At 6.46pm everything changed. A slow rumble could be heard, but it wasn’t thunder which comes from above. This thunder was surrounding us.
The ceiling and walls started to shake. Sy and I looked at one another, we knew what this was, we had felt it a few days before.
Suddenly the lights went out. As the island was plunged into darkness, screams could be heard up and down the street.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this Magnitude 7 North Lombok earthquake, the force of which caused Lombok to rise by 10 inches, would turn Gili Air into a ghost town.
This is my story of being in the Lombok earthquake, and Gili Air’s plans to be paradise again soon.
I’m not going to lie. I was petrified. Fumbling my way in the darkness, the shaking intensified and fear consumed my entire body. Picking up my dinner plate, my only thought was to get out of the building as quickly as possible, Indonesian structures are not built for earthquakes.
Sy thought it was my arms wrapped around him for safety, but it wasn’t me. It was the Indonesian waiter scared for his life.
In the darkness, I tripped over a stool that had moved, throwing my dinner over Sy's t-shirt. Thankfully all three of us made it onto the street but the earthquake was so strong, the floor was shaking.
Sy yelled out “Angie!” “ANGIE!!” he couldn’t see me. I was on the floor, the power of the earthquake meant I was unable to stand. Thankfully I had only scraped my elbow and foot, although the foot would later end up infected from lack of sanitation and perpetually dusty floors.
Laying on the floor, I thought “get off the floor, what if a horse cart comes and tramples you”.
I stood up clinging to my husband, darkness, fear, panicked screams all around us. Then the shaking stopped.
I swear they were the longest 20 or 30 seconds of my life. Despite being afraid, I remained composed, not crying, not yelling. Sy was completely calm. We both went into survival mode and falling apart right now wouldn’t get us through this.
We needed to get our torches, we needed to go back home.
People were running in all directions, the lights from mobile phones flashing everywhere.
Our friend hurried by, we asked “are you OK?” he replied “my house has just fallen down”. His girlfriend had been in there when the earthquake hit, thankfully she ran out unharmed.
Other friends had been on their balcony when the earthquake struck, they literally escaped with a second to spare as their roof collapsed. They lost everything. This wasn’t the first time we would hear this story. Gili Shark Conservation headquarters at Villa Nangka was destroyed. They run the #PlasticFreeParadise campaigns on Gili Air, and educate children about conservation. Earthquakes don’t discriminate.
Everyone was petrified. Gili Air is a flat island 2km wide, a large tsunami has the potential to wipe out the entire island. Let’s not think about that right now. With no light and no form of communication, we had to take the risk of going home for our torch, we could be in for a long night, and it was just the two of us. Our other thought was we live next to a telecommunications tower, so if there was a tsunami, we could climb it and have a chance of survival; not so good if there was another earthquake and it collapses.
It was only a 5 minute walk but in darkness, it was dangerous. We didn’t know when or if an aftershock would strike. We passed collapsed walls, buildings with all their windows smashed, shop goods all over the floor. Locals were shaking with fear, huddled together praying frantically.
Worst of all; water towers had collapsed. No water tower means no running water or sanitation.
We made it home, Sy dashed in to grab torches and mobiles. Now we had light, we saw we had also lost our water tower, but thankfully our home remained untouched, not even a crack in the walls. Where some buildings were destroyed, there were many that sustained little or no damage.
We didn’t know anyone at Oceans 5, it was just full of scared and confused tourists. Our good friend Rafi walked past yelling “there’s another one coming, get to a field”
We told any strangers that would listen “get to a field, don’t stay here, get to a field now”.
Two young men heard and started to follow, “do you mind if we stick with you”, of course you can mate. Jordan was dressed but with only one shoe, Felix just had boxer shorts, a towel and no shoes. They were staying at a hostel when the building became unstable, they only had time to grab the nearest items.
Sitting on the ground, at 8pm an aftershock measuring 5.2 went right through us. With no buildings near, we sort of felt safe.
A few locals in the field came over and told us to get to higher ground, fearing the tsunami. We followed them to someone’s garden away from walls. There were about 15 people, including the four English bule (foreigners). They kindly put down some tarpauling to sit on, some people grabbed pillows and settled in for the night.
At our homestay, our neighbour Luke cycled by telling us to go to the refugee camp by Stay Shark Villas where there were around 400 people. We grabbed pillows and sheets, Luke donated shoes and shorts to Felix and we went to the field. Within a minute I had packed a bag containing socks, earplugs, pyjamas, a sarong, cardigan and fleece blanket from the bed. Even in an earthquake I don’t travel light.
A long, scary night
As we walked into the camp we passed a “field hospital” and emergency first aid station. A man had his broken leg strapped up, and someone else was administering first aid, but I didn’t look properly. I didn’t want to see what was going on.
Using his disaster management skills, South African Ettienne Swanepoel took charge. He helped people stay calm, comfortable and safe by organising search and rescue teams. He yelled for four volunteers with torches to help out. They were trying to get a helicopter; we are not sure if they succeeded.
Back to calmness and quiet. The energy felt better and we were all more comfortable. Well, about as comfortable as you can be after an earthquake, previous fear of a tsunami, sleeping with a sheet on a hard floor with 15 strangers next to you not speaking each other’s language.
It was midnight, we were all in for a long night. The sky was clear, stars shone brightly in the unpolluted sky. Jordan and Felix lay looking at shooting stars, they said they never realised how many there were. We all knew what they wished for.
Wind blew through the trees, it reminded me of the stormy weather Gili Air had experienced recently that had stopped all the fast boats coming over from Bali for two weeks due to rough sea conditions.
There was very much a “doomsday” feeling about the night.
And the aftershocks kept happening.
As we lay on the ground, many aftershocks registering magnitude 5+ shook our bodies through the night. The man next to me would pray “Allah Akbar” at every large tremor. Indonesia has the largest number of Muslims in the world, surely Allah can hear all these people right now.
Everyone was up early, that’s if they slept at all because I know I didn’t. We walked Jordan and Felix back to their Hostel as they wouldn’t have a clue where they were. It was 6.30am and tourists walked quickly past us with their suitcases and backpacks towards the harbour. A lot of locals had left for Lombok during the night grabbing their boats at the harbour, many more were leaving now to be with their family, uncertain of what awaited them the other side. Were their loved ones still alive? Did they still have a house? The answer for the majority was no.
This is where we said goodbye to Jordan and Felix, hoping they would be OK. (Note: We have since spoken to them and they are fine)
Gili Air in the cold light of day
At Oceans 5 in the harbour, glass was everywhere, cupboards had fallen over spilling all their contents, dive tanks lay on the ground, training pool half empty.
No electricity means little or no internet, and no way of charging your mobiles.
Getting news on to or off the island was nearly impossible. Even the mosque was silent. I didn’t realise at the time, but I would never hear the call to prayer on Gili Air ever again.
We weren’t the only ones to think this way, everyone felt the same. We were all lucky to be alive, I heard later that two people had died on Gili Air. Our neighbour island Gili Trawangan wasn’t as lucky. Around 29 people lost their lives on Gili T as it’s more heavily condensed with buildings, and has a lot more tourists. In Lombok, the death toll was 436 in this earthquake alone.
This is not including the M6.4 pre-shock earthquake on 29 July at 6.47am in North Lombok which lasted 10-20 seconds. During this quake we were in bed, it was our first ever experience of an earthquake.
Around 17 people died, and thousands of aftershocks occurred of varying magnitudes over the following few days, a few of which we felt.
NB. On 17 August 2018 at 11.35pm, a M6.5 earthquake in Sumbawa, 335km away, was felt by us in Uluwatu, Bali. We were in bed asleep, the shaking of our bed woke us up. On 21 August, we were just going to sleep, and at 9.56pm, a NEW M6.9 struck the north east of Lombok shaking us.
Gili Air felt like a ghost town. Even the cats had disappeared.
Gili Air was our home, and we wanted to be there. The dive community felt the same, none of us were going to leave the island.
But at some point the clean-up would need to start. But when if hardly anyone was left?
Mass exodus as tourists flee hysterically
By now it was midday and hundreds of tourists were queuing along the beach waiting for the boat to Bangsal, Lombok. They were on the jetty which was beginning to bow under the weight.
It was a mass exodus.
Manta Dive on the east coast took all the food from their fridges, cooking everything to be shared that evening and for the following days. Various places such as Oceans 5 supplied drinking water for anyone that needed it. Food was laid out at Freedive Flow which was left over from Coffee and Thyme. They played chilled music, some guests were even sunbathing – it was perfect. In amongst the chaos, it’s important to have calm.
Gili Shark Conservation/Villa Nangka in the middle of the island cycled around to help wherever they could providing shelter, food and water, they also set up camp in the field next door dragging out mattresses and duvets from their rooms.
Camps where set up on the beach at Grand Sunset and Blue Marlin. Gili Matiki/I Am Bagus in the north also dragged out mattresses/duvets to make a camp.
Oja, the Oceans 5 boat captain selflessly made journeys all afternoon carrying scared tourists from Gili Air to Bangsal. Oceans 5 didn’t charge, they just wanted to help. It’s estimated Oja and various islanders including Sy helped more than 600 people to safety. Oja knew that his Gran had died, she was in her house which had collapsed, but he continued to take people to safety.
This is the face of a true hero.
I know there will be many more stories of islanders helping others, and I apologise for the people I will have missed.
The Gili Air community showed that in the face of adversity, they will stand strong.
When the tourists had all gone
By around 4pm, nearly all tourists had left the island, those that remained chose to do so. They knew they would be safe with the ex-pat dive community, especially as there were various camps to sleep in, plus food and water were available.
Aftershocks continued all day, nothing too serious, mainly just little wobbles. But people’s nerves were on edge. Any slight movement of a bench or trees, any overhead noise made me and others jumpy. Every time I went to the toilet, I feared an earthquake. No one wants to die on the toilet!
As we live in a field, we spoke to our next door neighbours, and decided to pull our mattresses onto the grass and sleep together. It would help us mentally to have home comforts nearby. Safety in numbers.
It had been a long day and night, we were all asleep by 7.30pm.
At midnight there was a M5.4 aftershock off the south of Gili Trawangan, 10km deep. It woke us all up with a start. Locals came screaming “get away from the walls, get away from the walls”. We weren’t near any walls, we made sure of that, but my heart was beating through my chest.
Once again I began shaking, doing all I could to hold it together. Turning to Sy ;“I’m sorry, but I can’t go on like this for much longer”. He agreed.
The cats were starting to return! Sneaky and Smokey who had been hanging around us recently, and a new tri-coloured appeared. We gave the last of the cat food and put down some water for them. It wasn’t just the humans who faced difficult times, there are hundreds of cats living here with none of their hoomans to feed or care for them.
I was trying to hold back tears but I couldn’t. Now this really was reality, we had to leave our paradise island we have called home for 16 months.
We knew there would be a boat at some point so made arrangements with our island friends to meet at Freedive Flow at the harbour, we could store our luggage ready for an early morning departure. We would stay here for the night; Ocean’s 5 had dragged out mattresses and blankets from the rooms, and people could also sleep on the sun loungers around the pool.
Sy finished packing before me so cycled his bag to the harbour.
“If there is another earthquake, run outside and stand in our field. Stay there, don’t leave. I will come back for you”. Now that’s a daily conversation I never expected; having to factor in an emergency earthquake scenario.
In the 10 minutes Sy was gone, there was another strong aftershock so I ran outside. It didn’t last long, but I was shaking … again. By this point, hundreds of aftershocks had occurred and I was a trembling mess.
Locking our door for the final time, tears flowed unashamedly down my cheeks. This was it, this was goodbye, and it came in such a brutal way.
No one was at Freedive Flow, a Blue Water Express Boat had come at 4pm taking people directly to Bali, but our passports were with our agent in Lombok, so that’s where we needed to go.
There were now only about 50 people left on the island. It was eerily quiet. It felt very post-apocalyptic.
As we lay down to sleep that night … another large aftershock. Just to remind us this wasn’t over yet, not until we were off the island. Night time was the worst, whenever the sun set, the island was pitch black, fear of another earthquake plagued my thoughts. In those three nights on Gili Air, I never truly slept.
We left our beautiful paradise island the next morning.
In the days that followed after our departure, around 300 more earthquakes were felt registering between 4-6 on the Richter scale. What we all experienced and the emotions I have shared with you, were felt by many. This hasn’t stopped the determined Gili Air community.
Despite the fear, despite people losing their business, livelihood, all their belongings, the amazing people on the beautiful island remain positive at all times.
Every business in Gili Air will have locals from Lombok, some of them will have lost their homes and families. Ever selfless, the business owners of Gili Air are helping their employees, and the refugees living in camps all over Lombok. For Gili Air to be restored to its former glory, it needs the staff from Lombok, and people from Lombok need their jobs on Gili Air.
Where I allowed the fear of more earthquakes and aftershocks to get the better of me, they fight through and carry on to rebuild the island they all love so much. Tourists will be able to return within a month, and it will be safe to do so.
As I wrote my initial notes as a way to try and process the events, all was calm like nothing had happened. Blue sky, a gentle breeze, a butterfly landed on our garden bush, the odd rooster could be heard. Then the earth rumbled just to remind me that something did really happen. It wasn’t just an awful nightmare.
The clean-up mission began the very next day. Electricity and running water were back on the island on 11 August, five days after the event and not the two months first predicted. Locals started to return to the island, and Warungs began opening. The supermarkets have re-opened, and beachside bars are open for sunset drinks again. Fast boats are running again to bring daily and emergency supplies to the island.
The cats weren’t ignored; my friends Lauryn and Margarita amongst others were cycling around the island putting down food and water for the cats. Bali Animal Welfare Association also checked on the horses and cats. Day by day, the island slowly returns to normal.
An Australian builder and electrician offered his services for free, to check buildings for safety and structural damage. This is obviously important for people to know if they have to pull down their building, or if they can just clean it up.
I feel so proud to have called Gili Air my home, and honoured to know the people who are still left rebuilding our paradise.
Statistics of 5 August earthquake Statistics from 29 July earthquake
27km north of Lombok, 10.5km deep 28km north of Lombok, 10km deep
436 confirmed deaths so far 17 dead
13,688 injured 300+ injured
387,067 refugees/displaced people 10,062 displaced people
67,875 – damaged housing 5,448 damaged homes (not all serious)
468 – schools 1,000 + aftershocks
200 - mosques and places of worship
10 - health centres
6 - bridges
3 - hospitals
How can you help?
Continue to travel: If you already have a holiday planned for Gili Air or South Lombok – still go! Although there was a lot of devastation on the Gilis’, some places are untouched. Contact your accommodation for an update. South Lombok has been unaffected and the airport is in the south.
Make a donation: There are many funds set up to help. Your money will be spent on food, water, medicines, blankets, mattresses, clothing and much more.
Gili Air Earthquake Relief
Lombok Earthquake Relief
Indonesia Aid Lombok Earthquake
Oceans 5 Lombok staff – we have already seen where their money is being spent, they provide regular updates and post photographs on their Facebook page.. Amazing work is being done by this team of people.
Gili Shark Conservation HQ at Villa Nangka, in addition to shark and turtle conservation, they run the #PlasticFreeParadise programme which is so important for Gili Air.
If you live somewhere that may experience an earthquake:
- Have emergency supplies such as food, water, first aid, torch, battery charger ready to grab.
- Make sure you know where your vital document are i.e passport, insurance papers
- Make an escape plan
Avoid the following:
- Doorways – doors may slam shut and cause injuries
- Windows, bookcases, tall furniture and light fixtures. You could be hurt by shattered glass or heavy falling objects.
- Elevators/lifts. If you are in an elevator, hit the button for every floor and get out as soon as you can.
- Fallen power lines – stay at least 10 metres away to avoid injury.
- Coastline – earthquakes may trigger ocean waves called tsunamis. If you are near a coastline, move immediately inland or to higher ground and stay there until officials declare the area safe.
- Do not enter damaged buildings.
Trauma following a natural disaster
The good news is that after a natural disaster, most people recover quite quickly.
- Back in the “normal” world, it may feel strange that people around you are carrying on with their lives. You feel like yelling “don’t you realise I’ve just been in an earthquake”??
- You may want to only be around people who have experienced the same.
- You may wish to be alone to process the mixture of emotions you are feeling.
- You may want to put it behind you and you move on. No point on dwelling on what happened, it’s done now. It’s not helping you to relive it by talking about it all the time.
- It’s natural to feel/have felt no emotions at all. Survival mode kicked in and there was too much to process.
- People often feel guilty for a huge variety of reasons, this is also natural.
- For others, you may find yourself becoming oddly emotional at different times, possibly months in the future.
- Be gentle on yourself, do whatever you enjoy to help your trauma. Yoga, music, art etc.
- Trauma physiologically changes your brain – Your diet is important in combatting this effect. Vitamin D (expose skin to sun) and Magnesium supplements, foods with high levels of magnesium in them will help (avocados, bananas, spinach, kale etc) . Avoid Trans-fats and aspartame (artificial sweetener, diet drinks, packaged foods etc) as they contain amino acid – this is crucial to avoid if you have been through trauma. The brain needs to be healed.
How was the Lombok earthquake caused?
It is thought that the Lombok earthquakes were part of a 200 year cycle, an earthquake series consisting of pre, main and aftershocks. The pre-shock was the one we felt on 29 July, the main was 5 August, and then there were hundreds of aftershocks which followed.
The Indonesian islands are located right in the middle of the Ring of Fire, a geographic term for a horseshoe-shape line that follows the rim of the Pacific Ocean, marking spots where several tectonic plates rub together. This area is prone to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, in fact Indonesia has 127/139 active volcanoes, more than any other country. The catastrophic 9.1 earthquake/tsunami in December 2004 originated in Sumatra, Indonesia.
During the 18 months we lived in Indonesia we have seen the following activity:
Mount Sinabung, Sumatra – 6 April 2018
Mount Merapi, Java – 1 June 2018
Hawaii – M6.9 earthquake – 4 May
Hawaii – Kilauea volcano 3 May
Guatemala – Fuego volcanic eruption - 3 June
Volcanic earthquakes begun 10 August 2017, in September a 12km exclusion zone was in place with around 140,000 people evacuated. Eruptions occurred 21, 25 & 27 November resulting in airport closures. Eruptions continued throughout 2018 until 28 June when there was another airport closure. Thankfully all these minor eruptions were a way of releasing pressure to (hopefully) avoid a major, more catastrophic eruption. The last eruption in Bali was 1963 killing 1,500 people.
Other countries in the Ring of Fire are Philippines, New Zealand, Japan, Russia, United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Taiwan, Papa New Guinea, Antarctica.
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