Lindeman Island, Whitsundays 2011: Surviving Two Cyclones, An Evacuation And An Unexpected Return

Right now is the first time in more than a week I’ve been able just to stop, relax and think about what has been happening. Granted, on one of the days in the past week I was being saved not from cyclones but from baddies and mock-collapsing subways by Superman and Batman at the Movie World theme park on the Gold Coast, but even so. Sitting here, back at the Club Med Lindeman Island reception, with a couple of the islands of the Whitsundays as the backdrop, blue skies and gentle winds, this is the first time.

Last Saturday, as an inter-island touch rugby tournament was being played on our top field, we had confirmation that Cyclone Anthony was heading for us and that we may be going into lockdown. Things were still sufficiently relaxed that the tournament was completed, the disco opened that night with DJ Roxborogh and the punters got merry enough to offer their best advice: “When are you going to play some good music?” and “I used to DJ a bit Newcastle, can I have a go?” and “You need to play some more Acca Dacca!”

As the sound engineer and DJ for the only Club Med in Australia, I have discovered that the sorts of people who request AC/DC songs at nightclubs are also the sorts of people who exclusively call AC/DC “Acca Dacca.” Indeed, no-one in three months of being here has actually ever asked for “A-C-D-C.”

Word came through it would be an early start just a few hours after I’d played the final strains of the almighty Acca Dacca anthem You Shook Me All Night Long to a semi-packed dancefloor. So after a couple of hours sleep, I ventured downstairs to help all the other available staff who had formed a sandwich-making, tinned-food packing, lunch-box-filling production line. This is team-building at its best. We made enough boxes for all guests and staff to have dinner, breakfast, lunch and dinner again in their rooms if Anthony was so strong that the lockdown stayed in force. We also packed away all the sets, wrapped all the sound and lighting equipment in rubbish sacks and moved all the deckchairs, tables, boats and kayaks inside.

By 6pm that night, the lockdown began as high winds and sideways, torrential rain lashed the village. Waking up the next morning and with the lockdown over, the question everybody asked was, “Is that it?” Other than some debri, Cyclone Anthony had spared us and the unpacking began. But to answer our question, that was not “it.” The next day, Monday, our manager Hendel Duplessy who had been informing us every step of the way about another, much stronger cyclone named Yasi, told us something I truly didn’t expect. In the first time in the more than 100 years of a resort being on Lindeman Island, every last person, both guests and staff, were to be evacuated. All guests were booked onto to new flights from nearby Hamilton Island (a logistical nightmare considering all resorts in the Whitsundays were also evacuating) and all staff were to be ferried off the island on Tuesday morning and then bused from Airlie Beach to the Sunshine Coast, 16 hours away.

Knowing you have one night not just to pack up the resort but your own belongings, knowing that a category 5 cyclone is heading your way, knowing that a category 3 caused the resort to be shut for 11 days in March last year, knowing you might not be coming back, knowing you might not see these people again, knowing their could be loss of life for those people in Queensland unable to evacuate….. It all sounds like a lot of knowing but as Hendel pointed out, really we didn’t know.

There was no point playing God and the priority was the safety of all guests and staff and there was no use speculating the what ifs. With Yasi due to reach mainland Australia late on Wednesday night, management had made the call to get us off the island and with a day to spare. And when we heard of panic driving and accidents on Wednesday day, we were very thankful not only for the foresight, but the right positioning of priorities.

Thinking we were going to be staying in a backpackers or motel, Hendel surprised us by putting us up in the very swish Twin Waters resort on the Sunshine Coast. This was a treat to a team who had been through a lot and had banded together when we had to.

But human nature is a funny thing and pretty soon people were comparing who had the biggest balconies, the best views and the coolest flatmates rather than thinking how lucky they were to be there. Indeed, some resorts left it up to their staff to sort out their own evacuations, let alone driving them 1000 kilometres and handing them keys to self-contained hotel apartments overlooking a lagoon and five minutes from the famous beaches of the Sunshine Coast.

With some choosing to let off steam that night and others choosing to sleep, me and my friends did a combination of the two with a rooftop barbeque and a relaxed game of True or False. We found out which of our co-workers had been expelled from school, who’d never had a filling, who came second in their school year for maths, who had bird poo on the inside of their first car for more than a year, who had never heard of corduroy and who Russell Crowe thought was drunk and boring. More good team building.

Thursday morning we awoke to news that Cyclone Yasi had shifted further and further north away from the Whitsundays during her final 24 hours before reaching the mainland and that Hendel and a small team (including a structural engineer) were taking a helicopter back to the island to assess any damage. Miraculously, or perhaps also because Australia is so well set up for emergencies, loss of life was minimal across Queensland, though damage to some areas was still horrific.

With the day free, it seemed a little ironic that at a time when our families’ worries for our safety had only just been eased that we were staying at a fancy resort but not only that, a dozen of us decided to head to the Gold Coast theme park Movie World. With Hendel having saved us from Yasi, we now had Superman saving us from a collapsing subway in the form of one of the fastest rollercoasters I’ve ever been on. Even people several carriages ahead claim they heard my manly scream.

That afternoon, with a coarser voice than I normally carry, Hendel reported back that incredibly the resort was completely unscathed with even less debri than after Cyclone Anthony. At one point a category 5 cyclone had been heading directly for not only our place of work, but our home. Now, it was as if nothing had happened beyond a bit of rain. We had known speculating was pointless, but all of us had ridden the ride of thinking we might not be coming back, to thinking how long it would take to clear the damage to realising we were about to board that mammoth bus trip again and soon be back.

At 2pm on Friday three buses left the Sunshine Coast, arriving at Airlie Beach at 6am, Saturday morning. A one hour boat ride after that and we were on the island. In a stroke of managerial genius, we weren’t given the day off to catch up on sleep and digest all that had happened, but were made to unpack everything we had so carefully put away when we’d expected the worst. I say genius because left to our own devices sleep is undoubtedly what would’ve happened. Under-slept as we were, we spent all of Saturday lifting deck chairs back by the pool, clearing the set and costume rooms of items we feared could’ve done damage if flung about by 200 kilometre an hour winds, re-rigged our stage lights, plugged back in all the sound equipment, put the nets back up on the tennis courts and rediscovered all the boats and kayaks.

By 5.30pm Saturday the job was done and we were all so thankful we’d been made to do it. By 8.30pm, I was asleep. If you were thinking of having a holiday here at Club Med and were unsure because of Yasi, I can say in all honesty that the place is just as it was a week ago and we would love to see you. We all have today off and then the first guests arrive again tomorrow, including one couple on their honeymoon who I just spoke to on the phone. Staff will be outnumbering guests 8:1 for the first day or two so expect even more amazing service than usual!

As for today, it is intended as a day of rest but I am going to climb the highest point on the island, Mt Oldfield, which has 360 degree views over the Whitsundays. A few days ago I was sad I may have missed my opportunity to climb it – I’m pleased I was wrong.


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