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The Power of Water

October 20th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Tonga is the oldest and last remaining Polynesian monarchy. It is divided into four parts, volcanic Niuas in the north, Vava’u group, Ha’api group low coral and high volcanoes, and Tongatapu in the south with the capital Nuku’alofa. We start with the Niuas, arriving at Niuatoputapu just after the tsunami, there are three villages on this island. Two of the villages were seventy five per cent destroyed and the third almost completely destroyed by the tsunami wave. We thread our way through the reef, our anchor goes down. The destruction is obvious on shore and there is a smell, not really sure how to describe it.

We collect the authorities from the wharf to take them out to the boat, but they have no stamps, no paperwork to give us, everything was lost, they work on auto pilot, still dazed from the previous days.

The villagers had no warning, they felt the earthquake, saw the sea disappear out exposing parts of the reef they had never seen, then they saw the wave come back, like a boiling sea and they ran or took their cars up to the bush. Nine lives were lost on the island.

Most of our food stuff that we had brought from Samoa went to the Red Cross to hand out, they were organised and they were in the process of assessing the situation. We walked through what had been the village of Falehau. Fences, cars, roofs, clothes, paper, shoes everywhere, the grass was brown, killed by the sea water. Pigs and horses roamed around freely. You can see the damage, but the smell was something else. The people sat in what had been their homes, building fires to cook, collecting clothes for washing but all still dazed. We were introduced to Sia and Niko, they instantly asked us to join them for Sunday lunch, we sat with them destruction all around and ate a wonderful meal cooked in the umo, the pit oven. It was amazing after what they had been through that they could contemplate entertaining us. But that’s the Tongan way. Sunday is a day of rest, no work not even after a tsunami.

Monday now a different story, Kirsty opted to go with the Red Cross and joined them for the next few days leaving in the morning and returned in the evening tired and dirty. She went around the island to hand out rice and flour, tents, tarpaulins, candles, matches, medical aid and whatever else was needed. David helped Graham off Red Herring with generators and outboards stripping cleaning and putting back together, a great cheer went up when we heard the sound of an engine starting. Although all the boats were lost, it was important to get the outboards going again before they would be beyond repair. He built a shower and toilet out of corrugated iron and reclaimed wood. I helped with washing, well maybe not washing but rinsing and rinsing to try and get the sand and silt out. Hampered by the fact that the water went off every so often, we got the children to help and of course there was a lot of splashing and fooling around it certainly broke down the barriers between the locals and us the palangi. We earned their trust, they were opening up to us and all telling the same story – the tsunami took them completely by surprise and they were glad to be alive. The children were great, the adults sad and still in shock, but resilient, and I know they will recover but it will take time.

Niko took us in his car around the island, the main village was almost completely flattened, the new school survived, the brown grass going to within five feet of the building, but the hospital was gone.

The east side had strips of trees swept to the side, dead fish were lying half a mile from the sea. Luckily all of the plantations had escaped damage, it would have been a complete disaster if they had gone too. The Tongan navy had arrived with supplies, the French Navy also sent a ship, boxes from friends and relatives, supplies for the Red Cross to share out, it was all go at the quayside.

There seemed to be a big change in the villagers after a few days, they were burning rubbish, clearing their ground, collecting dishes and utensils and seemed to be moving forward.

Every night we were tired, dirty and glad to be going back to the boat. One night we were delighted to see the teenagers out swimming from the wharf.

However the next day at lunchtime there was a tsunami warning after the earthquake between Vanuatu and the Solomons. The reaction was fear and dread but lets get out of here up to the higher ground. Within half an hour the warning it was cancelled, but fear and dread don’t shift that easily. Folks were up in the bush and they were staying there, they had tarpaulins up, fires lit, bags of flour and rice and their pots, they could stay there as long as they wanted. Some told me they might never go back to the village to sleep. The community spirit was so good, everyone looking out for their neighbour. The children now over their initial shyness and happy to talk to me and ask me all sorts of things. I was probably the first palangi who played and talked to them, they wanted to touch me, feel my skin and touch my hair see if I was the same as them. We felt honoured that they accepted us into their communities, they thanked us repeatedly for all we had done but as we told them it was two sided and we gained a tremendous out of it too.

We were all extremely sad to leave, but the authorities had their act in gear, the navies had supplies coming in, the Red Cross distributing and plans were being prepared for the next stage of the recovery. It will however take time. It is an experience we will never forget.

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Tags: Pacific Leg

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Michael // Oct 20, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Wanderfully described, full of emotion and sentiment. It almost brought a knot to my chest and made me so proud of my friends.
    Well done again Mairy, David, … Koysty!
    The feeling of satisfaction and sense of achievement you have gained from this experience is unique and absolutely enviable!

    Keep safe.


  • 2 Martin and Sammy // Oct 20, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    A great report of a sad situation. Well done and from what we got to know of you, D and M, it is not surprising to us that you got stuck in. I would imagine that you made a big impact and lifted many hearts. As you did ours with that Chicken Jalfrezi, malt and with the yoghourt making lesson!

  • 3 Glenys // Oct 25, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    I loved the comment you made that everyone looked after their neighbour. Would that more of us did the same. Well done “Good Neighbours”
    Love to you all Glenys