island group, Mariners Cave is no easy find. We’d spent a morning here a few days earlier drifting along the rocky coast of Nuapapu Island on our chartered catamaran searching the water for a lighter shade of blue that signals the underwater opening. Our exploration was fruitless and we gave up, promising to return with some local knowledge.
Vava‘u is a cluster of 61 picture-perfect islands of various sizes minding their own business in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Known among the yachting fraternity for excellent anchorages and as a pit stop during a Pacific crossing, Vava‘u’s beauty has been a long-held secret. On his third voyage to Tonga in 1777, Captain James Cook was told by the powerful chief Finau there was no suitable harbour, and instead sailed south to Tongatapu. Apparently, the chief was well aware of Cook’s influence, and Vava‘u and all her beauty were to be kept for the Tongans. The yachties we meet on our week-long charter seem similarly inclined.
The perfect combination of extraordinary visibility and an abundance of birthing humpback whales has meant this secret was always going to get out, though. Every year between June and September travellers arrive to swim with these majestic giants of the ocean. We’ve chosen to visit in October when the tourists are long gone, the resort owners are winding down for the off-season and just the odd lazy whale is yet to start its migration south to the feeding waters of the Antarctic.
Landing in Vava‘u’s capital Neiafu is like stepping back in time. There are no hotel chains or cookie-cutter resorts here. Dirt roads roll over green jungle hills linking the odd school with a number of churches. It looks like a set from a James A. Michener film, even more so as the road winds down to the aptly named Port of Refuge. It’s here we’re introduced to our accommodation and transport for the week – a luxury 40-foot catamaran stocked with everything needed for a perfect escape. We sail out the same day, weaving between the anchored yachts flying flags from all corners of the globe. The occasional salty sea dog waves with relief as we navigate safely past. Our chart is scribbled with tips passed on by the team at Sunsail and a couple of yachties drinking at the Mango Cafe.
As the port disappears behind us, we seem to have the islands to ourselves. Local children stop their game of beach rugby to wave as we pass by, and within an hour we have dropped anchor off Mala Island in water so blue it doesn’t seem real. The sun sets on our first night and we are rocked to sleep by a gentle swell and soothed by the ocean breezes.
The following days are spent catching the wind to deserted islands framed with palm trees shading white sand beaches. We snorkel through bright coral gardens in water so clear we spot stingrays and reef sharks darting about in the distance. We pack picnic lunches and laze in the shade. The only stress comes as we watch our yacht drift away one afternoon after losing its anchorage as the tide rose. Thankfully the lack of crowds means we have plenty of time to tender out and take control.
We meet a reclusive Australian on Hunga Island living in a rundown resort he plans to restore “when the time is right”. He hasn’t quite arranged his permits properly, but tells us how much happier he is since he left the rat race of a corporate job in Singapore. “It was killing me,” he says. “Out here I feel alive.” He tells us of Swallows Cave and laughs at our inability to find Mariners. “Don’t get too down on yourselves. Some of the locals still struggle to find it. It’s not like there’s a sign. Whatever you do though, get to Swallows as the sun starts to set. Trust me.”
Thankfully Swallows Cave is much easier to find. A 10-metre-high entrance at the point of Kapa Island allows for a leisurely swim into the cave. The late afternoon sun lights the interior and, above us, swallows dart about maniacally. But it is below the water that is most amazing. Thousands and thousands of silver fish school together in three-metre-wide bait balls. The light glints off them as they swirl together in the deep blue water. We spend an hour diving through the parting schools until the sunlight starts to fade and it’s time to find another island for the night.
It doesn’t take long on a yacht charter to fall into a leisurely routine. The days begin relatively early with a plunge over the edge to wash away the effects of too many Ikale Lagers the previous evening. Over breakfast we inspect charts, read up on which islands to explore and choose a few options for that evening. If the wind is right we pull up the sails and make our way. It is impossible to go wrong, as each anchorage is more beautiful than the last.
We join a local family one evening for a Tongan feast. Peter, the patriarch, welcomes us into his home. The Tongans are shy but incredibly friendly, and Peter’s family puts on a delicious spread. His sons sing traditional songs as a huge hog and several chickens wander along the beach behind us. I ask Peter what he does for a living and he smiles widely and says, “This! We love to invite yachties for Tongan feasts.”
“How often?” I ask.
“If we’re lucky maybe once a week.”
It doesn’t seem like enough to raise a family, but Peter explains they want for nothing in Vava‘u. They grow their own vegetables and raise their own meat. The money they make from the Tongan feasts goes towards the odd western luxury. Peter proudly shows me the solar panels he’s wired up to an old stereo.
“What do you do all day?” I ask.
“We live,” he says, matter-of-factly. “We have fun.”
It is a common theme here in the Vava‘u Islands.
After saying a sad farewell to our yacht, we are picked up by Allan Bowe and taken to his resort on Mounu Island. Allan is somewhat of a local legend here, having dropped out of the New Zealand advertising world in the 1970s and found his way north in search of a more fulfilling existence. He is credited with starting the whale encounters in Tonga and counts the king among his friends. Years in the sun and a thick long white beard give Allan the look of an old seafarer, yet he moves like a man 10 years younger. It is clear this life has treated him well.
Mounu Island is the archetype of barefoot luxury. Four fales (bungalows) are dotted privately around the small island, all within a short walk of a dining area and bar overlooking a long, pristine beach. Allan tells us that during the season it is not uncommon for whales to breach directly in front of the island. He takes us out for a whale encounter and we cruise through the same waters we’d just been through in our yacht. We pass Swallows Cave on our search. “In season,” Allan explains, “whales are all through here.” I imagine the shock of swimming out of Swallows Cave to be greeted by a passing humpback.
Allan grins when we ask if he knows how to find Mariners Cave. He nods at Nati, his first mate, who points in the distance. We were close, I think to myself, so close. Nati points out the changing blue as Allan cuts the engines. “Follow me,” he yells as he leaps overboard. “This will be fun!”
Fiji Airways recently announced direct flights into Vava‘u from Fiji’s Nadi. The airline flies to Nadi from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
Mounu Island Resort offers four fales built in traditional Tongan style on a 2.5-hectare coral atoll. Each fale is situated on a private stretch of beach with views of the surrounding islands and reefs. All have king-size beds (two can be converted to twin rooms), sundeck with lounges, and indoor and outdoor showers. Whale Watch Vava‘u operates a boat for Mounu Island guests.
Sunsail has three yachts available for charter: a 36-foot single hull suitable for eight people and two catamarans that sleep up to 10 people. Some sailing experience is necessary or you can charter with a captain.
For information about Tonga and planning a trip there, go to the official website.