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  • Writer's pictureJoanna

Too Ripe for the Pickin'

I was finally. making my way up to see Ashlynn... in Bundaberg.

I was going BACK to Bundaberg?

After 30 years?

THIS could NOT be real...

I never, in a million years, thought that I would return. Especially after so much time had passed.

I was plunging into emotional convulsions just thinking about it.

Bundaberg has played such an integral part in my journey… not only to Australia in 1994, when I first arrived there... but throughout my ENTIRE life.  As I have mentioned so many times before this blog... had I not ended up in this little tomato-picking town, my life would have been immensely different from what it is today.

Could have been better... it could have been worse. It’s difficult to even fathom… Everything that unfolded after I left Bundaberg was a direct result of my time spent there and the people I met there.

And believe me... the people I met were somethin' else...

I know that right now, while I'm travelling in Australia, I seem to be somewhat stuck on cruise control down memory lane. I fully realize that I tend to go on & on about the past... but Bundaberg, the owners and all the backpackers affiliated with it hold a very special place in my heart.

And now I was heading back.

Back to Bundy.

Differently... yet vaguely similar.


Back then, I was 22… I was young. I was impressionable. I was dirty. I was poor. I was partying WAY too much… and I was perfectly content to spend the majority of my one-year holiday working visa in the grubby tomato fields. But what people forget is that I made relationships that endured the test of time. Some of these people are still in my life... and most likely, will remain in my life.

Like Ashlynn.

Ashlynn and Donna were two of the first travellers I met in Bundy. All the way from Northern Ireland, they made an impression on me almost immediately. Our travels in Australia mirrored each other and we managed to spend the majority of our time there together. Yes, we all took off in different directions occasionally, but always came back together eventually. 

It was usually a lack of funds that forced us back together, picking tomatoes and picking grapes.

They were both an enormous part of my year. 

Ashlynn ended up coming back to Bundaberg only a couple of years later, as she married one of the local farmers, Simon Andreole. Funny story, because I had actually worked on the Andreole farm for 4 days… and they FIRED me!

I know… the audacity!

In my defence, it was a tomato bucket-picking job… and I hated it. Bucket-picking heavy tomatoes for eight hours... in the excruciating heat... with an appallingly atrocious level of fitness... topped off with a daily, mind-numbing hangover... doesn't necessarily a good fruit picker make.

No. Not a good mix.

So I was on my way back up to visit Ashlynn.

I couldn’t wait.

It seemed surreal that it had been THIRTY YEARS!

I ended up arriving in Bundaberg slightly later than expected, as I encountered a slight detour due to an accident… and I’d also left something in Hervey Bay, so I had to swing by to see Ethel quickly for a pickup and one more quick hug.

It was fabulous connecting with Ashlynn and I think we just picked up right where we left off. It was like not a moment had passed. Over a couple of bottles of wine, we managed to catch up on the last thirty years… and even found time to filter through old faded photographs and memories, reminiscing on all those moments & friends loved and lost... and somewhat forgotten. It was entertaining, as well as quite challenging... trying to piece together our recollections, desperate to tie them all together to make some sense.

It was definitely a walk down memory lane… and we even called Donna!

The Andreole farm is no longer a tomato farm, so any thoughts I might have had of recreating the past out in the killing crops, armed with nothing but a bucket, were eliminated. The family had ripped out the vines and replaced them with macadamia trees. Probably a change for the best, as I’m confident I would’ve managed to get myself fired for a second time...

Ashlynn had managed to get the following day off, so we headed into the heart of downtown Bundy to revisit the old stomping grounds. As much time as I spent in that town during my year in Australia, my time in Bundaberg consisted of my incessant visitation of only three locations.

  1. The City Centre Backpackers - My Australian home.

  2. The Hungry Tum - The fast food/greasy spoon/convenience shop downstairs from our hostel. I'm pretty sure it seemed bigger than it used to be. I believe Sarah and I were unceremoniously kicked out and barred late one evening when we decided to ‘borrow’ some slushies. I can’t remember all the details, but apparently that’s what occurred. Thirty years later, I walked in and out unscathed, though I didn't mention my thieving past to them at all.

  3. The Beer Garden - The pub across the road. This was now completely gone due to a recent fire at the Federal Hostel next door. Too bad. So many memories attached to that place... Would have been fun to go in for a beer. Ashlynn reminded me of their weekly piss-up party, "Toss the Boss." I'd forgotten about that.

The City Centre Backpackers is now 'The Grosvenor' and when we went in, the owner offered to give us a tour.

It was kind of her to do so, but I had to fight hard to keep my expressions intact. It just wasn't

the warm and welcoming place it had been when we were there. Peter and Ethel had made it like a home for their shabby crew. Now, it had all the characteristics of a jail cell, with bars and locks on each window and door. Where there was once colour, there was now grey. Where there were once photos and pictures, were blank walls. Where there was once creativity, was nothing but a desolate, depressing feeling.

The hostel we had all once adored was now lacking a certain degree of character... and that old comfortable, snug and happy vibe. Even the upstairs lounge had been converted into more rooms, obviously to generate more income. Ashlynn and I pointed out all our old rooms, remembering how dirty we all were each day... The stench must have been unbearable.

But we were all in the same boat.

This was our family.

Our crew.

Peter & Ethel's kids.

Regardless of the grim decor, it was magical to walk through it, all these years later. Despite the gruelling fruit-picking work, I wouldn’t exchange my time spent there for the world…

The place was buzzing with young kids, obviously there on a working holiday. Seeing them mulling about, we couldn't help but feel like we were looking back in time.

We were even offered a job picking sweet potatoes!

Ashlynn said no immediately... but I temporarily considered it... for approximately 15 seconds.

When we left the backpackers, Ashlynn drove through the main street and then down to Bargara Beach for a little lunch, vino and window shopping.

Through this little step back in time, I have discovered that old friends can remind us of the person we used to be and help get us in touch with parts of ourselves that might have become suppressed over the years. It was a pretty cool feeling. But wow… all this food and wine is not meshing well with my South Asian body-to-be...

That's the truth.

On my way out of Bundaberg, I made sure to stop by the Childers memorial. Childers was the next town over from Bundaberg, and there was a working hostel there as well. Peter and Ethel had once owned it.

On June 23rd, 2000, a young backpacker, Robert Paul Long, lit a fire at the Childers Palace Backpackers and as a result, killed nine women and six men. He was arrested for lighting the fire, charged with two counts of murder and one count of arson and was sentenced to life imprisonment. It was a tragic, tragic event...

There were 88 people staying in the building at the time out of a potential total occupancy of 101. Of the 70 guests who survived the fire, 10 suffered minor burns and injuries as they tried to escape from the upper level and by jumping onto the roofs of neighbouring buildings.

Of the 15 who died in the fire, seven were British; three were Australian; two were from the Netherlands; and one was from each of Ireland, Japan, and South Korea. Identification of the deceased was hampered due to an incomplete hostel register that recorded check-ins but not departures, and because most of the residents' passports were destroyed or damaged by the fire. DNA samples were also difficult to obtain for those with no relatives in Australia.

The devastating fire did occur four years after I'd left Bundaberg, but all backpackers, past and present, felt the pain of this tremendous loss.

I knew I had to pay my respects.

They were us.

We were them.


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