The news bulletins insisted that severe Tropical Cyclone Rona was heading for the coast just north of Port Douglas. But Cape Tribulation residents knew in their hearts that it was coming straight for Cape Tribulation. Then at 7pm on Thursday 11 February, 1999, the Bureau of Meteorology announced that Cyclone Rona had turned north. Over the following three or four hours, Cape Tribulation suffered the worst devastation this century. As Rona crossed the coast the wind speed reached 170 - 225 km/h (Category 3). The noise from the wind was terrifying. The deafening howl was broken only by the sound of crack, crack, crack as trees snapped.

Some quotes on the magnitude of the damage:

Paul Mason, long time resident at Cape Tribulation: "I have seen quite a few cyclones in my time, but never one quite as destructive to the rainforest as Rona. There was absolute devastation. Wind speeds were up to 220 km/hr along the beach front. Trees were corkscrewed out of the ground and others were snapped off at the base."

Crocodylus Resort owner Terry Rogers, at Cow Bay: "It looks like someone came up with the biggest brushcutter and just took parts out of the forest and dumped it on the town."

Julatten banana grower Karen Langfield: "It's floored me. I am speechless and don't know what to say. I have experienced a 100 per cent loss. We are completely destitute; we are just broke."

Donna Young from the Cow Bay Hotel: "It's just unbelievable. Where there was dense forest, there is just nothing. There's trees down everywhere and houses are damaged."

Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm - our house sitter, Gill Palmer: "Your orchard looks like toothpicks."

We were on holiday in South West Tasmania at the time and oblivious to the destruction. We had walked into a remote airstrip on the south west coast at Port Davey, after 15 days of wilderness walking. We had no inkling that anything was amiss. Stuck to our food package in the airstrip shed was a yellow sticky note which said: "Gotts - your property has severe property damage from cyclone". Lucky for us that a small dinghy pulled into the jetty and they were able to arrange via handheld radio for the yacht in the bay to make a phone call by satellite phone to our caretakers. Once we discovered that the house, farm buildings and the animals were all OK, we decided to continue with our walking holiday and headed back into the south west.

Assessing the damage to our farm:

Buildings, machinery and stock had suffered no damage. The orchard showed extensive superficial damage but the long term economic future appeared to be unaffected. This later proved to be the case. Our major crops of Mangosteen (250 trees) and Salak (1200 plants) had suffered little while other species planted to lift diversity and provide shade, such as bananas and legumes, have been decimated. Gross physical damage to trees was largely confined to 3 bands about 30 metres wide, running through the block. The ribbons of damage ran essentially east - west, meaning that rows of trees planted north - south are more likely to go down than trees in rows planted east - west.

Detail of orchard damage February 1999 and comments nearly 3 years later in January 2002

February 1999January 2002
12 coconuts at the farm gate entrance planted in 1988 have been flattened. In their falling, they also took out several Icecream Bean, and broken two Mangosteens in half.Idiotically we have replanted the coconuts in the same place. Don't ask why. The Icecream Beans have regrown completely. The two Mangosteens have reshot from the break and one of these is now flowering for the first time, at 11 years old.
All mature or near mature sugar bananas were on the ground. Total loss of around 50 formed bunches and another 100 which would have formed over the next 4 months.We have now cut out all the bananas that were interplanted in the Salak and Mangosteen rows, as they were starting to shade out the trees.
Eight (of 18) Breadfruit have been pruned from 10m high down to around 3 m, but none have been killed.Regrowth has been rapid and taking tour groups through the orchard, people find it hard to believe that these trees were described as toothpicks 3 years ago. Now bearing a heavy crop.
Two Black Sapote (of 9) have been uprooted, and damaged beyond repair. Others show no damage apart from loss of crop (due for picking in April).In fact we have lost 3 of our trees - one took another season to die. Unfortunately it was our best tree with fruit the size of grapefruit. We have had a crop each year since the cyclone.
Most of our Durians were within the second damage band. Six have been broken off at ground level, 6 have lost at least half of their timber, '8 are undamaged except for windburn and leaf drop.Heavy pruning of the survivors meant vigorous sucker growth, and these canopies are now back to pre-cyclone cover. However the wood is still too young to produce flowers. Several of our older trees which seemed to come through the cyclone unscathed have now succumbed to a soil disease and look very unhealthy.
Ten (of 24) Abiu have been broken off at ground level or damaged beyond repair.These 10 trees were pruned heavily and suckered. These suckers were selected for growth and now the trees are cropping again. Even those we thought were damaged beyond repair have survived.
One (of 6) Mamey Sapote screwed out of the ground. Others are undamaged and still hold immature fruit.The Mameys that remain continue as if nothing has happened.
Six (of 22) Rambutan are bent to the ground. Two of these have been pruned to 2 meters and staked up, the others are damaged beyond recovery.One of the staked trees has survived, the other has died. We are now getting our first crop since the cyclone.
Three of 5 Rollinia torn out of the ground.The two remaining trees are now looking sick.
Six of 15 Soursop bent to ground level. These have been pruned at the stump, with the stump still on its side.These six soursops had vigorous sucker growth which was thinned to 3 or 4 major leaders. Now thriving and have picked the first crops from them.
Of 14 Rambai most have been pushed over to 45 degrees lean. They have been staked and pruned.The Rambai are now in heavy flower and you can still observe the 45 degree lean of the main trunk, though now the new branches are growing vertically from the pruned stumps.
Jakfruit showed little damage - only where weak from Pink's disease or hit by another tree, usually coconuts where they went down.Jakfruit in the windbreaks seem OK though some have developed Pinks disease since the cyclone, but not sure if this is related.
Mangosteen, were only damaged by being hit by falling trees, usually coconuts or Jakfruit. Two were snapped in half. Four had several branches snapped. Twenty or so were leaning to 45 degrees or so and have been staked after being bent straight.The staking of the Mangosteens into vertical positions seems to have worked - we had very heavy rain in the months following the cyclone, giving the trees time to adjust. Four were killed by enthusiastic stake drivers who pierced the tap root hammering in the stakes at an angle to the tree. All the trees which were snapped off are now in heavy flower for the first time.
Salaks were basically undamaged although all were leaning or completely squashed. Maintenance was difficult for six months or so until they grew upright. Many were buried under bananas for up to one month before being uncovered.Salaks have survived with little damage in the long term.

Coconut is a poor choice for a shelter belt. If they break, the whole plant goes, causing much collateral damage due to the wide crown. We are now removing the coconuts that were planted in inter-rows with Mangosteens. Breadfruit may work well in spite of being so weak. No trees were broken low down, and all recovered. Fiji Longan may also be successful in a similar way, but the sample size is too small. Mangosteen and Salak are excellent choices for commercial crops in cyclone areas. It is worth pruning and selecting suckers and taking the trouble to stake trees upright again - keep in mind that we had 1000mm of rain over 4 days in March soon after the cyclone. Softwooded species such as Santol, Rambai and Durian are easily damaged but reshoot quickly. Need to watch to see how long these trees take to bearing fruit again - it looks like about 3 years.

When you remember what destruction took place in our orchard, it is hard to imagine the destruction now. Everything has been cleared up and trees are covered with full canopies. People doing the farm tour are amazed that the farm has recovered so quickly. So are we. We hope there will never be another cyclone the intensity of Rona while we are alive but if there is, I feel sure that we will come through it - I just can't bear the thought of all the work in clearing up the mess again. It took us six months of chainsawing and removing countless trailer loads of timber from the orchard. There is an empty space in our orchard where a lychee used to grow - one of Don Gray's that we won in a RFC raffle - and every time I walk past this space I wonder what happened to it - there was nothing left, just a hole in the ground. In the approaching wet season we plan to fill in all the gaps left by dead trees - this means about another 100 fruit trees that we will be able to squeeze in that would not have fitted before - a wonderful opportunity to plant some new varieties.

Alison and Digby Gotts,
Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm, Cape Tribulation, Queensland

DATE: March 2002

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