Largest Earthquake in Modern History

Day 387

I woke up in my Subaru Outback on top of a mountain hillside overlooking a gorge. The Australian sun was trying to peek over the mountain as I started to boil water for my coffee. Desperate to go pee, I tried my best to hold it because the nearby campers had a clear view of my campsite. After 15 minutes of deflating my air mattress and packing up my bedding, I gave in and walked down the mountain a bit to hide behind a tiny tree. I hoped that I was getting a small amount of privacy. 

I felt relieved and could now enjoy breakfast. I cooked “egg in the toast” and drank my coffee while watching the sun light up the hillside. I was grateful that the sun was providing some warmth. 

After eating breakfast, I finished packing up my car and headed to the highway. I wasn’t sure where I’d stay the night. I wanted to go to Millstream National Park to check out Python Pool. Unfortunately, getting there would require me to backtrack and drive a couple of hundred kilometers on a corrugated gravel road. After fueling my car, I missed the turn to go towards Millstream, so I decided to keep driving and stop in Port Hedland. 

The drive on the Great Northern Highway was full of road trains. When I drove in the middle of Australia, I saw road trains with two trailers attached. This highway section was a direct route from mines to the port, so road trains were almost always four trailers long. It was incredible. It was like seeing a train but on the road. The trucks were often hauling trailers that were open on the top because they were from the mines. Sometimes the drivers were helpful – they’d put their right turn signal on briefly, indicating it was clear for me to pass them. 

As a result of the road trains, I saw many dead cows on the side of the road. They were huge and hadn’t decayed much. I wondered why so many had been hit. When I would see cows, I had plenty of time to stop and let them finish crossing the road. But after seeing the long, heavy road trains, I understood. It would take them a lot to stop. There weren’t many fences, so cows would occasionally roam across the road. 

I arrived at Port Hedland at 12:30 pm and noticed signs for cyclone warnings. It was currently “All Clear.” I stopped at the beach that had a park with kids playing and people eating lunch at picnic tables. I stretched while enjoying the water and sun. 

Port Hedland is a port city. It didn’t appear there was much to do, and it was fairly run down. I walked to a cafe on the small Main Street and ate outside. I looked online for accommodation, but motels were expensive, and many weren’t available. I don’t know why, but the town gave me a weird vibe. 

I went back to my car to figure out what I was going to do. I looked at the map and saw that Eighty Mile Beach was two and a half hours away. There was a caravan park there which said people camping in tents didn’t need a reservation. I decided to drive there and stay at the campground. While I still had cell service, I booked an Airbnb for three nights in Broome. I would arrive the following day and wanted to make sure I had somewhere to stay. With it being the busy season, things were selling out quickly. 

Once that was booked, I drove a few minutes to a gas station. I put the nozzle in my tank, but the attendant was not turning the pump on. After a minute, a woman came outside and was frantically talking with a man. She looked in my direction and said, “Our card system is down. If you’re paying with a credit card, you’ll need to go somewhere else.” I didn’t want to use my cash, so I drove five minutes to another station. 

It’s rare to see a gas station in Australia that allows you to pay outside, but this station had a machine on an island to pay before pumping. After putting the nozzle in my car, I tried to pay for the fuel with my credit card. Twice, I got an error message saying the system was down.

I was frustrated and didn’t understand why everything was down. I drove another five minutes to the small airport and was able to pump my gas there. I went inside to pay, and a man was walking up to the counter. He told the woman who worked there that he had cash after all. Then the woman said, “Wait, the machine is back up.” She looked at me and told me to try to use my credit card. 

As I inserted my credit card, I shrugged, “Is your whole town out of service or what? This is the third gas station that the card reader hasn’t worked.” The woman looked frightened, “Yes, actually. We just had a huge earthquake!” Wait a minute, what?

The woman went on to tell me they had a 6.6 earthquake. The store was rattling and shaking as a few things fell to the floor. A lot of people were scared because of how powerful it was. I didn’t feel anything, and it must have occurred when I was driving to the first gas station. 

I got into my car and searched online to see where the epicenter was. It was in the ocean, directly between Port Hedland and Broome. The epicenter was directly across from Eighty Mile Beach, where I was headed. I was worried about Tsunamis, so I searched for warnings. The local website’s all said there wasn’t a tsunami warning, so I should be okay. 

I drove two and a half hours to the caravan park. Nothing was around, and the entrance was just a long dirt road leading to the ocean. A few cars had pulled over, but I thought they were just talking, so I drove past them. In my rearview mirror, I saw a guy waving his arms. I pulled over and got out of the car. I walked towards the man who was standing outside of a vehicle on the phone. The person he was speaking with was on speakerphone. 

The people in the car seemed annoyed. The man said the caravan park was full, and he was instructed to turn people away. He explained that to the woman on the phone, but the woman replied, “Well, we’re fitting cars in when they arrive.” Just like that, the car’s annoyed people decided to take their chances and drive down the road. I got in my car and drove towards the beach too. The other cars stayed at the entrance. 

I parked my car and went inside of the reception building, which also housed a restaurant. I asked if there was space for one tent. The guy said sure. As he got me booked in, I asked if he felt the earthquake. He replied, “Oh yeah! Things were rolling!” A few people nearby chimed in with their stories of what they experienced. I asked if it was safe there because I didn’t have cell service. The man told me it would be fine. 

I was directed to park my car parallel to a fence that surrounded a small grassy area. A few caravans were parked on the other side of the grass, and a family played soccer in the middle. It wasn’t the best spot, but I was close to the toilets and showers and had grass. I quickly got my tent set up and put my bedding inside. The sun was setting, so I wanted to see the beach before it was dark. 

The sun was beautiful as it set behind the ocean. The orange and red colors turned pink and blue as the moon rose on the opposite side. The beach was very long. It is eighty miles of uninterrupted beach. There’s nothing built on or around the beach, making it feel isolated. Four-wheel-drive trucks drove on the sand, and I wasn’t sure if they were camping on it. The tide made the ocean very far away, and the sand was compact from the water. I walked along the sand, trying to get closer to the water. After five minutes, I still wasn’t in the water. 

Then I realized that’s what happens when a tsunami hits – the water retreats. I walked back to the caravan park, and there was a lookout spot with benches. A man sat there enjoying the sunset. I asked, “Is this normal for the tide to go so far back? Or should we be worried about a tsunami?” The man told me that it was normal there. The tide goes very far back because it’s flat. He assured me we’d know if there was a tsunami warning. As we walked back to our campsites, he said, “If there is a tsunami, I’ll meet you at the front!” I replied, “I’ll swim to you!” 

When Japan had a massive tsunami years ago, I remember watching the live footage. It was around midnight in Los Angeles, so most people in the U.S. were asleep. For over an hour, I watched live footage from a helicopter following the water. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen on T.V. Boats, cars, and houses were swept away as unsuspecting people tried to run. The announcer had to keep reminding viewers it was live. They attempted to pan away when someone was about to get washed away, but it was often on camera. It was heartbreaking. I hoped there would not be a tsunami that night, and I figured it would have already hit if it were going to. 

I reheated my left-over dinner from the night before (rice, zucchini, cheese) under the bright moonlight. A 4X4 pulled up near me, and three young backpackers got out. They set up their swags and cooked their dinner. They didn’t seem very happy. I was reminded that sometimes it is better to be alone. I was glad that I didn’t take those two backpackers that I met in Perth. 

After dinner, I used the shower and got ready for bed. The previous night I did free-camping, so I wasn’t able to shower. It felt good to get clean and cozy in my sleeping bag. In my tent, I thought about the earthquake and how crazy it was that it happened. 

The following morning around 7:00 am, I was lying in my tent, waiting for the sun to rise and get a little warmer before I got out of my sleeping bag. Suddenly, I felt a gentle rocking and thought it was the wind. Then I realized it wasn’t just the sides of the tent rocking; my air mattress was shaking back and forth. We were having another earthquake. 

It was a 5.1 earthquake. The area would end up getting over 70 aftershocks from these two earthquakes. The place only gets an earthquake about every 20-30 years. The 6.6 earthquake had people shook up. It’s not too surprising – it broke records. The area hasn’t had an earthquake that large since the 1880s. People farther north in Darwin, to down south in Perth, felt it. It was the biggest earthquake ever recorded in Australia. Technically, it equaled the magnitude of an earthquake recorded in Tennant Creek, Northern Territory, in 1988. 

It was crazy to me because Los Angeles recently had three earthquakes in two days with a magnitude of 6.4, 5.4, and 7.1, respectively. I saw all of the Facebook posts about the rolling they experienced there. It had been a few years since Southern California had an earthquake strong enough that people felt it. Small earthquakes happen all the time; people just can’t feel them. In Australia, they don’t get the small quakes continuously, so it was a surprise. 

Two days earlier, I was abseiling into a class six gorge in Karijini National Park. When we were in the very bottom floating in tubes, I looked around at the incredibly high rocks above me. I imagined what sort of force it would take to create those caverns and gorges. I thought to myself, “That would be crazy if an earthquake hit right now. I wonder if rocks would fall on us.” Then two days later, it stuck. Thankfully nobody was hurt. Items fell off shelves in Broome and Port Hedland, but it could have been much worse.

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Published by Christy

I quit my corporate job and sold my house in Los Angeles so I can travel and write. I grew up in St. Louis, MO and moved to the Los Angeles area after college. I worked in the business world for 15 years. Follow along to see pictures and hear stories of people I've met along my journey so far - driving to Alaska.

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