Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Mission Beach,"Castaways",Cyclone Winifred,

Mission Beach, "Castaways", Cyclone Winifred

The developers for "Castaways" after seeing both prototypes opted for the safe option and we installed the contemporary beach interior  concept for the resort.Which was a pity as not one indigenous concept had been done in a resort in Australia, at that time. As normal I was before my time.

To facilitate better working relations I moved from Sydney to Mission Beach into a beachside townhouse, as I was there for a minimum of seven months. I recruited several of the trade groups I had worked with on Tuna Towers.  Such as the Gadencliff Group up in the Tablelands. We used them for the white panelling in the restaurant and constructing the bar and the decking around the pool.

There were several artists in the the beaches area, Helen Wiltshire was one who had established herself and I was friendly with her, her husband Steve and father Laidley. We commissioned Helen to do art for the 130 rooms, painting tropical flowers, shells, coral and birdlife. Helen had her own Art Gallery which she managed with Steve,where she lived in Bingil Bay. Their Gallery was one of the funkiest I have seen; set in the rainforest, the approach was over a rope swing bridge that Steve made that spanned a small ravine.He attached bells to it so that when people approached and were on the bridge, as the bridge swung the bells rang and forewarned them. As once they were having a  afternoon fuck in the gallery when unnoticed a client walked in on them.

Helen and Steve's knowledge of all the local artists helped in selecting other artists to be commissioned for for  works in the lobbies, corridors , restaurants and public spaces. Bruce Arthur, another artist in residence on Dunk Island, which was literally about a mile offshore, did some weavings for the lobby walls.

I often flew to Sydney, purchasing the equipment for the Kitchen, laundry , fabrics for the rooms, bedding and the hundreds of items on  the inventory to open a resort. On one trip, whilst lunching at a restaurant in MacQuarie Street called EJ's, I ran into Lynne Mitchell whom I knew from the Grape. She had broken up with her husband and  I was available,so we started going out when I was in Sydney.

As i completed more of "Castaways" inventory my buying trips to Sydney became less. I also was buying in Brisbane and Cairns. It became more important for me to be in Mission Beach as a lot of what I had sourced and bought was now due to arrive.I was the only person who knew where what went for the interior fit out and installations . I asked Lynne  would she like a temporary job  helping with menus for restaurants, room service and setting up the restaurant, so she joined me in Mission Beach.

Every item had to be shipped in by rail or road transport. If it was by rail, it came to Tully and then it had to transported by road into Mission Beach.Fortunately I had been through these logistics before in Cairns when I was designing and fitting out Tuna Towers. Mission Beach was more remote than Cairns and the double handling meant more could go wrong which it invariably diid. We were trying to open for Christmas '85 and one hiccup after another,  threw that idea out the window; the carpet  for the rooms was being made in New Zealand and due to some delay in  the dyeing process, that was being held up, the teak for the decking around the pool was taking longer to install than first quoted,the computers for the front desk were late and so it went on. so we decided go for a soft opening in early February.

We were looking good, the rooms were completed, the restaurant with its opened french windows leading out onto the pool decking and then to  the Malaluecas, palms,beach and ocean was a knockout.That smell of ozone after electrical storms, used to waft into the restaurant from the ocean.The colour schemes of whites, pastel yellows and palest greens blended well with the landscaping, achieving an indoor outdoor atmosphereThe interiors came together well and we were preparing for some dry runs with the kitchen, as staff were being trained and guests were being booked in for early February.

Then Cyclone Winifred gathered up its ferocity and at one am on  February 1, 1986 assaulting Mission Beach with all its fury for twelve hours.It crossed right over our heads like a big monster, with an eye diameter of 41km.  

We had plenty of warning, it was just a matter of monitoring when and where. The build up was  gradual and then intense, we had been receiving warnings that a big one was brewing off the coast for over a week. It was the uncertainty of where on the mainland it was to hit, it hovered offshore for a while as if deciding where to land.  Then, winds and the rain increased and you seemed to know you were in for a hiding. Lynn and i had gone home to our beach house as the worry was that if it was a high tide, the tidal surge could take out all the buildings on the beach including ours and "Castaways" which was only a hundred yards further down the beach.

In preparation I taped all the windows with masking tape which prevents shattering of windows and glass being sprayed around. The structure had a centre pole which the spiral staircase followed to the mezzanine, I found some thick rope which I wrapped around the pole and in a dire situation, like a tidal surge, we could wrap that around us and tie ourselves to the pole. and stay there if downstairs became flooded and we lost the roof.We then brought down the mattress from upstairs and squeezed it into the bathroom which are the safest rooms, lit the candles and hunkered in. 

There was no way out , by ten pm you could not drive as it was to dangerous, and you would not have got far.  I went outside a few times to check and practically got blown off my feet. There were trees crashed down across the roads, driveways and roofs. Telegraph lines  were down and live wires sparking when they hit something. The swimming pool was jumping around like a bucking bronco. A sand dune in front of our house was being blown away by the ocean. Fortunately it was low tide hence no tidal surge. All contact with outside had ceased about two hours before, when the power went off. Peter Miller who was in Cairns  rang a couple of times  for updates and then the phone went dead.

The sound of the cyclone was  a loud roar 'like a jumbo jet overhead', gradually it built up and up and up this seemed to go on for hours, besides that noise you hear other sounds of collisions that you can only imagine"what was that!!'. Cars  blown down the road, roof being blown of a house.Then silence, all the noise just petered out, which was the eye, that gave time to assess what was happening outside. Outside was bedlam, trees were down everywhere, there was a smoky red haze, caused by mini fires from electric wires, as they shot up they were extinguished by the rain.Not much could be done, so it was a matter of waiting for the next onslaught.Which meant back to the bathroom. For the next phase Lynne and i passed out as we had been up about 24 hours straight.

When we woke about ten in the morning we knew we had to steel ourselves for a hard day ahead.The devastation was
apparent from when we left the bathroom, as the townhouse we were living in was all glass and looked out onto the pool and gardens which were "smashed'. The beauty about the tropics is  plants grow quick and large, by doing that they afford lots of privacy, which we had. Before we could not see the other townhouses in our complex because of the  thick vegetation, gardens and landscaping.Now, everything was exposed and laid bare we could see all our neighbours.After "Winifred" there were no plants,all had been destroyed, the larger trees which had not been blown over were scorched, as if they had been taken to by a blowtorch.

The beach which was only a couple of meters away, was blown away, no sand dunes, they had been eroded by the ocean, all the palms which lined the beach right to the sand were all down, thousands of them just lying on the verge, like injured footballers.

The roads were impassable, trees and electricity wires down all over, it felt dangerous.Houses had trees fallen over them others had roofs gone, cars were smashed and upside down, boats thrown up on the beaches. Everywhere you could see all the buildings, whereas before  they  were obscured by vegetation and trees. If the trees were still standing the leaves were stripped bare and branches left scorched as the rain with the velocity of the wind had the intensity of a hot wind tunnel.This gave all the tress and plants left standing, a brown discoloration - remarkable compared to the dark tropical green they were eight hours ago.

There was no way of driving out from the beach house,the driveway was impassable with trees  down.We both walked down the beach to check out "Castaways", this in itself was like 'running a strange gauntlet', climbing over palm trees  and uprooted Malleucas which were down  and strewn everywhere for the whole length of the beach hundreds of them.From the beach "Castaways" looked as if it had not suffered, as it had been architecturally designed and constructed to endure Cyclones.

On closer inspection, the windows had been blown out on the beachside and the rain had penetrated into about fifty
suites and the carpet was ruined on all the beachfront rooms, the paintwork was also damaged by the wind and rain. All the bedding was sodden. It became obvious the plans for opening in the next week or so was not feasible.The landscaping had been "knocked for six' and all but destroyed.
For the next six weeks was a time of cleaning out, painting, starting from scratch with the landscaping and replanting. Re ordering carpet, airing and drying out bedding and soft furnishings. Then also assisting locally where we could with cleaning up the township which had been literally been blown away.
It was not only Mission Beach that was devastated, "Winifred" had made its way through the valleys and hit towns such as Tully,  Innisfail and cutting a swathe through the ranges and rainforest ending up in the Tablelands in Malanda.Wind gusts were calculated at 165 - 180 knots. The damaged  costs  locally was $130 million (at 1986 value) including 3 deaths.
I had experienced a hurricane in the Bahamas, back in sixties but it was nothing of the magnitude compared to "Winifred" which they compared to "Tracy" which wiped out Darwin in the Seventies.
Castaways was eventually opened in March 1986. 
At the opening night function, one of the directors who was a big, tall, hefty  Queenslander, after making a speech sat down on his chair in the restaurant and it collapsed under him. As the weeks progressed more of the chairs did the same. I had purchased the chairs from an old acquaintance, Peter Ryan who owned a furniture company called Post and Rail. I had spotted this,  leather and bentwood chair early when sourcing furniture. for the restaurant . Peter told me it was a prototype of their new design and had not been tested yet in the market for strength or durability.  I explained this to the directors, regardless we decided to go with the "Chair" if he would guarantee it ,which he did. Unfortunately  they did not go the distance and another chair was selected.  Peter was true to his word and  he credited "Castaway's" with a cheque for  all 130  chairs which had to go back to the manufacturer.


  1. Hi Tony,
    Barnacle Bills is an institution ..what a wonderful story.You have led such an adventurous and diverse life from Sonra Ray to living through a cyclone.A huge experience by itself.
    Castaways sounds wonderful and I have a 'Helen Wiltshire'small...from when I was working on Hamilton Island.
    Glad to hear you fell in love and love your affirmation.
    You must have great oranizational skills to be zapping furniture and carpets etc around the place.
    It is like reading a good book and looking forward to the next chapter,
    Jenny Fischer