Mission accomplished

On the Cassowary Coast of north Queensland, Sian Prior finds spirits are buoyant and post-cyclone recovery is well underway.

In the back room of Innisfail's historical museum, past the antique egg cups, the yellowing christening gowns and the old war rifles, is a collection of black-and-white photographs labelled "Cyclone, March 10th, 1918". The images show wooden buildings littering the main street like spilled matchsticks. Men in braces and hats stand beside the piles of wood, hands on hips.

There's something familiar about the cheerful look on their faces. It's the same expression I've been seeing all week on the faces of Mission Beach residents - like the woman in the supermarket who told me: "I'd rather have a cyclone than a flood or bushfire any day."

On February 3, cyclone Yasi hit tropical north Queensland, destroying property and crops along the length of what's known as the Cassowary Coast, from Babinda in the north to Cardwell in the south. The category-5 storm caused massive damage to the resort infrastructure at Hayman, Dunk and Bedarra islands. While Hayman Island reopened this week, Dunk and Bedarra won't be taking bookings until at least April next year.

At Mission Beach, two hours' drive south of Cairns, the waterfront facilities (including the Clump Point Jetty and boat ramp) were ripped to pieces. Most buildings suffered some kind of structural or water damage. The irrepressible residents, however, have picked themselves up, repaired their buildings and resumed the tourist trade. According to the manager of Mission Beach Tourism, Angi Matveyeff, two-thirds of the town's cafes and restaurants are operating and almost all accommodation has reopened.

We're staying at Castaways Resort and Spa, where the gym remains closed due to water damage. Otherwise, Castaways is fully operational and many rooms have been refurbished.

Walking south along the beach towards Wongaling Beach, we marvel at the resilience of Mission Beach's picturesque coconut palms. The tidal surge that followed Yasi gouged the sand from under these trees, leaving their spaghetti-like root systems exposed. Most clung on, though, and have survived.

Occasionally we come across a rusting fridge half-buried in the sand. It's hard to know whether this is detritus left by Yasi or if it's been here since cyclone Larry swept through in March 2006. Two decades before Larry, cyclone Winifred damaged 190 buildings in and around Innisfail. (On the road between Mission Beach and neighbouring El Arish, one wag has left a hand-painted sign: "Hi Winifred, I'm in ELarrysh, got my Yasi kicked by every cyclone.")

Cyclones aside, this part of north Queensland is one of the wettest regions in the country. The nearby town of Tully receives an annual average of 4000 millimetres of rain, symbolised by its giant Golden Gumboot monument.

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There are showers almost every day during our visit and strong wind, too, which is bad news for our planned island-hopping day trip with Coral Sea Kayaking. It's good news, however, for the people hiring out blo karts from the Adventure Centre (rebuilt on wheels after Yasi, for a quick getaway).

We make the most of the sunny breaks, dropping in at the visitor information centre and the C4 Environment Centre to find out how the endangered cassowaries have survived Yasi.

These flightless blue-necked birds have inspired their own monument at South Mission Beach. Bus drivers like to advise backpackers that the five-metre tall concrete and steel "man-eating" cassowary is "life-size". (Fortunately, most don't buy it).

"Their habitat has been damaged, so the cassowaries are confused and hungry," we're told. "They're wandering into places they don't usually go, like car parks, looking for food."

The birds can usually find a meal at one of about 100 rainforest feeding stations established on the Cassowary Coast, where rangers leave fruit for them each week.

The rainforest damage is visible on the Licuala Fan Palm Walk in the Tam O'Shanter National Park. A decade ago I wandered here under a dappled canopy of native palms, keeping an eye out for wallabies and cassowaries. Now we marvel at the trunks of immense eucalypts, their roots bared, lying fallen beside the path. The little signs alerting visitors to different plant species have become advertisements for ghost trees.

Intrigued by descriptions of Innisfail as the "art deco capital of Australia", we head north on the Bruce Highway through canefields, stopping to pick up a heritage walk brochure at the Innisfail Information Centre. The roof here is covered with a tarp but otherwise it's business as usual.

Innisfail is architectural proof that good things can come from bad. The cyclone that ripped the town to pieces in 1918 prompted an art-deco building boom in the 1920s and '30s. Wooden constructions were replaced by more sturdy concrete and brick buildings, with the decorative curved and hand-tiled facades, porthole windows and geometric leadlight designs of the era. Starting at the Johnstone River, we follow the heritage walk around town, pausing to admire the freshly painted deco-style banks, arcades and cafes.

The Innisfail & District Historical Society Inc Museum is housed inside the blue-and-white deco glory of the Memorial School of Arts, where we stare at old photos of the cyclone-ravaged town. Finally we head up the hill to where Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church presides over the town. It's a grand confection of cream-and-gold turrets, fully refurbished after cyclone Larry. Like the rest of the town, it seems to have survived Yasi's fury with minimal damage.

We drive back along the winding Old Bruce Highway, known as Canecutter Way, through a long valley of canefields flanked by cloud-topped mountains. As we pass the silver towers of the Bundaberg Sugar Mill in South Johnstone, the sickly sweet smell of processed sugar follows us down the road.

At Mena Creek, we pull in to a crowded car park and follow the signs to the entrance of Paronella Park.

We can hear rushing water as our tour guide leads us down a steep path towards a patch of remnant rainforest. Suddenly, in front of us is a ruined castle with turrets and, right beside it, a gushing waterfall drops into a hidden valley. Our guide explains that a Spanish immigrant named Jose Paronella made his fortune in the 1930s, buying and selling Queensland cane farms. He bought five hectares of rainforest, built a small cottage for his family and employed local labourers to construct this astonishing Spanish-style castle beside the Mena Creek. He hired out the glamorous ballroom for weddings and dances and invited courting couples to wander along the landscaped paths he created in the rainforest. Visitors played on his tennis courts, swam in the creek at the bottom of the falls and bought ice-creams made by his wife, Margarita.

Paronella was an innovator, installing Queensland's first privately owned hydro-electric power plant under the waterfall. After his death, the property changed hands several times and a fire in the ballroom caused extensive damage. Floods and cyclones have also taken their toll and the castle is now a series of picturesque moss-covered ruins. But someone has always rescued the heritage-listed Paronella Park from natural disaster and these days it's one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state.

On the way back to Mission Beach we detour via Silkwood to visit Murdering Point Winery. Here, the Berryman family produces award-winning wines with tropical fruits.

We buy a bottle of sweet lychee wine and that evening we raise a toast to the never-say-die spirit of tropical north Queenslanders.

Sian Prior stayed courtesy of Castaways Resort and Spa.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Mission Beach is midway between Townsville and Cairns. Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly to Cairns non-stop from Sydney (about 3hr) and Melbourne (3hr 25min). Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly from Sydney to Townsville (2hr 45min); only Jetstar flies non-stop from Melbourne (3hr). You could fly to Cairns, drive to Mission Beach and drop off the car at Townsville Airport.

The best way to get around the region is by car: hire from East Coast Rentals (eastcoastcarrentals.com.au) and Sugarland Car Rentals (sugarland.com.au).

Paronella Park is open daily, 9am-7.30pm. Adults $36, children $18, families $98; the price includes a guided tour. Camping and cabin accommodation is available; see paronellapark.com.au.

Staying there

Castaways Resort and Spa at Mission Beach has 51 rooms and apartments located 20 metres from the beach. Rooms cost from $155 a night; see castaways.com.au.

More information

Mission Beach Tourism, see missionbeachtourism.com. Innisfail art deco, see artdeco-innisfail.com.au/home.html.

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