Land Notes- Vava’u Tonga

A month has passed for the Owl, Cat and their good ship Darth Vader in Vava’u, the northern group of Islands in Tonga. To try and make some order of the scrappy and abstract notes, written with zest by the Cat in bad lighting, seems at this late stage to be tricky. Memories are wavering after a month of holiday rest and sun and it is frankly hard to know which day of the week it is. Piecing together these notes and filing in the gaps to make a neat linear story of the adventures of the past month may be too much for now (we have become lazy)… so we leave it with you dear reader to fill the gaps and make sense, or nonsense (which we prefer) of this lengthy list of thoughts and observations.

The Cats Notes (in no particular order):

-The main island of Vava’u resembles the shape of a crooked hand. Many different bays lie around it’s spreading fingers and beyond that are small atolls which dot to dot to the horizon, almost. The land has topography and most islands have steep rock edges topped with lush green wigs. The earth is rich and red and the bananas and papaya taste amazingly sweet-especially to animals who are used to bland, imported supermarket goods.

-The rubbish collector spends all day in an orange vest sitting on a stool in the shade. He waits for sailing boats to bring their rubbish in then gets up to ask them for a dollar.

-The market sellers hands, who are predominately ones of women, are stained red from the earth which fills the creases of the taro and their faces are wrinkled brown with age or as smooth as tomatoes from youth and the rich diet. They are smiling or cross looking and sit heavily, chatting with neighbour sellers on stools behind trestle tables. They sell tomatoes set in tiny pyramids by the five, cabbages in plastic bags, marrows, cucumbers by the three, limes by the four and large baskets of taro and coconuts lie at their feet. We visit the market regularly as keeping fruit and vegetables fresh in the tropics, with a cupboard pretending to be a fridge, is hard.

-Plastic waste, ocean or local, lines the shores of the mainland and outer islands. What was it like here before the plastic age? This paradise. I think of making puppet people out of the waste and parading them around. I write paradise out of rubbish letters in my mind.

-Paradise hotel is rusty and abandoned. People are living, but not holidaying, in the balcony rooms.

-Pine leaves of pale green hang softly over the turquoise shallows. Sea cucumbers sit flaccid on the sea bed and small electric blue fish flit around the dead coral.

-One of our new sails, which we had not hoisted until this stage, is taken to a grassy clearing behind a beach. The boat is on anchor sheltering from unusual south westerlies in a bay in amongst some islands to the south. Here we will put a luff cable in, whatever that is. The owl realises the sail has been cut to the wrong size and is too big for the boat. He storms off into the trees in anger. Later I find him sulking on a branch.

-A huge 86m super yacht pulls into the bay. An elevator goes up and down the mast and the ant crew clean the decks. A fast fat man, a doppelgänger of Trump, with orange hair and pink polo t-shirt drives his JetSki in circles amongst the smaller boats. A women, a cut out from a cheap magazine, clings to his behind.

-We see a large pig who also resembles Trump but who is not happy to have his photo taken.

-The rich smell of coconuts makes your nostrils flare.

-The milky green pearl of the Whale calf’s eye is etched on our retinas.

-Today we had a Sunday feast with the Owl’s friend, a ‘midnight Falcon’, wannabe king of Tonga, and his brothers. The Owl and I felt small surrounded by the gigantic Falcon species of brothers as we perched on the edge of a picnic bench under their mango tree. The oven, an ‘Umu’, to cook the feast was fired up at dawn before church. The oven is a breeze block cube filled with hot coals and covered with a metal top and heavy blankets. Octopus, cockles and bully beef are cooked in coconut cream in banana leaf parcels then wrapped in tinfoil. The Falcon brothers, in their nest high up on the cliff, tell stories for hours and laugh us to death. I have never heard so much laughter and every evening after, if we are moored near to their perch, we can hear them still drowning out the cockerels and dog barks. Here are two stories told by Lolesio, the middle brother and midnight Falcon, at this feast:

Midnight Falcon (R18) “A neighbour of mine, an old man, was caught by his wife skipping church and watching adult movies. The wife threw out the TV and told the man off. My father had just brought a new TV and next Sunday, while church was on, decided to stay at home and watch movies. The old man from over the road, having seen the lights of the new TV decided to skip church too and crept over to visit my father to watch TV. ‘What are you watching?’ He asked my father ‘the latest action movie’ said my father ‘I have something better’ said the man and rammed his adult movie into the VHS player. The movie was set to a different volume and suddenly over the sounds of ‘Hallelujah’ singing in the church you could hear the sounds of the adult movie in full swing. My father did not know how to turn the volume down or turn the tv off and when the family came home he had flung a sheet over the telly and was sitting sheepishly in the corner” – Huge belly laughs followed.

Midnight Falcon (R4) “My son was over from Australia and loves fishing. I took him out fishing and he caught the biggest fish he has ever caught, a Marlin. He was so happy when we came back home he took the fish around to the neighbours and showed him off to all the other children. In the evening my wife burst into my room in distress and said “Get your son out of my bed!”. Rubbing my eyes I came into the wife’s bedroom and found my son asleep in her bed, under the sheets and with the Marlin wrapped up in his arms” – Howling, table shaking, drink spilling, earthquake making laughter followed.

-Bright red fingernails tap on the banks desk accompanied by a toothless, smiling yawn. There is nothing to be impatient for on Island time.

-Cruisers net radio at 8.30am, Chanel 26, our morning entertainment ‘show’. Cruising boats introduce themselves like a school role call, a weather report from a Canadian hippy ‘Barry Storm’ and a segment titled ‘anything about anything’..where one could say anything if one wanted.

-A waitress tells me the lavatory is head first off the balcony and into the sea… then cackles with laughter.

-On a tourist speed boat with 3 Japanese women, and a group of Polish divers we left the main port of Neaifu to swim with Whales. The Owl seemed to be quite relaxed, not having to be in charge of the boat for once. Flying fast out of the main lagoon and into the open sea we fought to put wetsuits on and prepare to jump into the sea when the moment presented itself, or the Whale for that matter. The Owl, with his feathers streaming out from the foredeck, spotted the first group of adult whales and the speed boat went on the hunt, or that is sadly what is felt like. The call of ‘Into the water!!’ and four of us flipped backwards into the rough sea and towards the Whales, they being on a heat run towards us. Five large adults loomed out of the deep moving fast and the snorkel nearly popped out of my mouth as it grew wider-eyes surely like full moons in their small air space behind the glass. Then I lost myself into a hyper reality, a National Geographic movie, a mythical realm as the space I presently shared with these Whales, seemed to be fictional. Their bodies appeared carved of stone but moved with light elegance-not heavy slow bulks. They glide and with arched forms and their hugeness disappears to depths where they are out of sight. I have never felt the depth of the sea before but to see them disappear… How can they occupy this blue ? This minimalist place. A mother and calf is our second target and we question the stress we put on these creatures. I imagine, as the mother bats her pectoral fin, we are flies buzzing around her, so inelegant in the water with our plastic splatting fins and gurgling sea breath snorkels. The calf, baby, is however very joyful and seems to enjoy us as play things. In a fowl swoop he targets the Owl, who has been grinning like a Cheshire, and comes to press his large head into the Owl and tumble him down his back-The Owl is speechless for the next three days.

-Hands frantically scrub the rust off the keel in between breaths. Orange powder puffs like clouds of smoke and makes the sea Murky. Small fish gather to taste it and hopefully that is the last of it.

-The Polish divers offer to share their Whale footage with us and we meet them at the house of the dancing rooster. The lady Anna works with the EU deciding how the budget is to be spent and I imagine her in a board meeting wearing her fins secretly under the desk. The healthy and hard red face of Anna’s father, who speaks little english, but who was once a ballet dancer and is an excellent diver, they say, smiles and laughs with us. ‘The Picasso of Vanuatu’, an artist, took to him fondly and didn’t want him to leave when they visited.

-A story of people crowing like roosters and the sun shining out of a gods bottom to fool another god that the sun was rising. The slicing off of the tops of islands and flinging them somewhere else.

-A story of star crossed lovers hiding out in a cave. We entered the cave and felt it would be hard to live in it for long with the pressure change buffering your ears; but the light was glorious and luminescent. Someone had climbed up the rocks and crudely painted a boat name on the back wall.

-Fruit bats hang upside down in the trees. In the heat you can hear their frustration through the excruciatingly awful sounds they make. Pairs on branches hit out at each at each other like tiny upside down boxers- wings contracting and expanding like umbrellas. They fly with a heaviness and I fear they won’t make it from one side of the bay to the other.

-School children wear coloured uniforms that match the colour of the different schools buildings. Orange school, red school, blue school etc. The girls wear the coloured ribbons on the end of their braided plaits. I hear them chanting in a teachers echo from a class room in the midday heat as I pass.

-Refreshing to meet many people of different nationalities from other places. Varying boating adventure stories are told around a beach fire soirée. Everyone is a bit too polite and there are a lot of white shorts and Hawaiian shirts sipping drinks as the sun gets low. We feel young and scruffy cooking our sausages and rum bananas on the fire.

-I haven’t showered in fresh water for a week and there is thick crust of salt on my fur which is good to lick.

-The feral sea dogs have arrived. They will stay with us for a week and as they step off the plane we treat them with the second sailing race, with the locals as crew, around the harbour of Neaifu. The Midnight falcon and brothers bring a giant speaker and we terrify the other two boats with the ‘Imperial March’ at full blast. The Midnight falcon winds up the the race officer, a half naked man with a dog and a fog horn lying with feet up in a dingy, by saying he will eat his dog. Dogs are eaten in Tonga along with fruit bats, horses and mostly anything that moves; Not people, now. The Feral sea dogs wince and quiver and I think they look forward to leaving tomorrow for the outer islands.

-Volunteer dentists, German students, say they enjoy working in the hospital here because they get to pull out a lot of teeth. They don’t enjoy swimming or second use needles.

-I play the Ukelele, Owl and Feral sea dogs build a fire, and we watch the shore crabs in action as we relax on the sandy spit. Night is here and stars pinprick shimmer above the wet silver palm leaves.

-We have to stop the dogs from digging too many holes in the beach as it seems to be one of their favourite past times and I fear for people falling in.

-Darth Vader has now won three harbour sailing races in a row and Darth the Owl, so proud, announces this over the morning radio.

-We sailed to Toko today with the feral sea dogs. Toko is 30nm north of Vava’u and many Whales gather there. The sea was rough and everyone felt queezy. The bag of tomatoes in the galley and the watermelon played Newton’s cradle but the tomatoes came off worse for wear. Once reaching land we were unable to make it to shore because of the surrounding jagged reef and a low tide. A wild place of dense bush and surrounding white beach scattered with boulders. You could imagine a shipwreck survivor, or castaway living here although there is no sign of humans, except for one marker post. We snorkel down the anchor chain and listen to a Whale song symphony. The feral dogs imitate the noise of the whales when we emerge. We snorkel further to the reef near breaking waves and stirred up silt and the sea dogs spot a shark in the haze. We snorkel back to the boat. A Mahi-Mahi is caught on the return journey by the fishing extraordinaire Sea dog: “Grab the axe- we need to knock this thing on the head” a very Feral Sea dog… The Mahi-Mahi a bulbous headed magnificent beast of electric turquoise drains of colour as it’s life disappears, it’s skin becoming a yellow speckled grey. Afterwards it was hard for us to describe it’s original colour. Thick red blood splatters on our back deck and you have to scrub it hard to remove it. We give thanks to Mahi-Mahi and when we arrive back in Vava’u, later that night, feast on it’s delicious flesh.

-Life is good we have eaten Mahi-Mahi for four days in the row now. Owl is craving red meat.

-Feral sea dogs keep insisting they cook us meals but they are amazing cooks so we do not stop them. They have hand shredded coconut and bake it on trays in the sun. In the wind it takes flight and we find it all around the boat but it is good if you need a little deck snack.

-The Whales seem to appear when Pacific reggae music is played loudly.

-Scrap corrugated iron off a curved roof lies like a mound of pencil shavings. A giant sharpened his pencil above.

-Discussion about Tsunamis after an earthquake in Fiji is reported. Would we run to the hills ? Or take our boat out to sea ? No Tsunami is reported but some feel the effect in Tonga. Some people felt a rocking on their boat but we think this is a little silly.

-A male escort Whale steams at Darth Vader like a freight train. It’s big dark back seen through the troughs of the waves. We wait for impact but it never comes.

-Boats pass anchored Darth Vader carrying guests to and from a funeral at a village on the eastern side of Vava’u. They wear black with traditional mat skirts tied around their waists and carry bright umbrellas. Some boats carry somber looking men in suit jackets, some with women and children more bright and chatty, one carries a huge box on it’s bow which perhaps contained the fatted pig for the feast.

-We both quickly put on our ‘Sunday best’ (or some descent cover) and rush to Church for the morning service. We are a little late which is perhaps rude but are shown to a back pew. The Roman Catholic Church (There are as many churches as chickens in Vava’u) has pastel yellow painted walls and a light scattering of ornate catholic props/symbols. The stain glass windows are sticker decals and Jesus’s lower half is open to the breeze. Paintings of different scenes from the crucifixion, in elaborate carved wooden frames, line the otherwise plain side walls. The priest points his finger from a jungle green robe at the congregation and the choir master suffers the heat in tight tie and suit facing us at the front of the pews. The congregation that arrived early seemed to have taken the pew seats under the ceailing fans, there is little wind this morning. Woven fans, carried by women, beat the air and I am thankful to them. The church is bright with patterned frocks and flowers behind ears. A girl to my left in high gold strappy heels and bright red dress, rests her done up head in boredom on the pew in front. Pearls and earrings and bright lipstick everywhere and the men seem quite bland in their less glitzy attire. Church feels like a womens place, apart from the hierarchy of the priest, and most of the readers are female. We hold hands with our neighbours at one point but turn down the bread and wine, body and blood. No one minds it seems. Our change is dropped in plastic weaved baskets and we are happy as have come to pay mainly for the singing. The singing from the choir and congregation is beautiful, rich and melodic and as Lolesio said we will leave feeling as if we have been snogged by angels.

The Owl’s notes in order:

-We have had a lovely holiday.

-The cat is increasingly lazy.

-Now I will spend the week doing a little boat maintenance, hopefully with the help of the cat napping cat, and we will be off at the end of it. A new course will be set for Fiji, or some other place – Whatever we choose, tawit tawoo, depending on the weather.


  1. Lear would love ur take on his story! Awesome nonsense! Enjoy Va vau and don’t forget the turtles … Rgs, Lady Louise


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