Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Posted December 7th, 2004

Over the course of 12 desperately tired and unhappy hours, I discovered that without a doubt, I could not arrange myself in a horizontal position in two, narrow Greyhound Australia bus seats. It wasn’t 12 full hours of writhing, of course. As per my usual bus trip proclivity, I drained two full laptop batteries frantically processing pictures for three cities and trying to make incoherent drivel mildly amusing and informational, before wrapping them up in an HTML format. This kept me hammering away deep into the night while my fellow bus passengers slept deeply through the two horribly dismal bus movies that Greyhound Australia seems to specialize in (“New York Minute” with the Olsen Twins and “Catch That Girl, ” a straight to video embarrassment with the girl from “Panic Room” if you must know).

Bundaberg is one of countless small towns on the Queensland coast that is precariously balancing it’s cozy atmosphere with an inundation of tourists and temporary farm workers. To the uninitiated, Bundaberg doesn’t seem like a place where you would encounter overflowing hostels, but when you have the nerve to call two days in advance of your arrival and innocently ask for a dorm room bed, you will be met with a weary sigh, possibly a hopeless chuckle and then politely referred to second and third hostel options, each of which sounding progressively more hopeless. Some hostels don’t even accept residents that intend to stay for less than two weeks. I was lucky enough to get a bed at a long-term resident hotel that had opened up a handful of rooms for people like me. My arrival was not smooth.

I was dropped off in surprising heat at 6:30AM and proceeded immediately to the nearby Lyelta Lodge. A Chinese man checked me in and showed me to a three person dorm room that was occupied by a heavily tattooed unconscious man and a chain smoker with wild hair and questionable social skills, who tickled my Cookie Sense as soon as I stepped into the room. Despite the early hour, the heat in the room was punishing which, when combined with the arresting cigarette and mold stench, could have wilted a cactus. There was an air conditioner in the room, but for some reason it had been turned off. I thought I might actually vomit if I lingered in the room for too long, so I quickly got myself organized and got the hell out of there. Over the course of the morning, I entered the room several times and each time the chain-smoking cookie was snoring away in a new, unlikely position, sometimes only half on his bed, with a lit cigarette on the bedside table. The comatose tattooed man never moved. I realized that no amount of sucking it up and making the best of things was going to improve the situation. I seriously considered abandoning the place and trying my luck at a different hostel, but before that rash action, I beseeched the owner for a non-smoking room and he saved the day. I was moved to a room that still had a hint of cigarette stench and an unsettling stain on the carpet, but was otherwise a massive improvement. The A/C was blasting the room into a refreshing meat locker coolness and there were only two beds, the second of which was to be occupied by a “very, very nice” Japanese man that was expected later in the day. My relief was so profound that I forgot that I had only had about two meaningful hours of sleep on the bus and headed out newly energized to investigate Bundaberg.

Like Mackay, Bundaberg had streets as wide as airplane landing strips, divided by thick and well groomed, tree-lined medians with rows of old-fashioned angled parking spots down both sides of each lane. All of the buildings were low, with leftover colonial store fronts side-by-side with K-marts and the like. I acquired a cup of coffee and a grab-bag of fruit and muffins for breakfast and retreated to the air conditioned heaven of my new room where I powered up the laptop for a lengthy round of writing, web site work and offline email composition.

By late morning I was ready to bag my first travel objective in Bundaberg; the Bundaberg Rum Distillery. It was only 11:00AM, but since I had barely slept, I didn’t feel very self-conscious about craving a rum infusion so early in the day.

While the Bundaberg Distillery, located on the outskirts of town, is the city’s major attraction, it is bafflingly serviced by a single bus line that only runs once every two hours, even on week days. I was informed of this sad arrangement in the Bundaberg tourist office and then quickly alerted to the fact that the next bus was leaving from two blocks away in four minutes. Sprinting at top speed for two blocks, with my day bag bouncing heavily on my back, in the searing heat of a Queensland summer noontime jump-started a flop-sweat on me that didn’t abate until dinner time, but I made the bus and was entertained all the way to the Distillery by a very friendly and perhaps lonely housewife who stopped just short of escorting me all the way to the door of the Distillery.

Welcome! Er, maybe.

Absolutely, positively no smoking.

The Bundaberg Rum Distillery was not much to look at from the outside. If it weren’t for the copious signs directing people deep into the property to the visitor’s entrance, one would be tempted to assume that the off-putting façade might be patrolled by intentionally starved, guard dogs. Many of the buildings were rusted and smoke stained, the property was surrounded by a 12 foot, maximum security electrified fence and there were signs everywhere warning one not to smoke, use cell phones or even lightly grind ones teeth together for fear of sparking an explosion. We learned later that the Distillery had burned to the ground twice in the past, but the current incarnation had been explosion-free since the 1930s.

The off-putting atmosphere changes inside the wondrously air conditioned visitor center. The very friendly staff carefully collected all of our belongings, so as to avert the possibility of a disruptive fireball, while getting us warmed up for an adventure in rum. The only items that we were allowed to bring with us on the tour were sunglasses, a hat and a bottle of water (hence I have no pictures of the tour and am working off rum soaked mental notes).

The tour was eye-opening to say the least. We were led around the distillery from building to building, admiring fermenting barrels the size of water towers, processing tanks and the bottling line. Each building had it’s own pungent unique smell, depending on what was being done. Odors of yeast, sugar and alcohol were strong enough in places to make you feel faint. At one point we were led through a sweltering warehouse-sized tank that was holding tens of millions of liters of molasses (no clue on specific numbers, due to the note-taking paraphernalia restriction). When one women joked about diving in, the guide explained that the sea of molasses was actually very deadly. Aside from the molasses being kept at a toasty 125° Fahrenheit, its soupy, mud-like consistency would swallow anything that was unlucky enough to fall into it like quicksand, which I imagined would make a great scene for James Bond to dispatch with a second-tier bad guy.

Don't ask me why, but Bundaberg has a "guestbook" in this Wall of Thongs format. Impressive.

The explanation behind the prison caliber electric fence was revealed as we stood around the wooden aging barrels, going cross-eyed while deeply inhaling the heavy rum fumes. Due to international laws, duties and the sheer value of the rum – tens of millions of Australian dollars per barrel, of which there were dozens – Bundaberg was required by the Aussie government to guard their product like high grade uranium. Of course for a thief to make a rum burglary worth the effort, they’d have to back up at least a dozen tanker trucks to the warehouse, inconspicuously spend 20 hours filling them up and then somehow disappear into the outback, but I guess if a Japanese cult can test blast a nuclear device out in the desert without anyone noticing for 10 years, anything is possible in Australia (See the Bryson book for this unsettling story. Hell, get the book anyway, it’s fantastic.).

While the tour was engaging, it was also peppered with a tiresome amount of promotion for the rum. Right out of the gate, we were led into a theater to watch a video that was supposed to about the history of the distillery, but it was essentially just a 20 minute commercial. Then on the final leg of the tour, before we were cut loose for our free samples, we had to suffer through a detailed introduction and pitch for the entire Bundaberg line. Finally the free sample tickets were meted out and we got to the serious business of sampling and discussing the merits of each product. I chose to try Bundaberg’s liqueur, which was rum mixed with caramel, chocolate and coffee, and the “draft” Bundaberg and cola, the first spirit product to be packaged in a keg. Both were very tasty, the rum and coke draft was surprisingly excellent actually, but I declined the opportunity to buy any rum-related items for a 10% discount at the gift shop. Instead I staggered out of the bar, retrieved my belongings and lurch around taking a few snap-shots around the photo-approved areas. I had only eaten a muffin and a few pieces of fruit that morning, so my Bundaberg samples succeeded in giving my head a jolly good spin. In this state I decided not to wait around for two hours for the next bus into town, but instead make the three kilometer journey on foot. Sleep deprived, loaded with rum and tormented by the sun, I was a mess by the time I reached central Bundaberg. I sought out food and cleaned myself up for the evening outing.

Other reptiles stopped in for a visit as we waited for the turtles.

Fifteen kilometers outside of Bundaberg is Mon Repos (French for “my rest”), a beach where a curiously vast majority of Australia’s loggerhead turtles and other varieties of sea turtles congregate over the course of multiple visits from November to February to lay hundreds of eggs in the hopes of propagating their species. The number of loggerhead turtles has been dropping for 20 years and the Mon Repos center is doing its part to help the species to recover. The center is run by a few rangers and an army of volunteers who keep the beach clear of predators and bumbling turtle seekers so that the turtles can lay eggs undisturbed while the staff tag the turtles, take measures and check them for injuries that may have been suffered at the hands of outboard motors, sharks, trawler boats and poachers. Although it takes very little to scare a turtle off the beach while it is getting itself situated, once they have crawled up the beach, dug their nest holes and started laying eggs, they hit a point-of-no return of sorts. They cannot interrupt the process at this point and this is when the Mon Repos team parades its visitors down the beach to observe the turtles and witness the egg laying. To cut down on any possible turtle deterrents, much of the Mon Repos center is kept in a shroud of darkness – mild light, indeed even faint moving shadows, are all a turtle needs to see for her to abort a visit - which starts to become very sedating after nearly four hours of waiting to see a turtle.

You see, turtles have a mind of their own (and a very tiny one, at that) and so they can’t be counted on to show up at the same time each night for the show. People are to arrive at the center at 7:00PM, but when exactly a turtle might drag herself out of the water is anybody’s guess. To compensate for this scheduling unpredictability, the Mon Repos people keep visitors occupied with a visitor center, a food wagon, videos and a lecture. Aside from the visitor center, everything thing is done in near absolute darkness. Now keep in mind I had only slept about two hours on the bus, ridden to the edge and back on a profound rum buzz and suffered through a broiling, mid-day walk. I was exhausted and in serious jeopardy of losing consciousness while sitting up during the lecture. The turtles were in no particular hurry that night and my enthusiasm for seeing the wonder of a turtle crawling around, digging a hole and egg laying started to flag at about 11:00PM. I was desperate for sleep in my large, cool, hostel room.

If you don’t have a car of your own, you only have two options for getting out to Mon Repos. You can either shell out for an organized tour to bring you out or you can take a cab and hope they will be willing to drive out and collect you in the middle of the night when the show is over. I chose the tour. Footprint Tours was run by Rod, a local and regular volunteer at Mon Repos. Rod came prepared for the long wait by bringing a cooler of food and drink. Just as I was about to throw in the towel, Rod broke out the grub. I wolfed down luscious watermelon, grapes, nuts and homemade cookies with jugs of orange juice. The energy burst from this feast was quickly followed by the announcement of the arrival of the night’s first turtle.

We marched down the pitch black beach for 15 minutes in a tiny pack before our guide stopped us and carefully arranged us in a semi-circle around the butt-end of the busy turtle. Once the point-of-no-return had passed (after laying 20 or so eggs), the volunteers switched on their helmet lights and we circled the undoubtedly embarrassed turtle. She was much, much larger than I had expected. About the size of a beanbag chair. It was announced that the turtle was not tagged in any way, meaning that it was almost certainly a first time “mother.” The Mon Repos people busied themselves tagging the turtle, taking measurements and taking crust samples off her shell to assess what kind of lifestyle she was leading.

After about an hour of watching her poop out eggs and hearing various ad hoc lectures from the lead ranger, the turtle packed her nest with sand, skootched around 180° and headed back out to sea. It was reported that a second turtle was well into her egg laying on the other end of the beach, but it was almost 1:00AM and most of the group didn’t have the strength for more miracle-of-life displays, so we were all led sleepily back to the center where, after some confused searching, we located Rod and were ferried back to our respective hostels.

I passed out on my bed fully clothed. The promised “very, very nice” Japanese man had never materialized, so I had the entire room to myself. That is until the loud and non-hostel-savvy German couple arrived at 2:30AM and kept me up for an hour with their clumsy entrance, unpacking, bed preparations and then ludicrously drawn out lovey-dovey late night whispering. Early the next morning, after causing plenty of retaliation havoc in the room for the benefit of the rude Germans, I trudged back to the bus station for a full day trip to Noosa.

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