The perfect storm

One needs to check the weather before one heads out on an adventure

There was one final story I wanted to relate here, because it was my greatest adventure in Thailand. Or was at least my most memorable experience, at any rate, because it was the closest I have ever come to kicking the bucket. If anyone wonders what became of me, by the way, I have moved to the Middle East; if I get around to it I might write and send in a few more articles that recount the experiences I am having in this new and very interesting phase of my life.

Anyone who read my fishing articles previously would remember me speaking fondly of Lake Sirikit, and the great times I had out there heading around on my long-tailed boat. This remains my favourite place in Thailand, and camping out on the lake my favourite pursuit; it had reached the time of year in Thailand when the rains are due to begin, and when Ajarn Matt takes his annual holiday. Around, I think, the end of April. I decided that I would take my wife, who had never been camping, and who was by no means at that time an outdoorsy sort of person, on a two week expedition out onto the reservoir where we would head far from human habitation, and try our luck at exploring some previously uncharted waters. I went to Friday's department store and spent a fortune on new camping gear, so that my wife would be less likely to complain and want to come home once we entered the thick of nature; we drove to the dam, I loaded all the gear onto the boat, and we embarked on our adventure.

The afternoon we left was the most glorious sort of afternoon it is possible to imagine. There was not a cloud in the sky, there was not a breath of wind blowing, and the whole scene was illuminated by sunlight that was so golden that it seemed we were leaving the world of human beings altogether, and entering a painting. We crossed the first expanse of lake, which took a couple of hours, and entered a gap that, as we approached the far side, was revealed between the mountains; we putted down this for a while until, to my surprise, the lake opened up again, or until we saw before us a secondary body of water that was even larger than the one from which we had come. This one had forest growing thickly right down to the water's edge, and from what we could see, or for as far as we could see, it was uninhabited by human beings; there were no cleared lands, or grazing or rice-growing areas, there were no houses visible around the shoreline. And, while for all we knew there could have been a vast metropolis on the other side of this part of the lake, our impression of being completely isolated from the world of people was unchallenged by the possibility, because it was so far away that we were unable to make out anything on the shoreline anyway. It was sort of hazy in that direction, the landforms only became discernible as they gained altitude, all we could see were the tops of some forested hills and mountains.

Furthermore, at this entrance into paradise, there were a couple of very inviting islands. While the lake ‘narrowed' at this point, to become the passage through which we had passed, these islands were still a considerable distance from the shore on either side; they were slap-bang in the middle of the entrance, and it probably would have taken twenty minutes or so to motor over to the bank both ways. We did a quick circumnavigation of the archipelago in order to choose the most inviting atoll; the water at that time of year is very low, and as I have described previously, on account of this the only trees and bushes they sported were right at their apex, the remainder of their slopes were blanketed in a very appealing lawn of grass. Our only company on said islets, moreover, was a lone plover which must have had its nest somewhere on the grass. As it was complaining loudly - not to mention because plovers swat you on the head if you go near their nest - the choice of camping grounds was easy, I chose the island furthest away from where it seemed to be hanging around. I moored the boat to a few dead tress that were sticking out of the water, I carted all the new chairs, and sleeping bags, and mattresses, and tent (and kitchen sink and so on) up onto a fairly level plateau, and as the sun set on the most pristine evening imaginable I made a veritably palatial residence for us to occupy. I also took the opportunity to head once around the island with my lure, and to catch a few fat jungle perch and snakeheads for our dinner.

We had a great evening barbecuing our fish, and exposing our ears to the complete absence of the sound of any students; as I have described previously, mosquitoes and other insects simply cannot make it out onto the islands in Sirikit that are far removed from land, there was nary a thing to jeopardise the peacefulness of our existence. Such was the ambience of the conditions we even took a bit of a nine o'clock skinny dip, at which point my wife decided to retire for the night; I drew up a seat, relaxed in it, and retreated into the world of my own thoughts (and those of you who know me would know what I mean, yes Ajarns Howard and Craig, it was great). By around midnight I too was ready to retreat into my nest, my head was falling onto my chest; however, just as I reached the point of no return, I was surprised to hear a noise that sounded suspiciously like thunder. With some effort I forced my eyelids fully open, and strained my eye bulbs to see into the distance; yes, there it was, I heard it again, and this time I could see some sort of flashing light on the horizon. My first thought was that there was some fracas going on with the army, when I had come to school in Thailand as a kid there was always shelling of Thailand by Cambodia, and vice versa, taking place along the border, this is what it looked and sounded like was happening at that moment. As I watched more, however, I realized that what I could actually see on the border of Laos was an electrical storm, lightning was arcing up from the ground in a very intensive sort of way. If you have seen that movie Big Trouble in Little China, I could see lightning crackling the same way it did from the hands of the guy in the old straw hat, or like it does from Tesla's machine in that movie The Prestige; I was not really anything more than casually curious however, because the storm looked like it was at least a couple of hundred kilometers away.

You guessed it but, in about twenty minutes the storm that a moment ago was nothing more than a very insignificant threat had covered half the distance between us, and could most clearly be seen to be heading in specifically my direction. I was kind of getting worried, but I looked around at the elaborate campsite I had set up, and at my sleeping wife inside the tent; when I looked into the sky, there was still not a cloud above me, and so I though before I go into panic mode, I will give things just a moment and see if things were really going to be inclement. Which was certainly the worst choice I ever made in life; by the time another twenty minutes had passed, I could see clouds materialising out of nowhere in the sky above my head - actually nebulising, that is, and conjoining with one another to blot out the moon and stars - and the lightning was close enough to no longer simply be seen as flashes of illumination, but rather for me to see crystal clearly the arcing of every bolt. Never, either, had I ever seen, and have I ever seen, such an acute display of electrical activity; bolts were storming up out of the ground with such intensity that the night was no longer black, not even intermittently, it seemed that there were about twenty bolts searing into the clouds at any given moment. At the same time I made the grim realization that there was no point in getting in the boat and trying to make it to land, because I would most definitely be caught out on the water, the first breath of rain-moistened wind ruffled my hair; ‘darling', I said, ‘you better wake up, I think we're going to cop a bit of a storm.'

Five minutes after that it was upon us. A wind came that immediately blew near every bit of camping gear I owned into the lake, and that instantly flattened the tent. At the same time, rain that was coming down in drops as big as your fist - or that was coming sideways at us, as it was driven by the wind - battered into us, it tore my shirt off my back, leaving me standing there in a pair of shorts. A barrage of lightning also could be seen on the shore opposite, in the direction of the storm, very rapidly heading towards us; with no more ado my wife and I hid in the tent, which was already filled with two inches of mud, and tried to wrap its shreds around us. So strong was the wind that it lifted us off the ground at times, and threw us into bushes; we could barely hang onto the tent fabric, it was only sheer fright that lent us the power. I did not want to look outside, but such was the intensity of the sound and light from the pyrotechnic display that was now taking place around us we knew that lightning was bursting forth from the very island on which we were camping. Not intermittently, again, but at least once a minute. I was absolutely petrified, and I cannot begin to imagine how my poor wife must have been feeling; we said our goodbyes to one another, it might seem silly in retrospect to have done this, but such was the frightening savagery of what was happening it seemed that surely we must perish. If we were not barbecued by lightning, the concern was that the lake would rise and inundate our island.

With this ghastly prospect in mind, I knew I had to stiffen my resolve, and leave the ‘sanctuary' of the tent to go and check on the boat. If the boat was lost, and the water did rise up, all was lost - even if the storm disappeared, it was going to be a long swim to the shoreline and then a very long hike to find someone to rescue us. I told my wife to hang tight for a sec - she was practically turned to stone anyway, we were both terrified and shivering violently with the cold - and emerged into the elements; such a sight I have never seen, it was absolutely terrible. One of the large trees that was growing on our island tore out of the ground in front of my very eyes, and whisked into the lake, narrowly missing our location in the process. Massive bolts of lightning were arcing up out of every island around us, and from the mainland, and, to give substance to our fears, from the top of the island on which we were presently stranded. I could smell a terrible smell of ozone, and could feel the electricity in the air on my scalp and with my skin.

There was nothing for it, but, I had to grit my teeth and go to the boat. I went to the edge of the island, where previously I had moored it; luckily, I had moored it on the leeward side of the storm, else it would have been smashed for sure, there were storm waves being driven onto the windward side of the island that were very ugly indeed. This did not cheer me any, however, for the simple reason that, while there was no lack of illumination from the lightning, my boat could not be seen; I headed to the tree where I had tethered the front of the boat, to find nothing but a piece of broken rope. With my heart in my mouth, I felt around at the edge of the lake where I had moored the boat aft - thank God, there was the stake in the ground still, and a promisingly taut piece of rope. I pulled on it, and squinted into the rain; hooray, there was the boat! Albeit that the wind had blown it clean upside down, with the resultant loss of everything in there, including all my precious fishing gear. Even worse, when I pulled it near to shore, I discovered the motor had fallen off the boat as well; I was now faced with an even grimmer task, with no motor and now no paddle it would be a dreadful trip all the way back to my car, and therefore I could not leave the engine soaking in the water. My only choice was to enter the dreadful snarl of dead trees and hideously twisted roots and stumps where I had tied up, and begin diving for my engine.

I gingerly felt everywhere I could where the water was shallow enough for me to not have to immerse my head, using my feet. As the reader might guess, nothing, this island rose very steeply out of the water, and the motor was somewhere out of reach. I knew it was somewhere in the arc described by the back of the boat when I swung it around on the one piece of rope that had held; let me not forget to mention either that all the while this searching was going on, more trees were being torn out of the ground, blinding rain was just about beating me to my knees, and I was in constant danger of being electrocuted. I held my breath, and used the boat to push myself under water, and to come up into (it was upside down, remember) to get the necessary breaths of air (it was so rainy I could hardly breathe without this canopy); I walked the arc of the rope at different distances defined by where on the boat I grabbed it, right until I was holding on to the very back of it. By that time, my feet could hardly touch the bottom, and still I could not locate that bloody piece of machinery. I was semi-drowned by this stage as well, from holding my breath and repeatedly exerting myself underwater; the air trapped inside the boat was getting very stale and nasty, so I decided to risk my head in the storm again before I took the awful plunge.

When I emerged again into the storm, I saw a very awesome thing. I was looking into the black sky, and I saw in the night above our island some patches of phosphorescence forming. No sooner had I had the time to wonder what this fairy floss like substance could be than it rapidly joined together in clumps; suddenly, electricity arced through it, it became a massive bolt of lightning, what I could actually see was the plasma forming prior to the release of the strike. Nature's wonders were of little interest to me at this point, however, especially seen this close up; with a haste inspired by fear I drew a deep breath, and dove down into the water. All sorts of horrible roots and weeds and things poked me in the face as I blindly groped around for the motor; finally, after about twenty minutes of diving in again and again, and just when I thought I was surely going to expire - finally, when I had just about given up, when I was at the absolute limit of how deep I was actually able to dive - my hand touched the end of the propeller. I was just about out of air, but there was no way I was going to let it go; with a strength born of desperation I used the weight of the motor to hold me to the bottom, and like a feisty crab dragged it out of the lake's clutches and back into shallow water. I staggered up onto the bank, absolutely spent by this most fearsome task of my life; I put the motor safely out of harm's way, and went to join my wife miserably in the tent.

Usually, an electrical storm, a convection storm like this one, is a brief affair, that spends its ferocity in an hour or so of very intense buffeting. Certainly, I hoped it would be the case with this one, because it was the worst experience of my life. This particular weather event, however - my Thai friends were to later tell me I ‘hit the jackpot' - just kept raging, and actually seemed to intensify every time we thought that things might quieten down; eventually, because I was so cold in just my shorts, and because we were so terrified - after about four hours of torture, and great anxiety that the water would rise up (which it only did a couple of inches, of course, it is a big lake) - my wife and I just sort of passed out, or fell into a sort of semi-coma. The next thing I knew, I felt baking, steaming hot; I opened my eyes, and clawed my way out of our tent shroud, to discover that the storm had finally dissipated, and that we were being blasted by full sunlight on an absolutely cloudless day. I coaxed my wife back to consciousness, and we set about the disheartening task of picking up the pieces.

Fortunately, most of the stuff had blown into the water in the lee of the island, and had sunk in the shallows, where I was able to recover it; the camp chairs, lamp and boat paddle had gone, but all the cooking stuff, the esky, the clothes, and much of my fishing gear was able to be recovered. Our tent and new sleeping bags and so on were absolutely ruined, they were saturated with muddy water to the point that even the homeless would think twice about trying to salvage and re-use them; the boat motor, too, was full of mud and water, and was fairly knocked around from its descent into the lake. Luckily, I had brought my tools, and I set to pulling it apart; a couple of hours work removed the worst of the muck and gravel, and I was able to start it. My wife and I did not even discuss the possibility of extending our vacation; we just packed everything we had been able to recover back into the boat - I still had not slept since the night before the storm - and began motoring back to the vehicle. When it was thrown into the lake, the ‘bearing' on the end of the long-tail (it is actually just a piece of wood) shaft had broken, and so I was only able to operate the motor at idle speed; still, we were under way, for which I was extremely grateful, and we slowly and painfully made our way back to where I had parked the car. When we reached the village, I tried to recount to the Thai people there the dreadfulness of our experience; they told me, however, that just this few kilometers away, or on their side of the mountains, there had been no wind or lightning, just a brief bout of blinding rain. They laughed my experience off as the exaggerations of an easily frightened foreigner.

Later, though, I told the story to one of my old fishing friends, and he was able to truly empathise with my experience. He told me that as a young man, his friends towed him to that part of the lake in a little fishing raft, and that such a storm came. He said his raft was torn apart, and that his friend and him were left clinging to a single piece of bamboo together being tossed around by storm swells for hours, not knowing which way was which, or where the shore was to go to, in the pitch darkness; I felt somewhat mollified that there was at least one person who believed me. My wife and I apparently made the local news as well, so perhaps the people at the village did know more about our experience than they were letting on, they were the only grapevine through which the story could have travelled. I have since heard stories, too, of much larger steel vessels, the ferries and so forth they use on the lake, being caught out, and capsizing with loss of all that were on board.

One thing is for sure, lakes can be more dangerous than one imagines, they are not to be trifled with. One needs to check the weather before one heads out on an adventure.


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