The eye of the storm

The darkness is all consuming as we drive down winding, narrow roads towards the border of Swaziland. The rain is crashing against the windscreen in a rhythmic beat, lulling my tired body to sleep. The thick sheet of raindrops against the backdrop of the headlights is creating a light tunnel, and my eyes struggle to stare past its dramatic display to the road beyond. I am fighting the lost sleep of the last 48 hours, willing my body to find just a little more adrenaline to stretch the last few hours until I can finally be home, safe in my bed. The last two days are incomprehensible; I’m struggling to remember the details like waking up from a vivid dream, where your only memory is the rough outline of intense emotions, but everything else is blurry. I shake my head to myself- it is too dark for anyone else to see me. The 5 passengers in the back are jig sawed into their seats between suitcases and luggage we somehow managed to squeeze in every empty crack of this mini van. They are restless as they shift their stiff limbs from the 14-hour journey. We are all happy to be alive and confused about the events that have taken place.

 

One week ago, to the day we set out for Mozambique it was Wednesday, February 8th. George and I have had a spout of bad luck the last few months, and we were happy to be leaving our little apartment, and all of the chaos behind for a few days. As we drive along the narrow, sandy roads of this tropical, vibrant country we could feel the weight being lifted with every kilometer we drove. We high-fived along the drive when we nearly missed a few chance disasters; like the tailgate of a dump truck ahead of us crashing to the ground, missing our car by a few meters. Maybe our luck was changing we joked to ourselves. The sun was shining on us, and we were looking forward to the feel of warm sand between our toes and cool taste of the local brew 2M flowing over our palate.

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George, my boss Sarah and I arrive in the tiny coastal town of Tofo late that night. This place is a tourist’s paradise, set up on a perfectly round cove, protected from the large swells of the Indian Ocean. The bay provides the perfect beach for sunbathing, swimming, fishing and other water activities. It also creates an amazingly abundant habitat for rare sea life like whale sharks, manta rays, mantas, dolphins and large sea turtles. My company, All Out Africa, sends international volunteers here to work alongside our resident marine biologist to research these creatures and to assist us with collecting data we can use to make recommendations on conservation efforts on a global scale. It’s one of my favorite programs, and I’m always willing to visit the project when I can. This month we have an agent from Spain visiting the program so she can experience our little piece of paradise and sell the program to new volunteers.

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There are 3 volunteers already in Tofo, assisting with the program and working towards their scuba diving PADI certificate– two young boys from Germany and Norway and an adventurous older woman from Holland. Although this group has only known each other for a week, they are a tight-knit family unit, and work together wonderfully as a team. With the addition of our Spanish agent, we spend the next week enjoying the pleasures of the ocean, sun and white sand beaches.

 

Working in a coastal area, with many of the activities taking place on the water, we frequently check wind reports. If the wind is more than 18 miles per hour water activities need to be rescheduled for safety. Sunday we were planning the activities when we noticed a slight increase in wind for the week. Monday was elevated to 23 mph, Tuesday 34 mph and Wednesday a spike to 70 mph. Looking at our wheather apps with the color coded warning scale escalating from yellow, orange, red and then to purple, my boss casually remarks “ I have never seen the warnings reach purple before”. We break the bad news to the volunteers that all water activities will be canceled for the week and we make plans to do beach clean ups, or social project activities with the local kindergarten instead.

 

Tuesday brings Valentines Day, George and I head out for a romantic evening walk on the beach in search of a bottle of wine and a fresh seafood dinner. The beach in Tofo is wide, stretching at least 300 M from the surf to the line of hotels and guesthouses along its coast. We are walking straight down the middle when out of nowhere we find ourselves knee deep in water. Tide has risen in a matter of seconds and we are wadding against the powerful under toe towards land. There is a nearby bar we head towards, laughing at our wet shoes and jeans as we tip toe out of the water and up the stairs to the thatch roofed veranda. We buy a drink at the bar and find a place to stand overlooking the water- I’ve never seen the water this high on the beach before. There is a group of tourist nearby who came to Tofo on a scuba holiday, talking about storm “Dineo”. “They’ve named it?” I think to myself.

 

Wednesday morning brings gusts of wind at 70 + mph. The sand whips at my calves as we head to the open-air office. The storm has been upgraded to a cyclone, with the eye headed straight for us. We gather the volunteers, write emergency numbers on the white board and Katie, our staffer in Tofo prepares us for the impending tropical storm and what to expect. We set about the office, flipping tables upside down, and piling everything that isn’t nailed down in the back of the office. George and I go to town to collect extra water and candles, whilst Katie collects all of the valuables from the office and puts them in a plastic tub to keep safe in our thatch roofed chalet.

 

By lunch the wind had picked up, taking the power with it. We try to distract ourselves by watching a few episodes on my laptop until my battery runs dry. I can’t sit in our room, the thatch is blowing in the wind and every few minutes the roof lifts and settles like a parachute. I’m listening hard, trying to hear cracks in the beams. I sit outside on our little veranda, and watch the palm trees go perfectly horizontal against the sand. Branches are zipping by and the ocean below this dune looks angry. The rain starts, seemingly falling from the bottom up, from each side and straight down all at the same time. “We need to gather the volunteers and stay together”, I tell Sarah trying to sound matter of fact.

 

All of us gathered together, we spend the last few hours of daylight on the veranda. I can’t be inside whilst the roof is displaying a terrifying trampoline act, I want to know what’s coming. I’m not the only one, as we are all perched along the walls of the veranda, reading, listening to iPods or chatting to friends on Facebook. My nerves are starting to get to me, and I’m secretly terrified of what is to come. I glance around at our little mixed group, and everyone seems to be preoccupied by a distraction of their own- no one seems worried. Maybe I’m overreacting, I think to myself.

 

As night falls we move into our chalet lounge, light a few candles and try to entertain ourselves with crazy travel stories. Maybe our story telling was an effort to make this current experience not seem crazy, or maybe it was the one thing 7 adventurous people who all ended up in Tofo during a cyclone had in common. I’m not sure, but it helped. The roof continued to bounce, but we couldn’t see it now. The candles were in a constant battle against the relentless gusts of wind blowing between the grass on the roof, making it hard to shine light at the same time. The grass began to come lose along the celling, making it difficult to look up as the debris rained down on us. We pass around a few strips of fabric I was meant to be sewing into new cushions for the office, to protect our eyes. I look at Sarah, and whisper loudly against the howling wind, “I’m hoping you have some kind of checklist in mind to let us know when we should institute plan b?” She laughs through her fear, and says, “ I was kind of hoping you did.” We nervously laugh to ourselves, with our heads draped with our new headscarfs. It’s hard to sit still. I remember I have a bottle of water in our bedroom and make a b-line for the door. My hand is barely touching the handle when it bursts open. The ceiling in our room has completely ripped open. The wind is so strong I’m still holding onto the door trying to regain my balance when I notice the support beams have fallen, and our bed has completely shifted off it’s frame. “It’s time to go.” I say to out loud to myself.

 

Earlier in the day we had requested that the owner of the lodge leave us a key for the kitchen restaurant just in case the wind continued to pick up. It didn’t really cross our minds that we would need it, and we were surely hoping not to use it, but time was now against us. George and I volunteered to go across first to make sure the roof was still intact and it was indeed still our plan b option. It had been a few hours since we were last outside and now it was completely pitch black. The door to our chalet bursts open as we step out. I am clinging to George’s hand and yet I can’t see him at all. The headlamps we are wearing highlight nothing but the sheets of rain whipping horizontally in front of us. We walk along the front of our chalet, and the neighboring veranda to the crossroad. I make out the electricity pole and see a black wire whipping violently in the wind. I scream to George at the top of my lungs, but my voice gets lost in the air- I can barely hear myself. He sees it just in time and we both jump out of the way- the wind carrying us further than anticipated. The road we are crossing has become a wind tunnel, the gusts now over 100 mph making it hard to place one foot in front of the other. We make it to the side of the building, and huge downed palm branches are thrashing themselves against the walls. George finds the door behind a few down branches, and attempts to open the door. We stand there willing ourselves to open it, and avoid being hit by a number of flying objects as we stand out in the open, being pelted by sand that now feels like a thousand shards of glass pounding against our legs, arms and necks. The door finally flies open, and I do a quick inspection of the roof, which thankfully is still intact. The walk back is harder as it’s completely against the wind. We can’t look where we are going; the sand-filled wind is too strong. It feels like we have been walking an hour to make it a few meters back to our chalet, which we nearly pass. I open the door to see 5 scared faces staring back at me in the flickering candlelight that now seems to be lighting up the room like spotlights. Adrenaline has kicked in, and from some deep crevice inside of me I take charge. “OK!” I scream over the wind, “it’s go time! Grab your passports and laptops, leave EVERYTHING ELSE, we are going to walk across. The wind is very strong so we are going to walk in a chain, linking arms with the person in front and behind you. DO NOT LET GO, and stay together!” We grab a few 5L’s of water, the extra candles and begin forming our chain. We walk slowly against the wind. There are more flashlights now and I can see fragments of corrugated iron roofs littering the ground around us. We make it to the door and it’s jammed. We all grab a wet, slippery edge and try to force it open. A tree cracks behind us and crashes at our feet, somehow missing everyone. The door finally opens and we all rush inside. We take a breath, unload our supplies and take a look around. The volunteers light a few candles, saving enough to make it through the night. A few of the windows have broken and we work stacking tables and signboards against them to avoid the rain and miscellaneous flying objects from making their way in. I begin surveying the walls and corners of the room, looking for the safest area of the restaurant in the event we loose the safety of the roof during the night. The far side behind the bar is our best bet away from the glass of the beer refrigerators and away from the gas lines of the kitchen I’m nearly positive are not turned off. I begin barking orders, “let’s round up all the glass from the bar and move it to the kitchen!” we spend the next few minutes packing cups, liquor bottles, and anything on a shelf into the next room. I drag a plastic table nearby the bar, and pray we don’t have to use it as a shield over our heads at some point during the night. I begin looking for a first aid kit, move the fire extinguishers closer to our emergency area and find an empty bucket to use for a toilet. We are prepared as we are going to get. George finds some extra table clothes and lays them down on the floor as a make shift bed, and a few of the volunteers follow suit. Sarah and I are exhausted as we sit in the restaurant chairs, staring silently at the ceiling- I will not be sleeping tonight.

 

The night lasted for what seemed to be an eternity. Every crash, sound of breaking glass, or gust of wind disturbed our secure roof, which with every passing hour grew more fragile. The corrugated iron sheets on the porch were beginning to go, lifting and crashing down in a terrifying bang every few minutes. Most of the volunteers had made themselves a bed out of table clothes and curtains and were silently pretending to sleep. I am relieved to have such an amazing group with us, and praying thanks to god that we do not have an 18-year-old girl among us. Everyone has been calm. No one has panicked. I cannot tell if we are all masking our true feelings or if I am the only one truly scared for my life? Every now and then someone gets up from their restless slumber to use our makeshift toilet in the other room. I follow each one and stand by the door. Our agent says to me, “ it’s ok, I’ll be fine. I have a flashlight.” I continue my guard and say to her, “ no, I don’t want anyone to be alone in case something happens. I don’t want anyone to be separated from the group.” She looks at me sideways as the porch roof delivers a crashing thuds right on schedule. “ What do you mean if something happens?” she asks. It occurs to me at that moment that maybe our trio- of staffers is THAT good at acting natural that the group does not yet realize the severity of our situation? I want to ask her if she is serious. Or explain that at any minute the roof may cave in, but instead I decide ignorance is indeed bliss and say, “don’t worry about it”, with a calm and collected smile.

 

My eyelids are heavy with sleep, but I am forcing them to stay open- staring at the ceiling. I don’t want to be caught in a sleepy haze if our luck were to go south. George is snoring behind the bar, and everyone else seems to be getting some sort of sleep amongst this insanity. I do my rounds with my flashlight. Checking the porch roof from out the east window, moving to the window by the road we had boarded up earlier, running the light along the corner of the ceiling and wall checking if the leaks have gotten worse. It all looks the same as 10 minutes ago. I lay my head down on the table, just for a minute, and close my eyes.

 

When I wake up the sun is shining behind the signboards stacked against the window. Its faint, but its morning and I have never in my life been so happy to see dawn. I jump up, heavy from the sleepless night, but with a renewed since of joy as I make my way over sleeping bodies to the window. The wind is still howling, but it has died down a little. As I gaze out the window, the smile dawn had brought slowly fades back to reality as the destruction glares back at me. Everything is in pieces.

 

George is finally awake, and we decide to go outside to survey our little area of Tofo. The door we entered last night is jammed shut from the outside, so we go out the back door. Climbing over debris as the rain drenches us- but we don’t feel it. As we round the corner of the restaurant porch, the noises of last night become clear. The porch is covered in other houses roof sheets, chairs, tables, and pot plants broken and snapped in half. The roof of the small reception area is completely off, windows all broken. We continue walking to the wind tunnel road and glance in the direction of our chalet. The neighboring chalets porch is completely crumbled, contrite pillars and all. There are windows hanging by hinges, every tree over 1M high has fallen, with roots exposed from the earth. The large hotel on the edge of the dune, which was my plan C, has completely lost its massive and infamous blue roof- the evidence scattered across Tofo for several kilometers. Our chalet has the least amount of damage on the outside, although the roof is sporting new skylights in every room, and there is a thick layer of grass and debris on every surface. Our bedroom being the worst hit, with a deep puddle of rain spreading across the floor and seeping on top of the soggy mattress. I walk to the lookout point between the front most chalets to see the coastline. The ocean has risen, and there is no beach left. People are beginning to wander outside of their shelters, slowly emerging like zombies, holding their heads, speechless as they take in the sight. Yesterday this was paradise, and today there is nothing left.

 

We spend the first hour of morning investigating the damage, talking to people, finding out if anyone is hurt. By some grace of god, the reports are merely structural- everyone seems to be unscathed. The beachfront looks like a snowstorm of sand hit. Walls are completely covered in a thick layer of sand, with tall drifts in front of every house. What tree branches remain is heavy with the weight of the beach hanging from its limbs. The market, which is the center of Tofo, usually bustling with people from dawn until dusk is completely empty; disrupted save for a few large fallen trees in the middle that are now the focal point. Our quest is cut short by down power lines in nearly every direction, it’s not safe to be out and the volunteers have followed us. I want to keep exploring, but I am still responsible for this group and I must get them back to our shelter safely.

 

We are walking in circles, pent up like tigers at the zoo. Pacing back and forth. We are restless and need to be doing something. The owner of the lodge appears, looking white as a ghost despite her dark completion. She had lost her house at nightfall and had spent the night at a nearby neighbor’s house. She is speechless as she surveys the damage to her lodge. We are speechless without any words of comfort to offer, except for a meager, “at least you and your family are ok.” Her staff surprisingly begins to appear. Dressed in full uniform, despite the fact most of them had lost their house in the storm, they begin picking up brooms and fallen chairs, like this is any other morning. I am grateful for the distraction of moving bodies and we are all jealous of purposeful movements. We join in, turning the restaurant back into working order, dusting the sand from the chairs, and turning the tables upright. The volunteers are struck quickly into action, assisting in the dance. George and I walk to our chalet to pack our bags, speaking to a few people along the way, looking for a route out of Tofo.

 

There is no running water, no electricity, no cell service and no shelter left to stay in. The market will be out of commission for days if not week to buy supplies. This trip to the coast has turned into an emergency evacuation, and George and I waste no time making plans to get everyone across the border into safety. We were a bit shocked to learn that there were a few disagreements to this plan. Of course the volunteers wanted to stay and help clean up- they had spent the last 2 weeks making Tofo home. Even Sarah had told herself that we were leaving tomorrow, and after the trauma of the previous evening she could not shake the thought. After a healthy debate, everyone agreed that George and I would go on a scouting mission to check on the roads to see if it was even possible to leave, if we were successful the smart thing to do would be to leave immediately. The residents of Tofo needed time to get their lives back in order, and as much as our hearts begged us to stay, I knew that our presence would be more of a burden than it would be aid. Not to mention there was no way for us to keep in touch with the volunteers if we left them, or for them to contact emergency services if they needed it. We had to go.

 

We found a way out, and begin packing our things into the 7-seater mini van. With just enough space for bodies, the luggage was squeezed into every crack and crevices of the car. Everyone had a bag on their lap, between their feet and around them where possible. It would not be a comfortable journey back to Swaziland, but we would be safe in 14 hours. It took about 10 minutes for all of us to squeeze in, like a game of jenga, careful not to disturb the towers of luggage so bodies could be packed inside too. Everyone was quiet as we drove through the outlining villages of Tofo. There was a quiet bustle of activity as people walked down the roads with wheelbarrows collecting fallen roof sheets, and fragments of clothes that were carried away in the winds. Most of the houses here are made from dried palm leaves weaved together, with thatch roofs—all of it had been flatted like a house of cards. It was a sad drive home, but hope still loomed nearby. Knowing that we could do more from home to raise donations, funds and supplies than our bodies could contribute in the chaos.

 

George an I have had a bout of bad luck recently, and our friends in Swaziland joked upon our arrival that of course WE would be stuck in the eye of a cyclone. It may be true. However at the same time, I feel unbelievably lucky to have survived. I am so proud of the volunteers and staff that went through this truly terrifying experience with me. We were calm, collected and worked together as a team. Despite the need for a long cry when I woke up for the first time in my bed, I am grateful for my life and truly feel like our luck is turning around.

If you would like to help support our fundraising efforts to rebuild Tofo, please check out this link: https://www.gofundme.com/rebuild-tofo-schools-dineo

 

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above is a before and after picture of one of our volunteer lodges, where we were staying.

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