A dot of a tropical island lazes under day-long sunshine within the crystal-clear waters of the Great Barrier Reef, an oasis with perfect daily temperatures of around twenty-nine degrees Celsius (eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit) … that is, until you’re caught in lashing wind and rain from an ex-tropical cyclone!
We arrived on Heron Island to those perfect conditions and were told within hours that water supplies were low, as the island hadn’t received rain in months. Water would be available for two hours each morning and evening and fresh water in containers would be delivered to apartments daily for use any other time. Rain was coming, monsoon rains should’ve been there weeks ago, they said. That was okay, I thought. We were in a national park surrounded by Pisona forest. That’s nature.
When the water turned on that evening, we discovered that we had no hot water. And an hour or so later, the ceiling fans clicked off. We had no power either.
However, it was easy to reason that we were somewhere that needed to be self sufficient, in a national park. The mass of Black Noddy Terns with white capped heads flying across and at us from nests perched throughout striking green-leafed trees, told me that.
A walk down to reception, dodging those terns and boards scattered in the middle of the path that covered the nesting holes of Wedgetailed Shearwaters, to request fixing both problems also gave us the opportunity to book our days of snorkelling and scuba diving for the next few days.
The next morning, we snorkelled those beautiful waters off the beach. Reef sharks, and Loggerhead and Green turtles swam with fish of varying shades of purple and yellow, and dark stingrays with white underbellies lunged up out of the water to surprise us before splashing back down. Pure beauty.
Clouds swept in by lunchtime, although the temperature remained warm. Not to worry I thought, tomorrow we had a boat booked to take us snorkelling and diving the outer reefs. And it remained warm at night for a walk over coarse shell-grit along the water edge, where we discovered Green Turtles slowly making their way up from the water to nest and lay eggs about ten metres from the water edge. It would take them about an hour and a half to make that walk and nest.
The next day, the rain began yet it was light enough to allow the reef walk after lunch. I collected some reef shoes and gathered with twenty other guests eager to learn about the reef over the next one and a half hours. We set out over slippery rocks and into the warm waters of the reef. The rain soon gathered momentum however, and pelted down on us. The winds grew and I could barely walk against currents that stirred hidden beneath the water’s surface. Within half an hour, we abandoned our walk and struggled against the gales and downpour to get back to shore.
And that was how the weather stayed for the next three and a half days. Boats to snorkel and scuba dive were cancelled; stargazing was cancelled. Some island walks went ahead to finish prematurely, as was the case with our walk to the Marine Research Centre where rains lashed us and winds turned umbrellas inside out.
The next days saw this tiny island that took twenty minutes to walk its circumference, pounded by wind and rain from ex-tropical cyclone Oswald. It became a paradise overtaken by a ferocity of nature. I looked out from the lounge that we had been confined to most mornings, afternoons and nights, to where the day before, I sipped a cocktail on the water’s edge looking out to a shimmering, turquoise sea. Now, waves pounded rocks up to where I sat admiring that view and which had turned stirred as a grey, frothy milkshake on the reef edge. If I were there again, I would surely be smashed against those rocks and dragged out to sea. The power of nature and our vulnerability to it, the fine line between life and death, overwhelmed me.
Rooves leaked and caused the big screen T.V. hanging in the island lounge to be taken down and people to be moved from one room to another. Buckets sat faithfully capturing water from leaks in the lounge, bar, reception and in guest rooms. Toilets clogged and smoke alarms malfunctioned due to the humidity. Trees came down, one crashed onto a building. Palm and pineapple leaves fell and rolled with the wind to be strewn over paths and in large pools of water.
Little Quail in cream masks that extended from their eyes, across their neck and over the top of wings, walked into the lounge for shelter, and the poor 'noddies’ struggled to fly against the wind and were often pushed back to look as if they were flying backwards. Even a flock of large, black Frigatebirds hovered in the skies above the island, taking refuge until the storm passed, a long way from their Galapagos home.
Us, we trod through puddles under umbrellas that often turned inside out, between the lounge, the dining room and our room at the end of the resort, where the smell of damp bush undergrowth lingered as rotting leaf mulch. I had never been more sodden in all my life and I was sure the noddies hadn’t either. Luckily for some of them, the rain helped to dislodge the sticky flowers of the Pisona that clung to their feathers and that would normally have killed them.
I got to finish a fascinating and deeply disturbing book by Sofie Laguna called 'One foot wrong', where a child was imprisoned in a house by reclusive, religious parents and who only had Cat, Spoon, Door, Handle and Broom as friends that spoke to her. It was so beautifully written and confronting at the same time.
It was also an opportunity to reconnect with people, all one hundred or so guests thrown together as strangers marooned on this island. After three days and no electronic distractions as our connections beyond the island did not exist, we got to know faces well. It was perfect for watching people and eavesdropping on conversations as inspiration for writing too!
And of course it was an opportunity to connect with my family, to watch my boys and other children play billiards and swim outside in the pool while it rained, to play board games that included hours of time on Monopoly. The laughter, and the boredom.
At one point, I noticed much giggling coming from the table where my boys were playing scrabble. They saw me watching them and tried to hide their mirth. That spelled trouble! I looked more closely at their game of scrabble, which was ‘dirty-word’ scrabble. Boys!
The storm subsided and we eventually got off the island, albeit, one day late and very sodden, but not stirred.