After you've deposited anything that could potentially cause a spark, hence a big bang, in the rum distillery in a decidedly '2001 A Space Odyssey' contraption, you're greeted by quite an overpowering smell of molasses in the first shed you enter
. The whole plant has a capacity for 10 million litres of molasses, and this shed only had 3 million litres in a vat 3 metres deep. We tried some of this (pasteurised), and it tasted surprisingly good, quite similar to liquorice. After a brief look-in on the drums where they get the good stuff from the crap, it was on to the sheds where they have 75,000 litre oak vats filled with rum. Though the whole plant has a high alcohol content (quite a lot of the stuff is over 70%) it is these vats that were the cause of the whole plant burning down in the 1930s, and quite a justified reason why they are all paranoid about the whole place going boom. When it previously went boom, it was thanks to a lightening storm. One thing led to another (in a pyrotechnic fashion) and by the morning there was nothing left except for a pit where the molasses used to be. The locals, however, being an enterprising lot, heard the boom, and of rivers of rum, and rushed there with anything that could hold a liquid and scooped up anything that was not alight. The rum also flowed into the river, and the blue flames of burning rum lingered for 3 days. This also sent up the fish, who were cooked and ready for eating. Yet when the party subsided, it took 8 years to get the place back on its feet. The rum, though, is exceptionally good. There were quite a few different blends to try in the bar, which we did (though of course then had to hang around a bit so that we could drive without crashing into something - don't worry mum), but it was worth it
Another reason for visiting the area were the turtles at Mon Repos, about 15 minutes form Bunderberg. Mon Repos is one of the largest, if not the largest nesting site in the Southern Hemisphere for Loggerhead turtles, whose nesting period runs from November to March. Though most of them finish laying around the beginning of February, there are the hatchlings, popping out of the sand and making their dash for the shore. This is what we went to see. You can't just walk onto the beach though, as it is highly protected and the site of a lot of scientific research. Pre-booked onto a specific night, we turned up and were allocated to a turtle watching group. Though we were warned that we'd have to hang around for quite a bit (the evening runs from 7.30pm till 1am) we were called at 8.30 to go and see the hatchlings. No lights are allowed on the beach (apart from when you're told to at certain points) as the hatchlings rely on the light of the moon to guide them to the sea, and any other light could send them off course. Up at the rookery, a warden scraped the top layer of sand off the nest, and the hatchlings pushed their way up through the sand and started to head down to the beach. So that they were not stepped on by anyone, they were placed in a holding pen until all that were going to come out were out. The hatchlings themselves are quite tiny, but have amazingly strong fins - one of the wardens brought a couple round the group and you could really feel the pressure they exerted on your hand
. From here, anyone who had long enough legs to stretch wide enough, plus a torch, formed a line down to the beach, whilst everyone else stood quite a way to the side. Those of us in the line then turned on our torches, and waited for the turtles to make their way through our legs and down to the beach. Not one of them went round my legs, as I presume the follow the straight line of lights right down to the beach. It was quite incredible seeing all of these tiny creatures making a mad rush down the beach for a journey that many would never complete (only about 1 in 1000 make it to maturity). With the turtles, they have to make their own way down the beach, as doing so imprints in them the areas unique magnetic field and, quite incredibly, when and if they return to lay their eggs, they return to pretty much the exact same spot on the beach that they hatched from. Most of the ones that hatch at Mon Repos turn out to be female, as the sand is darker than that near Cairns (which reflects more light, hence cooler), where most of them turn out to be male. The temperature that decided whether the hatchlings are going to be male or female is 29 celcius, and two either side of this is the critical area. Above, and they're female; below, they're male. The whole evening was such a fantastic experience, and it's amazing how small changes, such as a few buildings that shade the beach, or excess light, have had such disastrous effects on populations elsewhere in the world - you can really appreciate it in such a pristine environment
A lot of the coast between Mon Repos and the Whitsundays is pretty similar to stuff we'd already seen, apart from the water, which become potentially more deadly the further north you go. Agnes Water and The Town of 1770 (named as such because this was the first place in Queensland that Captain Cook set foot, in 1770) are the recognised last 'safe' places to swim up the coast without the need to wear a head-to-toe 'stinger suit' or worry about being eaten by some marine creature. Whilst extremely picturesque, nothing happened here. At all. Even the things that were happening that we thought could be quite a laugh were not, as the staff had decided to take the afternoon off. So, it was upwards we kept going, and ended up at Rockhampton, the beef capital of Australia, for one night. Apart from an exceptionally nice two inch thick steak that we could cut with a butter knife, there really is not much else to say about it.
Fancying our chances of striking it big and never having to work again, we headed inland for several hundred kilometres before reaching the towns of Emerald, Sapphire and Rubyvale. I will not be giving out prizes to those who can guess what lines their pockets. Safe to say, though, that some of the biggest sapphires in the world have been found here (some worth in the region of AUS$90m)
. After casing the joint out, it was off to Rubyvale to seek our fortune. Many of the mines are husband-and-wife affairs, with people litterally getting their jack-hammers (after drilling down to the granite, above which there is a seam filled with the gems) and getting stuck in there. Not surprisingly, there are very few jewellers in any of these towns (at least ones that try and sell to the locals - any that are there are 'BYO' gems), as you can just sift through dirt and find loads of gems (or fossicking, for those who want to make it sound like they are doing something scientific - we were definitely fossicking!). Though you can get a fossicking license for just over $5 and go out on your own, neither of us had much of an idea what we were looking for (apart from our fortune), so we went to a place where they had all the kit, and all we had to do was to buy a bucket of dirt. This was one of the very few times that think I will ever willingly buy a bucket full of dirt, and I am sure that if we had a license and the kit, could have done so ourselves. The dirt was, supposedly, no ordinary dirt though - fresh from the mine with a high likelihood of gems being in there (though no doubt nothing too decent, as the miners would have pocketed those for themselves). After being taught how to fossick properly, off we went, backs bent over in the searing heat, sifting dirt, then washing it in the sieve, before tipping it out and getting out the gems. Told to look for things that look like shiny bits of glass, we soon struck lucky. After 2 hours going through the bucket, we both had a good collection of sapphires, which we took in for examination. Both of us had numerous small stones, which were not good for much apart from looking at in their raw form, but we also had found ones that were good enough for doing something with. I found one that was big enough to cut for a ring (though on closer examination it was all smashed internally, so was defunct) and another that could be flat polished and inlaid into a ring. Mike found the same, though his cutter is still in good condition. Though not worth much in raw form, the expense comes after cutting and they're been laid into something. You also loose 2/3 of the gem in the cutting process, so what may look like something of a good size, could turn out to be nothing to write home about.
That evening, we did something that is always a joy and a pleasure - going to the hospital (in Emerald, so comparatively easy considering how great the area of 'sod all' is around Queensland. Not for me, but Mike, as he'd been having real problems with his eyes over the last couple of days, and these intensified in the afternoon (red, hurt in light, couldn't see much, etc). Turns out it was conjunctivitis, and he was given some stuff to sort it out by the doctor. They're now fine, but he's not allowed to wear his contacts for a few more days (which probably exaggerated the problem in the first place) - no dramas.
From Fraser Island we continued our meander up the coast and other parts of Australia and the next best place to stop was a town whose claim to fame is the rum distillery - Bundaberg Rum. This could go someway as to explaining why Bundaberg has adopted a very Caribbean way of going about life - everything can wait 'till tomorrow. Apart from the rum distillery, there's also a huge ginger beer factory, which produces proper ginger beer, not the fizzy pop that you get from most mass-produced types. Good start for such a random little town. Surrounded by hundreds of miles of sugar cane, it is no wonder the product of a by-product of sugar production is so popular, as there's no shortage of the raw material.