Ever since I sat on an earthquake simulator at Questacon (I think) when I was 12 years old, I have had this bizarre desire to experience earth’s awesome natural power for real. Before you start to psychoanalyse this, which is clearly not going to come up good, let’s just put it down to a strange curiosity of a budding scientist. Or adventurer. Or both.
So when I was researching Solomon Islands before my arrival here in 2015, I was secretly excited to find out that Sols is at the mercy of pretty much every natural calamity known to man – cyclones, floods, tsunamis, volcanoes, climate change, falling coconuts and, of course, earthquakes.
In the two years that I have been here, I have felt four earthquakes, while missing another two as I was snorkelling or driving. Usually it’s just a slight shake that it hard to distinguish from the thumping of the maxed out sound systems in the taxis outside my office, or the vibration from overweight people stomping on timber floors, or the feeling of being lolled around in a water bed.
Yesterday morning was a little different. At 4:45am, Solomon Islands was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the Southern edge of Makira Province. It made global news – enough for some people to ask if I felt anything. Um…yes…that sort of thing is kind of hard to miss. So here is my account of what I felt.
It started with a shake that woke me up. It didn’t seem to stop or slow down, so after about 10 seconds, I thought it might be time to do something. I jumped up and stood in the door frame – something I have only felt compelled to do once before (a 6.9 magnitude quake back in July 2015).
By this time, the metal gate outside was banging, the walls were creaking, the fans and lights were swaying and I was feeling a little drunk in the legs. Then all the power went off. As I stood in the doorway in the dark, I finally got to thinking about the “stand-in-the-door-frame” theory, and quickly debunked it as I considered the wooden frame’s capacity to stop two stories’ worth of cement blocks stationed above me.
So, in my emperor’s clothes, I did my best to get out, and up to the car park as quickly as possible. I can only describe it as trying to get dressed while running naked down an aeroplane aisle during rough turbulence. I know you’ve all been there.
As I reached the street level, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one shaken by this…literally. My upstairs neighbours also joined me in the carpark, and the guard confessed that he thought his life was at an end. He’d had the outsiders view, watching the buildings all across the valley sway from side to side. The metal gate was still clanging.
By the time I ventured back to bed, 15 minutes later, warnings about tsunamis were already coming through. Fortunately, I’m perched on top of a hill, so went back to sleep, sensitive to the vibrations from every passing car.
As the morning went on, (and another, lesser, earthquake was felt around 9am) reports from Makira – the epicentre of the quake – started coming in. So far, thankfully, there are no reports of deaths. While a large tsunami did strike the weather coast of Makira, the good people knew to seek higher ground and so all were safe. There is much to be said for the stability of traditional leaf huts and the safety of traditional knowledge.
Despite this, many locals did cite this as the biggest earthquake they have felt in their lifetime. So I did some research. Today’s quake measured 7.8 on the richter scale. In 2007, there was one slightly larger near Gizo, at 8.1 magnitude. Fifty-two people died as a result of that quake and the subsequent tsunami. Prior to that, it was only 1971 that had something bigger – outside the lifetime of most of my friends.
So while I can now tick off my childhood dream of experiencing an earthquake for real, it easy for me to laugh knowing that there were no casualties. Of course, with recent examples from Nepal and Italy, we all know this, sadly, isn’t always the case. However, this event has also resulted in some form of self-reflection.
My colleagues at Genesearch always used to joke about never travelling anywhere with me, as my adventures always seemed to align with violent clashes or natural disaster. Admittedly, there was the time in Nepal, where transport/guide issues meant that we were travelling through Maoist-controlled territory in the dark, and I had to flirt with the army guard so that he would negotiate with guerrillas not to shoot us as we passed through a curfew area.
Then there was my trip to Sri Lanka in 2004, when a mix-up in bookings meant that I missed out on being on the Boxing Day day train to Galle that killed all 1,700 passengers in the great tsunami. There was the teacherous attempt to reach Tetepare – only to be saved by dolphins. And now this.
What this really says to me is that I am exactly the person you want to be around when things go South, as I seem to always escape unscathed (said with fingers crossed, wood touched, and every God, King and virgin praised).