My mother’s friends have asked her, ‘Why is Sarah going to Bundaberg?’. It’s not exactly on the Queensland tourist map. We’ve visited before, just last year. Friends moved here to their little patch of paradise high atop the Burnett River. Thankfully, high. The floodwaters lapped just four metres from their newly renovated farmhouse door, just months ago.
Last year we stayed in the seaside town of Bargara Beach and loved it. Just enough of a shopping strip to keep the girls happy and a fine, strong coffee from the cafe, Salt on the corner, and most importantly the weather is a tonic. Warm, balmy – like a bath. It is, however, a strange seaside village. The typical sandy stretches of coastline that typify Queensland – elude it. Sand is in fact in short supply. The only hill for miles is the pithy Hummock, an extinct volcano, that millions of years ago has spewed black volcanic rock onto the coastline here. The rock has now been modelled in sections along the beach settlements into groins, to allow sections of beach to return. But it’s not the Whitsundays.
We have rented a basic beach house with million dollar views over the north end of Kelly’s beach – the one spot that does have sand. It’s old and tired but has white walls, a comfortable bed and dark narrow Jarrah floors. I lie in bed thinking of all the things I could do to renovate it. It’s for sale. I do a quick search on my ipad and see it’s on the market for $1.2M. Mmmm. My husband Pete, completely deflates my balloon – It’s full of asbestos. My son, Toby spies some glittery looking feathers in a vase, flicks one of them and says, They’re nice. No they are NOT.
Last year, I was quite excited by the potential Bundaberg had to offer. This year, its CBD looks weary. Two major floods in two years have left the city with a hangover. Peeling paint. The last layer of mud is smeared like a bad spray tan over everything. Cyclone fencing is on a lean.
Everywhere I look, I am trying to feed my romantic vision of Queensland. I search everywhere for authenticity. Beauty. It’s there in pockets – old Queenslander houses, aloft with elaborate timber fretwork on the verandahs, like perfect rows of white teeth, set in luscious tropical gardens. And there are gracious stone rendered, Victorian buildings buried beneath crass shop signs like Bundy Bogan. (What were they thinking?)
Despite my misgivings – Bundaberg is a bustling, expanding regional city – with a population of around 90,000 in its greater region. Sugar cane farms have fuelled its growth for generations and they circle the city like a protective green wall. It’s harvest time now and little trains, like toys, criss-cross roads on the city’s edge with carriages loaded with cane. There are few fires these days to burn the crops – but a few old fashion farmers still burn and the sky is pierced by pockets of bright orange flames at night. There is a sweet, smoky smell in the air. The old timers love it. They miss it. They drag on the air, like they’re smoking tobacco.
Agriculture drives everything. As well as the sugar plantations, there are thriving Macadamia farms and vegetables – including miles of tomato vines. I am instantly reminded of my recent trip to Sicily and my visits with our group to the tomato farms there. Tall vines were looped in over wire in huge greenhouses. At least 2 metres high. Here, there are rows and rows of waist high vines out in the open. Space isn’t an issue here – neither is rainfall.
It’s Toby’s birthday, so we play tourists for the day. We go to Fairymead House – a startling example of ‘Queenslander’ architecture. Built in 1890, the house was moved to the Botanical gardens in the late 1980s from the Fairymead Plantation. It is breathtaking, with 16ft ceilings and a four metre deep verandah. The entry foyer features etched glass with a sugar cane motif, and leadlight windows with delicately crafted magpies. There is also a central gallery like space called the skylight room. Look up, and the leadlight skylight is like a prism and sends shafts of colour across the room. Photos line the walls picturing a glamourous life for the Young family at the turn of the last century.
In the open dining room, there are photos of Kanakas. I peer into their dark faces. There is a shocking truth. The Kanakas of the cane fields are representatives of the closest Australia has come to a slave trade. Some argue it was a slave trade. Shunted into darkened ship hulls from the South Sea Islands and ‘contracted’ to cut cane. They lived in squalid conditions. I resolve to find out more.
Nearby, on the opposite side of the gardens, the Hinkler Aviation Museum is another trip down memory lane. I have to confess I knew very little about ‘Australia’s greatest aviator’ – Bert Hinkler. He was like an aviation rockstar of the 1920s and is revered here like a God. What a story. Born into a working class family in North Bundaberg, the swashbuckling ‘Bertie’ made his first glider from his mother’s ironing board. He went on to serve in the first world war as a mechanic and pilot, designed aircraft and become a world famous aviator whose epic solo journeys across the globe brought him widespread fame – but sadly for little financial compensation.
His little two-storeyed Southampton cottage, was moved to Bundaberg in the 1980s, after it was scheduled for demolition in England. Piece by piece it was reconstructed beside the Botanical Garden’s lake. It looks adrift. Its red brick and pebble dash exterior is at odds with the towering palms around it.
Bertie was quite the ladies’ man, it seems. He devoted his life to English nurse, ‘Nance’- but they were never legally married. Perhaps because she was a divorcee with a daughter. They built a house together in Southampton, paid for by Nance. Unbeknown to his family, he crossed continents and married an American, Katherine Rome in Connecticut, whom he visited regularly on his trips to the States. Interesting. It is thought Nance was aware of Katherine’s existence, but nothing much else is known. There is just a small photo of Mrs Bert (Katherine) Hinkler, relegated to a shadowy rear wall. Like a mistress. Nance, although she never wore his ring, shared most of Bert’s short, proud history.
In 1933, Bert Hinkler crashed his plane and was killed on an Italian mountainside, near Arezzo. He was just 40 years old. His celebrity was such, the Italians gave him a full military funeral and he is buried in Tuscany. What Bert Hinkler could have contributed to aviation in Australia, if he had lived a longer life? What he would have seen if he had survived into his eighties? What would he have made of the sparkling, modern museum dedicated to him? Or for that matter, the Bundaberg shopping centre, Hinkler Cerntral, housing Coles, Woothworths and the Athletes’s Foot?
As we wandered back to Bargara, I am left thinking, why is so much development in Queensland so ugly? Why can’t they strip off ugly street signs in Bundaberg, put back the genteel lacy verandahs and reveal hidden gems that would draw tourists by the bus loads? The CBD needs its character back. It needs bars and cafes and restaurants – Most retail shops can and never will compete with the juggernaut shopping centres, Sugarland (Again, what were they thinking?) and Hinkler Central.
I know why my mother’s friends ask why we are coming here. Bundaberg has so much potential, but it’s not using it. It needs to celebrate its rich history more. The tourist destinations we visited were fantastic, but poorly signposted and the graphic designer at the Bundaberg Regional Council needs sacking – because the brochures are awful. The shire needs to woo the southern tourist dollar better. Not everyone wants to go to a rum distillery. Not everyone wants Bundy Bogan (In fact, can’t imagine ANYONE wanting to shop in Bundy Bogan, it’s an embarrassing blight on the main street)
Southerners, like me – want romance. I want to embrace an area’s unique history, lie on the beach, while still being able to choose between a number of groovy cafes and make my comparison between coffee grinds and the quality of artisan baked ciabatta. Where are the providores celebrating all this fabulous, fresh abundant local seafood and produce? Where is the thoughtful modern interpretation of ‘Queenslander’ architecture? Imagine!
Maybe I just want a bit of ‘Southern’ up here. I don’t mean southern proliferation either. I don’t mean Noosa and its gilded shops. I don’t mean material excess. I mean the ability to embrace the good things in life, creatively. I want a celebration of Queensland style, produce and place.
Thoughts and more thoughts.
Where we are, there are shady pandana trees on the shoreline, a rustic driftwood swing hanging from a branch, and a well worn sandy path to the beach. Someone has collected driftwood and it’s lined up like soldiers. The little waves hit the shore and retreat. I am on the verandah in the sun, writing this.
Pete has bought some pink lamb chops from the butcher, which we’ll barbecue tonight with our good friends, high above the Burnett. Perched up there, we will drink some wine, eat fresh lettuce leaves from their vegie garden and soak in the view.
There is something deliciously simple about that. Actually, pretty sweet.