From The Samoan Island of Savai’i, we pointed “Blue Rodeo” south, for the first time in many months, and sailed to the tiny island of Niuatoputapu in the northern portion of the Kingdom of Tonga. Our landfall, shortly after sunrise, treated us to an impressive view of a cone-shaped, volcanic island just northwest of Niuatoputapu itself. It clearly served as a reminder of what geological processes created these tropical islands. In fact, volcanic activity continues to this day and our charts indicate the presence of undersea mountains that rise from the depths to just hundreds of feet below the surface and occasionally spew steam, ash and even pumice into the atmosphere. We imagined how frightening it might be to be sailing peacefully along and suddenly be at “ground zero’ during one of the eruptions.
Like many of the Pacific islands, Niuatoputapu (known by cruisers who have trouble with the pronunciation as “New Potatoes”) is surrounded by coral reefs and requires careful navigation to safely approach the harbor off the main village. We found the entrance easy enough and were soon anchored off the village’s town wharf with our yellow “Q” (quarantine flag) hoisted to our mast’s starboard spreader. While we waited for the arrival of the immigration, customs and health and agriculture officials we were joined in the anchorage by our friends on the yachts “Malarkey” and “Awaroa” who had also sailed from Samoa. We also received a radio call from a friendly local woman named Sia who welcomed us to the island and offered to help with any services we might need and suggested that we join her and her family ashore the next evening for a pot luck dinner.
After a short while, three officials arrived at the wharf in a rather rusty and worn-looking pickup truck. Mark ferried them to “Blue Rodeo” with our dinghy and we completed the clearing-in process. Despite the condition of their vehicle, the officials were nicely dressed in traditional Tongan business attire with long skirts for the women and similar, ankle length skirts for the men. Around their waists were woven wrappings made from strips of palm leaves. Having completed the paperwork aboard our boats, we all went ashore with the officials where we were given a ride in the bed of their truck to their offices where we could change US dollars for their currency and pay our check-in fees. The ride proved interesting as we were afforded the first opportunity to see how the island’s residents lived and what efforts were being made to rebuild the villages after a deadly tsunami destroyed most of the near-shore structures in 2009.
During the next few days we would learn in detail how a nearby earthquake produced a 30’ high wall of water that swept ashore killing 9 people and creating widespread destruction. Even though it had been several years since the tsunami, many were still living in shacks made from salvaged materials while, with the help of foreign aid, new villages were being built on higher ground. Even though the modest new homes were being offered as free replacements to families that had lost everything, some were unwilling to leave their original land, choosing instead to live in whatever they could scrape together.
Our pot luck dinner, where we cruisers provided most of the food, with Sia, her husband Nico and their 4 children proved interesting as we learned more about the way they lived, the tsunami and the island culture. It was made clear how needy many of the island’s 870 residents were and, before sailing on, we all brought ashore gifts of food items and anything else we could spare.
Our days on Niuatoputapu passed quickly and were filled with socializing, touring the island on rental bicycles guided by one of Sia’s sons, hiking to the top of the island’s central, jungle-covered mountain and snorkeling its surrounding reefs. Sadly, the near-shore reefs were still showing the impact of the tsunami damage with most of the coral in rather bad shape. We can only image that it will take many years for them to recover from the natural disaster.
Prior to leaving the island we joined most of its residents for their Sunday church service where we were truly impressed by the beautiful hymns sung by the choir in their native Tongan language. Even though we could not understand the words in the songs or sermon, we couldn’t help but be moved by what we observed. We were especially moved by the smiles, friendly faces and welcoming attitude by all of the people we encountered.