Mar. 4, 2015
Hi, Dallas here with my first post for this trip! It’s Wednesday today and it’s our third day in Neiafu, Vava’u. The weather continues to be gorgeous. It’s hot and sunny and pretty humid this time of year, so Jamie is really testing her limits again! We’ve been staying out of the sun since she burned her face on Tongatapu, so I think we’ll be ok for our boat tour around the islands tomorrow. We’ll both be putting on lots of sunscreen and fortunately it’s a covered boat.
Our flight from Tongatapu to Vava’u was awesome because not only was it a clear and sunny day, but we also got to fly on a small 18 passenger plane that flew relatively low. It was a beautiful, magical experience to see all those islands, many of them uninhabited with their perfect looking beaches and surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean in every direction!
As we were flying over the Ha’apai group of islands I was easily able to identify them because it was about the half way point in the journey and you could see the village of Pangai and the several roads along the islands. What was also amazing was looking to the West and seeing the two volcanoes, Tofua and Kao, way off in the distance just sticking out of the middle of the ocean. I’m also really excited for our flights from Vava’u to Ha’apai and then back to Tongatapu
Upon our landing into Vava’u it was obvious why people had told us that it was “the place to see” in Tonga. It’s much more scenic than the main island of Tongatapu, which is a very flat, sort of crescent shaped land mass. Vava’u is group of many tiny to medium sized islands with many bays, lagoons, beaches, hills, cliffs and caves. The varying elevations here mean that you can actually get up to a few high spots and really see the natural beauty. I hiked up to Mt. Talau yesterday and got a fantastic view of Neiafu town and Port of Refuge harbor.
The big news of the past while is that we finally got to meet with the governor of Vava’u, Mr. Fulivai. As some people know Jamie and I purchased three parcels of land here in Vava’u three years ago. The property is part of a self-sustainable community project on Hunga Island, which was envisioned by the governor’s father in the late 90’s. His father passed away in 2002 and now as governor, Mr. Fulivai wants to make his father’s vision a reality.
It’s funny because three years ago I don’t think we’d ever heard of The Kingdom of Tonga and to be honest I don’t even remember exactly how I came across this project, except that somehow I found it while I was surfing the Internet one day at work. We were both intrigued by the sound of it and the beautiful pictures we saw. The price was also by most people’s standards, very cheap!
Being that I’m not (that much) of a sucker and Jamie works in real estate law, we decided to be optimistically skeptical. We engaged a lawyer from New Zealand, who had written specifically on Tonga real estate mishaps. It turns out that under Tongan law there is no possibility for freehold title to foreigners. However, with recent amendments to existing laws, there is now a legal way for foreigners to have a 99 year renewable lease. The structure is modeled after the legally established “condominium” concept popular in most parts of the world where one owns their “condo” or “detached home” as is the case in Cocomo, but do not own the land individually. Our shares are transferable so we can sell if we want or we can even buy more property from another shareholder. There is also a yearly condo fee, which is essentially like a property tax. In the end the lawyer fees paid off with good news and we went ahead a purchased three lots!
Ever since then I’ve been a bit hesitant to talk about it too much. Even with the positive legal advice I still felt a little uncertain of how things would turn out since we had never seen the property or even been to the country! I guess I wanted to save myself too much embarrassment in the case that we arrived in Tonga and found out the whole thing had fallen apart or never properly existed in the first place.
So we’re excited and relieved today that we finally met the governor and he was an exceptionally friendly, well-spoken and determined sounding man. To our surprise he was also a lot younger than we expected. I believe he’s only 37 if I heard him correctly. He basically explained his vision to us about this being an eco-friendly, self-sustainable community project and sort of a model for others to follow. He also explained that for him it wasn’t about the money and hence the low purchase price of the lots. He also wants to boost tourism and the economy in general. The hope is that by attracting some expats and foreign investment to this project it will give jobs to the locals and also bring in new money and talent. In a few days we’ll actually be heading over to Hunga Island to see our piece of paradise! On top of that, after three years of little development, there is now another young couple who are in the process of building the first home in the Cocomo community. So not only will we get to see our chunk of bush, but we’ll be able to see somebody else making the first move.
Mar. 10, 2015
Yesterday, Monday was our last day in Vava’u and our last chance to make it out to Hunga. Unfortunately Jamie was still not feeling well since acquiring a nasty fever two days prior. With the symptoms she had we were suspecting it could be Dengue fever, but we’re still not exactly sure. She decided that it was best not to risk walking around in the heat all day, so she stayed behind at our guesthouse and rested. I went ahead and after a bit of a boat transportation issue I finally left Neiafu at 11:20 a.m.
Since it was a slower boat leaving from the old harbor the trip took about two whole hours, whereas it was supposed to take 25 minutes or less by speedboat! Oh well, the trip was scenic and I took lots of pictures and video.
We drove around the North and West sides of Hunga island so I was able to get the spectacular views of the high cliffs. Many, if not most of the plots are on the cliff side and I kept my eye on the map to try and pinpoint where our three parcels are located. I don’t think it would make much difference because the cliff is of fairly uniform height all the way to the end of the planned development.
As I had hoped I was thoroughly stunned! As we came towards the far West portion of the island there was a break in the rocks and I could see through into Hunga lagoon. Slightly further we made our way towards the second, larger opening and then passed through into the beautiful sheltered lagoon. It’s amazing how the huge ocean swells get reduced to ripples as you pass between the rocks. Inside the lagoon the water was almost dead calm and an absolutely ideal place to moor a boat. We pulled up to the pier where I met Betsy and Phillipe, who are currently there building their earth bag home, which is the first construction in the Cocomo Village project.
Because I’d gotten away late and had a much slower trip than expected, Phillipe, Saleni (his Tongan friend) and I decided to walk quickly to try and locate our three plots. After about 30 minutes of walking we were close, but first they took me to another owner’s property to see an example of how it would look after the trees were cleared. I’m glad we took a look because it allowed me to walk right up the cliff edge and get the full panoramic view out over the vast ocean to the Northwest. It’s really unbelievable when you stare out and realize that there’s nothing but thousands of miles of ocean in that direction and that you’re standing on a tiny spec of land in the middle of South Pacific!
We didn’t spend too much time there before we kept moving Southwest down the road towards our lots. Maybe ten minutes later and we’d found them. I stretched out my long 50 meter measuring tape to try to get a sense of how much property we have to utilize. The frontage is 68 meters (223 ft) and the area is 1800 sq. meters (.44 acres). It’s actually a bit larger than that though because the lot dimensions are excluding an additional buffer zone of 15 meters, which means that from the cliff edge you cannot build any permanent structures within 15 meters. All inclusive then the parcels are basically 20 meters wide and 45 meters deep. To recalculate that means that the total area for the three lots is 2700 sq. meters (.66 acres). Either way the lots are a nice size and I can now visualize that even with three houses there would still be plenty of space and privacy between each one.
I was extremely happy with what I saw. The island is spectacularly beautiful, but a lot of effort will be required to build there, especially for those of us breaking ground first. Additionally, the fact that it’s in Tonga makes it even more difficult. Mostly because it’s pretty far of the beaten path. However, that’s also where the opportunity lies I believe. It was great meeting two younger people, close to my own age, who were really taking some risks and completely pioneering this thing. To top it off, they have a nine month old daughter to take care of while they’re out camping in the middle of the bush on this island and trying to build a house! What they’re doing definitely takes a ton of courage. After the whole experience I can see many potential opportunities and I’m really excited to go home and start planning something with our lots. Who knows, but I might be back a lot sooner than I’d imagined to start getting my hands dirty. We have a lot of thinking to do over the next few months that’s for sure.