March 4-5, 1899 — Cyclone Mahina

Note: This story takes place in an area that’s probably unfamiliar to most people, so I’ve put together a map that provides an overview of key features and locations. You can refer to it here.

On the evening of Friday, March 3, 1899, H.P. Beach watched from his veranda as the sun slipped below the horizon, scattering rich hues of amber and crimson across the sky. The indigo waters of the Torres Strait lapped gently at the rocky beachside below, reflecting the last fading rays of the day. As the sunset ebbed and faded into darkness, a still more vivid display flared to life. A distant, rhythmic strobe illuminated the inky blackness of the far eastern sky, the scattered reflection of lightning from some faraway tempest looming just over the seam of the world. A look of concern spread across Beach’s pale, furrowed face.

Head Postmaster of Far North Queensland’s Thursday Island by trade, Beach was also an observant and skilled meteorologist. He took a particular interest in the tropical disturbances that occasionally troubled Australia’s northern coast in the late-summer months, and he recognized warning signs when he saw them. The dazzling, brick-red sunsets. The stifling heat, still oppressive even hours after night had washed over the region. The utter stillness, which seemed to suck the very life from the air and the sea. The distant lightning, flaring beyond the horizon as if to send silent signal of an approaching malevolence.

It was too hot for sleep, so Beach slumped heavily into a wicker chair on his veranda. Taking in the clues nature had laid before him, he felt an uneasy apprehension wash over him. A storm was coming, and soon the deceptively calm tropical seas would rise, whipped to great and terrible heights by a cyclone more violent than the humble postmaster could ever have envisioned.

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