I AM driving north of Brisbane to Bundaberg on my latest travel writing assignment when it strikes me that I am also on a personal pilgrimage. So caught up am I in the possibility of finally having the chance to experience the turtle hatchlings at Mon Repos on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, that I have temporarily forgotten my strong links to this regional Queensland town.
It’s been nine long years since I’ve been to Bundy, the birthplace and childhood home of my ex husband, and to where we would retreat each year to visit his family. And now I am returning. Alone. The ghosts of the past first hit me as I’m driving through Childers, when I glance at the façade of the old Palace Backpacker Hostel. In 2000 it burned down, killing 15 young backpackers. I remember that day well, I was the Tourism Reporter on the Courier-Mail and wrote a story about backpackers to this destination, mapping their rite-of-passage along the Queensland coast. How they used Childers as a place to stop, pick fruit, and make money before heading north to the Whitsundays. A bunch of young adults brimming with life and hope. Dead. That’s the thing about being a news reporter. Often it’s months, and in this case years, when beyond the adrenalin of a breaking news story, you finally have time to reflect on what it actually means. In my car I slow down, glance at the building, now an art space and memorial to the backpackers, and keep driving.
This is a blog about new beginnings, courage and resilience. I drive north through a series of summer storms, arriving in Bargara mid afternoon. The sun is shining and I head straight for a swim at the Basin, a tidal pool at the beach. Under the warm blue sky with fish at my feet and the ocean crashing against the rocks, I’m feeling cleansed. There are no ghosts here.
By early evening I am standing in the dark with a group of strangers at Mon Repos, wondering if I’ll have the chance to finally witness the baby turtles hatch on this, the last night of the season. Just 10 minutes after opening there’s a sighting and on this balmy beach night we wander in the dark and experience not one, but two clutches, both numbering in their hundreds. The rangers say this is the best outcome all season.
We form a human channel and the rangers shine a light from the nest to the ocean for the hatchlings to begin their life journey. You want resilience? Consider this. Just one in 1000 of these babies will make it to adulthood. And 30 years later, against all odds, the females will return to this very beach to lay their own eggs. In the dark I feel something crawl up my leg. It’s a rogue hatchling. Its beauty makes me cry. Later, back at my resort, I research the spiritual meaning of turtles: longevity, endurance, persistence and continuation of life.
The following day I snorkel with a green turtle off of Lady Musgrave Island. A 1.5 metre reef shark circles below me but I have nothing to fear. I hover over the turtle for the longest of times. Observing her feeding and resting on a reef cleaning station. I smile into my snorkel about my insatiable love of reptiles. Salty and sated, later that night I dine with Shane and Pascaline, the owners of the new Zen Beach Retreat in which I am staying. The theme of new beginnings recurs.
Shane, Australian, and Pascaline, French were living and working in Vietnam when they decided to swap their stressful, high-profile jobs for a different existence.
“We went back to Australia and went for a beach drive to try and find a block of land. I wanted to have something on the sea and it had to be hot,” Pascaline says.
“Some of the properties were stunning but there was not love there. We kept heading north. Shane stopped at Bargara Real Estate and saw this. We went walking and thought ‘what a great beach’. Both of us looked at each other and said ‘it is fantastic’.”
The couple opened the retreat in early March, after extensive renovations of this former 1970s Bargara beach motel.
“We will be offering health activities and corporate activities and finding a balance in between. In particular it’s about balancing the corporate wellness of the team,” Shane says.
“I found a lot of companies are losing their way, the way to innovate and keep their team motivated.
“What we’ve got here is a recovery treatment and corporate retreat.”
The property, which can sleep a total of 22 people including the couple’s beachfront home, boasts four themed suites – Executive, French, Asian and Oriental/Middle East. Each suite has been furnished with tasteful artifacts from the couple’s travels around the world.
“It is about creating an experience where people recover from the busy day-to-day life,” Pascaline says.
“It’s about having a guide to relax and building packages with different partners in the area such as nature, food, wellness and sports.
“We have a brand that is Zen. We want you to embody happiness.”
Happiness. I spend the next few days looking at Bundy through a different lense. I join Bundy Food Tours, a new tour which showcases the incredible innovation of the hardy farmers who have worked these fields for generations. There’s that resilience again. Even at the iconic Bundaberg Rum Distillery they’ve launched a new Blend Your Own Rum Experience. For the first time I visit Lady Elliot Island. There’s more turtles. More resilience. And I dine in new restaurants, all embracing food direct from the paddocks to their plates.
On my drive home I pause in Childers at the new Cane Fire Cheese House selling regional produce. I decide it’s time to embody the courage of the turtles and finally visit the Childers Backpacker Memorial. One of the volunteers accosts me at the door and explains the horrific events of that night. I listen, deciding against telling her I know the story all too well. She says the deliberately-lit fire, which saw Australian Robert Long jailed for murder, put Childers on the map for “all the wrong reasons”. I silently disagree. On the night of the fire, and for weeks and months afterwards, the locals opened their doors to the survivors and their families and embraced them as if they had lost their own children. And now they are immortalised in these walls. Forever part of this region’s fabric. On the drive south I think again about the turtles and their meaning: longevity, endurance, persistence and continuation of life. Bundaberg, well she has these in spades.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Bundaberg North Burnett Tourism – http://www.bundabergregion.info To stay at the Zen Beach Retreat go to http://www.zenbeachretreat.com