Where Tourist Never Go

Col. O.A. Gillespie

I’d always wanted to experience a hurricane and I got my wish in Fiji in February 1941 after I’d been there for four months listening at least once a week to stories about hurricanes and what they did to the place.  I was even shown where an island on the reef had disappeared in one coconut palms and all.

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Hurricane Fiji February 1941 by Col. O.A. Gillespie (1951)

Japan hadn’t then turned the Pacific into a battlefield but a brigade of New Zealanders had been sent to garrison the crown colony of Fiji.  I was a member of headquarters and we were stationed at the most perfect site to get the full benefit of any hurricane on the crest of a hill known as Barnes, some miles outside Suva but it had a perfect view of the town below and miles of coral reef girdling the coast where ocean rollers broke in smothers of foam all day long.

Barnes House which crowned that hill was a big two-story mansion built in the days of the Coppra boom but the owner had long since gone to live on a tiny island he owned in the Lau group.  When we got to Suva the house was empty and Brigadier Cunningham took it over as his office and living quarters for the senior members of his staff for it was no cottage.

We lesser mortals lived and worked in offices that had been built on the hill slopes and we slept in tents on a grassy stretch of ground which for no reason at all was called the archery lawn though it had never known the tread of an archer’s foot and was as full of crab holes as a sponge.  My memories of it are all unpleasant by day the heat in the tents made them unbearable at night they were infested by mosquitoes and a lot of floppy insects kept pattering and thudding on the canvas till dawn.

From the time I arrived in Suva and got to know some of the residents and their warnings most of the storms dissolved in those tropical downpours which I rather liked warm grey sheets of rain which almost blotted out trees and hills and houses until the landscape looked like one of those lovely drawings by Julak the French artist and designer.  Sometimes in place of the rain, the wind got a little boisterous and rustled the palm fronds like someone tearing yards of silk but it’s a pleasant sound even on ordinary days when a breeze blows in from the sea and cools the air a little you’re always conscious of the sound of rustling palm fronds.

But apparently, hurricanes are as temperamental as some of the people who live in the tropics.  Our weather expert Frank Dyer who’s still concerned with the daily weather forecasts in Wellington used to send up his balloons each day and tell us the worst.  One of those balloons was mistaken for an enemy airplane in the early and rather jittery days of the brigade’s tour of duty.  His warnings were not taken too seriously after the first few storms blew out on soft starry nights and hotter days.

Then about the middle of February, he began to plot a hurricane that kept zigzagging over a most erratic course between Tonga and the Fiji group each day whirling itself over the sea in some new direction.  On the night of the 19th ever when it was getting uncomfortably near Fiji he issued a warning that a blow of some magnitude might be expected and the usual precautions were taken by most people.

Then in the early hours of the 20th of February, it changed course and made straight for Fiji and struck the islands soon after nine o’clock coming in from the direction of the River River at Nusori.  Strike I think is the right word.  I don’t suppose any New Zealanders who were in Fiji will forget that morning or that hurricane.  It was the worst in 21 years.

The morning broke strangely heavy and overcast with a rising wind.  It looked as though a deluge of rain would begin at any moment and you felt that you could reach up and touch the clouds.  When I walked over to my tent after breakfast the wind seemed to be coming from all directions tugging and slapping the canvas in an odd sort of way.

It was also disturbing I sent my assistant down to Dyer’s office to telephone any information to me so that we could warn units of the brigade.  Fortunately, someone had the good sense to remove the tents from the lawn and store our gear in the solid house.  By half past eight, the wind had risen to what we’d call a gale.

By nine o’clock it was screaming so that we couldn’t hear ourselves speak.  I’ve seen plenty of old men nor westers in Canterbury giving displays of violence, uprooting whole plantations of trees, and tossing haystacks and straw tacks around the landscape but they were modest in their destruction compared with what that hurricane did.  And in all western comes in gusts the hurricane swept along at an even pace against which nothing could stand.

It never lit up for a moment howling and screaming and with it came a wall of rain driving through every crack and crevice so that our buildings were little better than sieves.  By ten o’clock all the telephone lines had gone down under the weight of wind and wreckage.

The tent floors were just whisked out of sight like postage stamps. I remember standing at a window with Colonel Morrison who was commanding the brigade in the absence of Cunningham and all we could do was make signs to indicate that something else had gone with the wind.

It was rather terrifying to watch giant mango trees being wrenched out of the ground and broken off like carrots.  You could hear the crashes above the roar of the wind and the rain. Sheets of corrugated iron from the crude shacks of Indian farmers in the valley below us went hurtling through the allied giant bets in crazy flight and wrapped themselves around palm trunks.

One sheet wrapped itself around the bonnet of a sheltering motor car and gave the driver the jolt of his life.  It wasn’t any use trying to go anywhere or do anything.  I tried to walk to the house where all the windows had been blown in.  But the wind beat me to my knees and the warm rain stung like hail stones.

Our new office building shook like jelly but thanks to Colonel McKillip’s engineers it held together, sheltering a group of terrified and cranking Indians who’d sought refuge there along with millions of ants that arrived with their eggs and belongings and hid them in the office desks.  They came in black threads across the floors moving in from all directions.

Through rifts in the rain, we could see the quests of tall coconut palms usually so graceful and elegant bent until they almost swept the ground like bedraggled feather dusters.  That fury of wind and water lasted until midday then suddenly it stopped and the sky changed colour, almost a colour of yellow ochre.  By that time the whole countryside as far as we could see was stripped as bare as if a plague of locusts had eaten their way through it.  There wasn’t a leaf left on any tree and lush vegetation such as banana palms and hibiscus and that sort of thing was beaten flat.

We had time only to eat a little lunch, mostly our old friend, cold bully beef when the wind rose again and blew from the opposite direction until late in the afternoon.  When nature finally calmed down I’d never seen a landscape so altered.  It looked like another country, a rather barren one.  Three ships that had escaped from German raiders off Narrow Island and taken shelter in the harbour were blown up on the reef.

Roads were blocked for days, and telephone and power lines were twisted among the broken branches of fallen trees.  It took weeks and the help of hundreds of New Zealand soldiers to clear the rubbish and repair the services.  No one could tell us the force of the wind, the actual force.  A recording machine registered 110 miles an hour but it was blown down before the hurricane reached its full force.

Indian Fire Walkers

The following August, another of my wishes was gratified.  I saw the Indian fire walkers, not Fiji, and skipping about on hot flat stands, which was one of the sites of the Christchurch exhibition of 1906 or 7, but a religious ceremony of one of the many Indian sects living in Fiji.

The colour yellow is associated with it, yellow flowers, yellow garments, and saffron water. What its religious significance implies I never discovered.  For weeks we’d been driven to distraction by the monotonous beating of drums all in one key.  It’s part of an initiation ceremony that goes on day and night for weeks and ends with a walk-through fire as a final act of purification at least as near as I could get to it, but  I imagine among those people it goes much deeper.

The site for the final ceremony was in a gully, not far below our headquarters, so that we could see what was going on.  There, among the Gravis and Lantana, they dug a pit about 25 to 30 feet long and about 20 feet wide, and there for days before the ceremony they burnt piles of huge logs.  Unfortunately, rain filled the day before the ceremony began and on the afternoon of the fire walking so many people tramped to the site to watch it that the whole place was inches deep in black clinging Fiji mud.

When I reached a pit waves of hot air drove me back there was no doubt about the heat.  It seemed to come from a furnace.  People were shielding their faces.  The noise was fearful, a pandemonium of beating drums, chanting and whaling Indians, and rattling kerosene tins. One old man shriveled and thin who seemed to be a sort of priest was sprinkling all the principal people with saffron water.  Another appeared from a shed and raked the embers flat using a long-handled rake and the increased waves of heat drove the spectators still further back from the edge of the pit.

Then a crowd of women appeared, garlanded with yellow flowers. They circled the pit going first in one direction and then the other.  I learned to this had something to do with renewed fertility.  And the din increased until it sounded like thousands of empty tins being kicked down endless flights of stairs and the whaling grew louder with it.

Suddenly from a hut at one end of the pit came the fire walkers.  They were an uncanny-looking lot.  They seemed to be in some state of ecstasy, a trance almost, no doubt produced by the weeks of noise and preparation.  Their eyes rolled.  They wore only a loin cloth and their bodies were pierced with metal skewers and knives and forks.  These were thrust through their cheeks and necks and through the fleshy parts of their arms and legs and round the waist. But they seemed unaware of the crowds, the noise and the heat, and most extraordinary of all, not one drop of blood issued from the wounds.

Those men, young and old, walked slowly through that furnace of glowing embers and back again, one even pranced about among them, shimmering in the heat.  He was greeted with ecstatic cries as he fell exhausted into the arms of his friend as he left the pit.  None of those men seemed to be affected by the heat.

They seemed to be protected by their nervous state or so, that’s what it seemed to me.  Our doctors were interested and examined some of the fire walkers afterward, but they could find no trace of any burns or blisters on their feet, nor of any blood on their wounded bodies.