We had been sailing on a luxury catamaran in the Vava’u group of islands in Tonga for five days. Despite great enthusiasm and much talk, the men had failed to catch a single marlin or tuna.
With four couples on board, I gathered the girls for a strategy meeting. “I know the answer to catching fish,” I told them conspiratorially. Having read a handy but slightly eccentric hint about fly fishing many years ago, I figured it was worth a shot. Either that, or endure gnawing hunger and painful displays of male ego under threat. Emptying the contents of an Earl Grey tea bag into the sink, we ever so inconspicuously snuck away to the bathroom. Stifling our giggles, we each snipped a tuft of hair from beneath our togs, generously stuffing the empty tea bag with our contributions. Sealing it, we nonchalantly walked back onto the deck, secured the tea bag to the lure with duct tape and let the line out. “ The rod is ours for a couple of hours,” I said, and the men eyed us suspiciously.
Within 20 minutes the line ripped and it was all go.
Tonga has so much to offer and in my view the best is seen form the water. A more stunning sailing location in our own back yard would be hard to find. The reefs and coral are a phenomenon of nature. Rich tapestries of texture and colour cover the ocean floor, interspersed with a myriad of colourful fish including Nemo, his Dad and Dori. The Coral Gardens (so aptly named) between the Vala’eitu and Nuapau Islands are a designer’s dream of patterns, textures and colour.
On our first morning, we were lucky enough to see a whale close to the boat. While I fumbled for my camera, it breached in front of us, exposing its white and indigo belly before flicking its tail and descending deep into the water. This region is home to the humpback whales from June through to November when they migrate from Antarctica to the warmer waters of Tonga, to birth their calves. Tonga is one of the very few places in the world where it is possible to swim with the whales.
Needing a certified guide, we hired Alan for the day, a scruffy, bearded, kiwi. He says he has been getting up-close with whales for 23 years and believes the whales know him. During our first encounter in the water, we were overwhelmed, alongside a 40,000 tonne mammal. Looking into its eyes, with a barnacle encrusted head and parasitic fish clinging to its back, it was exhilarating. Our second close encounter was with a mother and calf. The smooth, black calf lacked the bumps and barnacles of its mother. Alan says the young calves drink 100 litres of rich milk a day, gaining between 3-5 kgs an hour at their peak. Meanwhile, the mother looses condition, not eating until they migrate back to Antarctic, where she will feast on krill. Drying off back on the boat, there was little time to rest. Alan shouted: “There’s a heat run on.” With that, we were off again in dogged pursuit. He had spotted activity 400 metres away – water high in the air gave away the location of several bulls, pursuing a female. “Like dogs on heat,” Alan says.
Needing fuel and supplies we motored back to Neiafu. We tied the dinghy to a tree stump and headed to Utukalongalu market. Here we were drawn to the soft, harmonious voices of a church choir; the girls in pale blue uniforms, contrasted against their chocolate skin, looked gorgeous. Saturday was a busy, social day for the locals. The market tables radiated colour and repetition, with orderly rows of tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers, cabbages and bananas. Outside oversized taro covered the pavement, interspersed with baskets of coconuts.
We walked back to the dinghy and a lactating dog scouting for food followed us. The housing was poor and basic, and much of it is built from recycled material. We passed a large sow and her piglets, at home, in what was once a front garden. The dirt had been turned and plowed many times but they were still scavenging for more. A fire of coconut husks smoldered; smoke drifting through the washing on the line. Back on the boat, we relished the retelling of our unorthodox fishing expedition.
With the prized tuna on board, it was filleted into four healthy slabs, and stowed in the fridge. Our bellies were still aching from the laughter. We dropped anchor in the secluded, uninhabited bay of Eueiki Island and prepared lunch of sashimi with wasabi and soya sauce. Like the velvety softness of the tuna skin, the pink flesh was pliable and tender. We cut slithers and plated up decadent quantities of the unadulterated fish. Sitting back with a glass of bubbles we feasted in the heat of the midday sun.
As the tuna slipped down our throats, we noticed a man with a bare torso paddling towards us on a surfboard. Where did he come from?
Approaching the yacht, he stayed on his surfboard. He told us he was solo on the island for a week and would like to charge his cell phone. A little nervous, we assessed that we could deal with him, eight to one, as long as he wasn’t lying on a machete. We welcomed Mike on board and found out he was a film director from Malibu, USA. To celebrate his 60th birthday he was reliving his youth, having visited Eueiki Islands 40 years ago. With a chilled Heineken, he joined us for lunch. Living off the sea and land, Mike was knowledgeable about survival and impressed with our tuna. Spotting the lure, with the remains of the teabag and duct tape he asked: “What’s that?” With a few little sniggers, we fessed up and relived the tale of the one that didn’t get away. Soon it was late afternoon, time to say goodbye to our new friend and find a mooring before sunset. As Mike put his cell phone into a zip-lock bag, we presented him with a small parcel of our secret fish lure, carefully wrapped in a paper towel tied with flax twine.