The Kingdom of Tonga, and Why You Should Always Spit Not Swallow

Good morning Neiafu. Your mooring field water is not so clean. Your roosters and pigs are jolly noisy. And your singing late at night and then again early in the morning is very pretty but – when do you all sleep? Still, the sun is out, I haven’t seen any hornets and all is well

It was just after 8am and we were about to have breakfast in the cockpit when we received a visitor. A portly local man, about 60 or so, in a wooden rowing boat. He came alongside and, in heavily accented English, said: “Nice boat. You just arrive?”
“Yes, we are going to check in this morning.”
“Very beautiful boat”
“Thank you”
“Very good my friend. You have coffee?”
“Er, yes, we have coffee”
“Make me a coffee.”
Dietmar and I exchanged looks as if to say – how bloody cheeky! But also – he seemed friendly and we are always open to new experiences, so “OK. Come on board”
I made the coffee and Dietmar helped the old boy aboard with his little bag. His English was pretty poor but they managed to make conversation. Dietmar and I were both amused by his directness. He introduced himself as ‘Makka’ and told us that he had eight children and four grandchildren. “Very nice coffee”
“Thank you.”
He awkwardly went to bump fists with Dietmar. Both laughed. “My son makes these things”
He brought out a bag of the same old bone and paua shell necklaces and cheap, crappy pearls that we had seen on every island between the Marquesas and here. I smiled. His son must be very successful if he makes all these things, which rather begs the question why his father needs to hawk them to visiting yachts in Neiafu harbour. I didn’t ask.

“Look – whale bone” as he handed Dietmar a piece of resin shaped like a boar tooth, crudely painted in black to look like (very clumsy) scrimshaw. In German, I reassured Dietmar that there was no way that that was whale bone. Dietmar nonetheless quite liked the look of this and our new best friend liked the idea of selling it to him. He wanted 25 US for it. “Good price,” he said. He bumped fists again with Dietmar. I stifled a laugh and smiled widely. This was funny. Dietmar clearly thought it was too.
We eventually settled on 2 smaller, cheaper necklaces and I haggled hard. He reminded us repeatedly of how many children- and also grandchildren- he had and how expensive school is. More fist bumps. I softened, and then told him that the coffee on CESARINA is also very expensive. Back and forth we went. Then, to our surprise, Makka decided that he also wanted some rope from us, also for his son, who he told us has a horse. Very busy man, this son of his. And only 21 years old. Amazing.
Dietmar, big old softie that he is, found some old reefing line and offered it to him. Makka however had his eyes on our sheets. Or our 20mm mooring lines.
“This one is better,” he said, pointing to the genoa sheet. Dietmar laughed, as did I. “No,” said Dietmar, “we need this rope.”
“I have four sons and four daughters. My son need this,” he said, pointing to our coils of mooring line. I laughed again. He, on the other hand, seemed quite serious. “No. Do you want this one or not?”
When Makka realised that Dietmar was in fact giving him the line as a present, there was more fist-bumping. He gave me, very generously I felt, some shells from his bag and declared that Dietmar was his friend. This was a relief. Dietmar helped him back into his boat and how he didn’t end up in the water I will never know. Later we heard that this guy gets a mention on Noonsite and that you shouldn’t invite him on board as he has very long fingers. There was however nothing underhand about the way he left with 17USD in his pocket and 8 metres of 4 tonne line that we had freely handed over in exchange for 2 necklaces and three little shells. No need to steal things when you can just ask and be given!

Shortly after breakfast, still amused, we were pleasantly surprised to see Thomas from OUTER RIM, who we had bumped into several times over the last thousand miles, pop by with his dinghy on the way to the market. He sails a Discovery yacht with his wife and 4(!) young children on board. Jolly brave. Anyway, he offered us a lift to the wharf so that we could attempt to check in without having to moor alongside the crappy customs dock. I chose what I thought was an appropriately respectful outfit for this Wesleyan Christian island and we gratefully hopped in. With a bit of luck, we could perhaps avoid having to unpack and inflate our own dinghy.

Spotted parked at the dock. Many things but not a souped-up Subaru…

The customs wharf and immigration area in Neiafu is muddy. The second thing you notice is that you have arrived somewhere even more foreign to your eyes than the last place. Men wearing high visibility jackets and ankle length skirts with long, woven grass belts, carrying clipboards, were boarding a large fishing vessel tied up at the wharf. Serious but not unfriendly, they directed us to the large customs shed. Dietmar began talking about just sailing away rather than going through this whole process for just one day ashore. I, on the other hand, was already fascinated.


People are all larger here, it seems. Someone told me it’s to do with the fatty ‘lamb flap’ cuts sent from NZ.

We found the customs shed and were directed away from the office by a stern young lady in uniform and patchily-applied red lipstick and told to sit and wait in the warehouse. We sat and we waited. Dietmar started to steam ever so slightly. I was watching the world go by – older women wearing all black, one in a black ankle-length chiffon skirt; a woman in a black t-shirt and leggings with a full grass skirt; younger girls wearing jeans and long-sleeved tops. Men, some in shorts or trousers but most in a variety of skirts, mostly dark and neutral colours. Many women were wearing a kind of macramé belt with long flat woven strips that extended to their knees. Most people here were really big by comparison to Dietmar and me and looked fairly humourless, although occasionally we heard peals of laughter. Many of the women were particularly big-boned and heavy-browed and I guess, by western standards, Tongan women are not famed for their beauty. If you were to need cement bags shifting though

Eventually we were beckoned to a large desk where a monosyllabic official, also in a black wrap skirt and grass belt, heard our reasons for not being able to come alongside at the dock. He looked cynical. It wasn’t a complete untruth that the engine doesn’t start – sometimes it takes a really long time and Dietmar hasn’t yet worked out what the problem is – but Dietmar was adamant with me that he was absolutely not going to bring CESARINA alongside this “shitty dock” and used this as a not entirely convincing excuse to the customs officer who clearly didn’t believe him and therefore took it upon himself to be as unhelpful and slow as possible. He was almost as adamant that Dietmar had to bring the boat to the dock. Horns were locked. Oh God. Unfortunately, this resolute individual also turned out to be the boss. Bugger. This was going to take a while.

He sent us first to the Quarantine officials. Dietmar had a much better effect on the entirely pragmatic man in Quarantine and we managed to fill out the forms and have the boat inspected remotely. I was asked to make sure that none of the fresh fruit and vegetables (that I should absolutely not have on board) leave the boat. No problem. A fairly small fee – that we paid for expensively in USD – later and we were one third of the way there. Now back to Customs. “Wait over there.”
We sit. Dietmar is cussing under his breath and I whisper sternly that he should shush and let me do the talking if we are to ever get out of here. I put on my best smile, smooth my longer-than-knee-length skirt and prepare to do charm battle with Tongan Customs. Dietmar leaves the customs shed and goes for a smoke. Eventually, we broked an agreement with Mr Monosyllable that a customs official will come to the boat in our dinghy to do the form filling. Why on God’s earth we couldn’t have done this in the office, I can only guess. Pure bloody-mindedness (and probably just desserts for Dietmar’s fib). All this service is missing is a call centre with some automated call choice options. “Dial 1 for Customs, 2 for Immigration, or 3 to be left on hold until you die” To be fair though, had we come alongside like we are meant to, and had the customs official not smelled a rat, this probably would have all been a lot easier. Having said that, we would almost certainly have scratched CESARINA by doing so, because of the shape of her hull and the shape of the dock. Anyway…

Customs official Sione on his way to CESARINA in our dinghy

We prevailed upon the lovely Thomas to bring the customs official back to our boat with us – I would do the form filling while Dietmar inflated our dinghy to bring him back to the wharf. The customs official, a comfortably-built, affable, Indian-looking chap called Sione, sporting natty John Lennon-style round sunglasses with his customs uniform (including of course black skirt and grass belt), explains, as he clambers clumsily into OUTER RIM’s dinghy, that he has been drafted in from Taputonga to help with customs this week because it’s the King’s birthday this week, the King has come up to Vava’u, and therefore there are special flights and ships coming in. Oh, we say. His grandfather (Sione’s, not the King’s), was from Manchester. His name was Walter and he came on a boat and never left. No, Sione has never been to England.

Sione somehow managed to get on board CESARINA in his wrap skirt, I made coffee and we set about filling out the customs paperwork while Dietmar sorted out the dinghy. Dietmar had unpacked it, moved it (with two minutes of help from me), inflated it, hoisted it, brought and fitted the outboard, and put the dinghy in the water before I had finished with the mountain of paperwork. Customs in Tonga need to know everything about everything, five times on twenty different forms. Extraordinarily awful.

Anyway – we made it safely back to town and were directed to wait again. Eventually we were summoned again by our nemesis Senior Customs Official “Do you have the Health clearance?”
“No – where do we get that from?”

Health clearance

Groan. OK. We found our official in Quarantine again and were told that the woman for the Health Clearance would be here tomorrow. Dietmar gave him a packet of cigarettes and said that we wouldn’t be here tomorrow to see her as we were leaving in the morning. Quarantine man made a telephone call and Health lady appeared within five minutes. She filled out the form resting on the back of a rusting Toyota in the Quarantine area and we forked out 100 USD for the pleasure.
Back to Customs. Now we are OK to be released into the community. Christ. Finally. Quick, before they change their minds…

By the time we were finished with the whole clearing-in circus, it was 1.30pm and had taken nearly 4 hours. Dietmar had really had enough and it was high time we got something to eat. We withdrew some cash from the ATM with no problems and found ourselves sitting in a backpacker-style café with a pair of Kiwis who had tied their dinghy up next to ours earlier. Over burgers the boys chatted about boats and I lapped up the wifi. (Dietmar’s phone contract is with Vodafone and he has had a phone signal and a data connection, at a price, everywhere we have been. Sometimes it’s extremely slow, but it’s there. I, on the other hand, am with EE (Orange, as was), which stands for Everything Everywhere. They should rename as NN for everywhere west of Panama.)

The town of Neiafu has perhaps seen better days but there were gaily fluttering flags and signs everywhere welcoming the King who arrived the day before. Along its dirty, badly maintained streets near the waterfront with ankle-breakingly high concrete pavements are a handful of cafés; a few shops selling canned goods and miscellaneous plasticalia, staffed by sulky Chinese teenagers; several banks and a Post Office, plus the market. I had heard that the stamps here were really pretty so took the opportunity to buy some otherwise underwhelming postcards and went looking for the Post Office. A group of giggling schoolgirls on a street corner, looking immaculate in their crimplene uniforms, didn’t seem to know at first where the Post Office was but then I was given vague directions. Some way up the indicated street I could see no sign and asked a different person who informed that I had gone straight past. The Post Office was a small shop with a small sign outside, next to a shop selling badly printed souvenir t-shirts. The notices were mostly handwritten. The man in charge was sitting at the back with earphones in and reluctantly got up to help us. I bought the requisite stamps for the postcards and then a selection of others that were indeed very pretty, and then had to go to the bank for more money because the Post Office doesn’t accept payment by card…

The market however was phenomenal. The handicrafts part was full of beautiful things, mostly woven, which I feared I would have trouble getting in to Australia. Women were chatting and weaving pandanus floor mats and I suddenly had the feeling that nothing had changed here for a really long time. The fruit and vegetable market was beautiful – a selection of locally grown root vegetables and imported fruit, laid out very pleasingly to the eye. The ladies selling their wares here were kindly and quite chatty.

Marching band but no King of Tonga

As we left the market, a marching band in uniform came noisily down the street to the dock. Now we will see the King, I thought! Nope…


Laden with our purchases, we followed the music back to Customs and Immigration to check out for early the next morning. I knew how this was going to go. 45 minutes later, we had the stamps in our passport and the requisite forms in our possession and somehow had managed to avoid paying a departure tax. Lady with Red Lipstick had taken pity on us, I think.

The next morning, our departure went smoothly for the first hour or so. The weather forecast showed fairly strong winds (25kts+) but our little ship was well prepared for the next 450 miles. Out of the channel network we motor-sailed and as we came towards more open water, Dietmar uncovered and hoisted the mizzen. He threw me the cover so I could stow it below and as I picked it up from the top of the companionway, I felt a sharp jab in my finger. What the… Oh hello hornet. Bloody ouch that hurt.

First I killed the hornet (sorry, all God’s little creatures, I know), and then set about attending to my very painful finger. “Suck it,” said Dietmar. So I did. And then I swallowed. And that was stupid. The next thing I realise is that my throat feels quite strange. My finger is hurting but otherwise fine. My throat feels somehow a little thicker and I am coughing. Ooops. Where’s the antihistamine?
50mg of diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and a sleep later and I feel strange but fine. Thank goodness she waited to sting me and not my captain. On this occasion, I was very happy to take one for the team…

300 miles later and we are approaching the Fijian coast. Beautiful islands rising sharply out of the hefty waves. I am still alive. We think there may be more hornets in the main sail which we have not hoisted at all (genoa and mizzen balance the boat beautifully) or in one or both masts but we will no doubt find out when we make landfall. It’s way too windy out here for hornets to be flying around, but I do wonder what they are eating if there are any on board. We shall see. In the meantime, all is well. And, very excitingly, I have a phone signal!!! 😀

One thought on “The Kingdom of Tonga, and Why You Should Always Spit Not Swallow

  • Always Nice to read your blog Emma. Saw your dancing film on FB! Remember those moves very well…. Thinking back to our days in the sunshine. Will we ever see eachother again in such a setting? Hope so…having cocktails and perhaps some fois gras Cessarina style! Take care dear!


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