A few weeks ago a friend posted a photo of a weather map on facebook. It was a beautiful assortment of colors, whirling blues, greens and pinks. It caught my eye as I whizzed down my feed trying to catch up with what everybody’s been up to. With my book, The Durian Guide to Thailand, nearly finished I’d pretty much been ignoring everyone except my parents. The weather map made me pause, finger hovered over the scroll dial, as I read the message. I called to Rob in the other room – “What do we do?”
In honor of the wreckage in Cooktown, here are some photos we took literally one week before the cyclone.
First thing, I called our friend-in-durian, Alan Zappala. He’s lived in the area all his life, weathering Class 5 storms like Cyclone Yasi. That storm alone wiped out 900 of his durian trees, turning the trees end over end like 9 meter tumble weeds. I’d seen the disfigured stumps dotting Alan’s farm, the surviving trees laid flat on the ground snakelike before righting themselves toward the sun.
I figured he’d know what to do, because I sure didn’t.
|Stumps from Cyclone Yasi|
I’m from Oregon. We don’t get cyclones, hurricanes, or tornadoes. We don’t get earthquakes. Heck, it rarely does more than drizzle in Oregon (but we get Class 5 Drizzle all the time. It’s very traumatic). I had no idea what to do to prepare for a cyclone.
I asked Alan what Cyclone Yasi was like. “It was like having a jet plane roaring outside your door,” Alan said. “It was bloody scary, Lindsay.”
This cyclone’s name was Ita, and it was still somewhere out in the ocean near Papua New Guinea. It was destined to hit Cooktown first, and then head south along the coast toward Cairns. We had visited Cooktown with my mom and dad literally one week earlier. It was a quaint, quiet little town with lots of boats and some great sunsets.
Cyclones are bad, I kept telling myself. They damage things and kill people. But I couldn’t help being excited. In mind played every newscast I’d ever seen of a reporter shouting into the microphone while the wind turned everything in the background horizontal. I got an adrenaline rush just thinking about it.
Alan recommended we bring in the bikes, move the patio table away from the glass door, and make sure we had groceries. I asked if he needed any help readying his trees for the storm. He said he would let us know.
The next day the cyclone was still out in the ocean. It had grown to a Class 5, and the media was playing it up as possibly bigger than Yasi.
Another friend messaged me on facebook, asking where we planned to go for the evacuation. “What evacuation?” I asked. He showed us a map of areas susceptible to flooding because they were too low. The local government was recommending people living in the highlighted areas find shelter on higher ground for the duration of the storm. Rob and I were down in the red zone. Awesome.
The next day, the cyclone was still out in the ocean. Jeez, cyclones move really slow, I thought. My facebook feed was full of news reports and concerned friends asking if we were all right. I looked outside. It was drizzling quietly, but it had done that for days. It was, after all, the rainy season. It certainly didn’t look like a monster storm was coming.
|View of Cooktown harbor from Grassy Hill|
Rob and I decided to walk downtown to pick up groceries for the next few days. Some Asian tourists were busy snapping pictures of themselves holding kangaroo stuffed animals. The tourist shop next to the grocery store was still playing the same track of bouncy Australian drinking songs that they play every single day. Australian drinking songs are hilarious, but I can’t imagine working there. An aboriginal guy was passed out on a bench, snoring softly. It was eerily normal.
But the grocery store was packed out. Rob and I had to edge through the aisles, holding our baskets up high. Things like batteries were sold out. I asked the clerk if the store was closing early. She shrugged, almost rolling her eyes, and said they would keep an eye on the news. I got the feeling she thought the whole thing was over-hyped.
Then the landlord called. “Water tends to come in through the patio door during storms,” she said. “I’ll send someone around to set up sand bags.”
I texted Alan again to see if he needed any help. He said no, but that he had decided to cut the tops off the durian trees so that, if there was high wind, the tree branches wouldn’t act like sails.
That night the storm hit Cooktown. I watched it on BOM’s animated map, the red circle moving closer and closer to us. It started to get windy, and then it began to rain, drops hammering the tin roof of the carport. Our upstairs neighbors announced they were going to stay at a relative’s house in case the roof came off.
I stayed up until 1 AM, obsessively hitting the refresh button on ABC’s live coverage. The storm had hit Cooktown. The roof of the James Cook Museum was gone. We had just visited it the week before with my parents, and I tried to imagine the old building sans-roof. Somebody’s shed had disappeared. I kept expecting water to pour through the patio door in a flash flood. I moved all my favorite possessions into the bedroom just in case.
|Mom in the doorway of the James Cook Museum|
When I woke up, it wasn’t rainy. It wasn’t windy. I went for my normal morning jog. The news said the cyclone had thrashed Port Douglas and was moving inland. By lunch time, it was a Class 1, sweeping over the mountain areas. We went to a friend’s house for dinner, rerouting to avoid a few trees knocked down by the wind the night before. The cyclone was still north of us.
Cyclone Ita finally hit at 7 PM. It had stopped raining, and the clouds parted enough that the glow of the sinking sun cast orange shadows over our faces. We quietly hovered over the computer screen, watching the little animated hurricane on the cyclone map serenely sweep its arms directly over the top of us. After so many days of waiting, uncertainty, and hype, the air had a strange emptiness.
Our first cyclone was over.
It had missed us in Cairns, but not without doing damage elsewhere.
The next morning Alan sent us a few photos of the wreckage. “Marilyn’s gone” he typed. Besides durian, Alan grows the best cempedak we’ve ever tasted, a creamy sweet fruit with a deep auburn orange color. This year, one of the trees produced a buxom fruit with a narrow waist and measurements to make Barbie jealous. Alan called it Marilyn Monroe. We’d been waiting for months to taste her, but her tree had been mauled. She was gone.
So where a few of his durian trees. And it was only a Class 1 cyclone by the time it reached his farm.
|RIP Marilyn Monroe|
Cyclones are a major hindrance to wannabe durian growers in North Queensland. Despite their height, durian trees have shallow root systems and get knocked over in high winds. That’s what happened in 2006, when cyclone Larry hit, and again in 2012 when Yasi sent everyone into grieving.
Once upon a time, big cyclones didn’t hit North Queensland very often. But in the last ten years they’ve been a constant assault. Is it climate change? Does God hate durians? Who knows. But it’s hard to imagine that durian will ever have much of a future in North Queensland unless someone figures out a way to hang on to their trees.
It’s one reason Alan Zappala is so excited about the new species, Durio macrantha. Short and stout, Macrantha may be the only durian sturdy enough to handle the beating of a cyclone. When Yasi hit Alan’s farm, he lost over 90% of his normal durian trees. But only 20% of the Durio macranthas bit the dust, a difference of 70%. That’s a pretty significant figure (if you’re into that stuff. I’m really, really not).
As we discovered, Durio macrantha tastes pretty darn nice. It’s no D24 or Chanee, but if it’s a difference between me having durian and the cyclone having durian, I’ll take the Macrantha, thanks.
But we may not have to forgo the most delicious varieties to get fresh durian in Australia. There’s one Queensland grower who thinks he’s got cyclones beat. Using a simply yet innovative technology, this guy thinks he can hang onto even the best durian cultivars in the worst weather.
More on that story in the next post 🙂
We’re playing a little bit of catch up. We’re actually in Bangkok, but I’ll be posting the last of our travels in Australia for the next couple of weeks. I might mix it up a little. We’ll see how excited I get about what we find in Thailand (and then Myanmar – oooh a new country!)
But for now, I want to know what YOUR bright ideas are to protect fruit trees from dangerous storms. Please do share in the comment box below because your brilliance might just be the difference between Australians eating fresh durian or eating imported durian from Thailand. And that would be a tragedy.