Welcome to the Kingdom of Tonga

A brisk wind blasted us west from Niue to Neaifu, just in time for sunrise. After steering through the narrow channel into Neiafu harbour, we rafted up alongside another boat, Ostrika, already parked on the fisherman’s dock.

Clearance here is a leisurely affair. Once attached to either the customs dock or the fisherman’s wharf with the Q flag flying, you just have to wait for the officials to arrive. And only 4½ hours later, after a slow procession of officials coming on board and filling out paperwork, we were done – just in time to get some lunch in town, get some cash from the ATM to pay the officials and get a mooring ball in the harbour before sunset.


Ostrika – last seen in Tahiti


Wreck at the Fishing Wharf


Let down by low tide

Tonga in brief

The archipelago of Tonga has 169 islands, only 36 inhabited by humans, each possibly containing enough wildlife to keep the BBC busy for a decade. But the main attraction for most visitors exists in the sea; the annual whale migration, when humpback whales come here from Antarctica to give birth and to mate. That event draws people here from all over the world. There’s more on whale watching later. Neiafu is part of the Vava’u group of islands.

Tonga has never been formally colonised. Captain James Cook stopped by for a few visits between 1773 and 1777 and gave Tonga the moniker ‘Friendly Islands’ due to the warm hospitality he received. Although I suspect they fancied him and his crew as a light snack and were trying to butter him up – literally.

Christian missionaries arrived in the early 19th century, which resulted in English becoming widely spoken across the islands and Christianity becoming the predominant religion. In 1845, Taufa’ahau Tupou united the islands and took the title King George Tupou I because of his admiration for Britain’s King George III (the bonkers one). And in 1875, he established English as one of the official languages of Tonga. It is still taught as a second language in schools.

Dress is modest here – there’s no walking around in boob tubes, and that applies equally to women. Shorts need to be below the knees. Hats should never be worn in church. And public displays of affection are frowned upon.

Around Neiafu town

Strong winds and rain were forecast for a few days ahead, so rather than hunting around for a safe anchorage, we decided to stay put on our mooring in the protection Neiafu for a while and look around.


Destination – west


St Joseph’s Cathedral


St Joseph’s Cathedral


Gas supplies

Gas comes to the island by a massive gas tanker in the photograph above. The ship discharges its cargo via a pipeline in the lower reaches of Neaifu Harbour.


Modesty Maria – dressed appropriately


Jamala on a mooring


Calm before the wind


Main dock

Roadtrip around Vava’u

We hired a car (around £33 for the day) to tour around the island; I think the car was owned by a local person rather than the rental company. It certainly had the look of a well-worn family utility vehicle. But it worked, and we weren’t too concerned about lugging around our jerry cans in the boot to pick up some diesel later in the day. Unfortunately, we didn’t take many photos on the trip, but here’s what we did get.


Lookout to sea




Pig hunter



The graves are almost always colourfully marked as a celebration of the person’s life, complete with fabric flowers.


More cash

Whale Watching number one

We decided to go whale watching with Vake Vave, a company owned and run by Andrew and Diane – ex-pats who have employed experienced local skippers. Isi, shown driving the boat in several of the photos below, is one of them. He has been doing the job for over 20 years and is very careful when approaching the whales. He waits and watches to see what they are doing until he determines the right time to move close enough for a maximum of four swimmers, plus a guide to enter the water.

The weather forecast wasn’t great, but luckily our spotter saw a mother and calf very soon after leaving the harbour, and we could swim with the whales within an hour of stepping aboard. There are no underwater photographs, but we could swim very close to a mother and her calf. The calf was very young – almost white.

This is nothing like many of the whale-watching excursions around Moorea. There are heavy controls on unauthorised vessels approaching whales closer than 300 metres, and the authorities take this very seriously. First-time offences carry fines of between $1000 and $5000 and imprisonment of up to 18 months. So as tempting as it might be – it’s best not to do it.


Looking for whales






Whale swimmers


Close encounter


Modern-day whalers


Rough weather in the afternoon

And later that evening, we went to the Mango restaurant for drinks with some of our fellow sailors.


Drinks at the Mango Cafe

More routine boat stuff

A fabulous fresh market near the fisherman’s wharf sells wonderfully unadulterated locally grown fruit and veg – and eggs. This was one of our many visits to stock up.

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Maria with Lilly at the market


Egg lady


A busy Neiafu harbour


A trip to the local deli


And one to the petrol station

The King and I – and her and them

The big event in Neaifu was the arrival of the current King of Tonga – King Tupou VI. His appearance was preceded by much cleaning and painting around town, then the arrival of a pair of naval ships taking up residence on the customs dock.


The navy in town

We, and many of the local population of Vava’u, took the opportunity to see the King at Vava’s Royal Agriculture, Fisheries, Tourism and Trade Show 2023. A large title to match a large show.

Everything in the photographs below is locally grown or caught. And none of it can be bought until the King has inspected every stall during his walkaround after the welcome event. Fish was voluntarily off the menu for us for a week afterwards. That couldn’t have been in a good state after baking in that heat for a few hours.

We received a tip from the cognoscenti to stay towards the back of the crowd when the King is doing his rounds. Otherwise, protocol suggests that you have to remain rooted to the spot. We took that advice and were able to slowly back away from the royalty.


Royal agricultural show


Tapa making








More fish




Coffins – who’d have thought this stall would be at an agricultural show?


Waiting for the King


The King


Brian from Vava’u radio explaining the intricacies of the ta’ovala


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Winners winners chicken dinners

After the royal show, a few of us decided to try our luck at the quiz night at the Kraken bar and restaurant. And to our surprise, we won. I’m not sure that was such a good thing, given that we had probably had enough to drink already, but we accepted our winner’s prize of a free drink with drunken grace.


Surprise winners at the quiz night

Escape from the harbour

Eventually, the wind dropped to something approaching normal, so we headed out of the harbour to see something other than Neaifu town. Our first stop was Port Maurelle – anchorage number 7, a sheltered bay not too far away from Neafu and close to Swallows Cave, where we snorkelled the next day with Elliot and Miranda – our Niue partners in crime. Each anchorage has been assigned a number by, I believe, the Moorings charter people, which makes things easier for us non-local folks to communicate with each other about where we are heading.


Swallows cave

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Smooth dinghy boarding

Then it was off to Vakaeitu Island (16) for a change of scenery after a brief stop a Euakafa Island (32) and Ovaka Island (38).

David, who lives with his family on Vakaeitu Island, organises a feast every Saturday for the anchored boats and for a fee of 100 TOP (around £34) a head, you can join in. So we did, together with some of our old sailing buddies and some new ones from the ARC Pacific fleet.

Although we were a little concerned about the size of the pig on the roast, overall, the feast was good. And it has to be borne in mind that it has been a while since any yachts have been around. Tonga slammed the doors shut and didn’t turn the key again until this year. That also means many local people are impoverished, so we had no reservations about stumping up the cash.


Vakaeitu island – that’s David’s boat on the reef. That’s the aftermath of the last tsunami


All aboard Sea Rose


Tongan Feast with the ARC sailors


Spot the pig part of the feast – it’s there somewhere


Mini pig


Traditional tongan dance


And the Lakalaka together

Finding Religion

David invited us to go to church the next day. It isn’t usually our thing, but we made an exception and gave it our best shot. The four of us set off in Elliot and Miranda’s dinghy to get to the other island in time for the church service at 1000, but we completely underestimated the time it would take to get there. After recalculating and finding that the service would be over before we arrived, we turned around and arrived just before David came back from church.




Sprinkled with seawater rather than holy water

More islands

And more bad weather.

We left Vakaeitu Island and headed for shelter at Oka Island (11) for a couple of nights until the worst of the weather had passed. Then, after hearing from Elliot and Miranda that the breeziest it got at their anchorage was 7 knots – as opposed to 23 knots where we were parked up – we decided to head to Lotuma Island (5).

Lotuma Island is an old abandoned military base, now home to nothing more than birds, other tree-dwellers and land critters. What’s left of the military construction is a lookout tower and a few barracks at the top of the hill.

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Lotuma Island watchtower

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Near Lotuma Island is a place to park the dinghy with access to a road leading up through the village of ‘Utungake. Going through the town, we came across these two ladies making a mat for a wedding. It will take around a month to complete it.

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Ladies making a mat for a wedding

And later, we came across this fine-looking fella:

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This little piggy is way overdue for the market – it is enormous.

Whale Watching number two.

We got to go out again with Isi to swim with whales, this time with a different group of passengers. Our fellow whalers were from Fiji, San Francisco, Germany and Tonga. Lucy, at the front right of the photo below, had been so busy with her work in Tonga that she never found time before to see the whales. It was great to spend time with her and see the experience through her eyes. She also shared her Tropical Chicken with me, and I appreciated that even more.

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The wet and windy ride back to shelter

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Successful sighting and high fives

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Mother and big baby

I patched up the GoPro to see if I could get it to work one more time. I did – just once. It’s in the bin now, but I did manage to get this video of a mother and calf:

Outer islands

When the weather calmed down again, we headed out to some of the more exposed islands of the Vava’u group near Ovalau Island (40). The anchoring here is superb. It might be a bit windy, but the anchor digs in here like a stubborn child in a sweet shop.

As it was Elliot’s birthday, we joined him and Miranda at the beach on Ovalu for a picnic before taking our boats around to Mounu Island.

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Lazing on a borrowed chair on the beach

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Avalau Island

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Blue starfish – there’s an abundance of living versions of these underwater.

Mounu is a private resort for only a handful of guests, but we were warmly welcomed for drinks on the terrace that evening. That is an extraordinary place, and apparently, the food is exceptional.

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Birthday boy

We didn’t sample the food. Twenty-four hours notice is needed and we wanted to catch the next weather window to Fiji over the weekend. But you never know; if we become serial circumnavigators, we might be back.


Clearing out also requires that you bring your boat to the dock. There’s no dodging that unless the port is full, then you can request permission to anchor just off the fishing dock. Fortunately, when we arrived back in Neiafu, the main dock was clear, and we could go alongside that, with the wind blowing us gently off the rigid rubber fenders attached to the wall that is of no use to anything apart from big ships. Here we met up again with Brian from Vava’u radio and had a chat while we waited for the officials to resume work after lunch.

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With Brian on the main dock

Clearance was easy enough – just an exercise in form filling and payment of captain’s fees – around £15 for the time we spent here. And that was that – next destination Savusavu in Fiji, which brings us almost halfway around the world.

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Giving someone the side-eye on the way out.