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Tongatapu, Kingdom of Tonga, South Pacific

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   Your online guide to the Ha'apai Island Group, Tonga

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Welcome to Haapai.to

The Ha'apai group is comprised of 62 islands. The islands include barrier reefs, shallow lagoons, coral shoals, and even active volcanoes, but most are small low-lying coral atolls. The size of the smallest island is less than 1 hectare, and even the largest island is less than 18 square miles. The total land mass of the Ha'apai group is less than 43 square miles, and those islands are spread over less than 4,000 square miles of ocean.

There are east-west passes between islands which somewhat separate islands in to groups. However, the Ha'apai islands are most obviously separated in to an east and west group. The eastern islands are a series of barrier islands running north-south, and the western islands are individual islands. However, the east-west passes between the barrier islands do define the 'soft' boundaries between the four groups of western islands. From north to south, the western islands are sometimes described as the northern group, Lulunga group, Nomuka group, and southern group.

Of the 62 islands in the Ha'apai group, only 17 are inhabited. On those 17 islands, there are approximately 8,000 people settled in 30 villages. As throughout Tonga, all but a few of the population are of Polynesian descent, and almost all are active members of a Christian church.

There is limited infrastructure in this island group. Only the four largest islands have electricity. The other islands are without electricity, running water, or telephones. And even the largest islands with electricity do not have television.

Income for these islanders is from agriculture and/or fishing. However, as in much of Tonga, the largest source of income is remittances from family members living abroad.

Vessels with good reception VHF will sometimes pick up the Vava'u VHF 26 NET, if you do please feel free to participate and say you are in Ha'apai. Hopefully soon our VHF Repeaters will cover Ha'apai a little better soon.

Much of the history of the Ha'apai parallels that of all of Tonga, but the Ha'apai also has a remarkable maritime history. The maritime history of the Ha'apai includes the well-known explorers Captains Tasman, Cook, and Bligh. It also includes the lesser known, but equally interesting, William Mariner. Recognition of these mariners is found throughout the Ha'apai group, especially in the administrative center of Pangai.

The village of Pangai is on the island of Lifuka - one of the barrier islands. Pangai is the administrative center of the Ha'apai group. The maritime history of the Ha'apai group can, and does, fill volumes. This single page is intended only as a chronological revisit of some well-known characters in some well-known events. Nothing more.

Captain Abel Tasman
Captain Tasman, a Dutch explorer, was the first European to sight and visit the Ha'apai islands. He visited Nomuka in 1643.

Captain James Cook
Captain Cook made three visits to Tonga in the 1770s. Two of those visits included the Ha'apai group.

Cook's first visit to Tonga was in October of 1773. He visited only the Tongatapu group, and he stayed only five days.

Cook's second visit to Tonga began and ended in the Ha'apai group. He landed on Nomuka in June, 1774. Nomuka had a fresh water spring (which has now overgrown), and Cook used that spring to replenish his ships' water supplies. It was during this visit that he first made friends with Finau - the then-chief of Vava'u and Ha'apai .However, some islanders pilfered rifles from his ships, and Cook left Tonga shortly after recovering the rifles.

Cook's third, and final, visit to Tonga was in 1777. He spent five weeks in the Ha'apai, then he spent another five weeks in Tongatapu. It was during this five week visit to Ha'apai that Cook, so charmed with the islanders, gave Tonga the nickname of 'The Friendly Islands'.

There are two bits of irony in Cook's perspective of this last visit. First, as discussed on the Vava'u page, his friend, Finau, was lying to him about the harbors and anchorages in the next-northern group - Vava'u. Second, a subsequent history written by William Mariner - who lived in the Ha'apai from 1806 to 1810 - reported that the islanders were planning to kill and eat Cook, and he sailed off just before that plan was implemented. Apparently even Captain Cook almost fell victim to the charm of these islands.

Captain William Bligh
William Bligh was the captain of the HMS Bounty. In the early morning of April 28, 1789, much of his crew mutinied in the waters between Lifuka and Tofua in the Ha'apai group. The mutiny was led by Fletcher Christian.

Bligh and eighteen others were cast off in an open boat with the ship's log, a compass, a sextant, and very limited provisions. Their provisions included 150 pounds of biscuits, 20 pounds of salted meat, and 120 liters of water.

They were able to land their open boat on nearby Tofua. However, hostile islanders killed the quartermaster, and the remaining men quickly fled to sea.

Bligh and his men drifted for 42 days over 3,500 miles to Timor, Indonesia. This remains the longest voyage ever in an open boat. The mutineers had returned to Tahiti where they took on 26 natives - seven men and nineteen women. Some mutineers were fearful of being discovered and jailed while others were not, and disagreements erupted among them. Christian and eight other mutineers sailed away leaving the rest of the mutineers in Tahiti.

The Bounty, with Fletcher Christian and eight others aboard, sailed 8,000 miles before landing on Pitcairn Island where they remained. Today, most of the population of Pitcairn Island are descendants of Christian and his eight fellow mutineers.

Meanwhile, Bligh had returned to England and was acquitted at a court martial trial. He returned to Tahiti and captured many of the original mutineers that had been deserted by Christian.

Although the mutiny on the Bounty occurred over 200 years ago, it continues to intrigue even casual readers of maritime history. Also, during the 20th century, the United States' film industry made four feature films about this event. That suggests that interest in this event goes well beyond only those with an interest in maritime history.

William Mariner
In 1806, William Mariner was a 15 year old clerk on the British privateer Port au Prince. The ship stopped off Lifuka for repairs. Chief Finau 'Ulukalala II, quite the warrior, wanted the eight canons on this ship, and he ordered 300 islanders to raid the ship for the canons - destroying it if necessary. During the raid, 26 sailors were killed and the ship was burned. However, William Mariner was spared.

Mariner was taken in by Chief Finau, and he was given the Tongan name Toki Ukamea. Mariner/Ukamea remained on Lifuka until Finau died four years later. After Finau's death, his son allowed Mariner to leave Tonga on a passing British ship.

When back in England, Mariner wrote about his experiences in his book "An Account of the Natives of the Tongan Islands". This book is still regarded as a classic tale of pre-Christian life in Tonga. In 1817, Mariner's writings were expanded upon with interviews of Mariner conducted by John Martin, and Martin published "Tonga Islands: William Mariner's Account". These books chronicle rugged violent times, and they will likely leave the reader questioning Captain Cook's name given these islands - 'the friendly isles'.

Of the guns that had been removed from the Port au Prince, four survive in to modern times. They were a gift from Tonga's Queen Salote to the British High Commission, and they remain on the lawn of their offices in Nuku'alofa.

Photo by Fins and Flukes
Photo by Fins and Flukes

Photo by Fins and Flukes
Photo by Fins and Flukes

Anchor remains, sunk 1806 off Lifuka, French boat seized at Port au Prince by the Brits, sailed to the pacific with pirate license, William Mariner was on board, anchor of this vessel and now offers historical dives at the site.

Photo by Fins and Flukes
Photo by Fins and Flukes

Photo by Fins and Flukes
Photo by Fins and Flukes

Ha'ano Island - Ha'apai
Ha'ano Island, about 8 miles north of Lifuka. Although there are a few islands further north, they are also further west than we wanted to be.

Lifuka - Ha'apai
Lifuka is the island on which Pangai, the administrative center of the Ha'apai group, is located. So all boats passing through Ha'apai need to check in and out with customs in Pangai on Lifuka. Pangai on Lifuka is in the far north of the Ha'apai group. Also on Lifuka is the Mariner's Cafe. This is a small cafe run by Craig and Magda from South Africa. It is an oasis of information for yachties. Lifuka also has a secure harbor in which visiting boats are welcome to anchor without charge.

Ha'afeva - Ha'apai
Ha'afeva was a nice surprise for us.

Nomuka Iki - Ha'apai
Nomuka Iki is a small uninhabited island just off Nomuka Island. The larger Nomuka Island is inhabited, and somewhat like Ha'afevaAlso on this near shore is the remains of an old prison and the wreck of the Takuo. The Takuo was a fishing vessel that foundered on Hakaufisi reef during a storm, and some of the men on board were lost. The hull later washed ashore on Nomuka Iki where it remains as a reminder of how treacherous these reefs can be.

Kelefesia - Ha'apai
Kelefesia is the southern most island in the Ha'apai group, and it is only 35 miles north of Nuku'alofa - the administrative center of the Tongatapu group. It is also a dramatically beautiful island. These combined characteristics make it an ideal stop between the Ha'apai and Tongatapu groups. The tiny anchorage at Kelefesia cannot handle more than three boats - assuming they are good friends - at any one time. In addition to being very small, this anchorage is also very rolly. It is not the most comfortable anchorage we have found, but it is one of the more beautiful. Kelefesia is a privately owned island. It was a gift from the king to a Tongan family a few generations back. The owners do not live on the island year-round, but they graciously welcome boaters to anchor here year-round and roam about on shore at will. The first thing one notices about Kelefesia is its dramatic prominent bluffs.