Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bundy days

Woolly Days is just back from spending Christmas in Bundaberg about 370km north of Brisbane. Bundaberg is most well known to the rest of Australia for its eponymous dark rum. Both the town and rum are affectionately known as “Bundy”. The 50,000 population city marks the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and of the Central Queensland region. The name Bundaberg is possibly the only placename in Australia which is a combination of Aboriginal and European words. “Bunda” is the name of a local Aboriginal tribe and Burg is the old Saxon word for town.

Bundaberg lays good claims to have the best climate in Australia. Its Winters are mild due to its subtropical latitude and the Summer heat is tempered by cool sea breezes. Bundaberg lies on the wide reach of the Burnett River. The river is the lifeblood of the city and fuels the sugar cane industry which is Bundaberg’s economic pulse. The first settlers to the area were timber-growers. The brothers John and Gavin Steuart camped on a site later occupied by North Bundaberg Railway Station in 1867. A year later Samuel Johnston erected a sawmill on the river downstream from the Steuart holding. Surveyor J C Thompson surveyed, laid out and named Bundaberg in 1870. Timber supply quickly ran short and a nascent corn industry was ravaged by disease. Finally experimental sugarcane growing followed and a sugar industry slowly emerged. The sugar plantations owners relied on Kanaka labour. And Bundy grew on its blackbirding profits. Bundaberg was gazetted a town during 1902 and a city in 1913.

Bundaberg’s most famous son is aviator Bert Hinkler. He was born in Bundaberg in 1892. He found his vocation by watching ibis flying in a local lagoon. He designed his first glider by watching the birds’ wings and tail. He practised flying his gliders at nearby Mon Repos Beach. When he was 18 he worked for a New Zealand aviator named 'Wizard' Stone for three years. Then he moved to England where he got a job as a mechanic. Within 12 months World War I broke out and he got a job as a pilot in the RAF. After the war he became a test pilot and started making his record breaking solo flights. He is most remembered the first solo flight from England to Australia in 1928. The journey took him a record 16 days in a single-engined Avro Avian. He broke the previous record by 12 days. He arrived in Darwin to a hero's welcome. 1,500 people were on to cheer him when he returned to his home town. Hinkler died 5 years later when he crashed crossing the Italian Alps.

Mon Repos beach is not just the home of Hinkler’s test gliders. The beach has the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on the eastern Australian mainland. From November to March, the turtles nest and hatch on the beach each night. About eight weeks later young turtles emerge from the eggs and begin their journey to the sea. Appropriately, Mon Repos means “my rest” in French. The French government used the area between 1890 and 1925 as the launching pad for the telegraph cable from Australia to the French colony of New Caledonia.

But for Australians it is Bundy Rum that the town is most famous. It is Australia's only well known, locally produced spirit. In 1888 a group of sugar millers started to produce the rum using the molasses that was a by-product of sugar refinement. They joined forces to form the Bundaberg Distilling Company. Its fame was guaranteed barely 12 year later by the Boer War when the army requested the entire production of Bundaberg rum be sent as rations for Australian troops. Production was halted for 7 years following a devastating fire in 1907 but was resumed in time to supply the troops again in World War I. Fire destroyed the business again in 1936 but Bundy Rum rose again from the ashes in time for another war: this time World War II. When American soldiers came to Australia, they started mixing the rum with Cola. The distillery saw an opportunity and came up with the first ‘ready to drink’ – Bundy and Cola. With the Aussie habit of shortening, it became Bundy and Coke.

Bundy rum brought in the Polar Bear mascot in 1961. Despite the oddness of a cold symbol for a sub-tropical drink, the warmth implied by the Bundy Bear helped sales soar in Australia's cooler but more lucrative southern states. Its popularity attracted international attention. Bundaberg Rum announced the 21st century by being bought out by multi-national Diageo who also market major brands such as Guinness, Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff.

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