This is great. It’s just like a movie, only I’m in it!” – Scott's seven-year-old
We’re pretty lucky in Australia. We’re truly spoilt for choice when it comes to holiday destinations. But when a location is so magnificent it inspires an outburst like this from a seven-year-old, I reckon it's worth talking about. And when it’s a destination that many of us probably wouldn’t give a second thought to, it’s even better.
Indeed, for us, the location was peripheral to a six-week travel itinerary that had seen us taking in a huge swathe of desert country, including iconic locations like Lake Mungo, Innamincka, Birdsville and the Simpson Desert. Still 2000km from home, we figured that a few days near the ocean would be a welcome change. So we turned off the Bruce Highway and found ourselves on the Capricorn Coast. More specifically, we laid anchor at a little gem called Byfield, 80km north of Rockhampton, beyond Yeppoon.
In truth, the stopover at Byfield was an easy decision. This piece of the country is one that I know well on account of having worked up here periodically for the last 20 years. I was sure that the squeaky clean white sands of the region’s iconic beaches were just what our littlest crew member craved after weeks in the desert. And I was confident too that there was a lot more to see around these parts – I simply hadn’t ever had time to stop and enjoy the place as a tourist. So, while sitting in a mate’s backyard, with the fire pit blazing (thanks Wazza), it wasn’t long before we were talking about the opportunity Byfield presented as a stepping-off point for some sites of real natural beauty and significance. Talk of Byfield National Park, the Limestone Caves, volcanic plugs and a Ramsar wetland on the doorstep of the Southern Great Barrier Reef sounded like a lot of reasons to stay a while.
Yesterday’s tourist Mecca; today’s getaway
When did you last consider visiting Great Keppel Island (GKI)? If you’re like us, think of GKI and you’re transported back to mid-80s, with memories of family fun and romance. Back then, GKI was a favourite destination for contestants of Grundy’s dating game show Perfect Match with Greg Evans as host, supported by Dexter the robot manically calculating compatibility ratios. The show’s format involved a contestant asking a series of questions directed to three potential suitors hidden behind a screen. Based on the answers, the contestant would choose his or her ‘perfect match’, and the couple would then head off to a holiday destination. More often than not, that destination was GKI.
With a massive resort covering approximately 80 per cent of the island – extending from the beach up into the surrounding hinterland – GKI was a tourist Mecca in its heyday. Since the main resort’s closure in 2008, however, the place has slowed down considerably. GKI was hit hard in recent years by cyclones that have caused shelving along some of the ocean beaches and silt has washed down from the Fitzroy River, affecting water clarity in some places. But our local friends assured us that there was still plenty to enjoy. So with sand, snorkelling and a ferry ride on offer, the opportunity to visit GKI was one not to be missed.
While arriving to the sight of the huge resort standing empty by the shoreline was a little eerie, its demise brings a range of opportunities for today’s visitors to GKI. This place is still the hero destination of the region – surrounded by calm waters and fringed by coral reefs, it is perfect for all types of water sports including snorkelling, paddle-boarding and water skiing. And its 27km of beaches are no-doubt cleaner and more inviting because they’re no longer overrun by tens-of-thousands of holidaymakers.
The island itself is 15km from Yeppoon, which the daily ferry covers in just half-an-hour. Freedom Fast Cats are the principal commercial operator offering services ranging from a simple transit fare to day passes that offer a lot more. We opted for the day tour including a glass-bottom boat ride, snorkelling in open-water, lunch and boom net rides off the stern. Jumping off the top deck of the boat into the clear waters, before swimming among turtles and other marine life in the reef, was the highlight of the day for us adults. And from the perspective of our seven-year-old, it looked like the best day of her life.
After a day at the beach, we headed off to enjoy the rainforest for the afternoon – and dinner. While there are plenty of campgrounds, bush hideaways and camp stays in and around Byfield, Ferns Hideaway Resort and Caravan Park is a real hidden treasure and a labour of love for John (Marto) Martin and his lovely wife Genevieve.
As you arrive at Ferns Hideaway you’ll find an open, sheltered site suitable for vans and tents. Walk around the tropical bushland that forms part of the grounds, and you’ll see several log cabins nestled into the forest, each one unique, hand-built and all channelling a pioneering spirit. The meandering paths lead you through the native flora and down to a permanent creek with several canoes available for guests’ use. There are also tennis and volleyball courts, a pool and spa.
While these features are all good reasons to stay at Ferns, the clincher is the resort’s restaurant. With food that would stand up to a Sydney food critic, and live music every Friday and Saturday night, Ferns has a well-deserved reputation as a foodies’ destination in its own right. Known fondly for its great atmosphere, Marto has been performing here with his friends every weekend since the Resort was established in 1990. And performing is the word. The band incorporates the crowd into a lively melody of classic rock from the 70’s and 80’s. Even Li’l Miss was invited to join Marto onstage, supporting him on bongos, as he entertained a full restaurant. No wonder she was beginning to feel like she’d stepped into a movie scene!
The history of this part of the Capricornia Coast is as deep as the ocean that surrounds it. Captain Cook sailed through Keppel Bay in 1770 noting the presence of indigenous people on the island. During WWII, 70,000 American troops were stationed in nearby Rockhampton where General Eichelberger set up his headquarters in the Criterion Hotel. The General was to later fight alongside our own troops in Papua New Guinea during the Battle of ‘Bloody Buna’ in 1942. Today the Criterion Hotel is heritage listed, with a mouthwatering offering of ales and great steaks. Which is hardly surprising – after all, Rockhampton is known as the ‘Beef Capital of Australia’ hosting ‘Beef Week’ every other year.
As well as the beef industry, this region brings in nearly 12 per cent of Queensland’s catch of mud crabs. Indeed, muddies are the most important commercial estuary species in the area. So pack your traps, but be sure they comply with Queensland fisheries requirements. Remember too to keep to your bag limits (10 per person) and throw back the ladies and the undersized critters.
When it’s time to hit the road again, pay particular care on the Bruce Highway that services the coastal traffic. This stretch of road is over 1600km long and accounts for 17 per cent of annual road deaths. The contributing factors are largely people failing to take driver-reviver breaks, and dangerous overtaking. With the buffeting of trucks increasing the sway of caravans as they pass – it’s a recipe for disaster. The risks are significant enough that, in 2014, the Bruce Highway was named and shamed as the one of the world’s most dangerous highways!