Wednesday, September 28, 2011

From the Captain...

It's been a quiet day today.  It's evening and despite the fact that I got the mosy screen up on the door there's at least one little bugger in the boat.  For the most part bugs has not been a problem at all, but I guess it's not surprising tonight given how calm it is and being near shore.  The great debate in my mind is when to move south etc. - seem like it might as well be sooner as later since my enthusiasm for exploration is low.

There are a variety of anchorages, all duly numbered by the local boat charter company who kindly distribute their guide and charter map to yachts.  It's a good idea since the local names are essentially impossible for western minds and tongues.  So, the VHF chatter is "meet you at 16 because we really liked the snorkelling there" refers to anchorage 16.  Each anchorage has a write up etc., they are all quite beautiful and somewhat unique.  There's typically some form of small village or cluster of houses etc. nearby because there are only so many places to bring a boat in and that's where both the locals and tourists will be.  It generally works out fine.  Each is unique but there is a sameness as well.  Deep green vegetation to the shore, snorkelling in the coral etc. with the fish - different places are a bit different and some unique features but consistent is many ways.  From a yacht point of view, some places are better protected than others or easier to get secure.  I'm getting jaded.

I've got in some excellent diving here with some spectacular coral.  Not a lot of  big fish (sharks, dolphins, rays etc.) excluding swimming briefly with whales again.  The big draw, I think, for diving is the coral - extensive live reef systems with hard and soft coral, huge fans and other structures.  They also have limestone caves, a swim through etc. for a bit of variety.

The town and indeed the people are third world.  I've also heard it said time and again that things are going downhill economically and you can see it.  I went to a talk by a Tongan man, roughly my age, who left here 30 years ago as a young man and has returned.  He stated that back then, growing up, people had more money freedom relatively though they didn't have cars, electricity, roads, TV's etc.  The islands had a positive import balance and were not reliant on 'remittances' - money sent home by Tongans working away.  Coincidentally, the owner of the dive operation said much the same thing - he's away part of every year and comes back and "things are little worse" with businesses going under or changing hands, infrastructure a little worse etc.

Wandering around town the houses are fairly dilapidated, indeed some of the sheds and shacks are deplorable that people are in but they seem healthy and happy.  The cost of almost anything is silly and given the annal average income is only $2500 to $4000 (and I thing that's Tongan, which is 60% of CAN$) I don't really see how locals manage.  Granted the housing need is minimal and there's not much need for heating etc., and with a garden and someone in the family doing some fishing combined with the pigs and chickens wandering around loose everywhere, I suppose needs are met.

If you were to rely heavily on what grocery stores there are, and what little is stocked, feeding would be very costly.  The locals do shop, and there is an extensive local market with fruit and veg etc., but the prices are high.  How does it all work?  I don't know.  Apparently the problem is the cost of freight - everything is shipped in - combined with a very high import duty ranging between 100% and 200%.  The latter is a sting but I can see it given it's probably the only realistic tax target the government has.  I also suspect there's a certain amount of inefficiency / corruption involved combined with what amounts to userism by the freight handlers (both marine and air).

I've talked to yachties who needed a part flown in and a small box has cost in the order of $1000 to get here.  So, it's interesting and again makes me appreciate how well off we are at home.  I used to think that our relatively low costs for food and 'stuff' was on the backs of the third world - not so certain that's the case.  It seems to me that both classes of items are, in themselves, not expensive anywhere but get expensive by the chicanery of the local system.  If the system is reasonably well run by a reasonably straight and financially solid administration, then there is some efficiency gained and costs are controlled.  Here, there is no efficiency, and costs are silly.

Another example, this is a small town of perhaps 5000 - within 2 blocks there must be 20 small places all stocking and trying to sell the same basic tinned food stuff, fishing stuff, a few items of clothing and hardware and paper products etc.  None of them are well stocked, none do anything well.  All of them move too little product to get decent pricing from any supplier.  And if someone needs something the least bit off "basic, basic" they're SOL.  I need an oar - despite hundreds of yachts and hundreds of local boats, there is one to be had.  A short (6') oar that they want T$187.50 (about C$115).  I didn't buy it.  There is no chandlery.  The local sailboat charter company imports all there own stock from NZ because they get only what they need - the duty on excess kills them)  It's seems like a no win situation which will gradually wind down the population to the point of no return.  The place has some promise but how to make it work with the current set up, people and of course the church is beyond me.  It will stagger along for another bunch of years and go broke in several different ways.  It's sad.

Never the less, it is beautiful to visit if you don't look to hard at the people questions.  The environment is beautiful, the weather is pleasant at this time of year.  The people are friendly if a bit standoffish.

So, what's next?  I'm checking out of here tomorrow and then working south through the next island groups down to Nuku'alofa the capital of Tonga.  There I'll do my final checks, take on some groceries and wait for the weather window for NZ.  It's about a 10 day trip and there's a high probability of getting clobbered by at least one blow along the way.  I chose not to go to Fiji simply because I was trying to avoid a passage.  The time from there to NZ is the same as from Nuka'alofa though arguably the trip is a little easier because you're already further west.

Take care
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At 25/09/2011 5:30 AM (utc) our position was 18°39.83'S 173°58.88'W