WE watch them digging for the dead. Sweating men covered in dust and dirt clambering over the rubble, hauling away jagged chunks of concrete by hand as the afternoon sun beats down.

“Two people trapped under there,” one local yells, pointing with his thumb.

He has to shout over the roar of a jackhammer and a cacophony of car horns and sirens.

A rescue worker wades over through air as thick as soup. “No one alive,” he says in disagreement, mopping his brow.

My cameraman Neil Smith motions me to stand in front of the camera. It’s Thursday afternoon, four days after a 7-magnitude quake rocked the Indonesian island of Lombok.

We are working in what remains of a village somewhere up in the north. I look down the lens of the camera: This is what I say: “Back here on Lombok, rescuers continue to search through the rubble. But with no water, in this heat, hope is fading fast.”

I finish speaking. Suddenly, inexplicably, I’m stumbling.

It hits you like concussion. You lose seconds. It eats angles and straight lines. The roar of tectonic plates smashing against each other is bigger than sound. You can hear it with your skin.

The crack of sedimentary bones breaking, the sheer assault of a million vibrations and clashing things unleashed — you can feel it in your teeth.

I can see the building behind Neil undulating like jelly. The ground is violently trying to throw me off, bucking and jumping.

I’m surfing soil. Aftershock, I suddenly realise. And it’s a big one.

Not even the thunder of stone on stone can drown out the screams. The ground is still heaving, but already people are staggering away from the coast.

We go with them, mob mentality kicking in: Danger, follow the herd. I yell at Neil, one step ahead of me. “Are you filming?” He is.

And suddenly it’s a stampede, everyone running inland, away from the water. A wild-eyed man grabs at my shirt. “Tsunami,” he yells in English, “TSUNAMI.”

The ground stops shaking. Neil and I slow and pause, the scooters and sprinters streaming around us until everyone who’s running has run.

The silence is sudden and unnerving. A few nervous people remain, most wearing uniforms of one kind or another.

Our driver, who quite sensibly abandoned us when the quake struck, hovers anxiously ahead, jumping from foot to foot, clearly wanting to flee.

Agonising minutes later, we get the all clear. No tsunami warning: 5.9 on the scale; 6.2, according to another source.

“It’s OK,” I say. And it is. But only for Neil and me, because we can leave.

This is life now on the island of Lombok, rocked by more 450 aftershocks in the past week.

More than 320 people are dead. Thousands are injured. Tens of thousands homeless and displaced. Many of those buried alive are still deemed missing. The unofficial death toll is even higher. Everyone agrees, the final tally of those killed will continue to rise for weeks as bodies are finally found.

Lombok, for me, is an island at the end of a wallowing ferry ride. A place where two shirtless men tried to rob me at the port, and my wife got sick after eating poorly prepared chicken. It’s also a place of tiny villages and rice paddies and swaying palms, a good spot for Bintang on the beach, where children chase you down narrow streets for a wave and a hello.

They are memories from a holiday — banked long ago — and they jar with what I see now.

We drive north, deeper into the devastation, where the quakes have hit hardest and the aftershock we’ve just endured has killed more.

There are massive mosques missing minarets. There are villages, reduced to rubble. There are places where the sides of mountains have sheered off, and the roads are spider-webbed with cracks and chasms.

There’s a hospital that’s damaged and overflowing, the carpark a concrete emergency room.

And there’s a tension, a wariness in everyone, that I now understand.

Friends gently pulling friends away from walls that might collapse. People here say “be safe”, like they used to say “goodbye”.

Tens of thousands of buildings here have been destroyed or damaged. Those who have lost homes sleep outside in makeshift camps. Many of those who still have homes join them. No one wants be caught inside, and buried alive, should the quakes strike again.

The tiny tremors that come in the night used to wake me up for just a second. Now I’m looking around, planning escape routes.

The road north is narrow and clogged with traffic. We are inching along in a convoy of cars and vans and trucks loaded with supplies, going against the tide that is heading south, trying to get out.

Neil agrees.

Out at sea on our left: the low silhouettes of the Gili Islands. I’d also been there on that long-ago holiday. Our colleague, Paul Walker, is out there now with a camera.

He films stories of dwindling supplies, rape and looting.

The day before, Neil and another colleague, Robert Ovadia, visited a collapsed mosque where rescuers were digging frantically.

Fifty people were believed to be trapped beneath an emerald green dome that once adorned the roof, now perched on a pancake of debris.

I inquire about the rescue when we stop to film.

“Only one person pulled out of the mosque alive,” I’m told.

We move on, passing locals lining the roads with boxes.

They are begging for donations of money, food or water.

“Help us,” an old man yells.

But the tourists are gone, more than 3000 evacuated in the past week. The people in the untouched south of the island are trying to help their northern neighbours. But most of the locals here have their own problems. The cars don’t stop. The boxes remain empty.

We run into the Red Cross on the west coast. They tell us there are still villages cut off.

Even yesterday, six days after the big earthquake, aid workers were arriving in places that had yet to receive any help, greeted by broken bones, thirst and hunger.

In another village, I meet a big man named Rehim. He takes me to his friend’s home. The front door is still standing, but nothing else is.

We drink Lombok coffee, brewed somewhere in the ruins, while children dig dirty toys out of the rubble behind us.

“No one has been to help us yet,” Rehim says. “We have lost everything.” And still, he invites me to come back to his makeshift camp for a meal.

It’s time to get out though, and we can’t get a flight, so we decide to go by sea. At the port, as our boat pulls away and we watch truckloads of emergency supplies coming in, I realise my impression of this place will be forever changed.

Lombok, to me, is an island at the start of a wallowing ferry ride.

Lombok is people digging through rubble with their bare hands, hoping, when all hope is lost.

Lombok is a villager taking food from the aid package he’s just received, and offering to share it with me.

Lombok is a place where people who have lost everything still have the heart to give.