The South Burnett is to weather forecasts in Queensland as South Utsire is to the shipping forecast back in the UK. It's a name you're very familiar with but you don't necessarily know where it is. I found out as I planned a long weekend in the Bunya Mountains.
Kingaroy is the main town of the South Burnett region and peanut capital of Australia*. Peanuts have been grown on a significant scale here since the 1920s. The red basaltic soils and serried young plants are very photogenic. We also have the fridge magnet and postcards.
Peanuts – aka ground nuts or monkey nuts – aren't nuts; they're legumes (beans). You can see Kingaroy's massive (43-metre-high) peanut silos miles away – and they overshadow everything. There have been numerous damaging fires in the town's history: in 1951 the silos, bag shed, peanuts and machinery were destroyed in a dramatic blaze.
Right opposite the imposing silos is the Kingaroy Information, Art and Heritage Precinct. This encompasses the visitor information centre, the Kingaroy Heritage Museum and an art gallery. The museum has all things peanutty, including an old harvester, and when we were there the art gallery had an exhibition of sculptures made from machinery parts.
What about the navy beans, I hear you cry. We need to talk about navy beans. I am not the only one who didn't know what they were. When I first searched for haricot beans in Australia for my lamb and bean stew and multi-bean salad, I was met by a series of blank faces. I was offered cannelloni beans, which are bigger and related to haricot beans but not the same thing. Navy beans are the same as haricot beans but I was not offered those. I have never seen navy beans in the supermarkets or The Nut Market in James Street Market which sells beans that other shops do not. So, where do they all go? Baked beans is the answer, according to my learned friend (and bean expert). They get their name from the fact that the US navy used to carry them as a food staple: they don't go bad and they're very nutritious.
Kingaroy is almost as famous for one of its pollies as its peanuts. Johannes (Joh) Bjelke-Petersen was Queensland's longest-serving Premier (1968-87) and is still much talked about in these parts, as much with loathing as approbation. Born in New Zealand to Danish immigrant parents, Bjelke-Petersen moved to Kingaroy when he was two. As Premier, he presided over a period of massive growth in Queensland's population (spurred by his abolition of inheritance tax), building and infrastructure. Airports, bridges, dams, mines, power stations, roads, tourism (resorts and hotels) and universities all bear his hallmark. But he was no friend of protesters, Aborigines, the media or the Opposition, and, although supposedly in favour of strong law and order, a number of his ministers were jailed later for corruption. If, in your travels, you wonder how an eyesore could ever have been built, chances are it was because of special legislation passed by B-P's government to exempt its developer from local government planning regulations.
On a much more satisfactory note, wine production in South Burnett dates back to the mid-1850s. Today, Clovely Estate in Moffatdale is one of Queensland's largest vineyards, with 430 acres. There are grapes (and goats) in the centre of Kingaroy. We didn't rate a lunchtime white we tried but enjoyed a reasonable local red with a steak at the Broadway Hotel (Ruby's Restaurant) in Kingaroy Street the night before we left. This was the cheapest dinner we've ever eaten in Australia: $56 for two rump steaks, chips and salad and a bottle of Bellbird Cab Sav seemed like a real bargain. The next morning we tasted at Moffatdale Ridge cellar door and liked a sparkling cuvee, a Semillon and a Cab Sav enough to buy a couple of bottles of each.
(Shame about the yellow monstrosity.)
We stayed a few kilometres north of Kingaroy on the Booie Range. Hillview Cottages promised a great view and delivered.
We stayed in a former church that was once in the valley below but moved up in the world in 1996 and was beautifully renovated a few years ago. The welcome was warm and the atmosphere totally relaxed.
A working farm, Hillview was complete with visiting grey mare Connie, Cookie the German short-haired Pointer, and April, 'the mouser', who was more aloof, being a cat.
The first evening, I paid for my beer-o'clock gazing at all before me with the first mozzie bites of the summer, but it was a small price. A couple of days later, Hillview was a hard place to leave on another lovely morning on the Booie.
We headed north on what was still the Bunya Highway. The first item of interest was an unusual crop – Dubiosia, or Corkwood. It is said that Aborigines used to throw the crushed leaves into ponds, whereupon fish would be unable to swim and float to the surface as easy prey. These days, the plant's component hyoscine is used in antispasmodic drugs to treat stomach cramps and motion sickness, and as a surgery pre-med. Tonnes are exported to pharma companies in Europe and Asia.
We passed through Memerambi, where our little church originated, and Wooroolin. Wondai was a pretty little place.
Murgon is the gateway to the South Burnett wine region proper. The name derives from Aboriginal words meaning 'lily covered pond'. There were some fine lilies, but also not-so-fine litter, and we quickly moved on to Moffatdale. I sometimes have too-high expectations of small towns along our way. Some are victims of their own publicity: one that shall remain nameless is described in Touring the South Burnett 2011-12, an otherwise useful brochure from tourist information offices, as 'an appealing boutique town', but I don't think they mean the shops.
While travelling the Murgon-Barambah road, we detoured to look at Lake Barambah, created in 1988 by the Bjelke-Petersen Dam. Caramba! What a bleak place. You won't 'Discover the Magic' of South Burnett here. You can drive across the earth dam, which is mildly interesting, and we spotted Cormorants and Black-winged Stilts, but the often sterile aspect of a man-made lake was never more in evidence than in this vain attempt to sell tourism and recreation. Instead, I looked upwards.
My desire to travel the Kilcoy-Murgon road so as not to repeat any section of our route was thwarted by an unexpected 80-odd-kilometre stretch of unmade-up-ness. So, back to the Burnett Highway. We inadvertently stopped to eat our lunch by the southeastern extremity of Lake Barambah. Dead drowned tree stumps and abundant flies did nothing to change my opinion.
We continued on to Nanango and from there to Yarraman. Tinkling Bell Miners soothed our second wait to negotiate the D'Aguilar Highway roadwork. From Kilcoy we turned south along the Esk-Kilcoy Road and the Wivenhoe-Somerset Road, and then east up Northbrook Parkway and down Mount Glorious Road through the Brisbane Forest to home. This route enabled us to see Lake Somerset and Somerset Dam for the first time, a final flurry of birdlife, the best view of Lake Wivenhoe imaginable and, last but not least, a Carpet Python that had a lucky escape (thanks to my friend's adept swerving) just a stone's throw from Brisbane.
It seems only fitting, however, to sign off with the best name we came across on this trip.
* Australia produces only 0.2 per cent of the world's peanuts. China is top, followed by India and the USA. Queensland produces 95 per cent of Australia's peanuts
This post was last updated on 18 December 2011