Saturday, January 4, 2014

How We Spent Our Christmas - or High Adventures on the Open Sea: A "Real Tonga" Experience

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started from this tropic port,
Aboard this tiny ship.

What started out as a four-day trip to Niuatoputapu, in the far northern reaches of the Kingdom of Tonga, turned into an 11-day ADVENTURE, with the last three days spent on the MV 'Otuanga'ofa, Tonga's inter-island ferry. This is no ordinary “people” ferry. It is part cargo boat, part passenger boat, with a great big crane on top of it, and containers stacked along the upper back deck.

President and Sister Tupou, Garth and I ended up on the 'Otuanga'ofa because our Real Tonga return flight from Niuatoputapu to Tongatapu never materialized. With Christmas on the horizon, and no planes coming to get us any time soon, we made the decision to brave “the boat.”

We boarded at the harbor in Falehau, braved the opening through the reef, and headed northwest, out into the open sea. I know, I know. Tongatapu's south of Niuatoputapu. So, why were we headed northwest? Because Niuafo'ou, which is northwest of Niuatoputapu, had bad weather when the ship was actually scheduled to arrive there, and the captain decided to come to Niuatoputapu first, THEN head to Niuafo'ou. So, we headed northwest. 

Everything was all fun and games for about the first hour. The ride was a little bumpy, but we were having an adventure! A real Tongan adventure!! Then Garth and I decided to get something out of our berth.

So....let me describe our berth. I was kind of expecting a small room, kind of like on the ferries we have in

Alaska. Nope. The steward (or at least one of the crew) took us down two decks. Yes, two. All the way down to deck one, all the way forward, into the bowels of the ship. He opened a door, and there were 10 sets of curtains, five on each side of a narrow hallway, which led to a door on the opposite side of the hall. At first it looked as if we were going to have to share a four-bunk room, but after some talking, Pres. Tupou convinced the crew member that we had paid for our own rooms, not shared rooms. So, we actually had a four-bunk room to ourselves – at least we had the appearance of being by ourselves when the curtain was drawn. Sounds still entered uninvited, however. The cabin two “doors” down from us liked to play music 24/7. And what a variety – everything from raggae to rap to Christian rock to country. And, of course, we could hear people's conversations if they weren't kept to a whisper. And there was the ever present sound of very sea sick people trying without luck to keep down their food.

Going down to our berth was not a good idea. It was a lot bumpier down there, and I learned another lesson – one of several I learned this trip. That romantic notion of standing on deck of a ship, the coolness of ocean breeze in your face, the roll of the sea beneath your feet, the wide open sea the only thing on the sadly not for me. As soon as we got to our “room” I started feeling sick. We went back upstairs and outside to see if the coolness of the breeze would did not. Up came dinner. Every half hour or so my insides tried to come outside. Garth, a much better sailor than I am, did what all good companions do, and stayed by my side through the night, letting me rest on his shoulder between bouts of dry heaves. Finally, after about 17 hours, we reached Niuafo'ou, and I was able to make it to my berth, where I stayed, venturing forth ONLY when at port.

After waiting for daylight to come so the boat could load and unload, and catching a few hours of sleep, I made my way to the deck to see what Niuafo'ou looked like. I was met by a most amazing site.
The crew was just lowering a flat-bottomed boat into the choppy waters to start ferrying people and all their paraphernalia to the dock.

But the dock wasn't actually a dock. The dock was a huge, sloped, mostly flat black rock jutting out into the water. And there were people on the end of it. And the waves were crashing up over it. I watched in amazement as the small boat, tied to the ferry at the bow and the stern, would be brought in close to the ferry, but not touching. And then people would jump down and across into the waiting boat, while it was moving in and out, up and down. Moms would hand off their babies and small children to the waiting crew members, who would hold tightly to them until the moms could get on board and find a place to sit. Then luggage was thrown on board, all the while people still trying to board. It was barely controlled chaos. As soon as the boat was a full as could be, it would head for the “dock” where the reverse would happen. Between waves crashing up against the “dock” people would disembark, their goods thrown up to waiting hands, and they'd make their way up to shore. At least five dozen eggs and four tires made it to shore in Niuafo'ou.

As soon as passengers for Niuafo'ou were ashore, and departing passengers on board the ferry, we took off...and I made my way quickly to my room...where I stayed until we reached Vava'u about 24 hours later. I gained a new appreciation of how Jonah must have felt in the belly of the whale. It was easy to believe the boat was some great beast, with us deep in its belly, as it groaned, growled, gurgled, and shuddered as we made our way south during the dark night ours.

A real live dock at last!!! We were able to disembark and walk around a little while in Vava'u. The market was in full swing as people bought last minute gifts and produce for Christmas dinner the next day.
The market on Vava'u

A Tongan water "taxi"

Then it was a “short” 7-hour ride to Ha'apai where we arrived after dark, and more people got off and even more got on. 
Sunset just before reaching Ha'apai
In the middle of the night we stopped at Ha'afeva and Nomuka before FINALLY arriving in Tongatapu at 10:00 Christmas Day morning. During our three-day boat ride I ate ½ peanut butter sandwich Tuesday afternoon, and drank one small bottle of water. I am sad that my stomach is such a wimp, and I will not be the sailor I always secretly wished to be.

 But, we are home once again – showered and clean, and soon to enjoy a Christmas dinner with the other senior missionaries on Tongatapu.

Merry Christmas!!!


  1. Hamblins and Tupous, What an adventure! thank you for sharing your experiences. Yes the Lord does work in mysterious ways. Love, The Leigh's

  2. Awesome trip! I want to have adventures like the Hamblins.