Saturday, 2 October 2010

A Little Further North - Bundaberg Improves!

Negativity, it would appear, colours an argument with such one-sided zeal that little else exists than to make whinging a necessity. Perhaps I was guilty of that yesterday. Perhaps not but after today, to not change my opinion would be to stand with no legs.

My day started with a an opening to attend at 7:00am - the opening of the caravan park laundry. In a first from my experience, I was the only one there - no crones to survive, whose resentment that a man was in their domain, enthusiastically separating whites from colours, usually madfor spiteful comments and occasionally, outright complaint. Just two industrial strength Mayfair automatic washing machines, empty clotheslines and me. I finished the important business and then uploaded my two recent interviews with radio station 2AD onto the Waratahs Cricket Club site. Washing, showers and breakfast and we were leaving for Bundaberg at 9:30am.

Behind the stick of the Avro Baby
The forward notes on the Hinkler Hall of Aviation turned out to be inaccurate as it was much better than even the glowing tourist promotions. Open for about 18 months, every part of the museum from the front of house staff to the interactive displays and innovative layout of featured sections was really as good as anything I have seen and way better than most. It leaves the much lauded Stockamn's Hall of Fame at Longreach for dead and gasping. Their theatrette is housed inside a mock globe of the Earth. Inside is a quick (14min) retelling of Hinkler's life, including many family and press shots. Outside, his flying journeys from England to Australia and across the southern Atlantic are highlighted in LED lights, whilst a constantly rolling kyron, like the electronic tickertape of New York's Time Square, rolls out news flashes as the lights illuminate to show Hinkler's progress around the planet. Very clever and very engaging. At another point, early in the telling of life of Hinkler the aviator, when he was experimenting with flight in gliders on Mon Repos beach to the east of Bundaberg, there are two flat boards on which museum visitors are invited to lie face down and grasping the control stick under their chin, they attempt to fly the gliders whilst the land ahead and under them is simulated in a video display. I visualised my brother having great fun undertaking this activity.

Hinkler's planes are there - the Avro Baby which he flew from England, the Puss Moth in which his last flights were made and the Ibis, an amphibian aircraft he was developing for the armed forces. There was even a small rib from his early glider which was taken on board a shuttle flight by Mission Commander Scobie ... the commander of the last Challenger flight. Amazingly, this 12 inch piece of wood, wrapped in plastic, survived the inferno and was found floating on the sea off Florida and has been returned to the museum.

Hinkler's house, originally
at Mon Repos
We both had a fabulous time, something which was a surprise for Sue. After morning tea, we walked Hinkler House. This two storey bungalow is the very one - brick and tile for tile and brick - in which Hinkler and his defacto wife Nancy, lived in England when he was a test pilot for AV Roe Industries (later to become Avro) and was designing the Ibis. A group of enthusiasts purchased the building before it could be bulldozed and turned into a housing estate and deconstructed it carefully before reversing the process back in Bundaberg. An interesting observation is that the two bedroom building was set up with one bedroom for Nancy and one for Hinkler. For all intents and purposes, they appeared in public life as husband and wife, sometimes even in the company of Hinkler's first wife. They never had children, but after Hinkler's death on a mountain side near Florence, Italy, attempting another long distance flight from England to Australia, Nancy stayed in the house before emigrating to South Africa in 1952. When she died, her daughter from and earlier marriage, inherited what was left of the Hinkler estate. Odd.

After Sue was let loose on two more museums in the botanic gardens precinct and we ate lunch, we drove across town to the east for a tour of the Bundaberg Rum Bond Store. I must admit, our expectations were low and had other events worked in our favour rather than against, we probably would not have made time for this tour. That would have been our loss for the tour was not only informative but it was also fun thanks to the wit of our tour guide, Bill.

Bundaberg Rum is no longer Australian owned, having been bought out by a British company twenty years ago and in doing so, they removed much of the vertical integration which the original parent had set up. The sugar mill, with it's tall tower emanating mostly water vapour these days, had once been part of the organisation but now it processes the local sugar cane and pumps molasses under pressure and heat direct to massive tanks which hold 10 million litres on the site of the home of that big, cheeky polar bear. The molasses is mixed mostly with yeast home grown in the BR laboratories for the task of fermenting the molasses. This produces a dark liquid which is 8% alcohol by volume. From here it is distilled twice (steam driven through the liquid under pressure) and the vapours which are given off are then condensed into a liquid which is 78% alcohol. This also drastically reduces the volume of the liquid from 4000 litres down to 4. The mix is then cut with water to produce both overproof (57%) and underproof (37%) versions required for the finished product but to add taste and colour, the rum is placed in huge vats for at least two years to finish it. There are three hundred of these vats, all hand built by local coopers, without glues or joints. Each vat had an estimated commercial value of $10 million.

In November 1936, a storm rolled across Bundaberg in the late afternoon, forks of lightning peppering the town. One struck the wooden roof of the bond store, where the large vats, in those days uncovered, squatted with their heavy loads of rum. Embers from the burning roof dropped into the rum vats, igniting them and in very little time, the whole place was ablaze. In an effort to save the building, the bungs were removed from the vats and the rum flowed out into the streets of East Bundaberg. There are reports of the event saying people were in the streets with buckets and any container they could find, scooping up the flowing rum and filling their baths before returning to the street for more.

The flames followed the rum flowing down to the Burnett River and for five days and even more eerily, five nights, a 15km stretch of the Burnett was covered in a blue flame, killing all the fish in the river. It took five days to extinguish the fire and it was jokingly said three weeks for the firemen to sober up but when it was over, only the cement molasses tanks remained. The people of Bundaberg threw in with the owners and rebuilt the facility from the ground up inside 12 months.

Our $15 entry fee included the tour and two free drinks of rum in the bar afterwards, surprising value which more than made up for my previously held disregard for Bundaberg! I got my picture taken with the polar bear so I exuded a happiness which had nothing to doing with the free drinks.

As if all of that had not been enough, we spent the last hour of light at Bangara, a satellite town of Bundaberg which is on the ocean. Here we were shocked to see surf beaches and some delightfully clever groins constructed by the Kanakas which turned rock covered beaches into sand covered. We ate the two biggest ice creams known to mankind and returned back to camp via a Woollies store.

Our best day on tour so far.

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