Becoming a tourist in your home town

Bundaberg ... returning to your home town as a tourist is a strange feeling.
Bundaberg ... returning to your home town as a tourist is a strange feeling. Photo: Getty Images

Everything's so close together. Surely it wasn't always like this. I remember the cricket fields well. I remember making a hero of myself there, smashing boundaries on my way to another big score. That undoubtedly never happened but it's amazing the version of your younger self that sticks in your memory.

I remember downtown, too, if you can call it that. It's more just a single street filled with quiet storefronts, old Queenslander facades and tiled pubs. That's where I bought my cricket bat, I'm thinking - the weapon for all those great innings that probably never happened.

I remember my old house as well, that grand old building with what seemed like a whole world of space in the backyard. Turns out it's just the standard quarter-acre block but you can build a stadium out of that in your mind when you're young; it can be your battlefield, your stage.

I remember a lot about Bundaberg, my childhood home, despite not having been there for 15 years. What I don't remember, however, is how close together everything is.

Moving along in the car now, it seems impossible that it could all be right next to each other - the cricket fields, the main street, my old house. We don't even need a car - you could walk between them. They basically back on to each other.

Maybe when that's the only world you know, everything seems a lot larger. Maybe when your entire universe is contained in a few city blocks you can persuade yourself that the distances are greater. Or maybe I just have a bad memory.

It's a strange feeling, returning as a tourist to a place you once called home. I grew up in central Queensland but until now I'd never felt the need to go back.

But here I am, rolling through Bundaberg's quiet streets, checking it out as a tourist would check it out, letting memories flood back in. It's familiar but totally different.

First rule of visiting your old home town: no one cares about your stories. Unless you're in possession of children whose duty it is to feign interest in your boring old anecdotes, no one gives a toss about all the things you used to do.

It's like waking up in the morning and telling everyone about the amazing dream you just had: no one cares. It sounds far more interesting in your head than it does out loud.

I watched the West Indies play a tour match at that cricket ground. No one cares.

I kissed Sarah Fredericks in the back row of that movie theatre once. No one cares.

It pays to keep these things to yourself. So we cruise through town, my little band of travellers and I, me silently reminiscing - hey, that's where I stacked my BMX that time - and the others just wondering what it is that makes Bundaberg a tourist attraction.

It's quaint, I guess, and different. If you come from Europe, country Queensland must feel like another world. Geez, if you come from Sydney it does. It's an unfussy place, uncluttered, with more space than it really needs.

But our little tour soon has to leave. We're heading to another familiar spot for me: Biloela, out west. It's not another home town but it might as well be. I spent enough time out there.

All the old touchstones are still around in Bilo - the wide streets, big enough to herd cattle down. The local bakery that still does the best sausage rolls you've ever tasted, although they're washed down with cappuccinos these days, not chocolate milk.

The locals are still friendly, to a point. Kev, a builder, says he's been doing his bit to encourage tourism by helping stock the local dam with fish, but it's only short-term visitors he's after.

"We've just got our first set of traffic lights in Bilo," he says, wiping a sweaty brow. "Don't think we need to be gettin' much bigger than that."

Confession time: I never much liked central Queensland when I lived there. I was probably a city boy who'd just never lived in the city, which is why I've always been reluctant to go back.

But now, all these years later, I can see the appeal in small-town Queensland for the average tourist, even without the benefit of reminiscence.

The highway outside Biloela at dawn is incredible - with all the harshness of the day yet to arrive, you're just left with colour and life. And it's friendly here, as long as you don't look too out-there, or intend to stay too long.

There's a strange beauty in the old shop fronts and quiet streets, too. It's a place that's comfortable the way it is.

Nothing's as big as I remember it - but I doubt that's a problem here.

Have you ever returned to your home town or another place you lived as a tourist? What was your experience? Post a comment below.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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