MY first helicopter ride.
So understandably, I was excited. As my colleague Baljeet Singh and I were strapped into the front seat of an Island Hopper chopper, nerves and fears were put on the back burner as we absorbed the view beneath our feet.
Nadi International Airport, Sabeto, and the Lomolomo areas appeared and disappeared beneath us before we took in Lautoka next. It took us about 15 minutes to get to Lautoka and there we got a bird's eye view of the destruction caused by TC Evan. Destroyed homes and battered trees littered the Sugar City as far as the eye could see.
And imagine, this was only the beginning of our journey.
On any other day I would have let myself fully enjoy the beautiful scenery that unfolded. This ride and the circumstances under which it was arranged would not allow me to relax.
I was nervous and anxious. Preoccupied with the might of Evan and worried about what lay ahead of us, Yasawa was also my home village. Teci, Yasawa-i-Rara to be precise. Knowing the islands were closest to the path taken by Evan, I feared the worst.
Prior to leaving I had already witnessed in Lautoka the destruction left behind by this category four cyclone. And as we passed over the Queens Wharf and set out for the open seas, that now familiar unsettling feeling grew stronger.
What a relief though to look down on Waya and see most of the structures still standing. Circling above the village, from what was within view, mostly trees were fallen but all homes seemed upright. Breathing a sigh of relief the silent hope now was for the same scene to repeat itself when we reached the islands that lay ahead.
Viwa Island was next. Because of its isolation, it was on our priority list of places to visit. We found uto trees, a main source of food for villagers, snapped at their trunks while plantations were completely destroyed. As for houses, a single bure was the only casualty.
Landing on the Naibalebale Village rara, Sakaraia Batiuvi the village headman, gave us a rundown of what transpired over the last 24 hours. He said although many of them did not lose their homes, they were in dire need of food and water. He said root crops were destroyed, leaving them with almost nothing.
As Naibalebale Village grew smaller from our sights, I was beginning to think that this would not be the last story of "pleas for help" that I would be hearing on our aerial trip.
We hovered above the west end of Naviti, Yaqeta, Matacawalevu and were met by scenes similar to what we witnessed at Naibalebale and Wayalevu.
However, everything changed once we headed further up to the north. The images that unfolded was not something one could easily forget.
It took us about 20 minutes to get to Tavewa Island from Naviti. Tavewa and its neighbouring villages, Nacula and Sisili were badly hit. With walls and roofs removed, while living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens lay exposed to the sunlight.
Coastal lines were littered with uprooted palm trees, battered boats and corrugated iron roofs carried from houses inland.Inland forests looked like mangrove plots as seawater formed small lakes a good few metres from the ocean.
On the hilltops of Nacula Island, landslides caused by torrential rain dotted the landscape..
As we moved further up north, the situation became grimmer. My heart lurched when we reached Yasawa island. Home to the infamous Sawa-i-Lau caves, Nabukeru Village on the island came into view — majority of the homes were without roofs. A large structure that resembled a school had one of its roofs torn off while some houses had walls missing.
I dreaded the approach to the village that was up next. My village, Teci. My heart sank. Homes demolished, open dirt spaces where houses once stood and tin sheets littered the grounds.
Skeletal frames of homes were the only remaining evidence of structures that were once homes. Houses lying on either side of a familiar stream running through the heart of the village had their roofs blown off while the nearby school was also not pardoned.
It was hard not to feel anything at this point of our journey, we fell silent and nobody spoke as we descended onto Yasawa-i-Rara Village. It was clear hundreds of livelihoods were ruined by Cyclone Evan.
Village headman Siotame Viriviri reported that 13 homes were completely destroyed. The village jetty also took a major beating. It was torn in two by large waves that tore through the village, eroding its beaches.
They were happy to see us. According to them, we were the first outsiders to land on the island after Evan. Mr Viriviri said they would continue to pray for better weather and assistance to reach them before Christmas.
Although many of them would be spending the festive season in makeshift homes, they were grateful that no lives were lost.
As we made our way back to Lautoka, a strange feeling of relief overtook the initial anxiety. I knew that people had suffered major losses and while I was sad about that, I was now overwhelmed by the people's resilience and faith — that they had overcome the worst and remained strong as ever.