Vaka’eitu and Matamaka: Pigs and dinghies, lost and found


Local villager fishing off the reef at Matamaka. Velic and the catamaran Cool Runnings in the distance, as well as one small fishing boat.

We left Neiafu on a Friday for a week of cruising “out island.” We first anchored off the island of Vaka’eitu for a few days, and then moved across a large lagoon to the village of Matamaka. The island of Vaka’eitu wraps around a bay that opens to the northwest, making for an anchorage that is well protected from the southeast trade winds. It was a quiet anchorage and we took advantage of the flat, calm water to swim often and clean Velic’s bottom. The bottom paint has been working very well but, even with good paint, green slime grows at the water line and there were a few tiny barnacles starting to grow below. Maintenance is continual. It’s clear that new anti-fouling bottom paint will be in order by the time we arrive in New Zealand.

The second evening at Vaka’eitu, we went to a feast for cruisers put on by the local Tongan family. There were five boats at anchor in the morning when we arrived, but several more boats had learned of the event and radioed their plans to attend as well. So by 6:00 when everyone rowed ashore, there were crews from a dozen boats, about 25 people. People were asked to bring their own seating and beverages; plates and cutlery were provided. We put a couple of boat cushions and several bottles of water in the dinghy.

Roast pig was to be the main course. Three bonfires were burning on shore but there was no sign of a fire pit or a roasting pig, and no smell of one either.  A long table had been placed under an enormous banyan tree to hold various dishes that made up the buffet. As we all stood around or sat in groups, talking and laughing, the resident family busied themselves setting up and tending the fires as the sun went down. Sometime after dark the buffet dishes appeared and were laid in a row along the length of the table. Still no sign of a pig. But a few minutes later, our host and hostess appeared down the beach carrying a pig carcass between them, which they rinsed in the salt water at the beach and then threw onto one of the bonfires to singe the whiskers off. The good-sized pig was then skewered on a large limb, and set above the fire. Dad began slowly rotating the limb and pig while Mom scrapped the singed hairs off with a machete. The fire was banked with a piece of corrugated roofing. Normally it takes many hours (sometimes all day) to roast a whole pig. Now after dark, it became clear to everyone that dinner was going to be a very late affair. But people were enjoying the socializing, so we continued on with it. We heard later that there had been some difficulty in catching the pig that was intended for the roast – it was on another island, Lape, across the bay and perhaps had seen all the boats at anchor and grown suspicious. It seems that pigs are smart; some are, anyway. Whatever the case, by the time a pig was found, the hour was late and it was already dark. Sincere apologies from our host were accepted with good humor, everyone continued socializing around the bonfires while waiting for the pig to cook. Eventually the pig was deemed done enough to eat, and the feast buffet was enjoyed by everyone.

Unfortunately, we left our camera on Velic when we rowed ashore, so have no photos of the feast. We did take photos of boats anchored near us off Vaka’eitu, including the lovely wooden 55′ Enough, carrying Geoff and Miriam and their two young sons. They left California at about the same time as Velic left Portland. We first crossed paths on Nuku Hiva.

Enough, Lapworth designed Cal 55 in strip-plank, at Vaka'eitu

Enough, a Lapworth designed Cal 55 in strip-plank, at Vaka’eitu. A family of four, with two boys, are cruising from California.

A couple of mornings later, our local family came by, mom, dad, and two young daughters in their small motor boat and asked whether we had any petrol (gasoline) that they could buy. They were heading across to the Lape. We expressed regret and told them that, as our dinghy is a row boat, we didn’t carry petrol on board. They took this in good humor and, after exchanging a few pleasantries, left us and motored slowly away, wishing us a good day. Late in the same afternoon the family returned from Lape and came by again, this time with a lovely big papaya to give to us. And to ask whether we could charge the battery in a brand-new DVD player they showed us, still in the package. We said we could, and would be happy to do so, so the DVD player was left with us for an overnight charge-up. The next morning, they came by once again to retrieve their DVD player and leave us with four freshly husked coconuts. Very nice. We have no idea how they will recharge the player when it runs low. The only power on these outlying islands comes from individual small solar installations, and this family didn’t seem to have one. Probably they’ll ask another cruising boat for a charge and trade for fruit, which seems to be the norm.

The next morning we moved across the bay that lies between the islands of Vaka’eitu and Nua Papu to pick up a mooring off the village of Matamaka. The weather forecast called for the south easterlies to begin backing through the east to the north. Because Nua Papu is on the north side of the bay and the island wraps around both west and east sides, like a croissant, it affords better protection from the forecast strong winds. This island is a little bigger than Vaka’eitu, and we could see two quays and a fair-sized village on the shore.


Village quay. There were four small fishing boats on moorings here, as well as four moorings placed for visiting yachts. Note the visible sandy beach, nicely situated for landing dinghies.

Shortly after we arrived and picked up a mooring off of Matamaka, a small inter-island freighter anchored off the reef and off-loaded numerous large green plastic cisterns. These were empty, so it was easiest to bundle them up in a raft which could then be towed ashore by one of the small fishing boats. it was quite the operation to watch.

The inter island freighter. Delivering new rain water cisterns for the village.

The inter island freighter. Delivering new rain water cisterns for the village. You can see them floating next to the freighter, being collected and organized into a raft.

New water cisterns. These were offloaded from the inter island freighter, lashed together, and towed to shore using the small fishing skiff.

New water cisterns lashed together and being towed to shore by one of the local fishing boats.

That afternoon, we went ashore and walked through the village of Matamaka. Our objective was to get a look at the village, and to find the school. We had walked past a sign at the top of the quay informing boaters using the village’s mooring buoys that the cost was $10 TOP per night, which could be paid at the school. The main thoroughfare is a footpath between houses and outbuildings, surrounded by close-cropped grass with flowering shrubs, breadfruit and mango trees.

Ruth and Asipeli Lea on the main track through the village. Note the self-contained solar powered path lighting.

Ruth and Asipeli Lea, one of two school teachers, on the main track through the village. Note the self-contained solar powered path lighting.

Heavy traffic on the main drag through town.

Heavy traffic on the main drag through town.

As we passed one of the houses a woman called out to us, stepping out of the door. It turned out that she was one of two teachers for the small, three-room school. Her name is Asipeli and she offered to walk with us and show us the village. As one of the school teachers, she was also responsible for collecting and recording the mooring fee, so we could take care of that as well.

New water cistern and self-contained solar array

New water cistern and self-contained solar array

The Free Wesleyan Church, aka Methodist

The Free Wesleyan Church, aka Methodist

A second boat, Cool Runnings, picked up a mooring here that morning and the family – parents and two kids, boy and girl – had also come ashore. We crossed paths, literally, at the end of the village. This family joined us on our tour of the village school, and we were all invited to come back in the evening to watch the village kids practice dances for a welcoming ceremony that would be held next week, in honor of the new Peace Corps volunteer.


School tour with Asipeli. She teaches the little kids, levels 1-3. A different teach has the classroom next door and teaches levels 4-5. After completing these levels, the older kids go to schools – called “colleges” – in Neiafu, where they stay with families during the week.


“Peli” showing off the Maths wall. Like the Europeans, mathematics is a plural subject.

We rowed back in around 6:40 pm to be in good time for the dance rehearsal. It was held outdoors, beneath one of the village’s solar-powered street lights in a wide spot on the road. Mats were placed for parents and the visitors to sit on. Randy and I were joined as guests by a pair of young Mormon missionaries, whom we had run into at the Aquarium restaurant in Neiafu on the day we’d left. Nice young men, and very earnest. One of them is fairly fluent in Tongan and offered a prayer, in Tongan, to open the evening’s festivities. Then the dancing began, to recorded music played on a boom box. Boys and girls danced separately. It looked like ages from 4 to 11 were represented, and the dancing was enthusiastic. There was much affectionate calling out to the kids and laughter and talk among the parents & adults. Dogs were everywhere. Good fun. After the dancing the village officer, essentially the village’s “head man,” stood and gave a lengthy speech, parts of which Asipeli translated for us: He was thanking another guest – who was an Indian businessman, and who was responsible for bringing the new water cisterns he had sold to the village (the ones offloaded from the freighter). As appreciation for their business, the Indian businessman was donating $500TOP to the village school, and he was thanked for the donation as well. At the conclusion of the head man’s speech he, too, offered a prayer.


Gathering and waiting for the music/dance teacher to show up, with the boom box.


Girls dancing. The feather hair dress for the girls is traditional.


The three school-age boys of the village.

18 19 20

After the dancing and speeches, refreshments were served (the dogs got even friendlier), and everyone started talking to friends. We gathered our things and said our goodbyes and many thanks all around. We’d really enjoyed the evening, so far. But an unpleasant surprise was ahead – as we got closer to the shoreline we could see that the tide had come in, and had come in a lot, covering all the sand on the small beach next to the quay and lapping the top edge of the concrete quay itself. Randy began to run. When he reached the head of the quay, we could see nothing of our dinghy in the darkness. The small flashlight we had with us was no help. And the wind was gusty, as well. A drifting dinghy could end up heaven-knew-where by dawn.

When we’d arrived earlier in the evening, we had pulled the dinghy well up on the sand, but had not tied it to a tree thinking we were already at the top of the tide. Obviously, as the tide rose even more, the light dinghy simply floated away, assisted by gusts of wind. Randy, too late, recalled that we were experiencing what’s called a “spring tide,” which is much higher than normal tide (it has to do with the position of moon, not with the season of spring). Without a dinghy in sight, we were stranded, in the dark, with no way to get back to Velic. The only thing to do was ask for help from the village. We took some good-humored ribbing for leaving the dinghy untied, but with Asipeli’s help, a fisherman was found who would take us back to Velic on his boat. Asipeli went with us, bringing a box of chicken to add to the ice in the large ice chest on board the fish boat. The ice chest already had several whole fish packed in it – the boat’s ice chest serves the whole village as no one has refrigeration. Ice is purchased at the fish market in Neiafu. Neither of us slept well that night, worried as we were about our dinghy, lying awake and listening to the wind, imagining it drifting miles away across the larger bay, maybe even out over the coral reef on the high tide into the open ocean.

Early the next morning, Randy stood in the cockpit with binoculars and scanned all around the shorelines of the closer islands. Suddenly, he spied our dinghy – high and dry on the beach beneath overhanging trees. Quite visible with its distinctive shape and white paint, it was only a few hundred meters down the shore from where we’d left it the night before. It hadn’t gone very far after all. Shortly after he spied it, a boy and woman also found it, launched it, and began awkwardly paddling/sculling it slowly toward Velic. Randy watched them come and greeted them with many thanks when they arrived. At the same time, Asipeli had borrowed an open roto-molded kayak owned by the fisherman and had also paddled out to Velic from the opposite direction.  Randy rowed our boy hero and his aunt back to their beach. He then returned to row Asipeli back to the village as she towed the kayak behind, in time for the start of school. All had ended well; done by 8:15. We had a second cup of coffee with great relief.


This little guy was as game as they come, but had no idea how to row. He poled/paddled and they eventually made it back to Velic, with “auntie” smiling encouragement.

All’s well that ends well: Never, ever, never leave a dinghy unsecured.

The next morning we were due to leave Matamaka  and to return to Neiafu. While on deck and preparing to go, Randy was hailed across the water by a fellow standing on the village quay: Were we heading for Neiafu? And could we take passengers? Randy: How many? Villager: Four. Randy: Okay. Now, how to get four Tongans onto Velic? Randy had experience rowing a boy and his aunt. Four adult Tongans, two of them women, would be a challenge. Fortunately Cool Runnings was up to the challenge with their large inflatable dinghy and outboard motor. The Tonga family was quickly delivered to Velic. We were privileged to give a little back to our kind village friends by providing a lift to this family of four over to Neiafu, a couple of hours’ motorsail away.


Our passengers on Velic for the day trip from Matamaka to Neiafu.

More photos of the Neiafu market and friendly Tongans:


Looking towards the farmers’ market, on a Saturday morning. Vegetables and fruit sellers are under cover in the open air side of the building. Next door, inside, you can find baskets, floor mats, tapas, and other useful and decorative hand-crafted items for sale.


These are known as “The Friendly Isles” for a reason. Note the hand woven baskets. These serve for a while, then are “recycled” and replacements made. The best in organic cradle-to-cradle packaging.


2 thoughts on “Vaka’eitu and Matamaka: Pigs and dinghies, lost and found

  1. Whew. We’re happy to read that you got your dinghy back. It’s a good thing someone on shore brought it out to you. I guess the water there is warm enough for a swim ashore.

    We enjoy your posts and great photos!

    Jerry & Joy


    • It’s hard to describe how relieved I felt just spotting the dinghy on shore, high and dry and safe under the trees. After all that time building dinghies together, and forging deep friendships along the way, the loss of this particular dinghy would have been tragic. Not to mention the logistical problems. A cruising yacht can not function without a dinghy. There are no docks regularly accessible, but for Papeete and only two marinas there. We all anchor out and dinghy ashore, every day. Invitations to ‘sundowners’ (evening cocktails) will see a gaggle of dinghies behind the host boat. Horrors if we had to decline for lack of a dinghy!
      And yes, the water is certainly warm enough to jump in every day. I jumped in today as part of my “20 minute” program to scrub the bottom a patch a day. The local kids are in the water all the time. Makes me feel right at home.


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