It must have been fourteen metres high, its crest folding in on itself, like galloping seahorses. I was watching out of my front window, across the verandah, down the slope of the lawn, across the dirt road, above Blacksand Beach, a mile past Hideaway Island to the South Pacific Ocean.
Was it luck or fate? A Category Three cyclone was heading east toward Port Vila. The rogue wave was coming straight for us – our small community in Mele Village, a hundred expats and three hundred ni-Vanuatu.
My eyes were riveted to the slow, ominous wave, hardly discernible. But it was coming.
Vanuatu is a lovely tranquil place, but unnerving between December and February, when cyclones bear down from the North. Blacksand Beach was well named. The first time I walked barefoot onto that black sand, I stopped short, screaming in agony. For days I was in pain. The blisters puffed, then popped. The heat of the tropical sun stripped inches of skin from my soft white heel and sole.
Early on, I taught myself a mantra: always wear sandals, keep an eye on the horizon when swimming, and monitor the color of the clouds and stiffness of the breeze.
On this particular day the sand had cooled. Strong wind gusts had been blowing all night, drawing the heat from the sand, bending the tall cypresses, thrashing the oil palms, roaring through coconut palms, old nuts crashing to the salt grass.
Down at the water’s edge Jim, my neighbor and landlord, was dashing in and out of the ripples with his two larrikin kids. Aged 10 and 12, Seb and Dan were born here, the sea their constant companion. Jim, a Quaker, raised them within strict moral conduct. Solid, likeable lads, they had courage and a readiness for adventure beyond their years.
Thunder rolled, distant but closing in. For a moment I wondered about the boys’ safety, but I knew Jim was aware of the danger. While eager for his lads to experience this astounding event, he was carefully weighing the oncoming menace. He kept a watch on the black clouds, the forked lightening, grotesque stickmen hurtling kamikaze to the sea.
My bungalow stood half a kilometer from the beach’s edge. Jim turned, saw me watching from my window, and waved: an invitation.
Panic, fear, adrenaline rush, excitement darting through my sinews. I dashed across the lawn, came to a sliding halt in the black sand.
“Five minutes, it’ll be here.”
The rogue wave drew closer, a slow-moving wall, grey like the sky – an awesome ogre, the crest its cruel lips and sparkling white teeth, disdainful, mocking all in its path. Watching it, we felt in audience with a royal.
We backtracked, excited and afraid: a base fear, trembling knees, a rumbled-up panic of dry mouth, racing pulse, hot flush.
Now the giant was towering above us, about to hit.
“What d’you say?” laughed Jim.
“Okay,” I said, my heartbeat notching up a few levels. Ready nonetheless.
“Let’s go!” Jim shouted over the deafening thunder and roiling seas.
Waist deep, we dived into the snarling, fuming wall of liquid muscle. Helpless, we were sucked in by the enormous backwash, and for a few moments, as our bodies turned in slow motion, I thought of a babe in the womb.
Then we were thrashed and tossed like rag dolls, surfacing halfway up the monster, surfing along it for a while; then the ground closed in, and we were hurled unceremoniously 100 meters to the pines.
We were left sprawled on the sand, furious rivulets racing on across the road, up the gauntlet lawn, almost to the verandah railing. The lawn was a sea of bubbles, the wave’s force spent now, the backwash receding like a pleasant stream along a meadow.
The four of us got up and laughed, danced, whooping and elated. A wondrous sense of being free of all worldly attachments.
It’s the power of nature, I thought to myself – those rare moments in life when we feel the certainty of an unknown force. I looked at our puny bodies, like sand grains against the unknowable vastness of the universe: this massive warring wave, a signature of our Milky Way. The balance binding us.
Jim and I exchanged a look of triumph. That tower of tumultuous fury could have easily flattened our lives and homes, turned our houses into sticks, our bodies into bones, the land’s surface shaken to the hems of its skirts. But we had survived.
A thought came to me: We are not ships in the harbor… We loosed the main sail, flattened the headsail, heeled to starboard…and headed straight toward that beautiful, dangerous wave.
Jim made a victory sign: “To the next time.”
I stuck up my thumb. “Let’s not test fate again.”