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Queensland after the deluge

Queensland after the deluge

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Sunshine State today

After the Great Flood, the story goes, Noah sent out a small bird to gauge whether or not it was safe to emerge from the ark. The bird brought back a twig, and so the animals and surviving members of his family returned to land and moved on with the rest of the Bible. Owing to a considerable technological leap since then, birds have now been replaced with the internet, and locations hit by biblical-proportion disasters can, as a result, be assessed from afar with the click of a button.

In the last few months Queensland has gone through a series of infamous catastrophes that have tested the limits of infrastructure and devastated entire communities. But hyperbole and rumour have written off far more of the state than either floods or Cyclone Yasi ever did. Did you know, for example, that the Sunshine Coast was wholly unaffected? Even as the citizens of Far North Queensland buckled down under mattresses in their bathrooms, Wet'n'Wild wasn't wetter or more wild than any normal day. Batman continued to save Gotham at Movie World on a continuous loop, and the dolphins at Sea World remained confined to their regular tanks even as cars floated away down the main street of Toowoomba a few hours away.

To put the kibosh on unfounded pessimism, we've flown the length and breadth of the state to bring you an update on conditions and recovery. And like any major destination affected by natural disasters, the best means of support you can offer after an initial cleanup is simply to leave your holiday plans in place.

The eye of the storm

You know you're in the tropics when the hotel information book has, on the first page, a cyclone alert system ranging from 'white' (landfall within 24 hours) to 'red' (it's here). Such is the situation at Castaways Resort at Mission Beach on the Cassowary Coast, two hours south of Cairns. When Yasi touch landed near Mission Beach in the early hours of 3 February 2011, winds were paired with a tidal surge that pushed the ocean up onto the coast, destroying trees and property. The Castaways pool took ten days to be rid of glass, sand and pumice, but to look at it now you'd never know. A cyclone like this so soon after Larry in 2006 would defeat lesser people, but the owners are resilient: in fact, they're inspired to take a turn to solar power for the future.

This attitude of 'onwards and upwards' is indicative of the whole region. Yes, Yasi was destructive. Townsville sustained minor damage, but the worst hit in Far North Queensland were Mission Beach, Innisfail, Cardwell and surrounds. The agricultural cost is large: nearly 100% of the region's banana crop was affected; and losses of avocados and exotic fruits are estimated at between $275 and $400 million. A number of varieties are lost for the entire season, which a visit to your local Woolies nationwide will confirm. But like Castaways residents aren't throwing in the towel, they're looking ahead: visitors to the region won't find a community dwelling in trauma, but one celebrating the things it's made and looking to fortify them for coming years.

In March, for example, less than eight weeks after Yasi's visit, Innisfail hosted the Feast of the Senses, an annual celebration of local produce. People lined up to taste new tropical varieties of fruit at more than 70 stalls, including Amazon custard apple and the exquisite vanilla from Broken Nose Vanilla Farm. It rained during the day, but the organiser summed up an entire community's forward-thinking when somebody said to her "It would be nice if it wasn't raining."

"Yes," she responded, "but then nothing would be growing."

This adamant buoyancy is shared by year-round attractions, too. Popular resort The Elandra is in preparation for an upcoming relaunch. Paronella Park, voted Queensland's number one 'must do' in RACQ's recent survey, is open for business and as green as ever. The park is a strange garden of overgrown moss and elaborate concrete structures built by the Spaniard José Paronella in the 1930s. Leaves and foliage stripped by Yasi grew back in a matter of days, and as for the regular rain, well, the owner finds a beauty in it. Everything looks greener and more alive, he said. And it's true.

Floods to amaze even Noah

Before Yasi there were the floods of January and December 2010, which led to three quarters of the state being declared a disaster zone after a number of rivers burst their banks and rural towns were isolated by rising waters. The Lockyer Valley features prominently here, as does the widely-televised flash flood through Toowoomba. The towns of Condamine, Dalby and Chinchilla were also flooded on more than one occasion.

But water recedes. Evaporation causes the ground to dry out and nature springs back, fuller than ever. Travellers considering a visit to the under-appreciated rural expanse of the state can take comfort in the fact that your chances of getting bogged are all but zero — unless you purposely drive into the Burnett or Condamine Rivers.

Like Innisfail with its Feast of the Senses, Chinchilla had its own celebration of resilience in February with the Melonfest, a biannual event which started as a way of rallying the community together in a time of severe drought. Different disaster, same sentiment: watermelons, the local produce, exploded in a contest of melon skiing and iron man heats that drew international attention.

But there's more to see here than just an unusual festival. Incomparable fishing, fossicking, water sports and the Barkula State Forest fall on a series of tourist drives that are all open, ready for visitors — and completely dry.

So what really happened in Brisbane?

First of all, Brisbane is not in Far North Queensland, so Yasi was never a threat to the capital. Second, though Brisbane was affected by torrential flooding, this translates to only 5% of the city. Leaving 95% wholly unaffected.

And thankfully for that unfortunate 5%, the prognosis is bright: The Stamford Plaza celebrated its grand reopening in March, restoring luxe accommodation to Brisbane. This joins the famous CityCat and river cruises, which are back in service, and, most significantly, Brisbane's Southbank. Little Stanley Street and Grey Street are hives of activity, while pools, beaches and lagoons have staggered re-openings from April onwards. Similarly, the cultural centre has reopened its doors after a thorough spring clean. This includes the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Queensland Museum South Bank, Queensland Art Gallery, the State Library, and the popular Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA).

GoMA is currently in preparations for its next big exhibition - Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams, opening 11 June. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but given the surrealism of the last few months that's rocked the Sunshine State, museum walls seems like a safer bet for this sort of thing. Everybody else can get back to reality, business as usual.

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