Bundaberg, Australia (11th Feb 2008)
G'day mate! Bruce and Sheila here!
You know the drill by now, early morning, bleary eyed and back on the Oz Experience bus heading to a new destination, Bundaberg. When the bus rolled up at 7am we had our thoughts confirmed, it was one of the tiny mini buses appose to the nice spacious, air conditioned coaches that would be doing today's 3hour slog further north; luckily we both somehow managed to sleep for most of the journey and before we knew it we had arrived; the one thing that you can't help but notice on the way into the town is the fields and fields and filed of sugar cane that are growing tall and wafting side to side in the gentle wind. Since Bundaberg is an optional stop off, not every one left the bus when we did, in fact, nobody else did, and just the two of us got our things from the trailer and headed off in a direction we thought might be right as the other 21 people on board stared at us and watched us fade away wondering why we had got off here.
Bundaberg is a country town on the way to nowhere and feels oh so two centuries ago and aside from a few aesthetic alterations you could easily be fooled that the Oz Bus had at some point turned into a time machine and taken us back to the 1800's. Bundy, as its know to the locals, has two reasons why people decide to visit, the first is farm work; as of March each year the population grows by over a thousand, as backpackers from all over Australia head north to do farm work (which is meant to be worse than a prison sentence: Heat, Bugs, Minimum Wage, Long Hours all so they can apply for a Visa extension to stay for 2 years. The other reason is to drink rum, the reason we have stopped off here. Australia's favourite sugar cane liquor is distilled here and tours of the distillery are available daily for a few dollars, with some free drinks thrown in.
The bus dropped us off in the middle of Bundaberg town centre and all we knew is that our hostel was north of the river, just far enough from the hustle and bustle and all the other backpackers that cater for the working crowd; but we had a problem, turning to the page about Bundaberg in our lonely planet guide and we couldn't find the usual town map that every other place we have visited has had. Feeling lost we decided it was best to try and get a map of some sort since our driver as with many others we have met, didn't have a clue, he just knew how to get to the drop off points and nothing else. We managed to find an internet cafe not too far away and they had leaflets from the hostel we were staying at and also offered some overpriced internet facilities, we took both and 26 minutes later we still only had a rough idea of where we were going, but the internet was costing too much and it couldn't be that hard to find the place surely...
Fifty minutes later and we were sat on the pavement in the spitting rain being bitten by mosquitoes and still none the wiser of where we should be heading, we even tried asking the shop keepers where the street was, and one guy didn't even know what road his own shop was on! Another twenty minutes of walking in every which way and we found it, Feeding Grounds Backpackers, a "home from home". Our hostel was a massive converted old Queensland house which was up on stilts and all made from wood. Inside the house we found the usual crowd of backpackers lounging around and eating a staple meal of beans on toast or pasta and sauce.
When we arrived the owner was nowhere to be seen, so we shoved our food into a small gap on a shelf in one of five fridges and joined the others to watch some TV. After about half an hour the guy who runs the place turned up, Rod, what a legend he has turned out to be, the poor guy wasn't here because he went to the greyhound bus station and to the local airport looking for us as he didn't know how we were getting here and if we would be able to find his place. After a short introduction and tour of the house we were shown to our room, and lucky for us, we got put into one of the twin rooms at no extra cost. While we were getting our stuff unpacked in the room Rod came to see if we needed anything or if there was anything we needed to do while in Bundaberg and as it happens we needed to get our diving medical done before we get up further north; five minutes later Rod is helping us into the back of his huge 11 seat Toyota Land Cruiser and driving us all around town to find a medical centre that would see us, to cut things short, we went to six different doctors in about a ten mile radius, none of which could do a dive medical or if they could, they weren't seeing new patients, which means we wasted an hour trying but Rod said if we wanted he would take us to the next city to look we told him it's ok, he really would do anything to help we reckon!
As we mentioned earlier, we came to Bundaberg to drink rum and to see the Bundaberg distillery that runs a daily tour and since we had no other plans for our day, we joined the few other people from our hostel that were going on the 1 o'clock tour that Rod was taking down there, which was good for us since it saved us doing the mile walk each way.
Excited about the prospect of learning the in's and out's of this rocket fuelled rum we charged out of the back doors of the Land Cruiser like the A Team, towards a huge Bundaberg bottle, "wow! .... it's a huge Bundaberg bottle, that's awesome" was yelled by all. After taking the relevant bottle hugging photo's etc, we were ushered into the newly renovated reception area. Rod had told us on the way down that since last year the company has changed hands and is now owned by a European conglomerate that have tried to really make this more of a tourist attraction and have also bumped the price up as well. After being handed our tickets we were told, annoyingly so, that we weren't allowed to film or have anything with a battery on us during the tour so we had to store our possessions in a locker.
Our tour guides introduced themselves and got things underway at exactly 1 o'clock. They were both a good laugh if not a bit too "American" and had banter going on that seemed as if it had been fuelled by the rum itself. Before heading off they first filled us in on the facts of the Bundaberg Distillery, which are as follows:
- Bundaberg is the only place in Australia which combines all of the sugar-related processes. There's a sugar mill, refinery, distillery and packing facilities all in the one spot.
- Bundaberg Rum is Australia's biggest selling spirit, with 10 percent of the spirit market and 90 percent of the dark rum market.
- The polar bear trademark and square bottle are very distinctive — the bear was used to persuade people in other states that it was not purely a tropical drink, but could be used medicinally to ward off winter chills.
- The sugar content is at its peak between July and November, when entire crops are set alight. This burns off unwanted foliage, leaving the cane intact. Once the flames have died and the fields have cooled, the cane is harvested and transported by train to Bundaberg's mills as quickly as possible.
The first stop was the molasses well which sits inside the main production compound that has a huge 15 foot high, 1,000,000 volt electrical fence around it. The guides then reeled off the same thing they do every day at five minutes past one, telling us how it is produced by crushing cane and extracting the juice, which is then purified to extract raw sugar crystals; the remaining syrup is the molasses. We then got to go inside the main molasses well which holds 5 million litres and is six metres deep; it absolutely stunk, very similar to liquorice and treacle syrup. On the way out the chirpy young girl gave each of us a lolly pop stick with some fresh molasses on it to taste, Kara loved it but Marks taste buds are used to a bit better than cow feed and spat it out, whilst dribbling the rest of it down his trousers.
Distillation is the next stage and we got to go see where all the ingredients are mixed and made into the "immature rum" in huge 46,000 litre containers that turn it from ingredients to rum in only 36 hours. The final stop inside the electric fence was a trip to the Bond Store, where the rum is pumped into enormous vats and kept for a minimum of two years in which time it develops ninety percent of its flavour from the wood. The wooden vats were unbelievably big, 30 foot tall by at least 15 foot in diameter made from solid 6 inch thick pieces of timber. The older women went on to explain why all the pipes are overhead instead of underground (because people used to tap into the underground ones) and she also told us how much rum was stored on site all year round; Mark did some quick Math and we found out that the electric fence is there for a good reason, they have AU$ 1.8 Billion worth of rum in the maturation vats at any one time!
Bottling is the last stop, and it's a colourful process. Bottles are filled and sealed and labels are applied all within 30 seconds from one pallet where it's an empty bottle to being in a box on a pallet and shrink wrapped ready for being dispatched. This whole process had two things that seemed to be at the total opposite ends of a scale in regards to technology. The first is probably the most boring job that we have ever seen anyone have to do, standing next to a conveyer belt making sure that all the bottles face the same way before being filled; but at the end of the production line, they had a robot arm that picked up the crates of rum, stacked it all on a pallet, then shrink wrapped it, then stacked it onto another pallet ready for a fork lift truck driver to put on the wagons, it looked amazing when in action.
The tour wouldn't be complete without visiting the onsite "Bundy Bar" for a complimentary tipple. You would be surprised with all the different types of rum product they actually make and choosing just one was proving a hard choice; first you have the regular rum, then there's the over proof 67% rum and the triple distilled rum, then there was the Bundaberg equivalent to Baileys which can be only bought at the factory and finally there was the pre mixed drinks, Dark and Stormy (rum and ginger beer), Bundy & Coke and the one that we finally settled for Dry and Lime. It's amazing to see how many of the manufacturers actually have their own pre mix drinks which you just don't get at home, for instance Jack Daniels also does Jack & Coke and a few other flavours, you can even get Bundy & Coke and Jack & Coke on tap in most pubs! Having not drunk for a few days now the booze went straight to our heads and we had to have a sit down for a bit before going back to try and get another freebie.
As if you hadn't guessed, they also had a big shop that was conveniently adjoined to the bar where you could by every type of Bundy made rum and anything else you can imagine, fridge magnets, t shirts, jackets, bars paraphernalia, jams with rum in, silk underwear, fudge, ice cream... you get the picture. The one thing that did surprise us was the price, all the booze cost the same as it would down at the bottle shop so we didn't bother buying anything, until we got home and then we got a six pack of Dry and Lime to wash down our tea with.
Day two in Bundaberg started off bad; we woke up at about 11am and were accompanied by the promised hangover from hell (a Bundy rum trademark). The weather has certainly been reminding us lately just where we now are, in the tropics, hot, humid and raining, today was no different, except it never stopped and just got worse and worse and worse as the day went on; by the time tea time came around it was raining so hard you couldn't hear the TV or see much through the windows as it was belting down so hard. Given that it rained so bad all day the only thing we managed was a ride down to the library to use the free internet. When we got back to hostel we had just managed to cook our tea, when all the smoke alarms started going off, shortly followed by the lights going off for 10 minutes as thunderstorms lit up the sky; our trip to Mon Repos was then cancelled by the park rangers who said that it was a health and safety risk to take us out in such extreme conditions.
Our last day in Bundaberg was spent in a very similar fashion to the previous one; we went down to the library again to go on the internet and whilst we were there Mark decided to see if this small town library had much of a travel section and to our surprise it had all the latest editions (Nov 2007) of the lonely planet and lonely planet city guides. This led to us spending four hours copying all the city guides out into our notebooks for when we get to America and hopefully this will end up saving us a fortune, (£6.99 per city x 12 cities) as we now know pretty much everything there is to know about all the places we will visit in April, May and June including how to find all the offers (2 for 1 etc) and where to stay.
When we got back to Rods place at tea time, he told us that the rangers were cancelling all the tours for the next week or so since the weather was showing no signs of improving, but since he ran the tour himself in the past, he would take who ever fancied it down to the next beach along which is public access, free of charge and try find some turtles for us, we said yes, put on our ponchos and jumped in the back of his Land Cruiser ready to go.
SEE MON REPOS