I first came across the name Bundaberg in an isolated pub somewhere north of Fort William in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. The name, and the famous Bundaberg Polar Bear, adorned the hat of a young Australian woman who was travelling through the Highlands with a friend. As the evening wore on, and more single malt was drunk, drinking stories started to be told. Including tales of Bundaberg’s famous rum.
I don’t remember at what stage in the night we struck a deal to swap her Bundaberg cap for my St. Patrick’s Day t-shirt. All I know is, I woke up the next morning with a stinking hangover, wearing a hat with a polar bear on the front, and without my t-shirt. I had to drink quite a lot of Guinness to acquire that t-shirt. It was a sad loss, but it seemed like an appropriate way to part company.
Ever since that drunken night in Scotland, I made a promise to myself that one day I’d visit Bundaberg and see where my new hat came from. Over the intervening years the hat travelled with me like a lucky charm until it was lost, possibly in another drinking-related incident. I may not have been able to proudly wear it when I eventually arrived in Bundaberg, but I brought the spirit of that night in a Highland pub with me.
I drove up to Bundy, as Bundaberg is affectionately known, after watching whales in Hervey Bay, and there was a subtle change in the landscape. I passed more and more fields of sugar cane and, occasionally, long and slow sugar cane trains. Queensland is famed for sugar cane, the further north you go the more cane you see. In this area, much of it is destined for Bundy’s rum stills.
Bundaberg’s a town of around 70,000 people, and has a small town feel. The area was first surveyed by Europeans in the 1840s, by James Burnett, who gave his name to Bundaberg’s slow moving river. The town was finally founded in 1870, and plenty of graceful colonial-era buildings still line the streets. Timber was the first major industry in the town, but sugar quickly took over.
Bundy doesn’t attract many tourists, but it’s a surprisingly picturesque place with palm tree-lined streets. There are a couple of good museums, including to aviation pioneer, Bert Hinkler, who in 1931 was the first person to fly solo across the South Atlantic. Bizarrely, the house in which he lived forms part of the museum. That is, the house he lived in in Southampton, England. It was shipped here in 1983 when threatened with demolition and reconstructed brink by brick.
I walked around the town centre, had a delicious breakfast in one of several good coffee shops, and found my way to the Burnett River for a stroll along its banks. At Bundy, the river is wide and slow moving, but this is deceptive. Originating in the Great Dividing Range, the river is prone to flooding. Recent flooding in 2010-11 and 2013 caused huge damage in Bundaberg and elsewhere along its course.
I’d have liked to have spent a bit more time in Bundaberg but the siren call of the road, and my ridiculous schedule to reach Cairns, beckoned me. There was only one thing I had to do before leaving town, the one thing everyone has to do when they visit Bundy … tour the Bundaberg Rum Distillery.