Alone On The Desert Island of Vava'u
In the way tardy and negligent people are often blame-shifting and chronically mendacious, many of the Tongans I met in Nuku'alofa were unreliable, and some outright liars - or, to put it charitably, they means very little of what they said. This could be tiresome in a hot climate. My solution was to take my boat to a part of Tonga where there were no Tongans.
I received that I would find a desert island in the middle of nowhere and live a beachcombing life for a while. My ideal island would have a sandy beach, and coconuts, and jungle, and no people. About fifty islands, remote and empty, fitted this description, and they lay in Tonga's northern archipelago, called the Vava'u group. I knew somehow that there would be fruit bats. There were bats on every Tongan island. It was said that these islands were among the most beautiful in the Pacific, and many of them were desert islands, utterly uninhabited but pristine - dream islands, each one like a little world.
"The trouble is," a Tongan on the small plane to Vava'u told me, "you'll have to find someone to take you out to the islands." I did not tell him about my boat, that I could assemble it and paddle to any island, and that I had a nautical chart of the whole group, and survival gear. This man, Aleki, had with him a video cassette of the Gulf War that had been taped four days before the news footage shown in New Zealand. The war was still being fought, but the Tongan interest in this sort of footage was not very different from their interest in Rambo videos. Aleki gave me his address and said that if I cared to, I was welcome to come over to his house in Neiafu - Vava'u's main town - and watch the video of American planes raining bombs down on Iraq and Kuwait. This seemed hospitable enough, though I did not take him up on his offer.
Everything about the Vava'u group leased me - the islands were not far apart, there were plenty of sandy beaches on them, there were stores in Neiafu where I could stock up on food, and although it was windy I could paddle in the lee of a long chain of islands and stay out of trouble. Most of all, the Tongans on the main island of Vava'u seemed friendly. If they had airs the airs were different from those I had had to contend with in Nuku'alofa. "The fast life, the noise, the always hurry-hurry," one named Siole said, summing up the Vava'u objections to the royal city. Though I hardly recognized this frenzied Nuku'alofa of their description - it seemed to me a place without any events, except for church services and the occasional funeral or coronation. I came to see that, by comparison with Neiafu, which was very nearly fissilized, semi-moribund Nuku'alofa could seem a trifle hectic.
Siole (Tongan for Joel)) had a car, a prized possession in Neiafu, where there were never more than two or three in sight - people tramped the dirt roads of the main island confident that they would never be run down. Siole also had gas, and this was amazing, because there had been no fuel at all in Vava'u for almost a week. No one knew where the next shipmnt would arrive. Everyone blamed the delay on the gulf War, which was probably not the reason, though the gulf War was certainly to blame for the high price - about six dollars a gallon, and rising. In his old car, Siole took me to the market and the stores, so that I could bury provisions. We passed a fat pig - very fat, perhaps hundreds of pounds.
It seemed to be a general rule on Pacific islands that there were few, of any, food taboos. Wherever I went I asked about diet, and except for the Seventh-day Adventists in Kaisiga village in the Trobriands, no one was very fussy. In Oceania you ate every living thing that fitted into your mouth. Dogs had been cooked and eaten in the Pacific from the moment the Pacific was inhabited. The dogs had come in the canoes of the voyagers from South-East Asia (where they were - and still are - also eaten). there was no game to be found on the Pacific islands, and so the dog was prized - for its taste, its food value, its scarcity (Pigs greatly outnumbered dogs). Its fur was used for decoration, its skin was turned into articles of clothing, its teeth into necklaces and ornaments, its bones into implements - hooks and needles. On various islands, Hawaii in particular, dogs were fed with vegetables or poi - thus the term "poi-dog" still current - to sweeten their flesh, and some were breast-fed by women. Gobbling the left-over sweet potatoes or scraps of greens, snuffling in the undergrowth for an edible root, most of the dogs and cats I saw on my Pacific travels seemed to be vegetarian.
All the early European explorers in Oceania mentioned dog-eating. These men had come from societies in which dogs had status as sympathetic companions with precise personal names - in Claude Levi-Strauss's description, "metonymical humans." Invited to feast on dog meat in eighteenth-century Hawaii - the Sandwich Islands - a scandalized Englishman wrote, "The idea of eating so faithful an animal as a dog prevented any of us joining in this part of the feast." He added, "Although to do the meat justice, it really looked very well when roasted." Some tried eating dogs - Georg Forster, the German scientist and chronicler who accompanied Captain Cook, said dog meat was indistinguishable from mutton. On one occasion in the last century a group of Hawaiian jokesters served u a dog with a pig's head replacing the head of the mutt, in order to fool the American visitors who happily devoured the animal. In the Pacific, a dog might be household pet but never the sort of companion that possessed an implied taboo against its been eaten.
In Man and the Natural World, the Oxford historian, Keith Thomas, lists three features that distinguish eighteenth-century pets in England )"privileged species") from other animals, they were encouraged to enter houses and churches, they were given individual personal names, and they were never eaten - "Not for gastronomic reasons ... it was the social position of the animal as much as in diet which created the prohibition." In 1616, the first Dutchman to reach the Tuomotus, Le Maire and Schouten, who had earlier named Cape Horn, called one island Honden, because of its dogs, and they noted that the dogs caught and ate fish and were themselves on the menu and did not bark. None of these early dogs barked. this was also remarked upon by European visitors. Apparently, wild dogs never bark - they howl and whimper, as dingoes in Australia do - but only the domesticated dog goes woof-woof.
Right here in Vava'u, a young English castaway (fifteen years old when he first arrived), William Mariner, was adopted by a Hapaai chief, Finou 'Ulukalala the First, and went native. He lived in Tonga from 1806 until 1810. Much of what we know about early life in Tonga comes from a detailed account of his adventures taken down by a London physician and published in 1820. In this book he remarks on his benefactor, Finou's, love of cooked dog meat, "but he ordered it to be called pork, because women and many men had a degree of abhorrence at this sort of diet. The parts of the dog in most esteem are the neck and hinder quarters. The animal is killed by blows on the head, and cooked in the same manner as a hog."
My new pal Siole agreed that dog meat was delicious. He was a friendly fellow - relaxed, and helpful, and not rapacious. I needed to buy food, and then to find a place to stay the night and launch my boat. We had struck a simple bargain - for ten dollars he would ferry me around the small rambling town. He took me to the Oceanic provisioners - Burns Philip, Morris Hedstrom - and then to the market, where I bought a basket of small pineapples. Because there was no gas in town I bought kerosene for my camp stove. All this took an hour or more, but Siole did not complain, not even when the rude Tongan woman at the hotel said, "Your taxi-driver can carry your bags." The hard part about arriving in such a place, with little prior information, was that I did not know what the hazards were - the winds, the reefs, the shoals, the tides, the currents, the unfriendly villages, the bad beaches, the creatures - if any. some hazards were obvious - the pounding surf, the frothing chop of a channel that looked like a river in spate; others might not be apparent until it was too late. I always remembered these awful boys in the Trobriands who shook spears at me and said, "Run your life - dim-dim!" or the island of arsonists in Fiji. I made a point of bringing detailed maps and charts. I often had a guidebook. But there was no substitute for local knowledge.
So I was lucky to meeting Leonati, a sturdy Tongan who was also a diver and a fisherman. He watched me put my boat together beside the little pier, under the limestone cliff where my hotel was situated.
It was a hot and steamy morning in the Port of Refuge, and the yellow light of early dawn slanted through the haze, hanging like smoky vapor on the water, where thirty sailing yachts lay at anchor, their wet laundry drooping where their sails should have been. I was stowing gear in my little boat and swatting mosquitoes that had been vitalized by the humid heat. The mosquitoes frisked around my ears. It had rained hard in the night, and when I commented on this to an American on the pier coiling a line, he said "Of course," and seemed surprised that I* bothered to mention it. this was after all the hurricane season, - and it was also why there were yachts in the harbor. Most of them had come in November and they would remain moored there until April, when the weather moderated. No one sailed the South Pacific in this dangerous weather.
"1 used to work on Cap Cod," the man said, when I told him where I was from. "Camp Seascape in Brewater. It was a summer camp for the girls. I helped run it." He became reflective, as though he had not thought about this for years. "The average weight loss was twenty pounds." He drifted away, while I finished loading my boat. My heaviest single item was water, because I was not sure whether fresh water would be available on my desert island. I carried it in two-and three-gallon bags, a week's supply, which I stuffed under the bulkheads, with my waterproof bags containing fixed, my dry clothes, my move, my pots my tent. On the deck, in a plastic holder, I had my map of the whole archipelago, and a water bottle, and a compass. close to hand I had emergency flares. I had given my life-jacket to the old Kula man, Meia, in the Trobriands. I had swapped my spear in the Solomons. The last of my fishing gear I had handed out to Vanuata. My Walkman had been stolen in Nuku'alofa. I had broken my spare paddle. I was now so worried about having only one canoe paddle that I usually put on a leash, a line running from its shaft to the deck. It was not theft that I feared but rather the thing being blown out of my hands by a strong wind.
Unnoticed I slipped away from the shore and paddled south along the inside of the harbor, which was walled by high cliffs and surmounted by tall wet trees. Small boys were jumping from the black rocks, swimming in the early morning. About a mile farther on was a narrow break in this jungly wall, just a slice of air, with birds squawking and flitting on the steep green sides, and water so shallow that the bottom of my boat rubbed against the rocks. this was Leonati's suggested short-cut, Ahanga Passage. Once I was through it I was in the wind and waves, and I saw surf breaking out on the reef and in the distance a chain of islands. I used my map to keep to the deeper parts of this bay, and paddled out far enough so that I could identify the islands. There were islands everywhere - close to me and on the horizon at various distances, and I knew from what Leonati had told me that most of them were uninhabited. Just to keep my bearings I headed for one called Tapana Island. I chose that island because it was distinctly noted on my chart. There were islands in this archipelago that were not on it. Fafini and Fanua Tapu, shown as insignificant reefs, were a air of high hefty islands. My chart had been drawn "from a British survey in 1898" - but was it possible that islands could form and grow in just under a hundred years?
The wind was blowing about ten to fifteen knots, brisk and steady enough to whip up the waves and give them frothy peaks. I dug out a line and tied it onto my paddle as a tether, and I put on the secure storm spraydeck, so that I was completely watertight. This was just as well, because I could see in the distance billowy black clouds, and long gray curtains of rain. The rain crept nearer and was soon on me, and I was paddling among the faint outlines of islands in a heavy downpour. Leonati had said, "We had a drought until December, but it has been raining ever since." It was no fun paddling in the rain, but the worst of it was the possibility of losing my bearings. Now, in the heaviest rain, a solid sheet of flashing water, all the islands were eclipsed. It was as though I were paddling beneath a waterfall, like The Maid of the Mist under Niagara. I used my compass to get to Tapana - following the needle until the gray island emerged. there was no shelter, no beach, only cliffs, so I headed through the crackling rain to a nearby island that I could just discern among the failing drops of rain. this was Lautala, which Leonati had told me was deserted. It was, but there was no beach; I had no way of landing.
Each island in Vava'u is a limestone block that has been pounded into a dangerous and unapproachable shape b the waves and wind, giving them straight sides, spikes and crags, a ten-foot wall of spiky stone around most of its edge. but on some the wave action had pushed sand behind them - I could see beaches at the backs of other islands farther into the archipelago. I found a little cleft at the side of Lautala where I sheltered, with water dripping from the peak of my hat. And sitting here miserably dripping I was approached by curious birds - brown noddies that looked like dark terns, and big fearless shearwaters. Trying to spot these birds with my binoculars I looked around, into the rain, and saw two canoes - four men in each - making directly for me, or perhaps for the island: I would soon find out. The canoes were ten-foot with outriggers - vessels for paddling rather than sailing - and experts said they were "the only surviving sea craft of indigenous origin in Tonga." I usually made sketches of the dugouts on particular islands - and I noted the islands where canoeing and canoe-making had been abandoned. These Tongan canoes had a feature I had never seen before - the outrigger attachments (securing the outrigger float to the booms extended from the dugout) was U-shaped. I had never seen this before - all other canoe-makers used a V-shaped attachment, or just a pair of lashed struts. It may seem a small thing, but after seeing so many canoes made in much the same way, this difference, and especially such an elegant object, appeared remarkable to me. And Tonga was a place where no one carved with any precision or troubled themselves to make anything substantial in a traditional way.
When the canoes drew up beside me - they too were sheltering from the sudden storm - I said hello and pointed to the well-made fixture. What was its name? The men laughed. One mumbled something - mockery, I was sure, fucking palangi, something like that - and the other men laughed again. the rain came down. I asked how they had bent the wood into this U-shape. The shrugged, they mumbled again, more laughter. You think: They don't speak English. but I was sure they did - most people in Tonga did, and Vava'u with its influx of palangis in yachts was even more English-speaking than the main island, Tongatapu. Along with the precepte from the golden Tablets, Mormons also taught volley-ball and English to all the islanders they converted. "Are you fishing?" I asked plainly. "yes," one said, and turned his back on me. This is not necessarily a hostile gesture, but considering that they were sheltering from a heavy rainstorm at the edge of a remote, deserted island in the distant Tongan archipelago of Vava'u - males from anywhere - it seemed a trifle unfriendly from an inhabitant of the Friendly Isles. They had no interest whatsoever to me, nor in my reactions to the storm - they did not inquire (islanders sometimes did) as to whether I was okay, or my boat was leaking, or the waves were too high for me. they talked among themselves. 'They were incurious, indifferent, probably mocking - because I was alone, and a palagi, and posed no threat to them. Had I been big and dangerous, or well-connected, they would have groveled and paid fond attention to my butt, exclaiming upon how the sun shone radiantly out of it.
We sat bobbing in the heavy rain, saying nothing to each other, though they muttered obscurely to themselves from time to time. My consolation was that if they posed a threat to me (Tongans had a reputation for violence) I could quite easily outpaddle them - my light kayak was far faster than their clumsy outrigger canoe. "Up yours," I said to them, smiling when the rain eased, and I paddled away. Later I found out that Vava'u was the only place in the Pacific where this lovely outrigger attachment existed and that it was called a takitaki. I headed across a two-mile stretch of water for a crescent-shaped island which, when I came close, turned out to be two distinct islets joined by a spit of sand. Taunga, where there was a village, and Ngau, which was uninhabited. Beyond it, according to my ma, was another uninhabited island, named Pau. As I approached Pau, two fat fruit bats flew erratically overhead, making for the island. And now I could see through the gently falling rain that the island was small, uninhabited, jungly, and had a narrow sandy beach on its protected western side. It was just what I was looking for. It had another pleasant feature - a grove of coconut palms only eight or nine feet tall, with clusters of green coconuts on top, each nut containing the best drink in the world. I paddled to the beach and pulled my boat above the tide mark, but before I could locate a camp site the rain increased, pouring straight down, the heaviness of its fat stinging drops making it fall vertically. I found a large green leaf and put it on my head, and there I stood, dripping under a dripping tree, watching the black sky, the churning was, listening to the deafening tattoo of the rain, and feeling miserable.
Two hours passed in this way, very slowly. To add to my discomfort, clouds of mosquitoes, loving this cold rain-sodden thicket, emerged and began to bit me all over. I had insect repellent but it made no sense - and it was ineffective - to spray it on while I was standing in the rain. the nearby islands had disappeared in the rain and mist. I was on a tiny corner of Pau Island. There was nowhere to walk to; ahead was a wall of jungle, dense with thorn bushes, behind me was the sea. I stood on a strip of land, with that silly leaf on my head, and began to shiver. To whip up my circulation I took my paddle and cleared the branches and rubbish - and spiders - from the area around me. I awaited a break in the rain, so that I could unpack my boat and put up my tent without getting everything wet. When the rain eased, I hurriedly set up camp, stuffing the items that needed to be dry (clothes, sleeping-bag, radio) into the tent, and hanging up the food sack and the water bag. Then I took off my wet bathing-suit and T-shirt and got into the tent naked and warmed myself in my sleeping-bag, until the raindrops ceased to patter on my tent.
I had had no lunch. I had land to eat on the water, but those unfriendly fishermen had prevented me from eating at that halfway point on Lautala Island. I unpacked my stove, intending to light it to boil water for noodles. but my matches were wet, my lighter wouldn't spark. I began to curse out loud - after all, this was my island. It would be impossible for me to live on the island for a week or more without matches, and I remembered the village I had seen on Taunga. I got into my boat and paddled two miles to that village, which was a pleasant place - about fifteen simple houses at the sloping edge of a pretty cove. Two motor-boats were drawn up to the Taunga beach, giving the place a look of prosperity. but there was no one in sight. I walked to the nearest house, where, just inside the front door, an enormously fat woman was weaving a mat from pandanus fronds. Her skirt was hiked up and I could see that her vast thighs were gray and dimpled, and hideously bitten, with many open sores on her legs - perhaps from her scratching them. She was a woman of about sixty and her name was Sapeli.
Since I had paddled all the way there I thought I might as well ask permission to camp on Pau, which - being so near by Vava'u standards - was probably their island. Lini said the chief was in Nuku'alofa, but we could ask someone else. We traipsed into the bush - girls in front, kids in back, me in the middle - and along the path encountered barking dogs which tagged along, holing and snapping at my bare legs. "Please eat those dogs," I said. Lini laughed. She was seventeen. Her sister Deso was fourteen but taller, with a long elegant face and a slender body and a guffawing way of laughing - deep in her throat. Deso's looks reminded me that the prettiest women I had ever seen in the Pacific had been here in Tonga; the loveliest, and also the ugliest - fat hairy things with bad skin. And many of the men were bulking and horrible. After a fifteen-minute walk through the wet grass we came to a house. Like the others it was a simple box, with a porch and a flat roof. A woman inside was weaving a mat - the room was strewn with dead palm leaves. I said hello. the woman looked at me in an uncertain manner.
I gave her a silk scarf. I had given Sapeli one, too. I never entered a village, no matter how suddenly or how small, without bringing a bag of presents - usually these scarves. Deso began to bawl out one of the little kids. It was a small boy, who began to cry. Tongans could be very fierce with another - screeching and scolding. On our walk back to the beach we were joined by an obviously effeminate young man, possibly a faka leiti, who demanded a scarf. He asked me my name, and then I asked him his.
The beachfront and the boundaries of the village were lined with the bleached valves of the giant Tongan clam.
"The Queen of tonga came here on December second," he said. The Queen and King had spent Christmas at their house in Neiafu - the Queen was a native of Vava'u.
"Did the Queen stay long?"
"Two days," Lini said.
This surprised me. They pointed out the house in which she had stayed. It was a simple place, and it reminded me how Marie-Antoinette of France had dressed up as a shepherdess and danced with peasants.
Russell said, "Goodbye for now but not forever." He repeated this, and then he said, "Are you going back to fight for freedom of Kuwait?" this they found hilarious, and with their laughter ringing in my ears I went back to my own island and cooked my dinner while it was still light. but more rain drove me inside and the whole black night was filled with dripping and blowing.
The rain continued for the next two or three days, sometimes very heavy and just as often a light drizzle. Before the hard rain fell on me I could hear it beating noisily on the trees at the southeast of the island, travelling towards me like a monster in the forest, and then it was on my head and all over me. So far there was no sun. That was the down-side of this island life in Vava'u, and added to it were the mosquitoes, my damp clothes, the impossibility of walking anywhere on this jungly piece of land. On the plus side, the island was mine, the offshore coral was thick and full of fish, I had plenty of food, and radio reception was excellent. Sometimes the rain came down so hard that it drowned my radio. the other inhabitants of the islands were crabs, hermits, and a tree full of hanging squeaking fruit bats. Mealtimes were irregular because of the rain, and this was irksome, because I always tried to keep to a schedule when I was alone, so that my day would seem sensible and structured. Now it's time to tidy the camp site, I would say to myself. Now it's time for tea. In two hours, I will begin writing my notes.
I hated paddling in the rain. It was not easy to cook in the rain. It was no fun to swim in the rain. As there was nowhere to go, I stayed inside the tent during the storms, listening to news of the Gulf War, and at night I lay there scribbling in my notebook, feeling damp and miserable under the dangling flashlight, hoping the next day would be sunny enough to dry all my wet gear. In that sort of mood, feeling lonely and clammy, I felt a sense of regret that my married life had ended. I missed dull predictable London, my little family, the ordinariness of my old routine. In that isolation, I saw that my life had been broken in half, and I wrote on a damp page, Travel is very hard alone, but hardest of all when there is no one waiting for you to come back. Usually, seeing a scrawled thought like that is black and white. I closed my notebook and simply prayed for sunshine, and in the morning, out the loneliness, I fed the bluey-gray ghost crabs chocolate cookies and pieces of cheese.
When the sun finally came out after three days my mood lifted and I was energized by the light and heat. I harvested a few coconuts - knocked them down by poling them with the blade of my long paddle, and gouged a hole in them and drank the sweet water. In this good weather I dried my clothes and the rest of my gear, and stowed it, and planned a kyak trip to other uninhabited islands in the Vava'u group, and I made a circuit of Pau Island. Pau was uninhabited but it was not quiet. The bats made a racket, the birds whistled and squawked, the trees rattled and flapped, the fruit bats lolloped in their branches. The reef heron went kark! kark! The water lapped at the shore, and on the large exposed reef that lay between Pau and the next island, "Fuamotu, there was a constant roar of breaking waves. I could see right islands from where I was slurping noodles or eating fish and pineapples, but not a single person was visible - no village, no boat.
After that day of sun it rained in the night, lashing the tent. I had left a cooking pot out in my hurry to get into the tent. there were almost three inches of water in it in the morning, and it had been sitting under a tree. I usually woke early, at five or so, and listened to Gulf War news on Radio Australia or the BBC. the war euphoria of the first days had worn off and now it seemed as though it would go on for a long time. that was what Leonati had said in Neiafu. "They say the war will finish fast. But I think it will go on for a long time. They say they did a lot of damage in the fist few days. I don't think they did much damage." My island was as far as it was possible to be from the Middle East, and yet the war was on everyone's mind. And I heard on the radio that on the Pacific island of Kiribati (a corruption of its former name, Gilbert), prisoners had gone on strike, refusing to enter the exercise yard, for fear they would be hit by an Iraqi "scud" missile. There was more speculation that news - where were the eye-witnesses? - and so I always crawled out of the tent into the hazy dawn wondering what the world was coming to, and rather enjoying the idea that I was so far away, living the life of a beachcomber. The following days were warm, humid, cloudy with sunny periods and a light breeze. On these good days, in the dazzling light of sunny mornings, I saw many more islands than I had before - they stretched like stepping-stones into the southwest, and I saw that by island-hopping I could get to most of them. None of them were inhabited, all of them had pretty shades - hum-backed with good-sized hills, some with cliffs, some with saddle ridges, all of them densely wooded with old-growth forest as well as coconut palms.
It was a perfect area for paddling a kayak - perhaps the best in the Pacific. The islands were well defined and visible for some distance. The wind was strong in the afternoon but by settling out and returning early that was avoided or minimized. there was a surfy side and a safe side to each island - the lee shores usually had the beaches - all were secluded, all were lovely. there were no tourists, no signs at all, and no litter - no indication that human beings had ever set foot on these outer islands. It seemed tome that a person could spend weeks or months in Vava'u, making occasional trips to Neiafu, the town, to restock with provisions. It was a world apart, and solitude was available, because Tongans were not terribly interested in outsiders. Tongans did not take people to their bosoms as Melanesians did. Tongans did not pretend to be friendlier than they were. My only question regarded the currents: I wondered how strong they were between these outlying islands, and if I paddled eight or ten miles to one of those distant laces on my chart, would I risk being swept into a strong current? I paddled back to Taunga to ask a fisherman. All the fishermen were out this lovely day, but I found Lini and she inquired among the women of Taunga. None of them had the slightest idea about the currents. this was not so surprising - women did not paddle or sail in Tonga.
Tongan snobbery, offensiveness, incivility and rampant xenophobia had kept the great glorious archipelago of Vava'u one of the least spoiled places in the Pacific. that day and the next I paddled to the west, making a circuit of the deserted islands and keeping close track of the currents. The limestone cliffs of these places, pounded by the sea, were vertical and the texture of the stone like that of monastery walls in England - the same brown-gray color, the same venerable look, like Gothic ruins, as though if you excavated further you would find an abbey or a cloister or the bony relics of medieval saints. The white beaches on the le shores were bright in the sun, and hot and beautiful and empty, with greeny-blue lagoons shining below them. On most of the islands there were coconut palms, and birds. These islands were so lovely that it was hard to be alone on them - it was not that I required company, but rather that I wished that someone else had been there to see them. I wanted another witness, someone to share them with. If the place had been miserable I would have coped - curing the days of rain I had not been lonely. ("I can endure my own despair,/But not another's hope.") But the good weather had changed my attitude. I did not feel adventurous or lucky alone under sunny skies, I felt selfish, in all this splendor.
Most people who sail the Pacific know Vava'u - Neiafu is the destination for many of the yachts, the Port of Refuge regarded as one of the best places to pass the hurricane months from November to April. and these yachts plied around some of the Vava'u islands. But it was a place with many reefs and shoals, and most of the islands were off limits except to a shallow-draft boat like mine. Paddling past Eua'iki Island I heard a great racket of birds, like a chorus of cockatoos, and went ashore. The area was rich in bird life - herons, and egrets, noddies and swallows and terns. But this bird screech was almost deafening. I beached my boat and climbed the cliff for a better look, and there, massed on the branches of one tall tree high on a bluff, were several hundred fruit bats, hanging and twittering and quarreling and negligently micturating in slashes and squirts. One broke loose, and looking precisely like Bruce Wayne in disguise, and twice as ugly, it flopped in a great circle and then returned to the tree and re-attached itself, hanging upside-down. the other bats, still hanging, flexed their membranous wings, looking like a black array of windblown and broken bumbershoots.
On the desert island, Pau, I needed to make specific plans, or else I might lose my bearings and begin brooding. So I ate several meals every day. I had a morning and afternoon paddling objective. I always did the dishes and hung them on my tree. I carefully kept my gear dry. I allowed myself a certain amount of fresh water each day, even though I knew I could get more drinking water at Taunga. I had a nap after lunch and usually went snorkelling in my own lagoon. There were lots of plump pretty fish, but I had swapped my fish spear in the Solomons - and just as well: the islander could use the thing to feed himself. I had a taste of what it was to be a beachcomber on a happy empty island. It was mostly pure idleness, with the invented urgencies of having to carry out various duties. And then one came to believe in these fictions, and so the day was filled. I t meant being alone and self- sufficient. It meant I got plenty of sleep and perhaps a bit too much sun and more mosquito bits than I had ever known. It meant keeping close track of my food and eating coconuts whenever possible. Most of all, because I had very little fresh water for washing, it meant a perpetual state of being sticky and salty.
One day I returned to my camp to see a rental sailboat, a thirty-five-footer from the Moorings outfit in Neiafu, anchored in the channel between my island and Ngau. that stretch was a sandbar at low tide. Did this yachtsman know that it an hour or so he would be aground? I paddled over and saw four adults on deck, two couples - American, from their greeting.
The sun was setting by the time I paddled back and got my boat into a safe place under the trees. I was wary of being seen - my tent was behind bushes, my boat was hidden, and taking such care to hide myself I remembered Tony the beachcomber on the coast of north Queensland in his secluded camp, refusing to make any sort of path, so as not to arouse what he called "officialdom." This beachcombing experience was making me similarly furtive. Each evening I had to write my notes and eat my dinner before night fell, or else I would stumble around in the darkness. And that was when the mosquitoes emerged. It would have been an unbearable island without mosquito repellent or netting on my tent; there were masses of them, morning and evening, breeding fast in the rain-swollen pools. I sat on a log of driftwood writing notes while two gray herons stood in the shallows waiting for the tide to ebb so that they could more easily fish. all along the beach crabs dug holes, bringing up clawfuls of sand. As the tide went down the reef a mile out was exposed and the waves grew louder, sounding like the traffic roar on the highway. Because of the mosquitoes and the night rain, I spent nearly all the hours of darkness in my tent, writing, drinking green tea, or lying in the dark listening to the nightmarish news. You worried about being alone? the yachtie had asked. No, I felt perfectly safe. And I loved the stars - big beaming planets and small single pinpricks, fat blinking stars and masses of little peepers but also glittering clouds of them - the whole dome of the sky a storm of light over my island.
One day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand, said Robinson Crusoe.
I had an identical experience, except that it was dusk - the tide had ebbed all afternoon, I looked up from my meal and saw footprints everywhere. They led down the beach and into the woods, up to the cliffs, along the shore, across the dunes, all around the camp, desperate little solitary tracks. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of footprints, suggesting vast wandering mobs of idle strangers, and what frightened me - what eventually impelled me to break camp soon afterward and had for the nearest inhabited island, where I was assured of a welcome - and what sent a chill through me, was the thought that every single footprint, every urgent little trail, was mine. So, with this hint of rock fever, I left my little island, and for the first time on my travels there was no one to say goodbye to. I left this secret place silently - this small mute island in the mist, the haunt of pissing bats and watchful herons. I simply slipped away and made off across the reef, going clockwise among the islands, past Euakafa to the big island of Kapa. I saw a wide reef being lashed by waves on the channel so I stuck close to the shore. Three miles along I saw a stone jetty and a man struggling with a net while another steadied a dinghy. The net was underwater, and it seemed to be very heavy. The man was having no success in lifting it.
Now I could see that they were sea-slugs, but limper than any I had seen, the shape and color of bulging condoms. the women were gathering them from the bottom of the lagoon - there were thousands of these creatures in the mud - cutting them open, and extracting a long orange organ, sticky and dripping, which they dumped into the plastic bucket.
I paddled farther into the lagoon, going faster than any of these people could walk. Most of the villagers on Utungake struck me as being incredibly stupid and slow, and they seemed to take only a cruel interest in other people. Everyone was digging for slugs. No one looked at me. A women carried a big water jug through the lagoon. Like everyone else she was wearing all her clothes. They always swam in dresses and skirts and blouses, like Victorians. The boys wore shirts and trousers. but everyone was barefoot, in spite of the coral and the sea-urchins. I went swimming myself at the head of the lagoon and in the late afternoon got permission from a nearby village to camp on this deserted beach, distributed some silk scarves, and settled down for the night, which was full of lantern light and laughter and barking dogs.
The next morning I paddled back to civilization.
"And yet the sea is a horrible place," Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in 1888 to a friend in London. He had been wandering the Pacific in a chartered schooner, Casco, looking for a happy island on which he would spend the last six years of his life. He liked islands. He hated the sea. Sailing the sea was "stupefying to the mind and poisonous to the temper, the sea, the motion, the lack of space, the cruel publicity, the villainous tinned foods, the sailors, the captain, the passengers - but you are amply repaid when you sight an island, and drop anchor in a new world."
those were my sentiments exactly: sailing the sea was a monotony of doldrums interrupted by windy periods of nightmarish terror. No desert was ever deadlier or more tedious than an ocean. then - after weeks or months of your thinking Life is a reach, and then you jibe - landfall. I had never loved a boat enough to want to spend a year in it, and the fact is that yachties loved their boats - every cupboard and binnacle. Yachties were also finicky, orderly, conservative and yet haters of authority, they were self-sufficient - capable menders and fixers of things; they could be peevish; they frequently shifted the topic of conversation to Doomsday. They had little on common with landlubbers - was it this that had driven them offshore? And had these people always been to orderly or had yachting, with its limited space, forced them to become such fuss-budgets? Whatever, I saw them everywhere in Oceania, and they seemed to me truly a breed apart. They were not intrusive. 'they were great live-and-let-livers. Yachting involved certain complex courtesies. If you didn't bother them they would not presume on you. They wanted mainly to be left alone - that is why they had weighed anchor in the first place. "they spent years and years in their boats. they had sold houses and businesses and cars, they had quit jobs and put their life savings into this venture, the all-consuming occupation of being Flying Dutchmen.
In the Port of Refuge of Vava'u were thirty-four yachts, all bobbing at moorings, waiting out the hurricane season. Most had been there for three or four months, some for several years. On good days the yachties ventured out and might spend a night at an anchorage, near one of the islands; but mostly they stayed here, going ashore from time to time, for water at the dock, or food at the Neiafu shops, though generally they heated the shops for being expensive. (Yachties never threw money around - partly out of frugality, but mostly out of a desire to be anonymous spenders were always noticed.) They bought bananas and coconuts at the market, bread at the bakery, and they checked the post office or the Moorings agency for mail from home. They did not often call each other by their proper names, but rather referred to the boat.
"Windrift is a plumber," a yachtie told me gesturing to the vessel. "Southern Cross is a builder. Sourdough is a doctor, though you'd never know it - he's a very nice guy. Gungha used to be a lawyer and now he's a salmon fisherman during the season up in Alaska - there's money in that. You get all kinds of people, a real cross-section, you know. Of course in the season people fly in and meet their yachts. 'Take the boat to Tonga - we'll meet you.' They cruise a little, then fly home. 'Take the boat to Fiji-'"
We were on the deck at Neiafu, talking about cruising. I had come in with a week's growth of beard, in my salt-flecked kayak, and a group of yachtsmen had taken an interest. Mine was clearly seaworthy craft, even if it was only a little more than fifteen feet long. Yachties admired anything functional that was well made and compact, because the best yachts were enemies of superfluity. Sundog said, "We try to spend a year in each place." And he added that he and his family - two little girls - had been cruising the Pacific for the past seven years. "We had a great time in Tahiti - not Papeete, but Moorea and Tahiti-Iti, the little island just behind Tahiti. that's another world. Very sensual. Then you come here and everyone's going to church. "We've been cruising since eighty-six," Glory said. "This is our second time in Tonga, and I can tell you it's really gone downhill. this used to be the cleanest harbor in the Pacific."
"I studied history and Polynesia navigation," Dancer said. "When I came here I discovered that no one knew a damn thing about it." Sundog was still talking about Tahiti. "Your Polynesian doesn't really have a problem with nakedness the way they do here. They're very welcoming - you see all these smiles."
"Now there I have to disagree with you," Glory said. "We brought needles and fish-hooks to the Marquesas. We always try to leave a place a little bit better than we found it. That's our way. but they weren't interested. They couldn't care less. They didn't want our needles and fish-hooks."
"The thing is" - this was Dancer speaking - "you always judge a place by the last place you were in. We were last in New Zealand. Everyone talks to you in New Zealand. Great people. Great sailors too. It's blowing a Force Ten and you hear some Kiwi on the radio saying calmly. 'We're okay - just out here with the missus' and the fucken Tasman Sea is like hell on earth."
I introduced the topic of Tongans, because I had been wondering whether I had been imagining their xenophobia and bad temper. It is quite easy in travel to project your own mood onto the place you are in, you become isolated and fearful and then find a place malevolent - and it might be Happy Valley! "Tongans? They're surly," Sundog said. "They're unhelpful. They're resentful. They don't care about you."
So it went, our discussion on the dock. They often had such confabs on the neutral ground. but they also visited each other, rowing from yacht to yacht in their little dinghies, paying calls. Sometimes they yelled from rail to rail. but each boat occupied its own specific area of water. There were no close neighbours. When it was windy they battened down.
"It's funny," Mike of Gungha said. "You often find in a place like this the very problems you thought you left behind - pollution, bureaucracy, all that."
Glory told me how proud he was of his self-reliance. He had left Honolulu a year or so ago with four thousand dollars' worth of stores - canned his own meat and fish, made his own chutney.
"Business is pretty bad here, but the place is nice," Verne said. "It's true that I have few enemies - palagis, naturally. Machiavelli says you should judge a man by his enemies. that's all right with me. May enemies are dipshits."
He had spent five years in Samoa and was alone in my experience in putting in a good word for the Samoan people. "I liked them," Verne said. "American-ness is only skin deep. they're funny and they left me alone. I pretended to be crazy. I guess I am a little crazy. If people think you're whacko they keep their distance."
Verne said that "for reasons too complicated to go into now" - he often used the expression when speaking of his exploits, and I liked the "now" most of all - he had been a staff engineer at the Department of Public Works in Pago Pago. Verne confirmed that Vava'u was one of the great yachting destinations. People sailed from Hawaii to Pago and then here. Or they came from Fiji or New Zealand. but where to go from here was a difficult decision from the navigational point of view. If they continued west to Vanuatu and Australia they then had to sail north into Micronesia and more northerly still into cold waters in order to pick up the westerlies that would take them back to Hawaii. The alternative was to sail east out of Tonga and go as far east as necessary, beyond the Tuomotus, heading towards Easter Island, in order to pick up the southeast trade-winds for the run back to Hawaii.
It all sounded like hell to me. And for most people in the Port of Refuge leaving Vava'u was the last thing on their nautical minds. Verne had been in the harbor for two years and said he was here more or less for the duration. If you asked what that might be like he would reply by saying that life was a two-edged sword. I told Verne that one of my canvas boat bags was coming apart at the seams, as a result of being thrown around by baggage-handlers. It was the size and texture of a mail bag and I had repaired it with layers of duct tape.
The Jakaranda was a sleek green schooner at a mooring some distance from the dock. Andy and his companion Sandy had been coming to Tonga since the mid-eighties. Andy said they had become somewhat disenchanted by the Virgin Islands - the selfishness and rapacity of the locals, the numerous yachts. they liked the pace of life in Vava'u, they liked the people, too.
He tore out all the stitches and mended it expertly in fifteen minutes. It was a brilliant stitching job, and his willingness and his skill made it an even greater act of kindness. We had coffee and chocolate cookies that had been sent to Tonga by Sandy's mother in Pennsylvania. Sandy was mellow, pleasant, good-tempered and, like many yachties, easygoing because she was on her own boat. that was also a yachtie temperament. You spent years and years in a confined space in all sorts of weather and you either coped and developed a cheery positive outlook, or else you headed home. Andy and Sandy expressed a genuine liking for the Tongans, and echoed other yachties in saying they had no immediate plans.
"In a way, this is the best place to be," Sandy said. "I mean, with the war on. If the worst happens, we could just settle down and plant taro." As someone who needed space, I marveled at their capacity for living at such close quarters - and the marriages and friendships that prevailed over those conditions seemed to be as solid as it was possible for a human relationship to be, totally interdependent. I remarked on this Sandy, who said, "This is the way I want to live."
"Going from one strange hotel room to another can be traumatic," Andy said. "But in this boat we can go anywhere and still have our own bed, our own food." He thought a moment. "Our own toilet." But it also meant years on the water, years making crossings, long periods in terrible harbors, always sleeping in a narrow berth, often hanging your head, a whole life in which the world was elsewhere. To live such a life you needed a companion, who was handy and healthy and optimistic and who didn't get seasick, and who was willing to renounce his or her country, and then you went where the wind took you. You had to live in a certain way in these island harbors. Yachties could not live too intensely among the local people or they would be destroyed. It was the reason for their watchfulness. It was why they only spoke to me after I had been in the area for more than a week. They bobbed offshore, making the odd foray into town. Who in marine history, or in the history of oceanic exploration, ever lived like this? Either they went ashore and conquer4d, claimed the island, and left, or they stayed ashore, anthropologizing, botanizing, evangelizing, being a complete nuisance to the locals, whom they wished to subvert.
The yachties at their moorings had the equivalent of a gypsy camp at the edge of town, slightly exotic, occasionally insinuating themselves into the life of the place. "The tourists do as they like - they wear bikinis - but they leave in a few days," one of the yachties told me. "We have to keep to the rules, because we're staying."
They had to acknowledge the fact that they existed there for months or years because of the hospitality of the Tongans. they did not abuse that hospitality. They didn't litter, they wore modest clothes when they were in town, they endured the Tongan Sabbath. The yachties generally compassionate attitude made me look harder at my own opinion of the Tongans. I told Verne this - that I felt a bit guilty for distrusting them, and that I had found very little hospitality here. Or was I being too harsh on these people?
"People here - they may not be friendly but they leave you alone," Verne said. "It's a two-edged sword."
We were sitting on the dock at the Port of Refuge, among the perfect little islands of Vava'u, each of which was a perfectly rounded piece of land, many of them just like drops of batter on a hot griddle, the ones that cook quickly - simple little places with no people - that was the thrill, the innocence of it, and anyone with a little boat like mine could play Robinson Crusoe here. Each one was just what you imagined a tropical island to be - palms, woods, surf on the bright beach, limpid green lagoons. I was so glad I had come, and felt that I had discovered an island that few others knew, and had found a way of going there and living on it. that was the realization of the south seas dream - and I had seen how the dream had been deficient. It was not the mosquitoes or the rain. but really I had wished that there had been someone else with me in that pint-sized paradise - a woman.
Meanwhile, Verne was talking about Doomsday, because a moment ago I had asked.
"The Doomsday thing is very common among yacht people," Verne said. "You hear it all the time. 'The world's going to hell,' 'This used to be a great country,' 'This place is awful,' 'The end is nigh.' so they buy a boat and ship out. they come here and talk about it."
He was quiet a moment, and then glanced up and looked across the lovely harbor to the green wall of Pangaimotu.
"This is a fabulous place to sit around, talking about the end of the world."
An extract from THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA by Paul Theroux, published in London by Hamish Hamilton, 1992.