Our Island Earthquake Experience [Gili Air - Lombok 2018]
We've experienced ups and downs during our travels but that's how it goes and we know that. Sometimes however, something happens that will still affect you weeks or maybe months later. It's weeks after the earthquake but we still jump when we hear a loud noise or when someone moves the couch or bed...
Here's the story of us going through one of the scariest experiences of our lives...
Nothing can prepare you for an earthquake
On August 5th of 2018, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook the ground heavily on Lombok killing 350 people. The epicenter was below Mount Rinjani and we were on the small (and really flat) island of Gili Air, only 20 miles away from the volcano.
It was our 5th night on the island and we were settling into our second accommodation; a cheaper room closer to the other side of the island where we would stay two more days.
At 7:00 pm, it was already dark but we hadn’t unpacked our stuff and were still fully dressed. I went to the bathroom and... surprise! A big, juicy cockroach was hiding in some pebbles on the floor of the shower. I didn’t waste any time calling Joris so he could get rid of the ‘problem’. I suggested getting bug spray from the guesthouse staff but Joris insisted on catching it with some paper which I thought wouldn’t work...
And there we were, arguing about how to kill a bug, when it happened.
Nothing can prepare you for an earthquake like that. The ground started moving under our feet and within a second it turned into a violent shake. The lights went out and we took a step aside under the door frame. We held onto each other with one arm and onto the wall with the other. The loud rumble lasted around 15 seconds.
What can I say... we were definitely shaken, as was the whole island of Gili Air and Lombok.
The escape to 'higher' ground
As soon as it stopped, I grabbed my bag and Joris’ camera bag and we went out to the middle of the yard. Other guests were also there including a couple that had just arrived on the island. She was in panic, frantically screaming at her boyfriend in Spanish: “I told you we shouldn’t have come here! I want to leave right now!” Meanwhile the ground kept shaking in short intervals.
Only one week before there already had been a 6.4 earthquake in Lombok, this one was magnitude 7.0. At that point, everyone was thinking the same thing: a possible tsunami. And Gili Air being flat wasn’t really helping the panicky situation.
We followed a large group of people that was passing by our guesthouse. They were headed to the fields in the middle of the island; the ‘highest’ point. There was so much going through our minds and at the same time we were trying to stay focused and alert. With the light of our phones on we arrived at the field and found a clear spot away from the coconut trees as these became a real threat.
A night out in the open
In a normal situation, being out in the field at night means being exposed to bugs. Sitting on the grass means getting itchy and being surrounded by more than a hundred strangers means having no privacy. At that time, it meant being safe from falling bricks, roof tiles and coconuts, having a place to think, rest and feel the comfort of not being alone.
Everyone was trying not to think about a tsunami but it wasn't working. A young guy was offering everyone water from a small bottle making introductions with a nervous smile. A family of 5 or 6 was trying to get their kids up in one of the few climbable trees around. A large group of locals was praying loudly and frantically after every aftershock which just added to the general panic. Some dude turned off his loud ‘chill’ music after I told him it wasn’t helping the situation at all. And of course, there was the Czech couple we helped to get in touch with their daughter as soon as we had mobile connection. The signal was weak and disappeared later that night.
We were able to leave messages to our parents and luckily an hour or two after the earthquake, a woman who kept her calm saw the official government announcement that the tsunami alert got lifted and that was a big sigh of relief.
Hours passed by before we realized what we had left behind. The laptop and the external hard drive were still in the room and the door wasn’t locked. It probably was not the time to worry about these things but they are extremely important for Joris’ photography work and we just don’t trust people in this kind of disaster situation. We hadn’t felt a tremble in a while, so we decided to make our move and then come back to spend the night in the field. Others left as well, looking for water and their belongings.
At the guesthouse, the room where we were staying in didn’t have any major damage. Two other rooms close to ours weren’t that lucky. Our first thought was to only grab the electronics but we hadn’t really unpacked and there were only a few things lying around. “Quickly! Grab everything, stuff it in our bags, take the pillows and the blanket and let’s get out of here!” Carefully of course, we did’t want to trip or get a coconut on the head... but not before I made an urgent visit to the toilet where I let out half of my fears... yikes...
What a strange night. Even in our state of relative calmness, our brains didn’t stop thinking, speculating, constantly checking the internet for news; luckily we had a power bank to charge our phones. The air got cold and even with the occasional tremors throughout the night, we managed to get some sleep. The stars were beautiful.
The aftermath of the earthquake on Gili Air and Lombok
We woke up with the sound of bonfires. It was still early and the air was cold. It was time to make more decisions. Two days ago we had booked an all inclusive ticket to take us back to Bali on the 7th but today was the 6th. We knew everyone would try to get off the island at the same time and we weren’t thrilled to participate in mass chaos. So what should we do?
It’s easy to get caught up in fear and it’s also understandable... but we had bought a ticket for the next day and realistically, the chances of another huge earthquake happening only a day later were slim. We decided to stay.
The nice Czech couple we met the night before invited us for coffee in their fancy bungalow which they had been so excited about spending their vacations in. They weren't there when the earthquake struck but being one of the more expensive places to stay on Gili Air, we all thought the place would be okay. First though, we wanted to take a look at our own room and see the damage.
Our guesthouse had a few different structures and a small center yard where some people had spent the night. Three adjacent cemented rooms (last one was ours) where hardly damaged, only a few cracks and dust from the ceilings. Two separate cemented bungalows were damaged the most. The ceiling had come down and a bunch of the roof tiles had fallen down. There was a two story building with a kitchen below that looked undamaged. Three separate new looking small bungalows made almost entirely of bamboo also looked okay so we decided it was safe to spend the night in one of them.
There was hardly anyone left on the island. Later we learned that most of the locals (who probably lived in Lombok or had family there) were the first ones to flee using their own boats. Most of the tourists spent the whole day waiting to be evacuated in huge masses; screaming, being pushed and pulled on the boats in fear and panic.
We on the other hand, borrowed 2 bicycles that normally would’ve costed 100,000 rupiahs a day and used them to explore the island to see the general damage from the earthquake and its aftershocks.
A lot of the local houses were destroyed but most of the fallen structures were outer walls enclosing some properties, including the walls around the bungalows from the Czech couple we met that night. They must have been devastated to see their dream vacation destroyed and we think they panicked and left with the crowds. Their daughter later left us a message saying they arrived home safely.
Furthermore, there was no electricity or water anymore on the island.
The calm after the storm
Going around with the bicycles, we found out more people were staying behind trying to avoid the chaos at the harbor (The only place where we had mobile connection, by the way). So the only thing left to do was to try to enjoy the beach and well, find some food for the day.
Because almost all the locals had left Gili Air, there weren’t any restaurants open and no one was watching over the resorts and guesthouses. We found one little store that was open where we bought some instant noodles and some snacks. Luckily, the guesthouse where we were staying had a kitchen with plenty of water, sodas and beer. We also found bread and spreads in the refrigerator that was still cool and a little gas stove to heat water. The staff and all the other guests had left and it felt post apocalyptic and surreal.
The day went by slowly. We biked around, walked along the beach, had a dip in the sea, took some pictures and made a mini bonfire, just for fun. It felt like being stranded on a deserted island and it was probably the first time that we were glad to see a few people around here and there. Most of them were exploring the abandoned resorts and hotels looking for food and water or a safe place to sleep... anyone could just pick any room on the island.
That night, we woke up wit the rumble of another earthquake, a 5.4 and once more originating from Lombok. Later during the night there were more aftershocks. We were more than ready to leave Gili Air the next day...
Leaving Gili Air For Bali
We were ready at 7:30am and packed water, snacks and sandwiches for the long way back to Bali. First, a 15 minute ride with a small boat to Lombok. Then, a minivan for 1 1/2 hours to Lembar harbor and after that a 4 hour slow boat to Bali. Finally, another taxi to our accommodation.
To make this part of the story short and painful, I’ll start by saying that our 500,000 rupiahs ticket was refused by all the locals arranging transport....
Now, we understand that because the company we payed strategically decided to disappear with everyone's money, there was no one left to pay the required fees for the transport. BUT, what we can’t stand, is that every single one of the locals was taking advantage of the stranded tourists that day.
Everyone was forced to pay double, triple or more for every step of the journey back. And we complained every single time, especially me. I even called them liars and thieves hoping it would at least give them a bad conscience...
Anyway, we were all nervous and wanted to leave so most of the other tourist didn’t hesitate to pay extra which I think it’s a shame. I believe in righteousness and would have loved to see everyone stand up for themselves and stick together.
When you travel, there’s always room for adventures and misadventures and this time we just weren’t lucky. Although, I suppose I should say, we were lucky to go through this experience without getting hurt and are still able to continue our journey enjoying life together.