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Last Updated: Monday, 25 April, 2005, 07:13 GMT 08:13 UK
Covering the Nias earthquake

By Ben Brown
BBC foreign affairs correspondent

Ben Brown on his motorbike
Petrol-soaked and hanging for dear life on to the back of a bouncing motorbike, my London mobile suddenly sprang into life

The timing was positively spooky.

Almost exactly three months on from the tsunami; another bank holiday (this time Easter Monday instead of Boxing Day); and Kevin Bakhurst, who had been in the holiday editor's chair on December 26, on duty once more.

He scrambled me with a call to my mobile - just as he had at Christmas. "You won't believe this Ben, but there's been another big earthquake off Indonesia. They think there could be a second tsunami."

Mercifully, although the underwater quake was one of extraordinary power - 8.7 on the Richter scale - there was no real tsunami effect.

So, no story? Try telling that to the people of Nias, an island with the catastrophic misfortune of lying right next to the epicentre of the quake.

Hundreds had been killed - only a tiny fraction of those who died on Boxing Day - but this was yet another trauma for Indonesia to cope with, so soon after the last. No wonder some nations feel cruelly cursed by Mother Nature.

The damage in Nias
Hundreds of people were killed by the earthquake

We managed to reach Nias surprisingly quickly. Newsgathering had chartered a plane from nearby Medan, but the pilot was hanging around waiting for clearance to take off, so we sped things along by jumping on a rather ageing Oxfam chopper instead.

I was conscious of the competition: we'd glimpsed ITN's Bill Neely at Heathrow and their Asia correspondent, John Irvine, was also on his way from Bangkok.

Torn apart

In the end, neither of them ever managed to get to Nias. We beat Sky and CNN, too, and had the story pretty much to ourselves. It's not often you have such a clear-cut victory over your rivals.

But when we landed in the middle of Asia's latest disaster zone, it was soon apparent this was going to be a monumental challenge of logistics.

First off, there was virtually no transport: the roads had been torn apart by the earthquake, so that only motorbikes could negotiate them. Secondly, there was no fuel.

Damaged road in Gunung Sitoli
The force of the earthquake tore the island's infrastructure apart

Eventually we managed to hire a fleet of motorbikes (plus owners) to chauffeur us round - pillion-style.

But the next challenge was to scour the island for black market petrol and diesel - not only for our newly acquired bikes, but also for our generator, without which we couldn't function since the earthquake had cut off all power supplies.

After much searching and haggling, I proudly purchased some fuel from a dodgy backstreet dealer.

I perched the jerry can precariously between my legs and ordered my motorbike driver to take me to my BBC colleagues.

It was only when I noticed my trousers were wet that I realised the container was leaking horribly.

It is three o'clock in the morning and I'm alone on a pitch-black road in the middle of an Indonesian island I'd never even heard of until the earthquake happened.

So there I was, petrol-soaked and hanging for dear life on to the back of a bouncing motorbike, when suddenly my London mobile sprang into life. Miraculously I had got a signal.

As we sped through the ruins of the main town, Gunung Sitoli, I put a call in to Six O'Clock News editor Amanda Farnsworth.

Should I tell her I was calling from the back of a bike? Should I admit I had been forced to squander much of my day on gathering fuel rather than news? Or that half that fuel was now down my previously impeccable chinos?

I decided it would all take too long to explain. The next problem was feeding [the footage back to London].

Stray dogs

The European Broadcasting Union had flown in a dish, and promised us it would be up and running in time to send our piece for the Six.

With just over an hour to go, they confessed it wouldn't be ready after all. Undaunted, we managed to send our piece via store-and-forward laptop computer and sat phones in world-record time - 50 minutes for a two-and-a-half minute report.

For the Ten, the EBU were finally in business. The only problem was that we'd run out of motorbikes to get from our rapidly acquired "BBC house" to the feed point.

An injured child in Gunung Sitoli
Ben Brown was reporting on the human tragedy of the earthquake

Your humble correspondent was thus reduced to a bicycle, helpfully provided by our landlord. He assured me it was the very best he had, but I could only curse him as the chain came off halfway into my journey.

Picture the scene. It is three o'clock in the morning and I'm alone on a pitch-black road in the middle of an Indonesian island I'd never even heard of until the earthquake happened.

I am now surrounded by a pack of stray dogs, barking and yelping at me as I haplessly turn the bicycle upside down and start trying to shove the chain back on with ever-increasing desperation.

Eventually I managed to do so, but only after covering my hands completely in oil and grease. What with that and my fuel-soaked trousers I now looked and smelt more like a mechanic than a reporter.


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