The lightning came in as we were dining, the whole lot of us, on the bronze-coloured wooden deck of the restaurant. My memory fails to recall the name of the place; only that it had been suggested as a suitable place for a group dinner by our host, Tracy. A check of my diary confirms it was called "Escape", and my dish was chicken in a delicious cheese and cream sauce. (Diaries are handy at times like this as I was never terribly good at fine brushstrokes; great swathes of experience is my preferred method of conveying meaning).
It was the spring of '06, and Australia was still reeling from the death of Steve Irwin. We, however, we far away on Ios, in the Cyclades, in the Aegean Sea. The questions of life and death seemed no more important than whether we would have enough sunblock to get us to Santorini in a few days' time.
Dinner was full of colour and conversation as usual, with the various Aussies, Kiwis and Poms who inevitably dominate such touring groups talking bollocks at every opportunity, and regaling each other with stories of the trip so far, or previous trips further away. Wine was followed by ouzo shots all round, the bitter aniseed taste resulting in lip-smacking and many a scrunched nose. All the while the sheet lightning in the distance created a dramatic background to the main town of Ios, perched as it is on the side of the hill, with the port on one side and our accommodation down the other. Summer had gone, but there were traces of it still in the air, crackling with humidity and electricity and alcohol.
By that stage, the Wah and I had become incredibly close with a young Liverpuddlian named Mike, who was christened "Mixmaster" by the Wah and has remained ever since. During our partying exploits the previous night, Mixmaster had wandered off and discovered a bar selling two cocktails and a schnapps chaser for five euros. He was determined to drag the pair of us back to that place, to once again slap down a tenner and lose himself in several "Sex on a Beach" (Sexes on a Beach? Sex on Beaches? How do you pluralise that particular concoction?) .
Mike's energy was infectious, and we were soon clambering up the steps that formed most of the hillside towns thoroughfares. With the homing instinct of a pigeon on steroids, Mix had us in the Shamrock bar with drink in hand within ten minutes of abandoning the rest of the group at the Australian-run "Fun Bar", where they'd gone to take advantage of friendly bar staff and chug-em drinking games. Within five minutes, rain began to pour down outside the bar doors. We raised our glasses and figured we'd wait it out.
The rain was followed by thunder. Then heavier rain. Reconnaissance missions into the square outside the hillside showed no sign of a break in the weather. The normally bone-dry island of Ios was experiencing its first real rainfall of the season. And we were stuck in it.
After a few more drinks, we decided to leg it to the Fun Bar, to rejoin our heroic band of all-weather adventurers. Trouble was, this involved dashing madly through a now-downpour for at least 300 metres, down a hill, round a corner, then up another slope. Mix set off at a cracking pace. Over 180cm tall and lanky, he was soon out of sight, 'til we could only followed the distant sound of "This way, lads!", before losing track of him altogether. The Wah and I splashed down vertical canals that had been steps twenty minutes earlier, our clothes increasingly sodden, though our mood remained light. It was not so cold, nor were we too old, to enjoy a stomp about in the wild rain on this wild night.
After scrambling around the fence of a church and running part way up the main street, we found Mix, taking shelter under the awning of a bicycle hire shop, and shaking with excitement and too many white spirits. "Orright, lads? Where have yer been?" he yelled at us, his voice barely audible over the driving rain on the bitumen. Our replies of "You took off! You ran too fast!" obviously weren't audible at all, as we had barely stopped for ten seconds when Mix yelled "I'm going to make it to the bar! Come on! It's just up the road!" - and he was off again, streaking up the road through the golden street lights, soon enveloped by the night and the rain.
The concrete pavement outside the bike shop was a good 30 centimetres off street level, but the water was rising fast. Within seconds it would begin to spill over, making it hard for us to jump off and get a good footing on the road. We geared ourselves up, and made the leap across the drain onto the road, and headed to the footpath opposite. The current on the river road was strong, it tore at our ankles and calves, and could have knocked us over had we stayed still for any length of time. We made it to the footpath, which was slightly raised and therefore less torrential, and began moving quickly but steadily
Then the electricity on the entire island went off.
The main street was plunged into darkness. We yelped, and immediately stopped. Walking in the pitch black is one thing, but walking in the pitch black in a tempest was quite another. We slowly began our pace up the slope of the main street, our eyes slowly readjusting. After what seemed like an hour, but was probably closer to five or six minutes, we came upon the Fun Bar.
Soaked to the bone, exhausted and starting to get cold, we clambered up the front steps of the full but dark bar. It had no electricity either, of course, but the managers had found some candles to plonk on the tables for light. We staggered inside and found our group. All were amazed to see us - it had been almost an hour since we finished dinner and they thought we had gone home. "No,", we cried. "We went with Mix to get cheap drinks and got caught by the storm!" The rest of the group had planned to move on from the Fun Bar, but when the storm hit they decided to hole up and ride it out. When the electricity went out, they knew they would be there for some time, as Ios taxi drivers apparently don't brave the rain. I couldn't blame them.
All were impressed with our marathon effort to get to the pub - one of the bar girls even offered me a staff t-shirt to wear and hung mine over the back of a chair. We eventually found Mix huddled in a corner, his beloved camera placed tenderly on the table in front of him. He had taken it with him, and it hadn't escaped the drenching despite being secured in his pants pocket. We sat round a table and began playing a drinking game, which involved naming as many things in a particular category as you could until someone failed, taking a drink. I played with Diet Coke, my usual tipple. The game was amusing enough to keep us occupied until about 2am, when we decided enough of the storm had passed for us to brave the walk home. Some were planning to kick on, but about eight of us wanted at least some sleep.
The electricity had yet to be switched back on, but this didn't worry the Wah and I, as we had walked down the winding road to our beachside accommodation the previous night, and were acquainted with the road. Neither of us was as inebriated as the other trippers, so we were confident we could wrangle the group home without incident. Mixmaster Mike, however, was paranoid, and became convinced that we were headed the wrong way. He strode out to the front of the group, some fifty metres ahead of the rest, repeating "We going the wrong way, we're going the wrong way".
The Wah asked that I keep up with Mix, while he would accompanying the rest of the group, who were all girls. So for the next three-quarters of an hour, while we strode home - fast, but not fast enough to stop me freezing in my still-wet clothes - I trotted a few paces behind Mix, saying calmly, "Just follow the lines in the road, Mix. They're taking us home. No, we are going the right way. We did it last night."
As the road flattened out, and Mix could see the beach and ocean to our right, he relaxed, knowing that finally he was almost home. We made it back to our hotel, which was divided into two sections, one with simple shared bungalows, the other comprised of self-contained rooms in a village-style layout. We noticed downed trees in the darkness, but there was still no power, and no light to get a true picture of what had happened.
We saw Mix off at the entrance to his side of the hotel, and diverted back to the village side where we were staying. The pathways underneath cracked with twigs and sticks, scattered everywhere by the high winds. Our room was unscathed, and despite not having any power hot water, was welcome enough. I peeled off my saturated clothing by crank torchlight, dried off, and crawled into bed.
Upon waking about seven hours later, the true scope of the storm became apparent. The side of Ios where we were staying had suffered through a mini-tornado. Whole trees had been uprooted and blasted onto the road and the beach opposite the hotel. One of the pools had a tree half in it. The bungalow side of the hotel had copped it worst - Mix's bag got completely soaked after a tree fell against the roof of his room causing a crack, followed by a leak.
There was still no power and no hot water, and it was with bleary eyes and tired skin that we greeted each other in the lobby for check out. Our bags stacked in a storage room, we crashed out by the beautiful pool that was still in full working condition, as repair crews got to work on fallen power lines and tree removal.
It was one of the stormiest nights I've ever experienced, in a place I'd never imagined I'd experience such a maelstrom. But it was also one of the best nights I've ever spent, and it's hard for me now to look at the lightning, the thunder and the rain pummelling South-East Queensland, and not cast my mind back, just for a second or two, to the sturm und drang of a little island in the Cyclades, in the Aegean Sea, when we saw real Greek fire.