…and thus it begins

Posted: August 18, 2011 in SciFi

Southern Drakensberg, South Africa

Big John smiled grimly. The water of the Rifle River was cold and ripped at his legs. The smooth stones were loose and treacherous under his water boots. Hunched almost double he carefully stalked the brown trout he knew lay in its lair, upstream from him. “This time I’ve got you, you bastard!” he exclaimed under his breath. It was late in the afternoon and he wanted to catch this trout before returning to the cottage they were renting for the week. The sun was setting but there was sufficient light to fly-fish a couple more casts.

He cast the Mrs. Simpson fly well upstream, working it rapidly to glide past the lair. Nothing. Cast again. Watch the tell tale. Strike! Strike!

The small no 2/3-rod bucked in his hands as the fish attacked the fly with a ferocity that surprised even Big John. The line flashed away across the river as the fish headed for deeper water and the protective rocks. Keeping the line tight, he eased back on the rod without too much pressure. “Can’t lose him now, come to me baby,” John crooned. Slowly, he reeled the line in. The brown was not giving in that easily. It darted back and forth worrying the hook in its mouth, shaking this way and that way, but the inexorable pull of the line was tiring it. It was almost over.

He slid the net gently under the body of the fish taking care to keep it under the cold water as long as possible. Scooping it closer, he examined it expertly, “A beauty, at least 4 kgs,” he thought to himself. Deftly he removed the small barbless hook, kissed the fish on its mouth and let it drop gently back into the water to swim away.

“Until next time, you beaut,” he grunted.

Big John was a happy man. Fishing for trout and even yellow fish in the Rifle River at Gateshead near the picturesque hamlet of Rhodes in the North Eastern Cape Province in South Africa always made him happy. Even when the fish were scarce, he enjoyed his annual trips down from the polluted Witwatersrand area of Gauteng province.

“Egoli,” he thought cynically. “Gold, what a crock! We rush after its glitter, dig it up often at the cost of human lives, just to put it back into vaults in the reserve banks of the world. Another 18 months and I can retire here and fish to my heart’s content. The gold mines will not see me again.”

He sat down under a poplar tree near the riverbank and lit a Peter Stuyvesant.

“What more do you need in life?” he pondered. The kids have settled down to their careers, his wife Nellie of some 35 years, was reading at the guest cottage and for a whole week they had the area to themselves. They will ride up the mountains on horseback; maybe see a fallow deer or two. They will take walks together, make love slowly and tenderly in front of the log fire and refresh their long-standing relationship once again.

“Yes, its good here, close to God and close to nature,” he said aloud.

High above him two resident black eagles circled their nest near the mountaintop readying themselves for the night.

Except for the sound of water over rocks, it was quiet.

Cigarette done, John flicked the butt away into the river and as he stooped to pick up the fishing gear, he felt a tremor way, way down below him in the bowels of the earth.

Mine engineers knew tremors. They were the demons of the deep gold mines of South Africa. They toyed with the little people so far from the surface, they killed with impunity but normally the miners in the stopes were the worst hit. They scared the shit out of John every time they occurred and that was often enough.

This tremor was somehow different, John thought. It sounded like a sigh, like a branch of an old oak tree slowly tearing away from the trunk, it carried on and on, heaving and groaning as if it would never stop. The earth itself seemed to undulate like waves in the sea and the tall poplar trees along the edge of the river rocked back and forth. John knew earthquakes, and had seen what devastation they could cause, but this tremor felt different, as if the mountains were moving and the river with them, all in the same direction. There was no twisting and tearing of the ground, which usually occurred when tectonic plates shifted and sheared. The sensation he now felt was similar to the sensation he had felt as a child when he first rode on a skateboard … his feet stationary while the earth below him moved in the opposite direction.

It seemed to last forever as opposed to a normal earthquake which was normally short and violent.

Loose rocks on the steep mountains came hurtling down towards the river. John was out of any serious harm’s way, but the landslides were enormous and continued all the way up the mountains to the tops of the Southern Drakensberg.

He watched in wonder as the whole side of the mountain 200 metres upstream on the opposite side of the river just peeled away, and collapsed upon itself into the river. Like pistol shots echoing through the crags of the moving mountains, rocks split like over-ripe papaws and toppled over. Birds shrieked and fluttered into the dust-laden air, panic-stricken as their roosts disappeared taking their young into the depths below. Rock rabbits and even a lone duiker flopped over with the rocks into the river, scrabbling and writhing in the air as they fell.

The dust rose high into the mountain air as John turned and ran up the riverbank towards the small guesthouse a kilometer away.

“Damn,” John thought as he jogged easily up the rocky road. “That’s the end of my fishing. The water will now be muddy for at least two days, and the fish will have fled to the deep spots they use during floods.”

Rounding the last bend, he pulled up short. The guesthouse, which had been built a century ago, had collapsed. There was no sign of life around the ruins of the house.

“Nellie, Nellie!” he screamed in horror, cold fear clutching at his gut as he raced up the hill.


Tarawa, Kiribati, Oceania

 The crescent-shaped island of Tarawa is one of the few Pacific battlefields that remained essentially unchanged for the half century that followed World War II. Visitors to Betio Island can readily see wrecked American tanks and LVTs along the beaches, as well as the ruins of Japanese gun emplacements and pill boxes. The imposing concrete bunker built by the Imperial Army still stands, seemingly as impervious to time as it was to the battleship guns of Task Force 53. The Singapore Guns still rest in their turrets overlooking the approaches to the island.

The sky was moonless in the early hours before daybreak as the small fishing vessels slipped out of the bay as they had done for the past 1000 years.

Fishing was not good at the moment and every opportunity had to be taken to catch at least enough to feed the families of the poor natives on the small island. At least the sea was flat with a faint land breeze filling the lateen sails of the wooden outriggers.

The ocean spirits were angry. For two moons now the fish had stayed away. Many dead fish were washing ashore and the elders were convinced that something was bothering the spirits. The younger generation did not respect the spirits like they were expected to and a serious situation was now developing. A full council meeting was scheduled for this day. Preparations were underway on the island and pigs had been slaughtered for the feast. Islanders will be coming to the meeting from every village on the island and even from the nearby islands of the Kiribati.  The meeting will take three days. The elders will want to appease the gods with sacrifices and discuss the signs the gods were sending. There was the dead fish, which everyone could see and smell, but there was also the thunder which they could hear at night, which came across the waters, and for the past five days, the sea around the island had changed its colour from the normal blue azure to a murky white.

The spirits were indeed very upset.

It was mainly the priest’s fault but also the military airfield which was still being used. These things are foreign to their land; their traditions must be honoured; the expatriates on their land had no respect for them.

The American priest had stopped the tradition of sacrificing to the gods. God does not want your sacrifices, he had said in church, God wants your hearts, He wants your souls and He wants your loyalty to Him and to Him only. Your gods are impotent against the one and only God Almighty, he had thundered. The congregation was puzzled but they had heard this before. Did the preacher’s god not understand that their gods had been good to them for many generations; that they are happy and that the spirits of their ancestors had to be appeased lest they get hungry in their graves? How would the priest’s god feed them?

The fishing vessels were approaching their traditional fishing grounds. Deftly they struck the sails and tied down the canvas to the side of the boats. The crew prepared the nets. Ready, they now cast them in wide arcs to the windward side of the boats. The breeze would drift the boats away from the nets. Every net was marked by bright polystyrene floats, a compromise to civilisation, but was weighted with shells, stones and metal objects, as had been the tradition for many generations.

As the boats drifted in the still waters kilometres away from Tarawa, they prepared their hand lines and baited them for bottom fishing. This is where they often got the big ones. Maybe today will bring them better fortune, they prayed.

The sea floor was not too deep here. Only fifty metres of line was required to bottom fish. On the horizon it was different. Not even the longest lines tied together could reach the bottom there. There the sea was normally a deep blue/green but the fishermen did not like to fish there.  Often they could hear the thunder from the sea in that direction. It was not a good place to be.

It was there that the fisherman first saw the ripple, on the horizon in the early morning light. It looked like a mirage, wavering, dipping, appearing and disappearing. He shouted to the other boats to look. They stood up in their flimsy craft and peered into the distance. At first they saw nothing, and then another more experienced elder shouted:

“Tsunami, tidal wave!”

In the deep waters the tsunami was but a gentle swell moving at an incredible speed all along the horizon, but the fishermen knew that when it approached the shallower fishing waters it would build up to an impossible height. The island villages on this side as well as on the far side of Tarawa were doomed. Before it struck, the sea would be sucked back as if a giant had drunk of it, the sea bottom would lie exposed, waiting for the waters which would rush in like a speeding train only much faster and much deadlier. This would be the only warning the sleeping villagers would have had they been awake to witness their approaching deaths.

The tsunami would first strike the villages on the near side of the small island then surge inland taking everything along in its relentless path. Its force would encircle the island as if in a deadly embrace and wash back on the opposite shores wreaking as much damage there as on the windward side. It had happened before.

There was no way to warn their families. In desperation the fishermen paddled their craft furiously straight at the oncoming wave, their fishing equipment now forgotten and irrelevant. Maybe their boats’ speed will lift them over the oncoming wave.

As the swell approached, the water rose and rose above them without breaking. The fishermen did not look up as their boats were swept rapidly upward as if so much flotsam. Several of the boats were upended on the rising wall of water, spilling their contents into the churning waters. The rest of the boats crested the wave and fell forward into the deep switch-back trough created by the speeding wall of water. The frail wooden shells and the still frailer human bodies were dashed onto the empty seabed below.

For many of them the last living sight they saw was thousands of fish of all sizes and shapes, flapping grotesquely around them, until the waters closed with a rush, engulfing and burying a whole generation of fishermen. After a few minutes all was quiet again and the sea surface was deserted.

Less than a minute later the wave reached the shores of Tarawa. The devastation was total as the bulk of the villagers were only just awakening from their night sleep.

The wave peaked at 60 metres above the sea surface and approached the island at a speed of 145 kilometres per hour. It smashed into the shore taking everything before it. Trees, houses, huts, boats, motor vehicles, some military, some civilian and washing were flung into its white foam together with hundreds of screaming animals, mothers and babies. It rolled on and on into the plantations and forests, smashing through the trees and undergrowth. It raced across the thin island atoll breaking into the opposite shores with its deadly cargo and the pitiful remains of the island.

Without pause, the giant wave marched on as if the small island was but a small irritation in its path. Some of the waters started their flow back to the decimated shores of the island, pulling again at its cargo of detritus to fling it into the sea like foam in a storm. As the wave encircled the island, it reversed its direction and repeated the devastation, only this time with increased venom as if to punctuate its intent and absolute power to its victims.

The battlements of World War II stood like grotesque monuments in the mud of the wrecked beaches.

Tarawa was but one island in the path of the first shock wave which continued on its outward path to thousands of islands and communities in Oceania.

The rest of the world would never know what had happened to its tiny community.

There were many such communities spread across the world who had been living close to the sea for centuries either on mainland continents or on islands. The tsunamis were swift, silent killers.



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