The following is a diary entry from 2010 recollecting events that took place just three weeks after Cyclone Pat had devastated the island of Aitutaki, part of the Cook Islands, causing widespread damage to homes and buildings with wind gusts exceeding 185km/h.
Saturday, 27 February 2010
For some reason, I was already lying awake at 4am when I heard a voice call out from outside our hut.
Stumbling out of bed, I opened the door to see our host, Veia, standing there soaking wet with a worried look on her face.
“A tsunami is coming!”
“Now?” I replied, although my exact thoughts were more in the line of “Could it come back a bit later?”. From Veia’s expression it was obvious it couldn’t. She had been informed by a local authority that everyone on the island had to evacuate to the nearest safety point.
It had only been three weeks since Cyclone Pat had devastated the island of Aitutaki, and the people on the island were still recovering from the destruction the cyclone had caused. Veia’s Inano Beach Bungalows, where we were guests, had thankfully been spared from major damage.
Heeding her advice, we got dressed in a hurry and ran over to the main house where Veia and her husband Moeau lived. They were in the middle of a disagreement when we arrived – Moeau, deciding that there was nothing to worry about, had elected to stay behind. The earthquake that had caused the tsunami was all the way over in Chile, he reasoned; quite a distance from the Cook Islands.
After her pleas failed to change her husband’s mind, she gave up and decided to at least save the guests. We jumped into Veia’s 4WD, and were driven to the main hospital, located at the highest point on the island (therefore the safest place to be during a tsunami).
We saw Mareta, Moeau’s niece at the hospital – she had been asked by the Red Cross to help out with the filling in of the registry, to ensure that everyone on the island was accounted for. The whole area was an eclectic mix of locals, tourists, hospital staff and Red Cross workers, who were handing out free Weet Bix to those who wanted breakfast.
Veia took us to see Mareta’s father, who was a patient at the hospital and had been there since the cyclone. Mareta’s husband, Sam and her mother were there watching over him. Her mother had made it on the news during the time of the cyclone. She was at home when it hit and ripped the roof off her house, managing to survive by hiding under the dining table and dragging her husband there with her, all while the walls around them were being blown off by the fierce winds. They had remained there till the cyclone had passed. Her grandmother’s was just one of the amazing stories of survival we heard while we were there; it was an absolute miracle that no one had died during that time.
The entire evacuation went along smoothly. After our visit to the hospital, we returned to the 4WD, and spent some time there trying to catch up on the sleep we missed.
Several hours later, the all clear was given and the people started to head home (though many had already left earlier). We returned home to Inano Beach, where Moeau greeted us with a smile.
“See, nothing to worry about,” he said, calm as ever.
That night we went out for dinner at the Boat Shed and ran into Hans, an elderly German gentleman from Frankfurt. We had met him the day before during one of our walks (the great thing about the island is that you tend to stop and say hello to people that you pass by). Hans was the only guest at the Samade on the Beach.
Hans tells us of his plans to visit the Queen one day (I had no idea the Cook Islands had a queen). He had seen a documentary about her in Germany, and had always wanted to meet her. As we said goodbye, we wished him good luck on his quest.
Sunday, 28 February 2010
The next morning we awoke to sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window of our hut. It was a pleasant change from the continuous rain we’d had in the past few days. We decided to take a walk to the Aitutaki Resort Island, only to find out how ‘exclusive’ they really were; basically, we were told that we had to sign in and could eat there, but were discouraged from walking around the island.
The boatman (or ferryman) at the resort island explained that this is because they were currently working on the beach, but I suspect that they were just wary of outside guests using their facilities.
The funny thing is that we were there the day before and had no trouble walking around. We even had dinner there; my wife ordered an octopus dish for entree, which turned out to be one tiny tentacle placed on a bed of salad. My meal was larger, but ultimately not that memorable – as of writing, I can’t actually recall what it was. However, the mocktail, ‘Nectar of the Gods’, was fantastic.
When we returned I recalled the story to Moeau, who was disgusted. He told us that it was rubbish and that the beaches on the islands were free for all to use and enjoy. He should know; he owns one, as does Veia.
In the meantime, Veia had some coconuts ready for us. Moeau and Veia are both quite deft at opening coconuts; several hard knocks at the side with a blunt blade, and they were split wide open.
We had a long chat with Moeau about earthquakes (the one in Chile which prompted the tsunami alert) and about Aitutaki – the land he owns, the crops he grows on his property on the other side of the island, and about how he lost them during the cyclone earlier that year.
Moeau told us about a popular reality TV show that had booked out all the resorts on the island for a few months during their filming period. Inano had hosted the art department, who apparently consisted of a bunch of heavy drinkers. They started a bonfire on the beach one night, right next to the wooden huts with their thatched roofs, which made the owners more than a bit worried. Moeau was out that night, so Veia had to handle the matter by herself.
Moeau offered us some green bananas, and informed us of the earthquake near Japan. After our conversation, we took the kayaks out and made our way past the resort island to an uninhabited island nearby. Our own private island for the morning!
After returning, we headed out for lunch at the Koru Café, run by a friendly couple from New Zealand. I ordered the beer battered fish and chips, and my wife ordered the tuna burger, fries and salad, both large generous servings.
The evening was spent watching the sunset at Inano Beach. Reflecting back on the weekend, two things really stood out for me; the first was the resilience of the people of Aitutaki, and the second, despite the damage caused by the cyclone, it still remains one of the most beautiful islands in the world.