When I woke on Saturday morning, Anzac Day 2015, my plans for the day included a wander into Thamel, one of the busiest tourist areas of Kathmandu, a bit of last minute shopping and lunch at one of my favourite spots – The Roadhouse Café.
This was to be my last day in Kathmandu and I wanted to make the most of it. Even during breakfast when Pramesh, one of the waiters, asked my plans for the day, I told him I was heading into Thamel. This was my second visit to Kathmandu and I’d still not been to Durbar Square – I figured this was my last chance.
Why then didn’t I follow through with those plans?
For some inexplicable reason that I still can’t fathom, I changed my mind. I lingered over breakfast, popped across the road to the local jewellery shop for last minute purchases, bought a couple of t shirts for my grandsons and then settled myself in the hotel lobby with my book. I’d decided just to relax.
That decision could well have saved my life.
I was still reading in the lobby when the 7.9 quake struck minutes before 12.00.
The power went out, not an unusual occurrence, but then the hotel tilted and shook and it took only a nano second to figure out what was happening. I tried desperately to get outside but it was like trying to walk on water, the floor and my feet would not work in unison. As I ran, I imagined the building toppling around me, it’s amazing the number of thoughts that can shoot through your head in such a short space of time. Then I saw the large glass doors to the hotel swinging inwards and outwards and, with instinct kicking in, I knew I had to judge that hurdle very carefully.
I got through those, doors, out of that building and, shaking as much as the building, I made it to the safety of the car park and clung to the arm of a hotel employee. The paving had buckled in several places and I heard glass shattering somewhere. I don’t know how long that quake lasted, you don’t exactly count the seconds when you’re in the middle of it, but it felt like the longest few seconds of my life.
The next few hours were surreal. We sat or stood in little groups, bewildered and relieved. There were constant aftershocks and, as hotel guests began struggling back to the hotel from sightseeing tours they’d been on, we began to learn of some of the devastation. But communication was almost non existent, rumours were flying backwards and forwards and we really didn’t know what was happening in the rest of Kathmandu and Nepal. What did seem pretty certain was that the centuries old tower in Durbar Square, the one I been planning to visit, had crumbled to the ground, effectively entombing possibly hundreds of people.
My main concern at this point was for my family and friends back in Australia. I knew I was okay and I knew I’d get out eventually but I also knew that the rest of the world would be getting patchy reports and that, with no communication possible, the concern for my welfare would be unimaginable. The Australian embassy did manage to make a phone call to my daughter so family knew I had come through okay but the extent of the information was very limited.
After about 6 hours in the car park, with the light beginning to fade over a devastated city, I briefly returned to the hotel to grab my belongings, but I didn’t feel at all comfortable in there. My room was in chaos, the beds had slid across the floor, doors and drawers were hanging open, cups and saucers and bottled water had been thrown to the ground and one of the table lamps lay in a shattered pile by the desk.
Along with many others I spent that night camped out in the hotel car park, we figured it was the safest place to be. With blankets and bottled water supplied by the hotel I made myself as comfortable as possible but sleep was almost non existent. The aftershocks had us all constantly alert, when you’re lying on the ground, you feel every single movement.
The hotel and its staff were brilliant and I couldn’t praise them enough. Those that didn’t sleep in the car park were accommodated in the lobby and the function room on the ground floor, we were all kept supplied with water, tea and coffee, blankets and chairs and were updated with as much information as was available.
The following morning I was bundled onto a mini bus with several other people and taken to the airport in the hope of being able to get my scheduled flight out. The chaos there is something that is absolutely impossible to convey. In an airport notorious for it’s pandemonium at the best of times, we were pushed and shoved and at times had difficulty staying on our feet.
It took over an hour to get inside the building and, once check in was completed we then spent another six to seven hours in the departure lounge. But Mother Nature hadn’t finished with us.
We’d seen our plane arrive and were getting increasingly anxious to be on it when the 6.7 aftershock hit. Unbelievable, our hearts dropped with that aftershock, we were convinced the airport would be closed again and our flight cancelled.
Once again though, luck was on our side, it took a couple more hours but we did finally board that plane and get the hell out of there. But still there was no way of letting my family know. The plan had been to contact them during the scheduled four hours I would have in Singapore but the long delay in take off meant that I had to race from one plane to another at Changi airport with no chance to call the family.
I have never been so relieved to hit the ground at Perth airport and when I turned on my phone in the customs hall this was the message waiting for me from my daughter:
‘I have been trying to track your possible movements all day, made what feels like millions of phone calls and been an information hub of epic proportions. People have been helping me track possible flight times and the concern for you has been immense. We are waiting for you at the airport … damn, you had better be on that plane…’
I’ve been home 48 hours and I’m struggling to come to terms with what happened, I’m sobbing as I write this but somehow I need to cope. I was one of the lucky ones, it obviously wasn’t my time, but my heart breaks for those we left behind. I have friends living there, people that I’ve come to know over my two trekking visits, and my concern for them is overwhelming. I know they survived, I know they’re okay at the moment, but I also know that one very good friend is now caring for her two young daughters as they camp out in a tent in a park. Are they getting enough to eat and drink? Are they well? What will they do in the coming weeks as the monsoon season approaches?
The people of Nepal are some of the nicest and most genuine people I’ve ever met on my travels and tourism is a major part of their economy. We can only hope that with assistance and perseverance they will come through this disaster and that, in time, recovery will be possible and trekkers, mountaineers and visitors will return.