When you see Niuafo'ou from a long distance out at sea, you can’t help but admire the fortitude and resilience of the kinds of people who would choose to live in such a remote and forbidding place. The closest clusters of islands are Uvea to the north, the Lau group to the east of Fiji, Savaii and Upolu, the islands of Samoa to the north east.
Niuafo’ou is literally a huge volcanic crater sticking out of the sea. The once molten lava at its edges has since cooled into solid rock from the last time it erupted in the middle of the last century. Geographically, the features of Niuafo'ou are very similar to the island of Savai'i in Samoa particularly in terms of the rocky, forbidding lava fields and stifling humidity. In comparison, Tongatapu is very flat with a much cooler climate. However, one of the major differences (and most exciting or terrifying attributes depending on how you want to look at it!) between Niuafo'ou and Tongatapu is accessibility in terms of disembarking to the wharf from the sea and vice versa.
Niuafo'ou is also known as the Rock, Tin Can Island, Vailahi, Malau, Ta'akimoeaka, are just a few of the more common monikers for Niuafo'ou. Certain names are used at different times but depending on the occasion such as a church related event, a national celebration or funeral.
The wharf in Nuku'alofa, Tongatapu is protected by a wide enclosure of islands along the north east with a reef. To the west is the western island of Atata. Low lying reefs fringe the sea between Atata in the west and another small island called Malinoa to the east.
The island of Tongatapu is low lying. The ancient mound known as Sia ko Veiongo was once an ancient elevation or high point used for navigation in past times. Now with telecommunications masts constructed on top of the hill, along with pine trees, high rise buildings and better navigational markers which assist vessels to enter the harbour on the shores of the capital. A low and protected harbour was possibly the main advantage that Tongatapu had over the rest of the islands in the Kingdom. Not only is the low lying island accessible at night, but it is easily protected naturally by the fringing reefs and the main landmasses that dominate the east and west entrance to Nuku'alofa and Queen Salote Wharf.
It is important for you who live overseas and those of you who have not yet visited Niuafo'ou to least take stock of the following should you ever travel to Niuafo’ou. Your exciting experience will begin with the difficulty of the sea journey (a story on its own right), followed by the precarious process of unloading yourself and your property onto Futu wharf.
It would be a gross understatement to say that it is much easier to disembark at the Nuku'alofa harbour then it is to disembark at Futu harbour in Niuafo'ou. At Nuku'alofa harbour, one gets off dry with luggage largely intact. In Niuafo'ou, the chances of getting wet are as high as the likelihood that your possessions will get wet and/or lost. Thus, the following little precaution is provided for those of you who have yet to visit Niuafo'ou by boat; take it from me, flying is so much easier! I need to stress again that the journey by boat is one thing, getting from the boat and onto the lava-black wharf is something else altogether! I pondered as to how one would disembark from a rocking naval boat onto a rubber launch that is also rocking back and forth without being thrown overboard and into the sea? Furthermore, how does one get from the swaying rubber dinghy onto narrow and lava-formed wharf without any gangway or safety netting or even any steps!
I believe that the best advice, which of course is with the luxury of hindsight, is for the unwary to take a steady one-step-at-a-time, cautious and prayerful approach which may not particularly assist the faint hearted nor the non-swimmers as you attempt to get onto the sanctuary of dry land in Niuafo'ou. However, once safely on shore, you can rest peacefully in the knowledge that you will also look forward to repeating this harrowing experience on your return voyage back to Tongatapu!
It is often taken for granted (or more like a mistaken assumption) that all the wharves in the Kingdom are easily accessible. The main Nuku'alofa wharf is perhaps the most convenient and easy to use. The rest of the Kingdoms other wharves have improved greatly over the years in terms of access. However, I would have to say that the Futu harbour “experience”, in Niuafo’ou, the most northerly and remotest island in the Kingdom is the most challenging to land on to say the least.
I have attempted to put a string of photographs together to make the sequences easier to follow and pictures are worth a thousand words, hopefully, with the view of assisting the visitor with the aforementioned challenge!
The national ensign flies at the stem of the patrol boat indicating the leeward side of the ship, and in this case, it is flying towards the port side, thus, the unloading will take place on the portside, lee ward side, the calmest side to climb down.
1. The passengers are given life jackets to wear, note the orange colour;
2. The head is placed through the tight head-hole that should fit snugly around the neck;
3. The arms are placed through the orange jacket sides with the loose white straps;
4. The tightly fitted wrap-around strap is tightly bound finished off with a frontal slip-knot near the abdominal region (possibly to alleviate the knot already in your stomach).
5. One may feel very restricted and feel a panic creeping in because of the limited vision and the jackets sudden imposition on the abdominal area, but remember to stay calm, the jacket should float and keep your head just above water if in the likely event you should find yourself in the sea;
6. The passengers are kitted out in orange life-jackets and the officer in charge musters together the awaiting passengers. They file in a line with the first passenger climbing down facing the ships side.
7. The first passenger slowly climbs down the swaying ships side, on to a rocking rubber dinghy, this is when you let your feet feel around the dinghy before you let go of the wood steps, remember, just take your time, feel the rhythm and sway together with the dingy.
The batten stairs are lowered on the leeward side and holds the descending passenger briefly. Note the seated passengers are very tightly confined and must sit together with both sides of the rubber dinghy equally balanced.
8. As you step onto the rocking dinghy, sit down immediately preferably next to the person holding on to the ropes around the dinghy
9. The crew of two with six passengers on board the dingy then slowly begin to make its way across the sea, and as your pants get wet mostly from the sea breaking against the rubber dinghy, just sit tight, for the balance of the small boat is of utmost importance. Don’t even think about standing! Any sudden uneven shifting of weight could overturn the small dinghy in at any time. This is the least of your worries because even the strong sea current will seem dead-set on flipping your small dinghy over!
The passengers are seated holding on to the side ropes with life jackets and for dear life. The first group across the open sea is the house-hold staff to prepare for the arrival of His Majesty the King and His entourage.
10. Ashore on the volcanic wharf, a person in a white shirt acts as a marker kneeling in front of the exact spot that the boat must aim for, and the picture above shows the marker kneeling, as the dinghy runs in, calculating the rising and falling tide, for the rising and lowering tide can often disrupt the order of departure. The rubber dinghy must lie broadside for the passengers to climb ashore. A young novice is seated next to the white-shirted marker, he observes intently because one day, he will hold the important office of being a white-shirted marker for the forlorn small boats seeking the solace of firm land on Niuafo’ou.
Note the cement on top of the volcanic rocks with little red rope holders.
11. This is the only spot that is suitable for passengers to step from the boat on to before being hauled ashore;
12. The foothold on the difficult wharf, which is more like the toe hold that rock climbers use on sheer cliff faces, is the only step to get ashore;
The volcanic rocks shown above are a result of an eruption that occurred last century. When the rock had cooled and solidified, a platform was cemented on top of it to make a natural wharf.
The difficulty of utilising the foot holds is shown above. As you climb up from the swaying rubber dinghy boat, the rocks above are usually wet from the sea spray making your step ashore difficult due to the surface being very slippery.
13. From the shore, the district officer barks out his instructions to us on board to look for the toe hold and use it to step ashore. People are lined on shore to haul us up onto dry land;
The entourage awaiting the arrival of the visitors includes the District Officer Siaki Tali and Semisi Ilaiu of the FWC. Siaki Tali is also unofficially the harbour master and has lived all his life on “the Rock” and does not hesitate to speak his Niuafo'ou dialect. His leadership, trustworthiness and respect is well deserved. Younger faces mingle with the older ones eager to pick up tips from the wise old seadogs. One day, they too will be entrusted with the lives of others disembarking onto the island!
14. The hand luggage is thrown ashore. Eggs are simply tossed up gently into the air and sure enough, the catchers nimbly catch them on shore. All throughout the sea and tide governs these activities.
Strong hands push out to fend off the sharp rocks from punching holes in the rubber dinghy. The tide is low and we await the rising sea current to raise the rubber dinghy higher to better align with the wharf. You will note the difference in level or height between the wharf and the dinghy, again, the sea and tide rules the fate of those who venture to land.
15. Slowly the passengers stand one by one. They time their steps on the toe hold with assistance from the outreached hands from ashore, as the rubber dingy sways upwards each passenger takes a tentative step forward and ashore as people already ashore assist.
16. Once on dry land we are greeted by calls from all around from strangers, friends and even children saying “welcome to the rock" but you are made aware that you must keep moving if you don't want to be told off for standing idle and talking. Safe landings are an understandably important event and treated as such by the locals.
Little grass huts are seen in the background and they are the resting place for visitors waiting for their luggage. Note the high tide near the top of the wharf. The difficulty is posed both at low and high tide on both small and large vessels moored alongside.
17. For the next couple of hours you are seated inside little thatched houses, awaiting your luggage as the little rubber dinghy drives back and forth
Article by Tu’ivanuavou Albert Vaea