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Surviving Jasper

Updated: Jan 16

This recollection of our experience through Cyclone Jasper was written on 20th December 2023, 9 days after landfall.


Cyclone Jasper formed off the Queensland coast in the Coral Sea early in December 2023. Its unusual path leading up to landfall made for a very slow-moving and unprecedented cyclone; typically, cyclones travel south as they near the coastline. However, Jasper tracked north, eventually making landfall between Port Douglas and Wujal Wujal. As the crow flies, Port Douglas is approximately 10km NE from our Julatten home. An extensive mountain range divides the coast and the rainforest of the Mowbray Valley, perfectly protecting us from storms that form in the Coral Sea. 


The last notable weather event for us here in Julatten was cyclone Larry in 2006, which cut access to Black Mountain Road, where we live. Cyclone Larry made landfall in Innisfail, some 200+km from Julatten. 


I am sharing some highs and lows from our experience through cyclone Jasper as our remote, off-grid lifestyle has made for a unique nine days of survival. Our home was built in 2016 on the Leonardi family farm, where we now live and work comfortably, with minimal negative environmental impact. Our home and sheds are powered by the sun (converted and stored in batteries), with diesel generator backup when needed. This meant we always had power in isolation, but no mobile phone reception and internet.


This is the first cyclone three of my four children have experienced (Antonia was a baby in 2011 when cyclone Yasi hit the region) and the most severe I have experienced since cyclone Rona in my teens (1998) when I lived in Cairns.


I hope you enjoy reading about our experience through cyclone Jasper.


Killing Time

Our days consisted of a somewhat routine existence, including the children all complaining that it was ‘STILL raining!’ every morning when they woke. This continued for five days, when thankfully, they finally got used to it. 


Around day 5, we all began to sleep until daylight, our body clocks aware that there was no rush to get the day started, as there was nowhere to go. This was a massive shift for us as the days began early on the farm, and so did the work. There is very rarely a day spare to sleep in. On a regular day, the children are on the school bus by 7 am and work for me starts at around 4 am, squeezing in those precious couple of hours in the office before the children wake. 


Thankfully, the novelty of playing in the rain never wore off, with all four children and Sam enjoying outside time with the dogs every afternoon from 5 pm. This was the time I spent creating something for dinner, searching for ingredients at the back of the pantry and digging into the depths of our many deep freezers for hidden and long-forgotten treasures.  


At around 9 am each day, we would venture down to Sam’s grandad’s house, located on the farm, about 300 metres from our house. This became our daily outing and a much-needed source of socialisation. Fortunately, as a medical priority customer, Sam’s grandad had a Telstra landline phone that was still operating despite losing power, mobile reception and internet. This allowed Sam and I to call his dad and my Mum to check in and let them know we were all okay. This was such a godsend for us, as we felt disconnected and displaced without regular contact with the outside world via social media, email and mobile telephones.


The children took some time adjusting to the sudden change in their ‘smart’ lifestyle. Almost everything they did for the first 24 hours without phone and internet ended in ‘Why isn’t this working?’ with Sam and I impatiently responding, ‘because there’s no internet!’ It meant no online gaming, YouTube, Spotify, or Netflix. Their existence was challenging and confusing for the first time in their lives. It is a wake-up call to all of us at how much we rely on the World Wide Web and all its benefits. 


Professionally, I struggled immensely for the first few days due to looming deadlines before Christmas and the realisation that I could do nothing about it. My business heavily relies on being ‘mobile’ and working from home. I pride myself on having an incredibly minimal carbon footprint in my personal and work life. However, most of my working relationships are conducted online and rely heavily on software and online programs. A little perspective was realised in these moments. 


It wasn’t until the whole of far north Queensland went on flood watch on Saturday, 16th December, that I began to relax about my work commitments and missed deadlines. The guilt of not being available to my clients, especially those not located in Queensland, subsided. The fate of my business was now in the hands of the formidable Mother Nature. I still wished I could have sent clients a message to let them know I was okay and hoped to be back online soon, but it wasn’t meant to be. (As I type this, I remain offline and unable to contact my clients. Today is day nine since losing contact with the outside world).


Back to our daily routine… Sam’s grandad and his wife, Joyce, rely on power from Ergon, so they were without for nine days and counting. They used our old petrol generator, which meant they didn’t lose any of their food in the fridge and freezer. Being 90 years old, ‘Old Sam’ or ‘Nonno,’ as we affectionately call him, lived a minimalist life and usually enjoyed trips to Woolworths for essentials during the week. 


With cyclone Jasper slowly moving towards Port Douglas, there was very little concern for its impact on us up here in the hills behind Port Douglas. ‘Old Sam’ said he had never recalled any real threat to Julatten due to a cyclone in the almost 50 years since settling here. He had a little bit of petrol in a 20L Gerry can, as well as a few day’s supply of food sure Jasper wouldn’t isolate us for more than a day or two due to flooding. How wrong he was. 


I remember once Jasper had crossed, we were all feeling much relief but also in awe of its ferocity. In disbelief, we later heard it had crossed the coast as a Category 1 cyclone, making landfall around 7 pm on Tuesday, 12th December. By day 2, we were genuinely beginning to think that Jasper had only hit Julatten as news reports didn’t accurately record its impact in our little corner of the world. Reports by Cairns locals on the ABC news were of Jasper being a ‘fizzer’ and nothing more than a bad storm. This was a surreal feeling. We were physically cut off from the outside world and wondered if anyone else feared what Jasper would bring for the rest of the week. We couldn’t believe the casual ‘she’ll be right’ attitude and disregard of those severely affected by the ‘storm’ in those early days since Jasper hit our region.


Image 1: TV coverage of extensive flooding, our only link to the outside world. 


From Tuesday 12th December, no one in our house slept for two nights. The thunderous cyclone battered our roof, and its sheer velocity kept us all awake all day and night. The TV volume was on 100 (at 25, I’m usually yelling at the kids to turn it down), and we still couldn’t hear a word. I will never forget the winds and power of Jasper. 


From Tuesday morning until the following Monday (18th December), we experienced heavy rainfall, gale-force winds, and extreme flooding. In some 24-hour periods, more than 800mm of rain was recorded in Julatten. The 7-day rainfall record was exceeded, with Black Mountain Road recording a total of 1939mm from Tuesday 12th to Tuesday 19th December.



Image 2 (top left): One of our full dams on day 4.

Image 3 (top right): The gully we cross to leave the farm. We estimate that it was around 3 metres in depth; the most we have seen is at about 2 metres.

Image 4 (left): Our inundated dams and waterways on the farm. 


It was almost a relief when, on Sunday morning (17th December), the rest of the far north had caught up to us weather-wise. Suddenly, the effects of Jasper were being felt throughout the region and not just in our small town of approximately 1,000 people, tucked behind the hills of Port Douglas. The news reports were suddenly dominated by flood warnings, catastrophic damage and a real threat that the worst of the lousy weather awaited us. 


What followed for us was genuine concern for the welfare of our loved ones in close-by Mossman and Cairns. The threat of flooding was upon them with no end in sight. Thankfully, our loved ones were spared, with no homes inundated with water. The worst of it was the uncertainty, but also the loss of power for several days, no drinking water, and no internet or telecommunications. 


During our nine days so far, we have filled our days with puzzles, board games, endless movies playing in the background, cleaning out long-neglected wardrobes, drawers and cupboards, tidying, cooking, and watching the many, many dance, theatre, and singing productions put on by the children. The odd library, shop and art class have also made a comeback with the kids demanding ‘real money’ to loan my own book, buy-back my own makeup, or go to my own children’s art gallery. I guess I should admire their entrepreneurship. 


All in all, I have to admit that I have actually enjoyed the forced family time that Jasper has brought to us. This, by far, has been something I have been most grateful for. With life getting so busy and the children growing up so fast, it has been nice to slow down and return to essential family time without interruptions. However, there is no doubt that cabin fever is a real thing. 


A lot of time was also spent trying to dry clothes! I set up several undercover lines, but the wind pushed the rain into our substantial patio. There was no protection from the wind for anything! With a concern of creating a perfect breeding ground for mould, I didn’t want to hang any wet clothing inside the house; all windows and doors were shut for a good five days, so bringing in damp clothing would not work.


By day 4, several baskets of clothes started to smell, so I began hand washing all the damp clothing and hanging them out in the rain! I figured that at least if they were on the line in the soaking rain, they would dry eventually once the sun came out. Until early on Sunday, 17th December, I was still planning on catching my scheduled flight out of Cairns on Monday afternoon, so washing and drying clothes was a priority. 


With the kids outside, playing in the rain several times a day – this was their only ‘outside time’ during the nine days of isolation; we eventually made a new rule of underwear only during outside play to reduce the amount of wet and muddy clothing. This helped a lot. 


Sam and I were constantly getting wet whilst out in the paddocks checking on livestock and fencing, so we both ran out of clean and dry underwear pretty quickly! I must mention, primarily for my memory, that the rain was so intense that even our raincoats didn’t stop the rain from soaking us through to the bone. I imagine this experience was similar to a boatie caught in a storm on the open ocean – there was no escape from the deluge! 


Food & Water

Our water is supplied by healthy amounts of rain in our region for most of the year, being replenished by pumped water from the headwaters of the Mowbray Falls, which run through our property, as well as a bore when needed. Water was never an issue for us on the farm during our time in isolation. 


Although we have off-grid solar power and no connection to the ‘grid’, we do run a gas oven and cooktop, so we are never unable to cook a hot meal or boil water.  


There wasn’t a night when we didn’t have a lovely home-cooked, healthy, nourishing meal, thanks to our lifestyle here on the farm. By day 3 or 4, however, we had gotten through the fresh fruit and vegetables and almost all of our packaged frozen vegetables as well. My frozen containers of ‘soup mix’ became our new staple as they consisted of chopped carrot, celery, onion, and spinach – the perfect base not only for soups but also for curries, casseroles, fried rice and rissoles, once minced. 


Life on the farm means we always have our beef, chicken, fish, seasonal prawns, venison, duck, pork, and sausages, all stockpiled in the deep freezers. There was no shortage of food during our time in isolation. 


However, we missed fresh eggs, cheese, tomato sauce, fresh garlic, and ice cream once they were all consumed. Although we all grew to love powdered milk, I longed for some fresh cow’s milk for my favourite cold treat, a homemade iced coffee. Once the cheese and tomato sauce ran out, I must say, the children were less impressed by my efforts in the kitchen – everything tastes better with cheese and tomato sauce when you’re a kid! 


I’m grateful for our large, abundant kitchen which housed many many herbs and spices, honey from our beehives, preserved foods, soup mixes and jars of homemade jams and chutneys, and a healthy supply of ingredients required to make our own bread. 


Many years ago, I acquired some old bakers’ tins – 3 joined together specifically for baking high-top loaves. So, keeping up with the bread supplies was easy and a very enjoyable task every second day. The Thermomix took the hard work out of kneading the dough, and the gas oven and bakers’ tins made easy work of our bread production. It was also lovely to be able to take fresh bread to ‘Old Sam’ and Joyce every couple of days. 


Many savoury focaccias and sweet breads were also created to offer a little variety in our breakfast and lunch meals. With no internet, I did miss the convenience of looking up new ways to reinvent staples like mince. Happily, I referred to my many favourite cookbooks and all-time favourite family recipes instead. It took a little mindfulness to browse a recipe book instead of spending approximately 30 seconds online to find what I didn’t know I wanted.  


Snacking - I don’t generally keep a lot of chips, sweet biscuits or packaged foods in our house, but with four children and off the back of school finishing, I did have a light supply of these foods in the pantry at the beginning of our time in isolation. All hell broke loose when the last packet of biscuits, chips and Icey poles were consumed, with the children all going into melt-down about the fact that there was ‘no food left in the house!’ I’m grateful for this experience as by day 3; we were all over our salty snack and sugar cravings that we didn’t realise existed and were looking for fresh food and water to quench the odd hunger pain between meals. My coffee stash never looked so good at the start of Jasper, so I was A-OK (I had stocked up in time for the beginning of the school holidays, ensuring I was equipped to work from home with four kids for six weeks!)


Image 5: We celebrated Sam’s birthday on Thursday 14th December. As you can see, we made him a fruit bread stack for his cake as our attempt to bake a cake without eggs didn’t work. 


Pets & Livestock

Sadly, the cruel reality of a natural disaster often doesn’t hit anyone harder than farmers. 


On our farm, we fatten beef cattle and are enjoying the newest additions; cows and calves – for many years, we’ve primarily farmed steers. 


Fortunately, just weeks before Jasper’s arrival, we sent many of our calves to my father-in-law’s farm in Mareeba to be weened off from their mothers and returned within 2-4 weeks. This left only the older, already-weened calves and their mothers on the farm, as well as our bull and a few young bulls. Still, the farm held around 120 head of cattle at the time of Jasper’s arrival. 


On day 5, Saturday 16th December, at 6 pm, Sam noticed our cattle on Black Mountain Road, outside our fencing, on the other side of the flood waters. We quickly grabbed the wire, plyers, headlamps and a few tools and jumped in the buggy. The children had eaten dinner and were told to stay home with Antonia, our eldest, left in charge. What then transpired was the most frightening experience of my time on the farm. Within minutes, it was dark; we were wet and searching for somewhere to cross floodwater to get to the cattle. We settled on a narrow crossing of about 2 metres in width, up from what we call our ‘fertiliser crossing.’ Sam flung the tools and wire onto the bank on the other side and crossed the fast-flowing water. He called out to me to join him as it was only waist-deep. By the time I was knee-deep, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to make it across due to the current, so I relied on Sam to pull me through the fast-moving water. 


From there, reaching the cattle up on the road was a steep climb. Sam, being far fitter and accustomed to this type of activity, left me in his dust as I struggled to keep up. By the time I made it up the hill, Sam had positioned himself so that the cattle would quickly push back into the paddock with my presence behind them. 


We then walked the fence line to determine how the mob got out. It was now pitch black, with only the light of our headlamps to guide us along the fence line; I continued to struggle to trek through thick grass, pouring rain and crazy winds to keep up with Sam. On a stretch of about 250m, we found several large trees that had been uprooted and completely smashed our 3-strand barbed wire fencing. We, mostly Sam, while I held tools and offered support, did our best to fix what we could, which often included using large tree trunks as new strainer posts and makeshift star pickets. All in all, this took about an hour and a half, many trips, falls and cuts to hands, one taipan, thousands of panicked green ants and several occasions where I thought my life was about to end by way of being crushed by a fallen tree. I confess in these moments, I heard myself thinking, ‘I’m not cut out for this farm life.’ My suburban upbringing was never far from the surface. 


Image 6: Broken tree on fence.


The cows were in, and the fence was ‘fixed’, so the trek back to the buggy began. Once again, I trailed Sam, but thankfully, he stopped to let me catch up a few times. These times were also used to plan our return to the creek crossing, where the inevitable conversations around what I’m to do if something happens to him started. I’m not sure how many more times I have to hear these instructions. Again, I think, ‘I’m not cut out for this.’ 


The water had risen, and the current was roaring, so Sam went first while I was sworn to get to safety and not worry about him if he was swept away. Yeah, okay. He made it across unscathed, thank goodness, but I felt apprehensive and terrified about crossing the water. Within a step or two, my feet were lifted from beneath me, the current too strong for my 90kg body weight. Sam grabbed my arm and pulled me across. I’m sure I wouldn’t have made either crossing without him there. I hope that that was the first and last time I ever had to cross a flooded waterway. 


Once we reached the buggy and my ass hit the seat, I just wanted to burst into tears. The reality of how quickly life could have changed in that moment was all too real. Sadly, this is the reality for many farmers, who risk their lives much worse than we did for their livelihood – their livestock. It’s easy to think, ‘bugger that’, but from where Sam sits as the primary earner in our household and the manager of his family farm, those cattle on the road are worth thousands of dollars of irreplaceable income. It’s reckless not to ensure they are safe, and it’s naive to expect any farmer wouldn’t do anything to protect their investment. I have such a deep respect for people on the land, but honestly, in times like this, I wonder what I’m doing here. Unlike Sam, the farm doesn’t run through my blood; it hasn’t always been there, and it hasn’t always been my future. Don’t get me wrong, I love our life and our lifestyle, but it sure gets tested in times like these. Damn you, Jasper, damn you. 


We are unsure if we have lost any cattle at this early stage, as we still cannot access much of the farm due to flooding. 


Two of our pigs, one of our dogs and strangely, some of the region’s native birdlife have mysteriously died due to the effects of Jasper. The harsh reality of life and death is something our children have become accustomed to, especially with so much loss in only one week. 


Among the losses, however, are many survivors, including our many working dogs and much-loved pets: Roger, Duchess and TJ. 


Farming

Our established citrus trees, including mandarin, lemon, pomelo, limes, blood orange, and late Valencia oranges, all held their young fruit. Our crop of pineapples also held on tight to their stalks and are surprisingly still looking okay to harvest in time for Christmas. Our 7-year-old Jaboticaba tree blessed us with its first two fruits the week before Jasper hit. Unfortunately, they didn’t survive the storm, but Sam ate the ripe fruit he found under the tree and said they were plump, juicy and delicious! We now look very much forward to next year’s Jaboticaba crop. Our young lychee trees also survived albeit a little wind-swept and needing staking once the wind dies down completely.


Image 7: Jaboticaba fruit. 


My much-loved flower gardens had been freshly mulched and fertilised at the end of Autumn, so I literally worried about all my hard work being blown away. Again, surprisingly, all mulch stayed put, and I’m happy to report that no plants have been lost to being water-logged or ripped from the ground. The biggest surprise has been my gerbera plantation that usually hates having ‘wet feet’ – I usually only water them twice a week – they are all in full flower and looking extremely happy and healthy in today’s bursts of sunshine. 




My hydrangea and rose plants also weathered the cyclone relatively unscathed but will enjoy good pruning this week sometime. 



Images 8,9,10: These are photos taken of our other farm in Julatten, which is located close to the school. We could not monitor the flooding during Cyclone Jasper, but thankfully, the 150 acres don’t have any livestock on it at the moment. The property boundary lines run along Brown, Eulluma Creek and McLeans Bridge Roads.




Waste Management

My very first challenge during isolation was what to do with all our rubbish! Within 24 hours, I already had two large bags full of household rubbish with nowhere to put them (our weekly bin service had ceased). Thankfully, all of our food waste is fed to our pigs, so there wasn’t too much of a smell from the accumulating rubbish bags. A family of 6 creates a lot of waste! Added to the usual rubbish were extra bits and pieces we were throwing out due to cleanouts of school bags, bedrooms, linen cupboards and the kitchen pantry. Usually, we fill our wheelie bin each week and burn any remaining waste. However, with the constant wind and downpours, burning was no longer an option. We ended up filling the back of a Ute with rubbish, which remains out of the weather and awaits burning. Our bin service, which Mareeba Shire Council runs, will not resume until it is safe on the roads – which is almost certainly likely to be several days, if not weeks, away. 



Image 11 (top left): Black Mountain Road once open.

Image 12 & 13: A washout on Black Mountain Road, adjacent to one of our boundary fences.


Shelter

Concern for structural damage during a cyclone is always present. We live on a hill with basically no vegetation close enough to our house to cause damage, so our main concern during a storm or cyclone is debris and wind damage to fencing and trees. Thankfully, we had no damage to any structures on the farm, with a misshaped pool fence, the only evidence of Jaspers’s presence. 


Travel Plans Cancelled 

In hindsight, are travel and holiday plans being cancelled compared to the impact of cyclone Jasper really that big of a deal? NO. They did, however, take up much of our energy, worrying about whether they would eventuate in the early days of our isolation. 


In the first week of the holidays (last week), we looked forward to a few nights away in Cairns due to Antonia and Alyssa’s involvement in the Bodies in Motion end-of-year production, ‘Legendary.’ The event coincided with Sam’s birthday (14th December), so we looked forward to days by the pool and nights at the theatre. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be with CPAC confirming the postponement of the production until February 2024 due to the impending bad weather. When this decision was made on Monday 11th December, it seemed somewhat over-cautious but respected. As it turned out, it was absolutely the right decision. 


On Monday, 18th December, Sebby and I were due to fly to Brisbane for his scheduled 12-weekly MRI and Oncology review at Qld Children’s Hospital. On Sunday, 17th December, Cairns Airport was shut down for the second time since Jasper’s arrival, so it became evident that the trip would not occur. Once again, feeling like control of the situation was out of my hands; I surrendered to the reality of yet another planned trip being cancelled. I called the Cairns Oncology Unit early on Monday morning to let them know of our situation and to please let the relevant specialists, doctors, medical imaging and patient travel know that we wouldn’t be coming. These appointments have now been rescheduled for 31st January 2024. 


Overall, I feel grateful that we are now safe and on the other side of Cyclone Jasper. My heart goes out to those whose homes and businesses were inundated with water, and I hope power and drinking water are restored quickly. 


I hope my recollection of the experience has provided a little insight into life on the farm during a natural disaster. 


We now look forward to indulging in the freedom of leaving the farm once the flood waters reside and the damaged roads are repaired, we hope one day soon. 


I asked the kids some questions about their time in isolation during Cyclone Jasper…


Antonia (13 years old) 

What have you missed most since Cyclone Jasper arrived? Going shopping and seeing my friends.

What’s been the best thing about being stuck on the farm for so long? Sleeping in and family time.

What has been the worst thing about Cyclone Jasper? Flooding and no internet.

General Comments: I’ve liked cleaning my room and we’ve seen Nonno and Joyce a lot. 


Josephine (10 years old)

What have you missed most since Cyclone Jasper arrived? My friends, going out and socialising.

What’s been the best thing about being stuck on the farm for so long? Nothing.

What has been the worst thing about Cyclone Jasper? No internet and staying home.

General Comments: This has been the worst week in my entire life because my siblings are annoying, and I haven’t had any food I like except bread. I also got a sore tummy from eating too much bread. 


Alyssa (7 years old)

What have you missed most since Cyclone Jasper arrived? Seeing my friends, and going shopping.

What’s been the best thing about being stuck on the farm for so long? Winning boardgames. 

What has been the worst thing about Cyclone Jasper? We ran out of ice cream and had no internet.

General comments: I’ve missed junk food, and my sisters and brother are annoying.


Sebby (5 years old)

What have you missed most since Cyclone Jasper arrived? I’ve missed my friends Jasmine, Mackenzie and Tate. I’ve also missed bananas, avocados and Icey Poles.

What’s been the best thing about being stuck on the farm for so long? Playing in the rain with Daddy.

What has been the worst thing about Cyclone Jasper? Nothing.



Image 14,15,16: Images of a helicopter hovering over our farm on day 8 when the weather cleared enough for the airways to open once again. This was a very exciting time as it was the first contact with ‘the outside world’ since Jasper’s arrival. The kids are still eagerly awaiting their debut on the national news each night.



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