Despite their geographical proximity, the south eastern Irish counties of Wexford and Waterford have not always shared a close heritage. The two are separated by the broad expanse of Waterford Harbour and there are no bridges between them. Only in the 1980s were the two linked with the opening of the car ferry between Passage East in Waterford and Ballyhack in Wexford. But when Wexford rose in rebellion against the English in 1798, the county across the harbour remained quiet. Waterford’s only link to the rebellion is a building outside Passage with the unusual name of New Geneva Barracks.
In the late 18th century, Ireland was in a rare period of prosperity as Britain temporarily relaxed customs duties. In 1783, the new Irish parliament in Dublin was determined to fund a colony from Geneva who wanted to settle in Ireland. They were Swiss Protestants who wanted to leave their homeland after an unsuccessful rebellion against their Catholic French rulers. The Irish parliament voted £50,000 to buy land and build a town to house the immigrants. The sum was increased by £6000 with land set out in the barony of Gaultier (east Waterford county) in 1653 for the support of Duncannon Fort (across the river in Wexford). These tenanted lands near Passage East were owned by the Alcock family, one of whom was MP for Waterford city. The government bought out the land from the Alcocks for £12,400 and compensated the tenants. They began building with the intention of accommodating 1000 Genevans. The public reason for bringing them over was to build a body of skilled merchants to give impetus to trade and commerce in Waterford city and the nation as a whole.
But there were ulterior motives. Authorities secretly hoped the Protestant ethos might infect the local Catholic population. Earl Temple, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote a letter to Chief Secretary Grenville, where he noted putting the Swiss in Waterford “might make an essential reform in the religion, industry and mores of the South who want it more”. This also meant setting up an educational establishment. The government wanted to establish a Genevan College but needed to keep it secret from the governors of Trinity College who had a monopoly on education.
The Trinity governors never had to worry as the mission failed before it began. An advance party of Genevans arrived in Waterford determined to set up a silk industry. Work on the New Geneva site proceeded but negotiations between the Irish government and Genevan leaders broke down over Swiss demands the government felt were unreasonable. The arrangement fell through, the Genevans returned home and the buildings were left derelict.
With the threat of an uprising in 1798, the Government took possession of New Geneva, raised the compound walls and provided accommodation for 1500 soldiers. When fighting broke out in Wexford, Waterford remained peaceful. However the government was uneasy if the United Irishmen triumphed in New Ross, Waterford would have risen. The soldiers at New Geneva were suspicious and cruel towards locals. A century afterwards, memories of the 1798 outrages lingered among the people and New Geneva was a symbol of tyranny and oppression.
In Watty Cox’s Irish magazine for February 1816 there was a vivid account of the punishment of a woman at Geneva Barracks in 1798. Mrs O’Neill travelled from Co Antrim to see her son imprisoned at the barracks. By bribing sentries she was permitted an interview but as soon as mother and son saluted each other, she was ordered into the presence of Colonel Scott and his wife. The couple subjected her to a rigorous examination and then handed her over to some highlanders for a “blanketing”. Blanketing was a common punishment where the soldiers would grab a blanket, strip the victim naked and hoist them in the air repeatedly. Mrs O’Neill suffered this indignity for more than 20 minutes. She implored soldiers to leave some clothes on but when Colonel Scott saw this departure from custom he was encouraged by his wife to cut off her clothes with his sword. Locals could see her naked body repeatedly rising and falling above the walls of the barracks. Afterwards the woman was taken to a neighbouring village where she died the next day. The fate of her son was not recorded.
Today all that is left of Geneva Barracks is a dilapidated farmhouse and the remains of watch towers erected in 1798. In the 19th century the lands passed to Lord Waterford who sold them to a local merchant. This man named Galwey dismantled the barracks and moved the stonework to augment his premises in Dungarvan. A marker now commemorates the Geneva site with a prisoner’s description of the barracks as “the filthiest, most damp and loathsome prison, devoid of any comfort”. It is remembered in James McBurney’s The Croppy Boy (featured in James Joyce’s Ulysses) the last verse of which reads:
At Geneva Barracks that young man died
And at Passage they have his body laid
Good people who live in peace and joy
Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy”.
I’ve known about the infamous Burke and Wills expedition for as long as I can remember. Yet I have always resisted the story until I realised I was doing that primarily for silly nationalistic reasons: the leader of the failed expedition, Robert O’Hara Burke was a vainglorious fool from Ireland. His superior attitudes caused him and his men to starve when native people around him thrived in that harsh environment. It was Irish racism I didn’t want to acknowledge.
But my indifference to the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860-1861 was worn away as it intersected with another study in 19th century Australian exploring failure: the disappearance of Ludwig Leichhardt a decade earlier, and in the same part of the world. I was lucky enough to visit the Dig Tree in 2011. There I lapped up the great narrative of Burke and Wills and its bad luck and “what if” moments. The final nail in the coffin of my uncaring was a move to Mount Isa this year. I cover much of the country the expedition charted, a thousand kilometres from Birdsville in the centre to Karumba on the Gulf. I am reminded of Burke and Wills whenever I drive between Isa and Cloncurry with a monument to them at Corella Creek. So I revisited the story via Sarah Murgatroyd’s excellent book The Dig Tree. The book too was a tragedy as the young BBC reporter was diagnosed with cancer while she researched it. She died in 2002 three weeks after the book was published, aged just 34.
Her story begins when European Australians hugged the coast. The interior was a vast unknown. Explorers like Eyre on the Nullarbor in 1841 and Leichhardt in north Queensland in 1844-45 never went far inland. Leichhardt may later have drifted inwards but his disappearance merely added to the mystery of the “dead heart” of an inhospitable continent. Charles Sturt ventured into the Simpson Desert until defeated by vast gibber plains, giving his name to Sturt’s Stony Desert. Yet as the 1850s progressed, the confident new gold-rich colony of Victoria flexed its muscles to launch a search for Leichhardt. As one newspaper said, that the interior of the continent should remain a mystery was a reproach “to the Australian communities in general but especially to Victoria”.
There was also a practical reason for opening up the centre. The telegraph was turning the world into a global village but Australia remained isolated. The race was on to see which southern city would be the terminus for a cable to the northern shoreline and on to south-east Asia. South Australia had the advantage of being the first port of call of ships and also the most direct line to the north but Victoria was leading the challenge of the other colonies.
The Victorian Exploration Committee decided to cross the continent with camels and imported two dozen Indian camels from horse trader George Landells. But the expedition spluttered due to lack of funds, and South Australia got the jump, thanks to dour Scotsman, John McDouall Stuart. Stuart travelled to Cooper Creek with his near-namesake Sturt in 1844, giving him a taste for inland exploration. From 1845 to 1858 Stuart tried farming and ended up as a surveyor with the knack of finding good pastures in rough country.
He was dispatched to disprove the theory there was salt lakes to the north that would halt South Australia’s expansion. Travelling light, he discovered the area around Coober Pedy until low food supplies forced him back via new country on the Nullarbor Plain. A year later Stuart found a chain of springs north of Lake Eyre with a ready supply of fresh water, which led him on to the interior supported by a grateful colony. When South Australia offered a prize for the first person to cross the continent, it re-awoke Victorian ambitions and sparked a search to find an expedition leader. The response was poor and the committee bickered over candidates. Stuart set off again in March 1860, determined to collect the South Australian prize.
Victoria finally came up with a shortlist, and on it was Castlemaine police superintendent Robert O’Hara Burke, recommended by a fellow officer. The committee wasted three months trying to split the candidates, and the camels did not arrive from India until June. Finally they chose Burke, who had never been beyond the settled parts of Victoria and who was notorious for getting lost coming home from the pub.
Burke was a Galway Protestant who served for the Catholic Austrian army where he cultivated a rakish image. He went AWOL, faced court martial and resigned. He joined the Irish police until he moved to Melbourne in 1853 to help a Victorian police force desperate to impose order on lawless goldfields. Burke was eccentric but popular with subordinates and took an active part in country life. He struck up a relationship with young actress Julia Matthews though her mother took her away to Melbourne. Burke had better luck cultivating important friendships including committee chair Sir William Stawell.
Burke was appointed leader of a ragtag expedition which gathered in Melbourne in July 1860. Burke chose men with the right connections rather than exploring experience. One of the few good decisions was to appoint 26-year-old Englishman William Wills as surveyor, the only one who could navigate. Camel man Landells was second in command. Burke’s official instructions were to set up a depot at Cooper Creek which Sturt found, and then travel north to Leichhardt’s track. On August 20, the expedition with its exotic camels was like a circus leaving town and travelled just 11kms to Essendon. Three men were sacked before they left Royal Park leaving a team of 19, all without experience in the inland.
The expedition ran into heavy rain as it moved slowly through Victorian villages making camp gear sodden and grinding the wagons to a halt. It was also dangerous to ride the camels. By the time they got to the Terrick-Terrick Plains near the Murray River leadership tensions emerged. Burke left the camels and the running of the camp to Landells while he found the nearest pub or farmhouse instead of camping. Locals crowded the camp but also took advantage to overcharge for fodder and accommodation. At Swan Hill Burke realised the expedition would have to shed baggage. He decided to set up a new depot at Menindee on the Darling and the team was reduced to 14.
The bad weather continued as they entered NSW and Burke dismissed three more at Balranald. He took a short cut to Menindee through rugged Mallee country which exhausted his draught horses. Rather than save time, the forward party had to cross the country three times to rescue the wagons. From there, the party would walk. Landells complained the camels were overloaded before reaching the desert and was reproached for the rum he brought, supposedly as a camel pick-me-up.
Burke arrived in Menindee on October 14, Landells and the camels a day later. When he arrived Burke ordered new second-in-command Wills to tell Landells he was fired. Landells stormed off to Melbourne to trash Burke’s reputation. Menindee, in Baagandji country, was the edge of European settlement. It relied on a fortnight steamboat service to bring up supplies from Adelaide and send back wool. The expedition was heading 600km north to Cooper Creek in the hottest time of the year. Burke split his expedition taking seven men and three-quarters of the horses and camels with him. He was determined to head to the Gulf and become the first man to cross the continent. The rest would wait in Menindee for further instructions.
Burke took local bushman William Wright as a guide and third-in-command, and after 10 days reached Torowoto Swamp 250km north of Menindee. Burke ordered Wright to return to Menindee and bring up the remainder of the camp while Burke continued to Cooper Creek. After 23 days they reached the creek system and summer rains made it a rich green environment, fancifully reminding Wills of England. The creek was the home of the Yawarrawarrka and Yandruwandha peoples who lived in temporary wurley shelters moving as water and food supplies allowed. They feasted on birds, lizards, marsupials and snakes but relied on native plants such as mulga apples, native figs and an aquatic fern called nardoo which had seeds they ground into a paste and baked.
Burke’s party knew none of this but they found a magnificent waterhole where they camped without permission. Wills said natives gesticulated when they approached a waterhole but the visitors made no effort to establish relations. Lack of local knowledge would eventually cost the party dearly. Exploratory sorties found no obvious way north and Wills almost died when his camel took off 130km from the Creek, leaving a long thirsty walk back. A plague of native rats gnawed their gear forcing Burke to move to Depot 65, where the Dig Tree now stands. They waited in vain for Wright to bring the camp up. The Menindee crew refused to accept Wright’s authority and letters to Melbourne went unanswered. An impatient Burke decided to dash to the Gulf. On December 16, 1860 he left William Brahe in charge of Depot 65 and took six camels, one horse and three men (Wills, John King and Charles Gray) with him. Burke asked Brahe to stay three months at Cooper Creek but Wills pleaded with him to stay four months if possible. The expedition had now divided into three.
The forward party followed the Creek north before hitting the gibber plains. They travelled as far as possible before the day heated up. Then they would rest in the camels’ shadow before continuing in the evening. Each night King laboriously hacked the letter B and the camp number into the bark of a tree. The former Irish soldier was Landell’s recruit and his dutiful calm was rewarded with a spot in the forward party. He looked after the camels while ex-sailor Gray was the strongman who did the work around camp.
Travelling 25 kilometres a day, by December 23 they found the Coongie Lakes, home of the Yawarrawarrka people, who welcomed the bizarre strangers at their waterholes. It was good progress but too slow for their rations. The terrain varied between claypans, boggy grounds and red dunes. They sweat profusely but wouldn’t drink until rest points so felt bloated and sick, slowing them down further. They got lost in the Channel Country until they found the Diamantina River near present day Birdsville which would lead them towards the Georgina system and the north coast. They passed locals who pointed out the best billabongs. The worst of the desert was behind them.
With the country improving they reached modern-day Boulia when a camel rolled on Wills’ equipment damaging the accuracy of navigational calculations. There was still rough country to traverse. The Standish and Selwyn ranges in Kalkadoon country remain difficult terrain today with red walls of stone dividing gorges and sharp ridges. On January 27 they passed the site of Cloncurry (named for Burke’s cousin Lady Cloncurry) and headed north-west via the Corella river. Three days later was Drop Dead Day, the point of no return of their rations, but they continued north.
It was the “build-up” to the Gulf wet season of stifling humidity and spectacular storms on the horizon. In February a camel fell into a bog and was abandoned, with a redistribution of load to the other beasts. They followed the Flinders River to the north coast, but the shoreline remained invisible in thick trees. The camels could not travel in the muddy estuary and Gray and King made camp at Camp 119 at the Bynoe and Flinders river junction while Burke and Wills tried to find the ocean.
The terrain was impassable mangrove swamps which Burke and Wills had neither the time nor energy to cross. They got 20km from the coast when they were forced to turn around without seeing the sea. Burke was satisfied the committee would accept they had completed the mission. As they turned south from Camp 119 the monsoon broke and it rained in torrents. They were continually stuck in mud. It took two months to get to the Gulf now the race was on to get back to Cooper Creek in another two – assuming Brahe acted on Wills’s suggestion not Burke’s.
Brahe’s men were coping with dwindling supplies, stultifying boredom and petty fights with pilfering locals who viewed the whites as unfriendly. Back in Menindee Wright finally got money and orders from Melbourne and set out north on January 26. Burke’s party headed south retracing steps to old camps. A food audit on February 12 found they had eaten three quarters of their provisions forcing them to decrease their daily ration. They supplemented this with the native plant portulac which Wills said tasted like spinach and it saved them from scurvy. But the big man Gray was declining and weakened rapidly in March. After three months they were still 1100km from the Creek. On March 25, they discovered Gray was stealing food. Burke knocked him down and Gray was banned from looking after the supplies.
On March 30 they sacrificed the weakest camel and jerked the meat. A few days later the horse gave way and they feasted on his stew. At Coongie Lakes Gray deteriorated and after being strapped to a camel, the sailor died in the middle of the desert on April 17. They stopped a day to bury him and discarded all but the essentials. The men began to think of their homecoming as telltale signs of the Cooper came into view. On April 21 – 127 days after leaving – they arrived at Depot 65 to find it empty but the ashes of a fire still warm. Wills saw a carving on a coolabah. “DIG UNDER 3 FT NW”. It had the date inscribed – also April 21. After waiting four months and one week, Brahe had enough and his party left that same day.
Burke collapsed in the dirt, the terrible reality confronting him. They had missed them by eight hours – about the time it took to bury Gray. They followed the dig instructions and found a note with Brahe’s intention to head back down the track and it said no one had arrived from Menindee. There was also flour, sugar, tea and dried meat.
Brahe said his men and horses were in good condition so there was little chance of Burke catching up with them. Wills and King wanted to follow Brahe to the Darling but Burke took the fateful decision to head south-west to Mt Hopeless, 250km away in South Australia. Gregory used that police outpost on his 1858 journey from the Cooper to Adelaide but Burke forgot Gregory had eight men, 40 horses and plenty of supplies. King reburied the trunk to not arouse suspicions of the locals. He asked Burke if they should leave a new message on the tree. “No”, said Burke, “the word DIG serves our purpose as much as it served theirs.”
As Burke set off, Brahe’s party were not in as good shape as he wrote. Two men died at Bulloo while Aboriginal tribes taunted them. Wright’s party were no better off. The waterholes which sustained Burke had dried up and his men got stuck at Rat Point while they searched in vain for water. One of his party died and the rest were ill. On April 29 Brahe and Wright hooked up by chance at Bulloo Lakes. The combined party had numerous invalids and as they were about to retreat Brahe suggested to Wright they should dash back to the Cooper. On May 8 they reached the Dig Tree and convincing themselves they would find nothing they found the cache as they left it and assumed the footprints were Aboriginal. They did not notice a broken bottle, a rake leaning against the tree or a piece of leather cut from the stockade door. Inwardly relieved, they stayed just 15 minutes and headed south.
Burke, Wills and King were initially optimistic as they broke into their new supplies. But they suffered a bitter blow when a camel fell into quicksand and died. They only had one beast left, showing signs of fatigue. They got lost in the rivulets of the Cooper and the barrier of high sand ridges. On the same day as Brahe and Wright’s return to the Dig Tree, Burke realised progress was impossible and they turned back to the Cooper. They had wasted two and a half weeks. They arrived back at the Dig Tree on May 30.
With supplies dwindling they finally tried to live ‘like the blacks’ but the Yandruwandha were not around to show them how. They discovered a large patch of nardoo seeds which they pounded into flour. But the Yandruwandha destroyed thiaminase (which blocks Vitamin B absorption) by washing and cooking the nardoo. By not doing this Burke’s party suffered beri-beri which induced lassitude and caused difficulty walking. Wills weakened fast and on June 21 acknowledged in his diary he would die unless relief came.
That relief was nowhere in sight. A fourth man died in the Brahe party on June 5 and they limped into Menindee on June 19. Wright took a steamer to Adelaide and Brahe brought the news to Melbourne. On June 26, 1861 Wills wrote his final letter to his father and then his final diary entry. Burke and King left him to his fate and he died within days. Burke was not much stronger and wrote his last will to his sister revoking an earlier will where he left his meagre estate to Julia Matthews. He praised King for staying with him and died that night. King set off in search of the Yandruwandha who were his only hope.
In Melbourne the committee roused into action. In a rare good decision they appointed experienced bushman Alfred Howitt to lead a rescue party. Howitt took three men and after three days they ran into Brahe on the Loddon River. Howitt was horrified at Brahe’s story and reported back to Melbourne. He was authorised to continue his journey while Queensland sent two rescue parties one by land and the other by sea. Both had the ulterior motive of claiming the new territory for Queensland.
King found the Yandruwandhu who gave him fish and a bed to sleep in. He deteriorated but clung to the hope of rescue. Howitt arrived in Menindee which had become an explorer’s town full of speculators and prospectors. He plundered from the remains of the Burke expedition and set off north arriving at Cooper Creek in just 25 days. He found camel tracks which led to Depot 65 but he too ignored the DIG sign. On September 15 one of Howitt’s men Edwin Welch was on a reconnaissance mission when he scattered a group of Aborigines, leaving one scarecrow-like figure behind. A man wearing the remains of a hat fell to the ground and raised his hands skywards. He told him his name was King, which was unknown to Welch who knew only of Burke and Wills. “King?” he inquired. Yes, King replied, “the last man of the Exploring Expedition,” and he broke down and wept.
Howitt pieced together the story of awful coincidences and missed opportunities. They gave Burke a proper burial and finally dug under the Dig Tree where they found the journals, letters and maps which would tell the story – and open up the country for white exploration. The news of King’s survival and Burke and Wills’ death became an international sensation. Victoria held a royal commission loaded in favour of the blundering Royal Society and cast Brahe, and especially Wright, as the scapegoats. Burke was a hero venerated in death, though many questioned his judgement as the full details emerged. He and Wills were given state funerals, Gray was ignored. A scarred King would remain mostly silent for the rest of his life.
In South Australia, Stuart finally crossed the continent and Adelaide got the telegraph line. Queensland extended its border to include Burke and Wills’s country from Birdsville to the coast. The eight deaths on the expedition were futile as the five rescue parties opened up all of eastern Australia for the benefit of South Australia, NSW and Queensland. Victoria was left only with a giant statue of Burke and Wills on Collins St and the beginning of an Australian tradition of glorious but tragic failure, legends Ned Kelly and Gallipoli would later add to. The biggest losers were the Aboriginal people who owned the land and kept King alive. Cattlemen arrived to dismantle traditional cultures and the indigenous people were moved away to missions and reserves. Only their ghosts now haunt the desert sands.
On Saturday, I drove three hours east to Julia Creek as the town held a paddock to plate lunch to celebrate Queensland Week. But I had a second reason for going. That date June 4 marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Scottish explorer Duncan McIntyre, which Julia Creek also commemorated on the day. McIntyre died in this region looking for the missing Ludwig Leichhardt and his elaborate grave is on the nearby property of Dalgonally. By a nice tie-in, Dalgonally is now owned by AA Co which supplied their 1824 Premium Beef for the paddock to plate lunch and the local historical society put up a display at the venue celebrating McIntyre’s life.
Julia Creek is the administrative centre of McKinlay shire named for John McKinlay who was here in 1862, a few years before McIntyre, also searching for Burke and Wills. McKinlay’s report of “empty” pastoral land in the southern Gulf region prompted Victorian grazier Donald Campbell to set up an expedition in 1863 to take up the land (though no one sought the opinion or permission of the local Mitakoodi and Mayi Peoples). Campbell appointed Duncan McIntyre, a distant relative, to lead the expedition, accompanied by Duncan’s cousin Donald McIntyre.
Born in Scotland in 1831, Duncan McIntyre came to Australia aged eight with his uncle Archibald, who also brought his wife Elizabeth and five of his six children. Donald McIntyre was the sixth child, five years younger than Duncan, and he came to Australia 12 years later at the start of the goldrush. Donald Campbell was Elizabeth’s brother, and Duncan worked for him at Glengower station in Victorian gold country where he impressed Campbell with his bushcraft, eventually leading to the Queensland assignment.
Burke and Wills disappeared on their Melbourne to the Gulf journey in 1861 and the two McIntyres followed their trail up the Darling River, the Cooper Creek and into the Gulf of Carpentaria. They eventually made it to the Gulf coast and followed William Landsborough’s route south along the Flinders, Thompson and Darling Rivers in a five month journey.
Though they found no trace of Burke and Wills (that honour went to Alfred Howitt) they made another intriguing discovery in the Flinders River region in 1864 – two trees marked with the letter L. They also saw two stray horses in the area. Though it was likely the Landsborough expedition that blazed the trees, the McIntyres believed it was the earlier explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who left the inscription on his final journey in 1848. If so, it would be the second authenticated find from that expedition. Leichhardt, his men and all his animals disappeared without trace after leaving Roma.
Donald McIntyre stayed on at a property he named Dalgonally but Duncan returned to Melbourne to report the L trees. He was immediately commissioned by a ladies’ committee to lead another expedition to look for more traces of Leichhardt. On May 2, 1866 McIntyre wrote a letter to Campbell from the Gregory River region in the Gulf. “I started a search for further traces of Leichhardt and called at the Port (of Burketown) to get some rations.” McIntyre reported he found no positive traces but “we have ascertained beyond doubt that whites are now, or have been, among the blacks within the last 10 years.” This timeframe did not fit with Leichhardt who was missing for 18 years but McIntyre reported children among the native population who were “almost white, with light blue eyes and red hair.” There were also rumours of a white man among a tribe “a day’s ride from here.”
Unfortunately for McIntyre, Burketown was suffering from a serious bout of tropical fever with people dying daily. Though he camped well away from town he was not immune, and grew more ill by the day. By the time he reached Dalgonally he was dying and he died at “the Grave Hole” on the property on June 4, 1866. One of his men, named Slowman, conducted the burial service (it is not known where Donald McIntyre was at this time). Slowman called McIntyre a great bushman adept at finding water. “In Mr McIntyre I had every confidence and would have gone anywhere with him,” Slowman said in a letter to the expedition backers in Melbourne. The Ladies Committee later erected a huge Celtic cross above his grave.
Donald McIntyre began to build up the property in the following years. The area was first called Scorpion Creek but when the government surveyor arrived in 1870 to fix boundaries he took McIntyre’s suggestion to rename the watercourse to Julia Creek, named for both a niece and aunt of Donald Campbell (and not for Robert O’Hara Burke’s love interest Julia Matthews as is sometimes assumed).
The town of Julia Creek (originally called “Hilton”) began slowly until the railway arrived in 1908 to serve the copper industry further west. The town grew until by 1930 it had a Japanese laundry, three banks, a blacksmith, a butcher, three cafes, two hotels, four stores, a school, an iceworks, a cordial factory and three churches. That same year the town became the administrative hub for the re-gazetted McKinlay shire. Today it is known for its pastoral and mining interests, with a big Dirt N Dust triathlon festival. There is a Duncan McIntyre museum but that focuses more on the region, than the man. The shire markets itself, just as it was in McIntyre’s time, as the Gateway to the Gulf.
After a day in Townsville and then two more in Mackay, my journey kept me going south to the Capricorn Coast near Rockhampton, named for the Tropic of Capricorn that bisects the region. First stop is Yeppoon, the tourist and commercial hub of the region. Yeppoon has a lovely beach looking out on to Keppel Bay, which was deserted on the mild autumn day I arrived. The town is still recovering from Tropical Cyclone Marcia which tore through Yeppoon in February 2015. The name Yeppoon comes from local Darumbal people, the same nomenclature going to Yeppen Yeppen lagoon south of Rockhampton. Yeppoon was first settled by white cane farmers in the 1860s and was a prominent blackbirding centre.
My motel was further down the coast from Yeppoon at the quieter settlement of Emu Park. Originally named Hewittville it was renamed for the emus found in the area and the park-like setting of its foreshore. The highlight is the Singing Ship monument commemorating the visit of Captain James Cook to the region in 1770. The 12 metre high sails are designed to “sing” in the winds though I didn’t hear any tunes when I was there. No matter, the view out to Great Keppel and other islands was superb.
The way out to the islands was via Rosslyn Bay. Perched precariously at the foot of a volcanic outdrop, it is home to a marina, a fleet of trawlers, a fishing co-op and the ferry to Great Keppel Island. After booking a trip for the following day, I proceeded to climb up the nearby cliff walk for a great view of the area. The following morning I was back at Rosslyn Bay for the half hour ferry to Keppel. There weren’t many of us aboard, and most were talking the daylong package from the ferry company. There were just a few of us who had simply bought return tickets to the island.There is no harbour on the island but the catamaran ferry drops us straight on the beach. The first thing I realise is I’ve been calling it the wrong name. It may be Great Keppel Island on the maps but to locals and island signposts, it is simply GKI.Having arrived mid-morning, I got off expecting to find a coffee shop nearby. There was nothing directly on the beach where we landed so I took the only bitumen road I could see. That quickly disappeared into the bush with a crumbling road surrounded by unfriendly razor wire. The only sign of life were a flock of wild goats who fled at my arrival. Had I accidentally disembarked on Nauru?I kept walking until I found a lookout with good views over the island but no sign of any commercial life. That coffee was receding further out of reach. This was turning into a long and possibly unpleasant day.
I retraced my steps to the beach and found the closed GKI resort. This used to have a reputation as party central but has been boarded up for several years while a multi-million dollar replacement is tied up in the court. The houses behind the resort were also empty. Finally I found two fishermen landing and asked them whether I could get a coffee anywhere on the island. “Right down the other end of the beach,” they told me.
Ten minutes later, I found GKI nirvana at the appropriately named Hideaway Resort. Not only did it have good coffee, it did hot lunches, alcohol and had great views looking down on the beach from the top of the sand dune. Refreshed I was finally ready to enjoy GKI. I saw lovely coral strung beaches with beautiful clear seas, teeming with life and little sign of bleaching. The water was warm and inviting and each new beach was an adventure waiting to be discovered.
After a filling lunch and an enjoyable Corona by the beach at the Hideaway, I continued my investigations to the south of the island. I took a long and tough track (especially when you are only wearing beach sandals) over a hill to Monkey Beach which afforded more great views. In the end I was loving GKI so much I didn’t want to leave and had to rush back to catch the ferry back to the mainland.
It turned out to be a great day after a bad start. There was one final treat back on the mainland. A lovely walk across the top of Bluffs Point between Rosslyn Bay and Emu Park in the setting sun looking across the beautiful Capricorn Coast and lovely GKI. I hope it never changes.