Wednesday, 8 April 2015

TOD Tour, Day 57 - Childers & Mon Repos

The Grand Hotel - only survivor of the
1902 fire which destroyed a block
After a much needed rest day to recover from our Fraser Island experience and nurse muscles complaining of first use after a long hiatus, it was back on the road this morning.

The next week will be a series of short hops and a circle inland to take in Biloela and Mount Morgan before we reach Rockhampton. I had driven through both on my lonely journey home from Townsville in 2010, after Sue flew home with her injured back. As a result, I wanted to take her through them and besides we need to have a break from the coast, which we have hugged since leaving Tamworth.

By morning tea we were at Childers, a National Trust town which has always been surrounded by sugar cane and fields of fruit and vegetables. It lies on rich volcanic soils which have made agriculture an abundant return for the town's economy. Along either side of a main street, divided into three parallel roads with the two way Bruce Highway at its centre and Churchill Street running one way on either side, it has more than its share of historic buildings, which are in turn registered with the National Trust. This despite an entire block being burnt to the ground along southern side of Churchill St, between McIllwraith St and Ashley Lane in 1902. Only the Grand Hotel survived.

However, its another fire which burdened Childers with infamy.

The Paradise
In June 2000, a disgruntled and disturbed Robert Long set fire to furniture in the downstairs lounge area of the Paradise Backpackers Hostel on Churchill St, right in the middle of town. The two story Paradise was all but burnt to the ground in a short space of time, killing 15 of the 84 backpackers who were in residence. Whilst three Australians were among those killed, young men and women from England, Wales, Holland, Ireland, Japan and Korea were also among the dead. One, the Australian known only as Moulay, died after escaping the fire and returning to the building to assist others. The majority of the dead died as a result of smoke inhalation.

Fifteen years ago, there were no smoke alarms and no fire fighting systems installed.

Long was found hiding in the scrub to the south of  Childers, was arrested and charged with two counts of murder and one of arson and was sent to prison for life but will be eligible for parole in 2022.

The community rallied immediately, with clothing food and shelter showered on the survivors.

Unbelievably, a developer bought the site in late 2000 with a view to developing it as a hostel! After many objections and obstacles from the local council, the developer sold the site to the Bundaberg Regional Council for $1, on the agreement that he would have a permanent lease over the ground floor of the new building. The top floor was renovated and a space was created for a memorial for the dead backpackers.

Artist Salvatore Di Mauro, whose father used to deliver bread in Childers, trained as a cabinet maker and then went to TAFE in Brisbane to achieve a Bachelor of Arts. He went on to be a senior lecturer at the Queensland College of the Arts. He designed and supervised the installation of a single pane of frosted glass, 7.8 metres long and 2.7 metres high. It was made in Japan, transported to Perth and then Melbourne by ship and then bought overland by truck to Childers. A giant crane lifted into position through the ceiling of the new upstairs space. Into this large pane, Di Mauro mounted fifteen glass boxes, suspended behind the glass and each opening onto a space in the face of the pane. Inside each box was a succession of smaller panes of glass with colour images taken from moments in the lives of the killed backpackers, moving from the last image of them, back deeper in the box to their childhood.

It took two years of negotiation with relatives of the dead to gain their approval. Federal and state governments put up a third of the cost each and the rest came from foreign governments whose citizens had been involved in the tragic events.

The result is both a moving memorial to mark the tragic deaths of these young people and a reminder of their optimism and love of life.

Entrance doors to the Paradise
An art space has been added to fill the upstairs area where the fire created such devastating havoc.

One has to admire the thoughtfulness of this response by local government, even down to the low key manner in which they promote the memorial. Because many of the families didn't want the memorial to become a tourist attraction, the approach to promoting it is subdued, despite it being worthy of heavy promotion. Another example is the prohibition on photographing the memorial. Top marks on all counts.

A poignant moment occurred as we went back down the stairs. The large doors and lead light glass above them are the original entrance from the rebuild after the 1902 fire. They survived the horrific 2000 fire needing little more than a clean. After I snapped a photo of them and the entrance, I noticed an external fire bell mounted above the entrance.

We had morning tea across the road - a nice coffee but why places who are full of patrons and already charging top money for the products have to add a surcharge for the use of credit cards in a cashless society is beyond me. I can understand a weekend or public holiday surcharge but eftpos? Its even more galling when they have a lower limit on purchases being made by plastic.

We pressed on toward Bundaberg. Having explored it fairly extensively in 2010, were are largely giving Bert Hinkler's home town a miss on this trip. We bypassed it via its southern outskirts and went to Mon Repos beach instead and a visit to the Conservation Park there. Renowned as a place where turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, the beach has only just closed to the public between 6:00pm and 6:00am. Just a few weeks earlier and we could have gone on a ranger guided evening visit and watched hatchlings scrabble from their eggs in nests above the highwater mark on a mad dash for the relative safety of the water.

Located on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, it is a nesting area for Loggerhead, Flatback and Green sea turtles. Because the temperature of the sand dictates the sex of the hatchlings, most of the Mon Repos turtles are born female. The life cycle of sea turtles is largely unknown for the seventeen years after they disappear into surf but only 1 in every 1000 make it to maturity. Even then, females can't breed until they are thirty years old. Birds of prey and marine predators have always taken their toll but the introduction of foxes, water pollution and destruction and distraction of nesting areas had endangered these creatures by the 1970's. The research done at places like Mon Repos has started to redress that situation but given the long period of maturation, sea turtles remain in danger.

Mon Repos beach
Mon Repos - French for "my rest" - gets its name from a country residence built a few kilometres inland of the beach by sugar pioneer Augustus Barton, who built the place as a summer house in 1884.

Whilst the night tour was not available, a self-guided information centre behind the beach is excellent, with lots of information, presented in a variety of engaging ways.

During the mid afternoon, we drove the final twenty minutes to Elliott Heads, to the south east of Bundaberg, where the Elliott River greets the sea and digs in a crowded council park. Friendly neighbours but lots of noisy, boring, self absorbed teenagers - glad I was never one - but parents who at least think it important to exercise appropriate controls. Nice amenities. The beach was disappointing but one of those long, slow sloping places families love ... which explains why so many of them are here. Sue swam but I couldn't stand the walk to New Zealand just to get my knees wet.

On the move again tomorrow.

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