The first we heard of a cyclone was Monday afternoon in Port Vila, Vanuatu. We sat, pouring sweat, at a terrace on the only proper street, trying to lunch on burger and beer, but ultimately deconstructing a thing on a bun that started with the kitchen sink and then added beets, onions, carrots, eggs, bacon, cucumber, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, salt, pepper, chillies, ketchup – and maybe a tiny little speck of free-range, no insecticide Vanuatu beef. In there somewhere.
Next table over a bright pink, corpulent fellow told his ni-Vanuatu lunch mate "Bluh bluh rain, bluh bluh cyclone bluh Fiji."
I leaned out from behind my mound of discarded non-burger and inquired.
"Yeah," he said, "It's southeast of here toward Fiji. We just had a look at it on the internet and it's a big mean thing. It's what's been causing all the rain."
Since we were bound for Fiji in 18 hours this was notable, although just then it was sunny, hot and about 600 per cent humid in Vila. We were just in from Espiratu Santo, another island in the Vanuatu archipelago where we'd passed endless sunny days in relentless, blistering sun.
But in the taxi home we heard the cyclone warnings in three languages on Vanuatu's only AM radio station, with a particular warning for the southeast island group centered around the cult-and-volcano island of Tanna. By now the cyclone had a name. May I introduce you to Jo.
This night we stayed in one of those swishy over-the-water bungalows at a resort called Le Lagon Park Royal, five minutes out of town on the Erakor lagoon. There was a healthy chop in the lagoon and the water lapped the pilings under is like smacking lips, but there was nothing more than the usual towering clouds at sunset, sunlit long after the ground went dark, and not much more than the usual brief dousings of rain across the deck.
We let ourselves imagine the pounding reef out at the end of Erakor Island was more fierce than it ought to have been, and maybe it was. But for three unrelenting days Espiratu Santo had been humid, roasting and still, and this luxury hut had air conditioning and even a TV (with taped, day-old ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) news pumped in every couple of hours from down at the front desk. So we barricaded ourselves tight, turned up the AC and endeavored to freeze.
Next morning we asked the desk clerk while settling the bill, what about the cyclone?
"It's gone," she smiled brightly.
"Yes, I think it has gone to Fiji."
We were bound just then for Bauerfield airport to catch an Air Vanuatu flight to Fiji, operated by the national airline of Fiji, Air Pacific, using a leased Qantas jet and its leased pilot. Whatever. And in the air the pilot showed us the cyclone, 200 miles south of our tiny, little 737.
"You can see the associated weather systems out the right side of the aircraft."
Twice he told us there was some "rain in the area" of Nadi airport, and when we came in to land it turned out he was very right. Scarcely 100 feet off the ground, already on airport land, between the fence and the tarmac of the landing strip, we were lashed by blinding rain and Captain Ian Richards floored it, pulled us up and took us around. After the full power of the jets (we were so close we must have been very nearly at stall speed) he eased back as soon as he could and tried nonchalance.
"As you could see there," he told us, "It was a bit too rainy for me to put us down, so we'll call it a missed approach and go around, and I'll try to have us on the ground in seven or eight minutes time." And that he did.
You could see on the way from the airport that it had been raining tons and buckets over northwest Viti Levu – turned out for the past three days. A slow, cautious approach through water up to the car frame brought us to a hotel where the proprietor greeted us with, "Welcome to sunny Fiji."
In the afternoon bands of rain lashed the bure. Everything, every last possible thing, was wet and had been wet and much had begun to mildew. Nothing had the slightest intention to begin to dry. Wind whipped coconut palms to a frenzy, rain hammered the roof and the frogs, the frogs gloried in it all. We sat in the twilight on our expensive, fabulous, drenched screened porch and watched a dozen of the frogs at any one moment, bounding, jumping, head up, head down, throat pulsing, hurrying this way or that, up the path or under the bush, and we saluted them and their day.