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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

How To Escape A Category-5 Cyclone #AtheistLifeHacks

So, there I was, strapped into an old 8-seater prop plane from the 50s, fleeing a category five cyclone, my stomach in my throat because the pilot kept dropping altitude suddenly. He was trying to scare the shit out of us. Abruptly, our airborne Fijian prankster would turn back at his terrified and nauseated passengers, giggle, and proceed to roll down his window. A couple of Karens in the back row clutched pearls and gasped. I laughed a little until I remembered how close I'd come to being forced to ride out the storm of the century in a palm-thatched resort in the middle of the South Pacific.

And then, of course, I was reminded by another vomit-inducing altitude drop, we had not landed safely in Nadi just yet. I was still at the mercy of Captain Cut-up.

Just 20 minutes prior, we'd been waiting to board this bird of doom, slinking into the shade of a palm with a year's worth of luggage. When we'd arrived with that luggage ten days before, the thermometer on the boat deck had read in the mid-forties Celcius. There was not a cloud in the sky, and on the day of departure (read as escape), it hadn't felt any different save for some wind. You would have never known a life-threatening storm had been imminent.

Arriving at Plantation on the ferry, 1992
Arriving at Plantation on the ferry, 1992

Our first day on Plantation Island, Fiji, was the hottest temperature I'd ever endured. I was fifteen, my brother ten, and the first thing we did was hop along atop the sand to the pool, trying desperately not to let a single, scorching grain touch our feet. The water beckoned to us as we departed the ferry we'd arrived on, promising relief from inhuman temperatures perceived as nothing short of torture by my Canadian family and me. Oh, how I longed for gloomy, grey, Vancouver sleet at that moment, but I was nearly 10,000 kilometres away. The pool would have to suffice; that beautiful, glistening, cool, deep blue drew us toward it, lulling us into the delusion that it would wash away the oppressive heat. We hit the pool deck, dropped down to our swimsuits and launched ourselves into the deep end.

Expecting cool relief, all I felt was more warmth, like being enveloped in a soup. A soup that was still on the stove. I came up for a breath of the searing air and exclaimed,

"This pool is hot!"

My brother nodded in agreement, and we quickly concluded we would have to jump in the bay. It had to be colder than the pool, right? It was the ocean. Once again, however, we were deceived by the refreshing colour of the water that filled the bay. We hit the shore and ran in, faster than our minds could catch up with the realization that the water was just as hot as the pool.

"Hot! Hot!" We shrieked, trying to slow our momentum enough so that we didn't become completely submerged. We couldn't do it. We fell into the bay with a splash. The offensively hot water won, and we quickly dragged ourselves out, dripping, collected our things and joined our parents at the check-in desk. At least there, we'd be standing on tile and not the blistering sand. We fanned ourselves and waited.

After what felt like an eternity, a bell boy led us to our little bungalow in the sand. Inside, it looked like your standard hotel room with two queen beds, a dresser, a night table, a television and one of those contraptions on which you're supposed to lay your open suitcase. The room was hot, too, the air-conditioning had been off before our arrival. My brother and I sprinted to it, turned it to the coolest setting and then ran into the bathroom where we turned on the cold water in the shower and stood there, sighing in relief and swearing to each other that we wouldn't go out into the inferno again.

It wasn't long before we'd reneged on that promise. My brother and I had spent much of the last year in various hotel rooms around the world. The opportunities for entertainment within those four walls were limited; of this, we were very sure. We spent the next two weeks outside every waking moment. It's incredible how quickly a young person's body can adjust to extreme temperatures because ours did. We didn't have another 45-degree day, but every day was in the forties, and the difference felt negligible. We were forced into adjusting. Eventually, you find yourself at the bottom of the bay on the first scuba dive of your life, swimming with sharks, and you just don't give a shit how hot the air is anymore.

Me learning to scuba dive.
Me learning to scuba dive.

The days were spent at the pool or on the beach, taking lessons: windsurfing, scuba diving, snorkelling, sailing a catamaran. We plucked puka shells from the hot grains of sand to make necklaces and watched my dad hack open coconuts with a machete he borrowed from the hotel staff. Soon, all the other hotel guests were leaving any coconuts they found on our little patio so my dad could crack them open, and we all could feast on the sweet flesh inside.

My dad with a coconut.
My dad with a coconut.

It was bliss. It was hot, sticky, unrelenting bliss.

But soon, the usual chatter—"Where are you from? How long are you here for?"—was interrupted with concern. The chipper, cheery conversations turned into murmurs of a storm. The restaurant didn't feel quite as lively as it had when we first arrived, especially over breakfast when all the guests would pore over the morning paper for news of the storm's trajectory.

Then, one morning the wind arrived. Staff came around to tell us it was safer to walk under the palms with our hands over our heads, just in case a coconut shook loose in the gusts. We rang in the new year as waves crashed on the shore where barely a ripple was all we'd seen before. The wind deceived us, made us feel thankful for its arrival as it relieved the crushing heat, licking our hot skin with its chilly breath. It was the warning, though, the omen.

The day after New Year's Day, staff let us know we would have to evacuate. We'd booked our departure for only a few days later on the same ferry on which we'd arrived. Evacuation, however, had to be immediate. Prop planes from another era came to whip guests to the mainland in groups of eight. We stood on the airstrip in the sticky, breezy heat with all the other guests, waiting our turn. We had packed in a panic, one whole year's worth of luggage, so we could get to the little sandy landing strip carved out of crabgrass like something out of a movie about drug cartels in South America. You might think I'm exaggerating, but this is a photo of the precise airstrip on which we sat in 47-degree heat under palms threatening to murder us with their falling fruit. The same airstrip from which we were whisked away to safety, far from the looming storm that would be the costliest storm to hit Fiji. Ever.

The Malolo Lailai airstrip - Plantation Island, Fiji
The Malolo Lailai airstrip

Finally, they called our names, and we left our luggage in the cargo hold. As we mounted the airstairs to board the plane, we looked back out at the tiny island, the last real stop on our way home after a year abroad. The palms bent in the wind as the propellers whirred to life. One final glimpse of Malolo Lailai, and we were gone.

Cyclone Kina would go on to kill 23 people and leave thousands of Fijians homeless. We escaped in an 8-seater prop plane from a bygone era with a prankster pilot, and we've been grateful for it ever since.

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