** I wrote this post back in Feb 2016 for social media after my experience in Fiji to spread awareness of the situation.**
As soon as I stepped off the plane in Fiji, and was greeted by a singing band as I strolled through security, I felt a sense of relief.
Palm trees and colour and sand and smiles. This sat well with me. And to know that I was about to run into the arms of one of my best friends as soon as I got to the hostel sat even better with me.
We devised a vague plan of island hopping here and there. Soaking up the real Fijian life of the locals and spending two weeks covered in sand and sea. And it was just as dreamy as it sounds.. kind of.
It was bliss. Like living in a postcard. Waking up each morning and the first thing we saw was the ocean. The warm breeze filled my body with ease.
We were living basic but it was everything we wanted. We spent our days talking about life, our troubles and woes.. walking along pure white sand and diving into turquoise crystal waters.. hunting down coconuts and then enjoying every inch of their deliciousness.
One night, we swam into the black waves, only this time surrounded by bioluminescent plankton (plankton that lights up like stars when it is disturbed). At first, I thought it was only my imagination, or the moonlight sparkling on the water. But this light came from below the surface. Like fairy dust falling from my fingertips. Every time I moved my hands, sparkles followed. I looked down further below the surface and saw my feet glowing as I kicked them back and forth. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. It was hilarious and mysterious and a complete phenomenon. And to be with one of my best friends at the same time – how wonderful.
In that moment, only pure joy.
I slept so well that night. I was in a dream before I even closed my eyes.
And we really were in a dream. With flowers in our hair and sand between our toes.
But things changed…
CYCLONE. Cyclone. Cyclone. Category 5 f*%king cyclone.
For anyone unsure of what a cyclone is, its a tropical hurricane. And they are rated in categories from 1-5. Five being the worst and most extreme it can possibly be on the scale. Yup. Here’s some visuals for you.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqfExHpvLRY
It was heading directly our way and there was nothing we could do about it. Myself, my friend, and 2 others were the only non-Fijians left on the island, the rest were locals. There was nowhere we could go to escape this. If we went back to the mainland we would be heading further into the storm, plus everyone would be flocking there in a mad panic. By the time we got there, the storm would be overhead and we would have nowhere to stay. It made no sense.
We made our decision. We were staying.
Fiji would be devastated and we would be here to experience that.
We spent the whole day researching cyclones and reading up on weather reports and news articles and tracking the path of this beast. Turned out the eye of the storm was on its way to say hello.
Reports were quickly updated to say that it would be the worst storm the southern hemisphere has ever seen.
It very quickly turned from ‘bad storm’ to ‘we need to build a bunker in the safest strongest building otherwise we could die’. Even typing those words seems ridiculous, how could it be that serious?
I couldn’t comprehend it. I still can’t. Me in a natural disaster? Surely not, that was only what you see on the news. It couldn’t be possible. But it was. And we slowly started to realise that. There was a moment, where my friend and I understood that it was more than a possibility that we may not come out of this.
We didn’t even say anything. We just held each other tight and cried.
What would our plan be? We didn’t know where to stay. We certainly wouldn’t be hiding out in our beachfront buré. We could go into the dorm with the boys. It looked stronger and was slightly further inland and more protected from the ocean.
We all went in there and planned out what we were going to do. We’d push the bunk beds into the one corner that looked most protected and strong. We would create a bunker with our backpacks and put the mattresses up against the windows. We stocked up on water and put essentials in a smaller bag.
We kept our trainers to one side in case we had to run.
For some reason, we decided to change location at the last minute. I don’t know why but we all felt it. The main building was extremely exposed to the elements but it looked so much stronger than the shack-like dorm. There was a storage room that we chose to shelter us.
This was it.
The Fijians were more wonderful than ever. They kept so calm as they nailed corrugated iron over the windows.
The wind was picking up now. You could feel it was close. We sent well wishes to our loved ones. (Morbid but necessary.) I told them it was no big deal, but it was a very, very big deal and I have never felt so unsure about my survival in all my life.
But they didn’t need to know that.
It quickly turned from bad to worse and it was a crazy rush to put things inside, including ourselves. The staff/guest relationship was out the window and we were in this together now. Human to human. Ourselves and the Fijians were all locked up in there together. We put the heaviest stuff we could in front of the door. Not before long water was flooding in. We did our best to block it out with sheets but it didn’t do much. It was so windy it felt like the windows were actually open.
The wind though.
That wind. I have never heard anything like it in my entire life. It was angry. It was roaring. It was as if a furious monster had been let loose and was towering above us swinging his club and stomping and kicking everything. This monsters tears, they were thundering and slamming into everything in sight.
You could feel the fear in the air. Nothing was to be said, you could simply see it in everyone’s eyes. I crawled into a dark corner with my friend. Saying nothing. We just sat for hours, holding hands.
Every now and then we tried to peek into the darkness to see if we could view what was happening. Shadowy unidentifiable objects were flying around and hitting into anything in their path. What I could see looked so crazy I couldn’t even accept it. I saw it in slow motion as if it wasn’t actually happening. On occasion, it sounded like someone was hitting the iron over the windows with a baseball bat from some sort of debris hitting our room.
I looked up and saw the ceiling pulsating. One bad gust and that was gone. My whole body tense.
I will always remember something one of our dear Fijian friends told us. “The stuff? It doesn’t matter, just yourselves. If you’re ok, nothing else matters”. So true. And coming from someone who already has so little. I would have abandoned everything I owned in those fearful moments if something had gone wrong.
We had to ignore it. The terror happening around us, whether we paid it attention or not, it would still be there. It was getting late and we were emotionally exhausted. We slipped into a sleep as water flooded through the door and the 320kmph winds raged on, jolting every time a roar of wind rushed past.
Morning came and it was eerily quiet. I stumbled out of our barricade with weary eyes and I could not believe what I saw. Absolute destruction. The room next to us.. was gone. It no longer existed. The roof at the front of our building…gone. Trees and glass and roofing and wood.. everywhere.
The roof was missing directly above the spot in the dorm where we had originally decided to stay.
There was an upside-down boat about 200 metres away from the actual ocean.
A 10,000 litre water tank was on its side.
The list goes on…
I have never been so grateful in my life to be standing in that war zone and to be breathing.
Going through something like that exposes some harsh truths to you. Whether you want to know about them or not.
About life, your worries, who loves you.
Clarity and gratitude.
From then on we were stranded on this tiny island. Just the four of us and our new Fijian family. There was no other place and with no other people I would have chosen to be stranded.
The cyclone took down all connectivity to the outside world. And there was no way for us to leave the island either due to the residual swell. We had no clue about what state the rest of Fiji was in and we had absolutely no way of being able to contact home.
We walked for an hour and a half one day to the other side of the island to see if the staff from another resort had any information or any connection to the outside world.
They had been given a letter that morning.
45 dead. Expected to rise.
My stomach dropped and my mind was spinning. My heart was in my mouth and I felt sick.
4 DAYS later. 4 days of torture not being able to speak to my family and friends. And of them not knowing my situation.
On the 24th February 2016 at 11:11am the connection came back. We sprinted to our devices and called home as soon as we could. Tears, relief, love.
I’ve never been so grateful for the people who love me. They’d been contacting people from all over the world. Random people they didn’t even know to see if they could find out information. My friends, they had contacted old travel mates of mine, island resorts, even the frickin’ embassy.
It was an experience, to say the least. Something I hope I never have to experience again and I hope no one reading this has to ever experience that in their lifetime. There was no way I would have made it through without the people I had around me. Without their positivity and laughter and light and love.
Despite this disaster, I would go back to Fiji in a heartbeat. And I still had the most amazing time there. Cyclone and all.
Yes, the land is beautiful, but it is the people which really gives it that beauty.
For reasons they know I will be forever thankful.
At that point, to think of my onwards journey after Fiji felt near impossible.
Still, onwards to Bali…