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Tonga on my mind

Since sailing there, on a homemade, cement boat, 30 years ago, I’ve been in love with The Kingdom of Tonga.  

I was living in Sydney, Australia, in 1989, working for a company that built sets and exhibitions, for Home Shows, Air Shows, etc..  One of my co-workers, a sparky Tasmanian, named Mick Purcell, had built his own sailboat, and was planning on taking it to New Zealand, with his wife and young daughter.  It sounded great, so I invited myself along.

At the time, I shared a small apartment (flat), with other travellers.  Mick’s boat was moored near our place.  I had an old, crappy car, and was happy to drive him to and from work.  He was a character, like no one I’d met.  

Mick had grown up in a Hobart orphanage and the priests had taught him to sail and weld; useful skills.  When he was old enough, to leave the orphanage, Mick took a job as a welder, bought a house, and spent 12 years making a sailboat, in his Hobart backyard.  Mick welded the frame and made the shell out of ferrocement.  

After a dozen years of work, his boat was ready, for water.  While showing me the newspaper clippings, Mick explained how the city of Hobart lent him a crane and, with great fanfare, lifted the craft from his backyard and dropped it into the bay.  

It didn’t sink.  

“Everybody stopped laughing,” he said.

Mick named his sailboat The Illusion.  Standing on the deck of his improbable, homemade, cement boat, he said, “It’s just an illusion, mate.”

For two more years, Mick was only able to motor around Tasmania, because he couldn’t, yet, afford masts and sails.  Eventually, The Illusion was fully outfitted and ready for the ocean.  Mick, his wife, Teresa, and daughter, Nakita, sailed north from Hobart to Sydney through “the roaring forties.”

Mick docked The Illusion in Sydney and got a job, at the company, where I was working.  He was saving money and preparing for a trip to New Zealand.  While we carpooled, Mick told me his of plan to sail across the Bering Strait, with his family.  My Australian visa was expiring, and I was flying to New Zealand, anyway, so I inquired about sailing, instead.  

The Illusion was a primitive craft, without satellite navigation or autopilot, and it required someone at the helm, at all times.  Mick was happy to have help.  I told my flatmates of my impending seaventure. Some were interested and asked if they could join.

When we set off for New Zealand, there were nine aboard, from six different countries.  

Preparing to leave Sydney

We cleared customs in Sydney, with the agents coming on board to stamp passports, etc.  As The Illusion sailed under the bridge, past the opera house, out of Sydney, and into the open ocean, I tingled.  

It took us 13 days to hit New Zealand.  En route we saw birds, fish, whales, dolphins, a shark, and fishing boats.  We dove in, a few times.  

John from Ireland, Mick and Murph from New Zealand
A flying fish wanted to join the fun, but we tossed it back.

Mick was teaching himself how to navigate, on the passage.  For much of the trip, we were “dead reckoning,” our location.  To our great relief and excitement, we hit the north west coast of NZ, exactly, where Mick had predicted.  

We sailed around the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island and into The Bay of Islands, where we cleared customs.

New Zealand sent its finest dolphins to welcome us

Travellers, generally, like to read and drink.  For good reasons, Mick had forbidden us from bringing alcohol, on his boat, so, after a stretch of sobriety, it was nice to hit the local, and celebrate.  We had sea legs on our way to the pub and lubricated sea legs on the way back.  

Woah.  

The Illusion in New Zealand

Originally, the plan was to split up, in New Zealand, with Mick and his family sailing back to Australia.  I was going to tour NZ, before flying to Hawaii.  However, Mick’s navigation was spot on, and the trip was so great, Mick, his family, and me decided to keep going.  

We looked at a map and saw The Kingdom of Tonga, a tiny collection of islands, in the south pacific ocean, was about 1000 miles north of New Zealand; roughly the same distance we’d travelled across the Bering Strait.  

Eureka.

In an instant, it was settled, we were going to Tonga.  I’d never heard of The Kingdom of Tonga, before, but I was in love.  

From The Bay of Islands, we sailed south to Auckland; New Zealand’s biggest city, where Mick moored The Illusion.  We split up for 3 months.  He went looking for work and I went looking for shenanigans, kiwi style.

I hitchhiked around NZ and stayed, on a sheep farm, before returning to Auckland, and moving back onto The Illusion.  We put notices up at a hostel, indicating we were looking for adventurous travellers to join us, on a trip to Tonga.  

Fortunately, we got great, young people from England, USA, and Sweden to come aboard. Eager, anxious, and excited, with a crew of eight, we set sail for The Kingdom of Tonga, on Mick’s homemade, cement boat.    

The Kermadec Islands, tiny dots, in The Pacific ocean, are halfway to Tonga.  The largest, Raoul, is the only inhabited island of the Kermadecs.  Decades ago, the New Zealand government established a weather center and research facility on Raoul, and a small number of Kiwis (New Zealanders) spend a year there, working; rotating in and out, annually.

The workers are dropped off, on Raoul, with everything needed, for a year.  The only time they are visited is for emergencies, or when boats stop by, which we did.  

The year we visited, there were 8 New Zealanders, living on Raoul.  We were their first guests.  The Kiwis made beer, on the island, and they were happy to have several young travellers stop, visit, and sample their wares.  Our night on Raoul Island was great fun.

Hosts and guests on Raoul Island

The next morning, we set sail, for Tonga.  About week later, we arrived in the kingdom.  Tonga consists of 169 islands; 37 of which are inhabited.  We sailed to the largest, most populated island, Tongatapu, and cleared customs and immigration, in Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital.

Tonga was just how I’d imagimed; beautiful, simple, and fascinating.  I tried to learn a few words, everywhere I went.  “Hello” in Tongan is “Malo e lelei” (ma-low le lay).  I thought it was long, so abbreviated it to “malo,” which, I discovered, means “thank you.”  

A foolish tourist, indeed, I spent my first hours in Tonga, (a.k.a.“The Friendly Islands,”) saying, “Thank you, thank you,” to locals saying hi.

When we were there, the population was about 90 000 people, with about 60 000 on Tongatapu.  The country is a supreme monarch and the King owns everything.  Royal Beer was a favourite regal enterprise.

There were many, other, great things about Tonga.  Pigs, chickens, and other animals roamed freely.  Criminals were put on islands of isolation.  The cars in Tonga kept the license plates of their previous home.  There were vehicles from Australia, New Zealand, and America, with left and right hand drives, zooming all over.  

An unexpected hazard was falling coconuts.  I was told by a local, getting hit by the dropping fruit was the number one reason for hospital visits, in Tonga.  

Watching a Tongan scale a coconut tree, machete in mouth, was a spectacle to behold.  Using hands and barefeet, Tongans run up trees, with ease, and hack down food.  

My man, Abraham, getting snacks

Every place I’ve visited has an inebriant.  In Tonga, they enjoyed kava.  The root of the kava plant is dried and crushed into a powder, mixed with water, and drank.  

We were invited to a kava party.  We sat in a circle and a cloth sack was filled with powdered kava.  The sack was immersed in water, in an inverted tortoise shell, and squeezed.  A kava drink has sedative and euphoric properties.  

The master of ceremonies filled two coconut shells, with the kava drink, and they were passed, from person to person, using two hands, around the circle to the furthest two people.  They drank the kava and the cups were passed back to the MC.  Again, everyone handled the drinking vessels. The MC refilled the coconut cups and they were passed along, to the next furthest people.  This process continued until everybody had had a coconut cup of kava.

A Kava party

The ritual was repeated for the entire, great evening.  

The Illusion was anchored near an American couple, who had also sailed to the Kingdom.  He was a doctor, and, while in Tonga, served the king.  One day, sitting on his boat, he pointed to an airplane circling overhead.  The doctor explained the king was trying to lose weight and was riding his bike on the country’s only runway, while bodyguards ran beside him.

The king’s weight loss is legendary.  

Tongans are big, strong, and tough.  The rough and tumble way Tongan children played was shocking, at first, but affirming, soon, thereafter.  I loved it.  “That’s how kids should play,” I thought.

(I’ve often wondered, if bubble wrapped children and helicopter parents have inflicted on the kingdom.)  

God, I hope not.

Like all Polynesian cultures, Tongans love rugby.  We went to a game.  Rugby has 30 players, on the pitch; 15 per side.  In Tonga, I estimated, 10 players had cleats, 10 wore running shoes, and 10 played in bare feet.  The ferocity of the match was remarkable.  

Tongans hit hard, bro.

We left Tongatapu and were sailing through uninhabited islands.  As night fell, we saw a few lights, on a small island.  We decided to drop anchor and check it out, the next day.

We didn’t know it, but we were on the shores Nomuka https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomuka

April 28, 1989, two hundred years, to the day, of the mutiny on The Bounty, the most famous mutiny, ever.  Unbeknownst to us, the historic event occurred, roughly, where we had dropped anchor.

Early morning, three of us got in the small skiff and were paddling to shore.  Suddenly, the beach filled with Tongans.  Only 600 people lived on Nomuka, and many of them were on the beach, staring and chattering, with a tangible excitement.  

“What is going on?” we wondered.

When we hit the shore, an American emerged, from the crowd, and introduced himself: Brian from The Peace Corps.  “Are you from The Bounty,” he asked.  

We had no idea what he was talking about.  Brian had been the only non-Tongan, on Nomuka, for several months.  He spoke the language and knew Tonga, well.  He explained the significance of the date and our location.  “The Bounty is supposed to come here, today,” he explained.

“The Bounty” he was talking about was a direct replica of the original vessel, which had been built for the movie, “The Mutiny on The Bounty,” with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.  On cue, the magnificent ship came around the corner and into view.  

The Bounty stopped within 100 meters of The Illusion and dropped anchor.  

The Bounty in Nomuka

On board were descendents of Fletcher Christian, the head mutineer, and Captain Bligh.  We went aboard The Bounty and got a tour of the ship and a lesson in history.  Some of Fletcher Christian’s descendants, whom we met, lived on Norfolk Island.  

The stories of Bligh, Christian, The Bounty, the crew, and Tahitians, before, during, and since the mutiny, are, entirely, fascinating; well worth two centuries of retelling.

Before we knew it, our time in Tonga was up.  I went to Fuji, which I found busy, compared to Tonga.  Then, flew to Hawaii, which was a rat race.  

I thought that was the end of me and Tonga, but Tonga was wasn’t finished with me.  

After two years of travelling, I had long hair, tattered clothes, and a beat up backpack.  The American customs agent, in Honolulu, took an instant dislike to me.  He asked me where I had been and how I afforded to be gone from Canada for so long.  I told him, I had working holiday visas for England and Australia, to no avail.

“I think you want to work here,” he said, (accurately.)  I had long dreamed of visiting Hawaii and, indeed, planned to find work, so I could stay, a while.  The grumpy customs agent sent me to a special room, for the unsavory, where I waited and entertained worst case scenarios.

Eventually, a young Polynesian man came in.  “He’s Tongan,” I said to myself, excitedly, but kept quiet.  He was pleasant, but cool, as he rifled through my backpack.  He asked for my wallet and started going through it.  He pulled out a picture of my niece, Jessica, who was about three. “Who’s this,” he asked and I explained.

Then, divine Tongan intervention struck, again.  The agent pulled out a business card and studied it, intensely.  He held it to me, “Do you know this guy?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I was just in Tonga and bought jewellery from him.”  The card belonged to Mickey Guttenbeil, who sold beautiful, handcrafted Tongan jewelry.  I had purchased several pieces and he had given me his card.

The immigration officer said, “Holy s#@, man, he’s my cousin.”

I’ve been carrying Mickey’s card, something of a St. Christopher medallion, for so long I had to laminate it.  The bottom said, (some numbers,) Nuku’alofa, Tonga Island, South Pacific.  Greatest address, ever?

Bang.  Everything changed.  “I thought you were Tongan,” I said, “but didn’t want to kiss your ass.”  It turns out, his family had emigrated to the US when he was 14 and he hadn’t been back to Tonga, since.  “You should go,” I said.  “It’s amazing. I loved it.”

Suddenly, we no longer a dodgy traveller and a scrutinising customs agent.  We were two people, talking, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company.  He repacked my backpack, apologized, stamped my passport, shook my hand, and said, “Welcome to America.”  The land of the free.

I said, “Malo.”

“’Oku talitali lelei koe,” he said.

I found work in Hawaii, on a small fishing boat, the owner of which was Alaskan.  After a month, he asked me and another traveller if we wanted to help him motor his craft to Alaska, and look for work cleaning up the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Sail a small boat, across miles of open ocean, to a mysterious destination, where untold adventures await?  

“I’d love to,” I said, with Tonga on my mind.