Seriously I want to know what just happened. The photos and my unreliable memory insist on giving me reason to believe I’ve gone absolutely out of my already questionable mind. I can’t even stick to what I know because it has to be some crazy, wild, fantastic dream. But these are supposed to be logs of what we do out here. OK so the last log I promised I would stick to the truth as nutty as it seemed. I promise nothing of the same this time. Every word of this log is absolute fantasy and heresy. In every way I will account for what I believe happened, but there being absolutely no possible way that it did, it’s all therefore bull shit. For all I know, sometime around two weeks ago I went down a rabbit hole and this morning I got spit back up in the blaring sun stumbling around with a headache, a clear indicator that something very, very strange and wonderful happened to me while I was away.
The Rabbit Hole was entered sometime around noon on the first day. Our group had arrived from ports far away- the shockingly handsome twins Mike and Stu, owners of Verbier Summits, a paragliding school in the Swiss Alps, and their gorgeous girlfriends Rachel and Rosy (soon to be girlfriend and fiancee- but I’m getting ahead of myself); our esteemed owner Bruce, back for another round of fun and the man who made it all possible to chase that bunny right into fantasy land; and my sister Lesley, out for a break from the rain in Seattle.
Our mission in Tonga: yes, of course to kite surf; yes, of course to see whales; yes, of course to have one bewildering meal after another; but this one had a vigorous ulterior motive, and that was to paraglide. Some of you may remember a time long, long ago in Venezuela a whole lot of greenbacks, cussing, sweat and tears being raped from my body by every possible setback you can imagine to procure a paragliding winch for the expedition. For almost that same period of time we’ve planned to get our first flights with said winch on this trip, in the Kingdom of Tonga.
A bit of sashimi; a bit of a run-down on the boat; a few laughs; a quick dust of the tow-winch; a brand new wing compliments of our new Gin sponsorship and suddenly my Rabbit Hole had a few extra personalities. Nuku’alofa is not known as Tonga’s greatest gem, and the plan was to depart for waters north as soon as possible. But plans suck and should be given wide disregard. I avoid them like moldy food. Use the Lonely Planets and Cruising Guides for firewood and I promise real adventure. Or in this case, a better dream…
So the plan was scrapped and we went for a recon. Not 12 miles from town we found waters so clear, coral so in-tact, beach so beautiful, wind so so so perfect for flying I knew this trip I was on just had to play out. Lead on Rabbit, lead on!
How do I describe what we see up there? Bruce lands and says it’s the most incredible thing he’s ever seen; Stu lands, his smile can clearly be picked up from a mile away; Mike lands and he just shakes his head and repeats “AMAZING” so many times I consider he may have a brain injury. When it’s my turn apparently everyone can hear me yelling all the way up, and all the way down. Personally I have no idea, my brain is whirring at dangerous speed, hardly able to cope with the inputs. I shake my feet around like an excited puppy, then bank a few spirals over the boat, wave to my sister, land on the soft white sand bare footed and in that moment realize that if the winch sank to the bottom of the ocean that first day it would all have been worth it for this one flight. But in this dream, I get to go again…and again.
Ah but even dreams have glitches. By flight number 6 we figured we were pretty much experts and sent Jody up the mast so we could tow Mike right under her. A potentially dangerous and wholly outrageous attempt, but you know how it goes when the camera comes out…And thus ended the towing for the day when the brand new Rebel (and Mike) took swim number one. In the coming days it’s possible the wing saw more water than sky, but MY GOD IT WAS WORTH IT!
The next day, the glorious trifecta. Flying in the morning. Snorkeling before lunch. Kite surfing in the afternoon. That’s what it says in my log book and I’m sticking with it. Unfortunately it doesn’t say much else that’s even remotely intelligible- just a lot of “whoa, that was a crazy day” and “whoa, that was a crazy day” ad infinitum, which doesn’t help me much when it comes to recapping a week in the space of a log when I really need the space of a book. We did at some point need to move on. The Humpback whales would not wait for us in the Vava’ua group forever, and between Nuku’alofa and Vava’ua were a litany of uninhabited and sparsely populated islands I thought I’d explored on previous visits, but as it turns out in the next 10 days we never once anchored even close to anywhere I’d been on three previous trips. If you look at Tonga on a map you would not be immediately impressed with the cruising possibilities. While French Polynesia is the size of Europe Tonga is more the size of say…Denmark. But small is not the correct word for Tonga. Not her people, not her splendors.
Swells bring great surf; clear deep waters harbor some of the healthiest coral I’ve seen; perfect white sand beaches compliment stunning limestone and palm-tree clad islands and a million surprises await at them all. Kelefesia holds our attention for a few days, a wickedly gorgeous little spot who’s one inhabitant no doubt found himself somewhat bewildered to see people flying without motors over his island. The girls all get to fly and Lars gets his first flight of his flying career. What a terrible thing we’ve done. If Lars continues to fly I think there will never be a view that can match his first. But as always, the days become hard to track and things you think you’ll never forget get mixed up with other wonderful memories. As I’m writing this I recall two surfacing whales that came up near us on the trip to the Ha’apai group, the first Humpback whales most of our group had ever seen, an incredible treasure I’d nearly let go.
We head north, in small runs each time stopping where we see potential in either land or sea. At Mango island we find an anchorage that is almost completely surrounded by a wall of coral 40 feet deep with small body-wide fissures that make for swimming that damn-near meets the adrenaline of flying. Lars and I have a look around one night after dinner and bag 10 slipper lobster for the next evening’s feast, one for each smiling soul on board.
From Mango again we sail north, this time with 4 kiters ripping along with us in the first real and only solid winds we’d get on the trip. As Jody was out riding as well we have no proof of this event, but some very tired kiters certainly had sore muscles to remind them at days end. And again we move, this time to the far eastern islands in the Ha’apai, another area I’d missed in trips past. We are told by the few passing boats we see that the Vava’ua group is finally thinning out. It’s a famous cruising area and the last stop for most boats that have traversed the Pacific, all headed to New Zealand and Australia for the cyclone season. Perfect- by the time we arrive we’ll have it to ourselves. In the meantime we find yet another majestic anchorage with no neighbors, another spot to fly. I full stall the Rebel just to entertain myself, as if entertainment is needed then recover and site my landing in time to see Bruce catch a wave on the SUP (stand up board) directly below. I’m flying, Bruce is surfing, the gang plays on the beach, insane smells waft over us from the galley. Oh yes, very deep in the hole now.
We stage our run to the Vava’ua group from Ofalanga, an uninhabited island I remembered from previous trips, and the first place we stop I’ve visited before. Makes me realize how long you could explore this planet and still see very very little. We spend the afternoon enjoying gardens of coral and wildly abundant fish life, then entertain one another with trips on the SUP behind the dinghy. Jody wins the speed event, Rachel wins the head plant, Rosy wins no-bikini, Bruce gets the style points. We head off at midnight for an easy night-sail. On arrival in Vava’ua we do indeed find it mostly deserted. If it’s even possible, Mike and Rachel seem even a little more blissful than before. Something is going on there…
In our final days we see lots of whales, but swimming with them remains elusive. We even bone up for a day tour, which we find a bit disappointing. Plenty of whales are seen, but in an effort to get us close I find the captain’s tactics bordering on harrassment. It’s an all-day affair in the sun on a very uncomfortable boat with no drinks or food and we’re all happy to get back to our home. Lars and Hannah put together a record-book Halloween meal complete with carved pumpkin and hanging bats that is somehow completely frightening and wildly delicious at the same time. The meal begins with Hag’s hair pasta and sea monsters on a bed of blood (squid ink pasta and baby octopus on a beet reduction), follows with Hannibal Lecter’s Sunday roast (fresh bonito tartare and watermelon sorbet complete with nail and razor blade french fries!), and finishes with a “RedRum” rice pudding straight out of The Shining. We learn one of Lars’s signature dishes has made the Fat Duck recipe book, a tome of the best (and probably most difficult to prepare) dishes ever created and none of us are even mildly surprised.
Needing supplies we head to town and make a few diving stops at Swallow’s Cave and Mariner’s Cave. Always a crowd-pleaser and as cool as I remember.
We find yet another place to fly and not to belittle past stops as they were all exquisite, this one reigns supreme. In the final days we get Stu, Bruce and Jody all up at the same time and they dance above the tree-tops and the mast of Discovery for hours ridge soaring. The winch and dinghy have gotten a work-out on this trip and we decide to end our flying efforts here. The numbers: something over 50 flights, the Rebel’s been in the drink 9 times (sorry Gin!), we’ve burned up a few hundred bucks of unleaded, and “holy shit” has been said enough times to make even the most hardened priest faint 10 times over.
The last day we get our first rain and opt for another round of Dirty Clubs, which this group has taken to like a marathon runner takes to sweat. The forfeits get better and better: Lesley enjoys the view from the top of the mast until her legs go numb; Stu eats way too many dry biscuits; Mike is lowered from Paragliding instructor to fan wielder; Gavin cleans the hull (thanks for your help Stu!); Lesley has a walk around an uninhabited island with a watermelon; but no Dirty Clubs forfeit has ever achieved such high marks as on the last day, when we drop Mike off on the main navigational buoy in Neiafu, our final destination for plenty of time to…I suppose not letting go.
During the last supper, between courses of curried roast pumpkin soup with hazelnut oil, parmesian and soy roasted pumpkin seeds, suvited duck over fresh pistachio pesto and beet juice infused carrots, morsel of tenderloin with basil bernaise, mango and cardamon sorbet (yeah- WHOA!) we learn the Milky Way worked it’s magic on Mike and Rachel’s night watch. Instead of an engagement ring, Rachel gets an antique compass rose which we all agree is flat brilliant, and of course quite appropriate. Well done Mike, and Rachel you precious girl, congratulations again. The last day has had 4 bests: 1) Best whale sighting as momma whale broached right in front of us, which left all of us giddy for hours; 2) best laugh leaving Mike on the buoy; 3) best engagement announcement; and 4) best meal that has ever been served- to anyone.
And then? Well, then that rascally rabbit takes me by the ear and hauls me and my friends out of our hole and points at the horizon and gives me an even greater gift than he already has. A dangling carrot. The adventure, as always…continues.