stranded in a tropical cyclone

While northern Australia is used to seasonal tropical cyclones, some storms are so severe that they are never forgotten. Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which cut a swathe of destruction through the north Queensland coastline in late March last year, is one of them. With winds topping 263 km per hour, the category 4 cyclone inched across the low lying Whitsunday islands before making landfall on the 28th March 2017.

Before news of the impending storm hit, my sister was already boarding a plane up to Hamilton Island for a much-needed, relaxing getaway with her boyfriend. Little did she know that the entire region was about to be pummeled by the deadliest cyclone in more than 40 years. As the cyclone made its way towards them, flights were grounded and they found themselves trapped on the island. With no way to get out, all they could do was hide in their hotel room and wait it out. Not too many people can say that they’ve experienced a cyclone, so I interviewed my sister to find out exactly what it was like.

When travel goes wrong: stranded in a tropical cyclone!

1. Give us a little bit of background. Where is Hamilton Island exactly?

Hamilton Island is the largest inhabited island of the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland Australia. It’s a 3.5 hour flight from Melbourne.

2. It sounds like a beautiful place. Were you celebrating anything special?

It is beautiful! My partner and I had visited in October 2015 and absolutely loved it. We had both recently started new, high stress jobs and really felt as though we needed a relaxing getaway. We also thought it would be the perfect destination to celebrate his 30th birthday in March 2017.

Image courtesy of Tourism Whitsundays

3. When did you first realise that this wouldn’t be the holiday you had hoped for?

While we were waiting at Melbourne airport to board our flight, we discovered that Tropical Cyclone Debbie had formed north of Hamilton Island. At this stage, Hamilton Island was not in its direct path. However, following our flight’s arrival on Hamilton Island, the airport was closed. The next day, it became clear that the cyclone’s path had shifted south and Hamilton Island was going to be directly hit. At this stage, we naively still didn’t anticipate what we were in for. It wasn’t until we were in the midst of the cyclone that we realised that this wouldn’t be the holiday we had hoped for.

4. How did you feel when you realised you were in the direct path of a tropical cyclone?

We felt a mix of anxiety and intrigue, as did some of the island’s staff. We had no idea what the cyclone would be like and that was both frightening and somewhat exciting.

5. You were staying at a hotel on the island. What safety precautions were you advised to take?

Yes, we were staying at the Whitsunday Apartments located on Catseye Beach. The apartments were built to withstand tropical cyclones so we did not have to evacuate. We were advised that the island would be in lockdown from 5pm on Monday 27th until further notice and were told to stock up on food and water supplies. We were also told to keep away from the windows and take shelter in the bathroom if required.

6. Cyclone Debbie was a category 4, bordering on a category 5 when she hit Hamilton Island. Tell us what it was like to live through that.

It was intense! I can still remember the noise so clearly to this day – all we could hear for close to 24 hours was this high pitched howling and the glass windows banging and rattling in the 263 km per hour winds. We stayed in the safety of the bedroom for most of the lockdown, however, at times our intrigue brought us into the living room which overlooked the island. It was quite frightening knowing that at any time the windows could shatter with the wind. Feeling the apartment building sway in the wind was also quite unsettling, particularly being on the top floor.

What we weren’t anticipating was how long the cyclone would take to pass. I remember thinking at several different times that the cyclone would surely be over soon, however, it became more and more severe as Tuesday 28th wore on. For a good portion of that day, our apartment flooded, both through the light fitting in the bathroom and from underneath the balcony door in the living room. We fastened a contraption in the bathroom so that the water flowed into the shower, however, it felt as though we were endlessly mopping up water.

In the midst of trying to help my partner with the flooding, I almost set the apartment on fire with a bag of microwavable popcorn I left in for too long! In the panic, I slipped on the wet floor and cracked my elbow on the floor and at that point I had had enough.

7. If you were trapped in your hotel room for so long, what did you do for food and water?

We had stocked up on food and water before the island went into lockdown. We had just enough to keep us going until it was safe to leave the room. Store-bought pasta and pesto was not quite what we had in mind for dinner to celebrate my partner’s 30th birthday though!

8. After the cyclone had passed and it was safe to emerge, describe the destruction that you saw.

There was debris everywhere. In the lobby of the apartment building, part of the roof was missing and glass windows had been smashed. Trees had been completely stripped of their bark and palm fronds and leaves littered the roads. There was mud and sediment in all of the pools. Some buildings had broken windows and parts of their roofs missing.

9. To your knowledge, was anyone hurt on Hamilton Island during the cyclone?

Not that I am aware of. The medical centre was open after the cyclone had passed but I am unsure if anyone required medical attention.

(Note: Tropical Cyclone Debbie claimed a total of 14 lives on the Australian mainland, mostly due to flooding)

10. You must have been desperate to get home after it had passed. What was it like trying to get off the island once flights had resumed?

We were! The staff were also desperate to get everyone off the island afterwards as the island had to be closed to tourists for a period of time for repairs. Trying to get off the island was probably the worst part of the whole experience – I don’t think I have ever been more frustrated in my life. Unfortunately, there was a lot of miscommunication between staff and guests about leaving the island, which set up false expectations about when we would be able to leave.

We were booked to depart on Thursday 30th March and were told that we would be leaving on this date because we already had a confirmed ticket. We were instructed to wait in the apartment lobby until a bus came to pick us up for the one flight to Melbourne scheduled that day. After a wait of about five hours, we were driven to the airport where thousands of people were already waiting.

We then waited for another three hours before the flight was boarding. Because all of the airport’s electronics were down, the airline had a flight manifest of people listed for departure and they started to read out names. After calling about 30 names, they said they needed time to process those passengers and would continue to read out the list in due course. However, after an hour, staff announced that the flight was full. They had not read out all of the names on the list, yet the flight was full? How could this be? The most frustrating part of this experience was the lack of transparency from airline staff with no explanation as to why most of the passengers on the manifest were not going to board.

We had essentially waited around for nine hours with false expectations about being able to go home, only to be sent back to the apartment and told to come back the next day.

When we returned the next day, we were told that there were no direct flights scheduled to Melbourne and we would have to connect in Brisbane. Luckily, we made it onto the second flight out of Hamilton Island. At Brisbane airport, we waited in line for over two hours at the transfer desk to be given our ticket, with many people pushing in and cutting the line to get ahead. Never have I been so glad to board a plane home!

11. Did you have travel insurance?

We didn’t have travel insurance for this trip. We don’t typically organise travel insurance for domestic trips. Even if we had it for this trip, we wouldn’t have had anything to claim anyway – no damaged luggage and no additional accommodation expenses due to having to stay another night. However, had we known about the cyclone prior to leaving Melbourne, we probably would have cancelled the trip. Some other guests also said they needed to pay for extra nights accommodation due to being stuck on the island. So in retrospect, although we were lucky, travel insurance would have been a good idea!

12. I know I was out of my mind with worry about you when mobile coverage dropped out. What was it like to not be able to contact your family?

I was more worried about my family panicking that I was not okay. I hoped they would assume that I hadn’t been in contact because I had no coverage, but I was worried they would be really stressed out and think we were seriously injured. It was a relief to be able to contact everyone at Brisbane airport.

13. Do you think you’ll ever go back to Hamilton Island or is this destination now ruined for you?

At least for the near future, the cyclone has ruined Hamilton Island for me. I have no desire to return any time soon, which is a shame because it is such a beautiful destination with so much to do. Maybe in five years…

14. Have you learnt any lessons about this experience?

Take out travel insurance, even for domestic holidays!


To get a sense of the devastation caused by Cyclone Debbie, here are some photos my sister took of the aftermath:

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Have you ever experienced a holiday from hell? Share your story in the comments!