The Tropics of Capricorn, Queensland: beef to reef and back in 3 days
Only in Queensland could you be saddle side of a bull to snorkel side of the Great Barrier Reef in a couple of hours. How now brown cow, you ask?
The charismatic coastal town of Yeppoon is less than an hour drive northeast of Rockhampton. From here, you have first-class access to 18 Keppel Bay islands on the Great Barrier Reef, only a hop skip and a 30-minute boat ride away from the mainland.
It swaps cold winters for fresh and predictable sunshine-filled days and sends weather envy down to those in Australia’s more southern cities.
You could spend a few days here or a week, the choice is yours. But one thing is for certain, this long-weekend itinerary will have you rushing to this Southern Great Barrier Reef paradise before your friends can bull-ieve their eyes.
Day 1 – Rockin’ it in Rockhampton
Rockhampton, or Rocky as it’s affectionately known to its locals, is the beef capital of Australia with a country town feel and a big-city agenda.
Rocky takes its beef capital status very seriously, with an array of studs scattered around the city centre. And I’m not just talking about the local cowboys.
Be sure to say g’day to the bull statues that pay homage to the region’s six main cattle breeds.
AM: Walk it real good in Mount Archer National Park
Start your day 604m above sea level with a walk through Mount Archer National Park, Rockhampton’s most picturesque backdrop. If you’re going to get physical, at least do it somewhere that rewards you with an epic view at the end, we say.
With four walking circuits ranging from an easy 500m scenic stroll to a decent 14km descent from the top of Mount Archer, you have the option to walk hard or hardly walk.
PM: Man Vs Cave at Capricorn Caves
Live out your Man vs. Wild fantasy exploring the tropical limestone Capricorn Caves, 23 km north of Rockhampton. Unlike the unapologetically often-naked Bear Grylls, you can keep your clothes on for this adventure.
The caves are found deep within the Berserker Range and the sedimentary rock making up the Capricorn Caves was originally formed 390 million years ago under the sea. Throw in some crustal plate collisions, a volcanic eruption, a sea of acidic rainwater to hollow the limestone and voila…. meet the ancient caves you can explore today.
The Capricorn Caves are a feast for all senses. On a cathedral tour, you will be privy to the incredible acoustics of the natural cave cathedral and if you visit in December and January, sunlight beams through a vertical shaft in the rock and upon standing in the light, the sun reflects the colour of your clothing throughout the cave.
Feeling active? You can also opt for an adventure caving experience, manoeuvring through the caves, tunnels, and shafts in a way that would make Bear Grylls proud. With your commando crawl fine-tuned by the end of the experience, you will climb to the surface ridge for 360-degree views and patting yourself on the back for a job well-done.
PM: A bucking good time at the Great Western
Now that you’ve worked up a serious appetite, venture downtown to Rocky’s iconic Great Western Hotel for dinner. You would expect a steak nothing short of amazing when dining in Australia’s beef capital and (cow) boy! does the Great Western deliver.
With a fantastic atmosphere, a seriously sharable playlist of banging country music tunes and live bull riding every Wednesday and Friday evenings, this is a night of fun you never knew you needed, but will certainly never forget.
On rodeo nights, the hotel is filled with aspiring Akubra-wearing cowboys wrangling 1500-pound, cranky, snorting bulls. The locals are along for the ride, cheering every cowboy (or cowgirl) on as they rotate bulls and fine-tune their riding skills for competition rodeos.
If this leaves you feeling inspired, as it did to me, you can have your turn on the mechanical (and much less threatening) bull. Don’t be fooled. Although they look relatively easy, one minute you could be rockin’ it one-handed and the next feel yourself face down on the safety mat feeling udder-ly ridiculous.
Practice makes perfect, so grab that bull by the horns and get back up to do it all again.
Note: No aspiring cowgirls were harmed in the making of this video.
Day 2 – Switch to island time
Once you hit the road for a short 40-minute drive north-east towards the coastline, you can officially set your watch to island time. Upon arrival into Yeppoon, your chariot (a.k.a Keppel Konnections) awaits to whisk you across Keppel Bay to Great Keppel Island.
The blue hues are a welcome reminder that you’re on the Southern Great Barrier Reef. With water clarity this magnificent, it is no wonder why the Southern Great Barrier Reef is the only place you can find all of Queensland’s Great Eight marine life in the one place.
AM: Find Nemo underneath your glass-bottom boat
The second largest island of the Keppel Bay Islands, Great Keppel feels like your very own bare-foot island paradise. It’s raw, unpretentious and Instagram-spam-worthy beautiful and, with 17 beaches, many fringed with coral reef, it’s a snorkel and scuba haven.
Jump on the Glass-Bottom Boat Tour with Freedom Fast Cats and view the wonders of the reef without even dipping a toe in the water. The tour will take you to the best underwater coral gardens around the island where you can find Nemo and all his fishy friends, gaze at soft and hard coral, and if you’re lucky, spot turtles, whales and a bunch of other marine life that call the bay home.
The staff are so friendly with the local marine life in fact, that they take you to the Old Observatory at Middle Island where some batfish are eagerly awaiting their hand feed. Literally! These fishy friends take the food right out of your hand. I could almost guarantee one smiled and winked at me in appreciation.
PM: A Whaley good time on the jet ski
Feel the instantaneous freedom as you hit the open ocean on a jet-ski travelling over 40km per hour. GKI Adventures will take you around the whole of Great Keppel Island in less than a couple of hours and make the most of every second.
No problem if you haven’t jet-skied before. The friendly guides, some of whom have lived on the island for much of their life, will guide you the whole way.
If you’re at Great Keppel in the winter months, you may even be lucky enough to meet and greet some humpback whales that migrate north each winter to mate and calve. It’s usually on their return trip south, when they teach their calves survival skills for the Antarctic, that they are mostly spotted in the shallower waters off the north-western side of the island.
Take it from someone who nearly fell off her jet-ski in awe when a whale breached five metres away, this incredible animal encounter is possible, and for the love of Facebook… take a GoPro to capture this once-in-a-lifetime moment. #learnings.
PM: Dine in barefoot style
Bid farewell to the fairy-floss skies disappearing over the horizon with a sundowner cocktail at Great Keppel Island Hideaway.
You can stay put for some dinner (shoes optional) and enjoy the veranda vibes as you breathe in the fresh island air. Or, if it’s a Saturday night, grab a slab of homemade pizza at Island Pizza, which is only open one night of the week!
If you have a little longer to explore the Keppel Bay area, live like Cinderella and hit the hay on Pumpkin Island for a few days. You don’t even need a fairy godmother to make it happen. This secluded beauty can be rented for $2,870 per night for the WHOLE island.
Grab 33 of your mates and the island is your exclusive paradise for only $143.35 per night per person. What a steal!
Day 3 – From reef to beef
Time to leave island life and head back to Yeppoon. By now you would have surely met Ernie, the incredibly friendly and downright cheeky local cockatoo. This feathered friend helps himself to gift wares in reception, any human food he can get his little beak on, as well as inedible items like antennas and jet-ski start buttons (true story).
It’s impossible to get cranky with him though, as he sits on your shoulder and mimics you with a “Hello Ernie.”
AM: Land Ahoy
Keppel Konnections departs Great Keppel Island at 10am in the summer months and 10:30am over winter months, which allows for a sleep-in prior to departure. How considerate!
Within 30 minutes you’ll have your feet planted on mainland soil, ready to explore the cultural quirk of Yeppoon.
Caffeinate like a local and head to Chapter for the good stuff. Yeppoon has awesome coffee joints popping up all around town and Chapter combines good books and even better coffee; a match made in heaven. Besides, the coffee shop is in a little laneway with amphitheatre-style seating underneath a staircase overlooking one of the many street-art murals around the town.
Take the morning to explore – check out the shops scattered throughout town, take the Yeppoon Street Art Trail and soak in some sunshine along the beach front.
PM: Never smile at a crocodile
It may be a common misconception that farming crocodiles is inhumane and only for commercial benefit. However, since crocodile farming began to take momentum in the ’70s, the commercial incentives for crocodiles give their existence value and actually increased the declining populations in the wild.
This is one of the many fascinating facts you’ll learn at Koorana Crocodile Farm, which is an approximate 20-minute drive from Yeppoon and a must do before you wrap up your trip.
Commence your visit with a crocodile lunch. Yes, taste the mighty croc in all forms. Think crocodile pie, kebabs, rissoles, ribs… the whole kit and caboodle. If you can’t fathom dining on these 200-million-year-old dinosaur descendants, you can opt for chicken, fish or just some fries and salad.
Walk off your lunch with a 90-minute public tour. This starts inside with a brief but compelling history of saltwater crocodiles, the Koorana Crocodile Farm and their crocodile leather exports to European high-fashion houses.
Pack a hat as your guide will then lead you around the farm to meet (from afar) the crocodiles and throw them some chicken legs for lunch.
Fun fact: Crocodiles hardly feed over winter as being cold-blooded they cannot absorb enough warmth to digest their food.
Finish off the tour with a photo op with a baby croc, which is less like the scaled giants you meet on the farm and more the manageable size of a blue tongue lizard.
Public service announcement: If there’s one thing you take away from this tour it’s this: In the unlikely event you come across a crocodile in the wild, your safest option is to run back the way you came. Forget zig-zagging as you run; the crocodiles will outsmart you and it will only make you slower. Forget climbing a tree to safety to wait it out; the croc will outwait you. Kick up your heels and retrace your steps. And I think it goes without saying, run EXTREMELY fast.