Last updated 13 January 2021
Brisbane to Yeppoon road trip: how to spend a perfect week exploring Queensland’s Capricorn Coast
With 300 kilometres of coastline, there are plenty of choices when it comes to exploring stretches of golden sand and coastal communities before arriving at the gateway to the Southern Great Barrier Reef
Almost half-way through 2020, with international and inter-state travel restrictions in place, exploring my ‘backyard’ was my only ‘travel’ option. In Queensland, with low transmission numbers, our initial 50-kilometre travel limit restriction was lifted in mid-May to 150 kilometres, and then from May 31, Queenslanders could travel unlimited throughout the State. In late June, I hatched a plan with a friend and great travel buddy, Catherine, to leave the river city behind and take a road trip from Brisbane to Yeppoon.
Despite me being a Queenslander born and bred, there is much of my fabulous state I am guilty of not having yet explored. I have no valid excuses why in my 55 years, I have not been to Yeppoon and Agnes Waters. It took a global pandemic to get me out on the road and exploring these Queensland coastal towns.
And I’m going to be upfront here. As a travel writer, I haven’t been writing many travel stories. So, take heed my reader, this post is long.
If you prefer to read about a particular place – use the table of contents (above) to jump to your area of interest.
Highway road trips
A road trip via a major highway is the quickest route from A to B. But not always the most scenic. These highways bypass country towns you’d normally pass through on the older road networks. You can make a detour and drop in on these smaller regional hubs, but you need to weigh up your time frame and what you want to see along the way.
On our road trip via the Bruce Highway (A1) from Brisbane, we chose to:
- Stop overnight in Bundaberg
- Travel onto Yeppoon where we left the car to hop on a ferry for an island escape
- Great Keppel Island
- Agnes Waters
- Back to Brisbane
Brisbane to Bundaberg – 382 km
Travel time from my southside suburb of Coorparoo to the Bundaberg Rum Distillery (382 km) took around five hours via the M1. You could stopover and stay a night in blissful Noosa (just over a two-hour drive from Brisbane.) Or linger longer in Noosa as I did in September, but our goal was to be in Bundaberg before they closed the Bundy Rum Distillery at 4 pm (priorities right?!)
Driving non-stop to Bundy can be done in four hours – but a re-fuel and lunch break just outside Gympie added 45 minutes onto our travel time.
Bundaberg is full of surprises. I mention a few of them here and one night was not enough time to experience what this town, with its interesting blend of rural and coastal offers. So I am heading back there in early January for five nights – taking my teens and Mr 22 to experience Bundy. We’re booked into Bargara – and will hit the beach (either early or later in the day) to avoid the sting of the summer sun. I’m looking forward to a day trip to Lady Musgrave Island and fingers crossed, maybe see some turtle hatchlings at Mon Repos.
Bundaberg to Yeppoon – 330 km
The next morning, after a look-see at the Bert Hinkler Museum and a quick pitstop back to the Bundy Rum Distillery (to grab ‘more’ supplies for Keppel) we headed for Yeppoon to catch a 3.30 pm ferry from the marina over to Great Keppel Island. You can choose to either stay at Yeppoon, then head over to Keppel – we did it the other way round.
Unfortunately, we were under the pump for time and roadworks on the outskirts of Rocky placed pressure on us getting to the Marina in time to catch the last ferry of the day to the island. So we had to wave to Rockhampton as skirted the town centre. After interviewing Mary Li for a Two of Us article and reading her recently released book, Mary’s Last Dance, where she dedicated a few chapters to her childhood in Rockhampton, I’m intrigued by the town. (Rocky is on the list for another trip!)
We left Catherine’s car at a secure car park a few kms from the Marina and the owner dropped us with just minutes to spare!
Great Keppel Island – back in the day
We paused the road trip to visit the infamous Great Keppel Island
You may ask why infamous, especially if you are born after the 1980s. You young pups may not have heard of the “Get wrecked on Keppel” slogan adopted by travel brand Contiki tapping in on the reputation Keppel acquired as ‘the’ party island.
“Young people flocked to the 300-room resort for alcohol and legendary parties where clothes were optional and over 35’s were banned,” writes Shayla Bulloch from a Queensland Times article
“It was best known for its steamy secrets but was a much-loved part of the region before its closure in 2008. Now The Hideaway remains behind barricaded fencing.”
My memory of Keppel in my early 20s does not involve partying with minimal clothes 🙂
Mid-January 1992, my friend, Brenda (who I originally met at the University of Massachusetts) had left Boston in the middle of a freezing cold winter, arriving in steamy, humid Brisbane in the middle of summer. We flew to Rocky (yes, there is a regional airport in Rockhampton – if road trippin’ non-stop for 10 hours from Brissie isn’t desirable.)
We caught the flyer over to Keppel Island, 15 km off the coast of Yeppoon. Brenda had not seen the sun in hmmm, I don’t know how long and was enjoying the warm rays. She ignored my suggestion to cover up her milky-white legs. That night, she had a nasty case of sunburn, her legs so badly sunburnt, they blistered for days! No partying on Keppel for my sunburnt friend, who learned the hard way how harsh the sun in Aus can be. (Aussies also forget!)
Enough of my reminiscing.
Keppel Island – the once upon a time party island is now more of a family island
The pick-up point is at Rosslyn Bay where we board the Keppel Konnections Ferry Catherine and I are sun-sensible Queenslanders and it’s also winter – we sit inside.
Apart from those who choose to moor on a yacht, or camp there are roughly 300 tourist beds available on Keppel. We booked two nights in a beach cabin at the Great Keppel Island Hideaway the largest accommodation provider on the island. The other commercial accommodation properties include Great Keppel Island Holiday Village, Keppel Lodge, and Svendsen’s Beach Retreat.
The Keppel flyer lands at Fishermen’s beach. Passengers depart down the gangplank onto the white sand. We wander towards reception to check into our cabin. (Luggage is offloaded onto a truck to be collected at a designated pick up point later on.)
What to do on Keppel Island
Keppel has 17 beaches to explore (not all of them are accessible on foot.) A day cruise is recommended – the Keppel Explorer – which takes you to many of the inaccessible beaches. But unfortunately, due to Covid and inclement weather, this tour was not operating on the days we were at Keppel.
There’s a number of hiking trails on the island if you enjoy walking, including Leeke’s Beach Circuit (3.8km return) The Lighthouse (15.4 km return) Butterfish Bay (13km return.)
The morning of our first full day, we decided to hike up Mount Wyndham for a view from the lookout (175 metres.) This circuit takes approximately three hours return.
Friends who were staying in a boat moored in the bay at Svendsen’s Beach recommended we check out their side of the island. So after the lookout, we headed for Svendsen’s. Admittedly, we didn’t think this one through and were not wearing the best shoes for hiking 12km (18,880 steps) to and from this gorgeous little inlet. The bush track was rough in parts, but doable (despite our footwear!)
On the path near to Svendsen’s, we walked through a section where hundreds of Monarch and Blue Tiger butterflies were resting. A kaleidoscope of fluttering wings circled in the air around us, saying hello, just before we arrived at the gorgeous cove. We flopped onto a couple of lounges under shade (set up for guests who stay in Svendsen’s Beach retreat? Maybe?) and I removed those offending shoes.
We helped ourselves to some chilled water in an open kitchenette area. Rehydrated, we considered returning to our cabin via Leeke’s Beach. A couple of hikers wandered past (with better footwear than us) and Catherine asked them what they thought about walking back via Leeke’s Beach – a slightly shorter route. In a strong European accent, the guy suggested we could do it, demonstrating we would have to hold our daypack above our heads because the tide was coming in.
He gestured with his hands, pointing to chest height – where the water would come to.
“Ahh no thanks,” we said. And returned via the same route we came from.
Sunset drinks @greatkeppelislandhideaway on the squeaky white sands of Long Beach on the island’s southern side was our reward for the day’s exertion.
The sunset like the night before did not disappoint as it dipped below the mainland, casting shadows over Pumpkin Island This 6.1-hectare island (450 meters long and 150 metres wide) in Keppel Bay is a privately owned island where guests can stay in one of seven eco-friendly self-catering units. Something I’d be keen to experience when I can gather a group of friends (up to 34) who’d like the unique experience of being alone on an island!
We ate at the beachfront Bar and Bistro. (Menu offers basic pub-style meals – hearty and filling and is fully licensed – check out our happy cocktails from the first afternoon.)
I imagine the diving and snorkeling on the fringing reefs off Keppel Island is amazing. After all, Keppel is part of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. But I didn’t experience any water activities this trip (after our long walk I tried a swim, but the tide was so far out I felt like I was going to walk back to the mainland before getting underwater!)
My boating friends confirm snorkeling around Keppel is fabulous (plenty of marine life including dolphins, turtles, manta rays.)
Keppel redevelopment challenges
While Keppel has lost its infamous reputation as the party island, there are ongoing issues on the State Government-owned island. One of them is the dilapidated and fenced-off 160-hectare resort (where most of the partying took place.)
A $600 million proposed redevelopment has been put on the table, to include a golf course, shops, casino, and marina. This was stalled because the State Government cannot agree on a casino license and on how much investment the Government needs to inject into the project.
Sadly, vandals are getting into the barricaded site and have set fire to sections, according to a Morning Bulletin October 2020 article.
No one is sure how long this stand-off will take for a resolution on Keppel and if the proposed redevelopment or something else will occur. In the meantime, families and couples enjoy one of the largest islands in the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef.
Keppel is fun for a few day’s escape and being so close to the mainland – it’s worth the small effort if you’re heading to Yeppoon to make a sideline trip to the island. The island is chockers with nature, pristine beaches and wildlife (curlews would gather near the bar every night and you’d hear their iconic call from your cabin.)
But don’t expect anything luxurious. The Hideaway cabins were clean, comfortable, air-conditioned (and include a small kitchenette) all you need on a budget island getaway. Appealing to holidaymakers looking for an island experience without costing a bomb. The staff at the Hideaway are very friendly (most that we met outside of the reception staff are foreigners, enjoying a safe place to stay during the weird Covid times.)
The amenities around where we stayed are basic, and in some places, a little tired. An investment in landscaping and some carpentry work and fresh paint wouldn’t go astray (in my humble opinion.)
On the flip side, we have a lot to be thankful for living in Queensland.
And having an easily accessible, affordable island like Great Keppel Island is one of those reasons to be grateful.
Yeppoon – yippee
The hub of the Capricorn Coast – Yeppoon is a vibrant beachside town.
We farewelled Keppel and made our way from the marina to our Yeppoon accommodation – Oshen Apartments on the hill called the Bluff.
The main beach in Yeppoon stretches for 1.3 kilometres and we have one of the impressive vistas of it from our Oshen apartment balcony. (Take a look at the Oshen website, my photos do not do the panoramic views justice!)
My plans of taking time out to just sit on the expansive balcony and enjoy that view had to wait because we had a few places to explore before relaxing.
We strolled down the steep hill and into Yeppoon’s main street (James) and stumbled upon a traditional French-style bakery, Baked on 44
The sweet treats and croissants are DELICIOUS and they have an interesting deli selection of assorted cheeses, condiments, oils and savoury meals to takeaway.
We strolled down to the southern end of Yeppoon’s Main Beach to Keppel Kraken – the water park open to the public and where you can safely swim all year round.
Yeppoon has a diverse choice of eateries, ranging from restaurants, cafes and clubs. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to try them all, but on our first night, after a couple of sunset cocktails with our sailing friends onboard their moored yacht, we enjoyed dinner at Beaches Restaurant an easy stroll from the Keppel Bay Marina.
Beaches menu is seasonal and incorporates naturally grown, chemical-free produce from a nearby organic permaculture farm (High Valley Dawn) – “grown with love” they declare.
Koorana Crocodile Farm
I’ve seen plenty of crocs in the NT, but for something different, we left Yepppoon and drove half an hour to Queensland’s first commercial crocodile farm, Koorana where we meet the energetic owner and founder of this family-run croc farm, John Lever.
John’s a friendly fellow, with a tanned face, sparkling blue eyes that match his blue polo shirt, and a crop of neatly-combed white hair. But I was distracted by what he was holding.
“Meet one of our baby crocs we call Harley,” John announces to the small group gathering outside Koorana’s entrance.
We later learn from John all the crocs he brings out for the kids (and adults) to hold (jaws taped tightly shut) are called Harley! (easier to remember I suppose.)
After that introduction, we order a croc burger and a croc pie for lunch at the farm’s rustic cafe. I sit down at one of the tables and take in the ‘interesting’ decor. Pictures of crocs adorn the walls, glass cabinets are filled with croc ‘parts’ and treated croc skins curl around the poles supporting the pitched roof. Add in a couple of full-sized taxidermized crocs on shelves above our heads, massive jaws open, ready – there’s no chance of forgetting where we are.
When our meal eventually arrives (the kitchen seemed flat out with all the groups waiting for their tour) my feelings are mixed as I bite into the pie. I am about to go out and meet some of the resident crocs – hopefully not a relative of my pie filling!
During a chat with John over lunch, we learn the farm exports crocodile skins to Italy to be used in handbag and clothing manufacturing. Apparently, saltwater crocodile skin makes the best and most durable leather in the world. But because of COVID, exports were on hold. Our visit was in July and John told us they had a stockpile of 1,500 skins sitting in the shed, waiting for when they can export again!
Koorana is popular with families given the number of families waiting for the tour the day we arrived.
The pre-tour chat given by Adam, one of John and Lillian’s four sons (who all work on the farm) was laced with croc jokes.
Not surprisingly, a kid asks Adam how big their largest croc was.
“Five metres was our biggest, we lost him in 2002,” Adam replies.
Adam picks up a treated croc hide, and to show us how tough the hides are, he bangs it hard with a hammer. No marks – tough indeed!
John says the farm takes in relocated ‘cranky’ crocs from local rivers and there have been plenty of crocs removed from Rockhampton’s Fitzroy River (keep that in mind when you’re next in Rockhampton!)
Later, we meet John’s wife Lillian, who had been working in the kitchen (she is the one responsible for the catering and the recipe creator.) She reminds us that this is a farm, where not one part of the croc is wasted!
They’re also working with Queensland University, doing medical research on cures for cancer using crocodile blood – which John tells us is very pure.
Chatting with John, Lillian and Adam was very enlightening, we leave Koorana with a better appreciation of these prehistoric creatures.
The following afternoon we drove to the oldest tourist attraction in Queensland – the Capricorn Caves, at 30 Olsen Caves Road, a 40-minute drive from Yeppoon.
There are a number of tours to choose from, we selected the Cathedral Cave Tour (45 minutes) which has ramps, a suspension bridge and a narrow passage to squeeze through. The website says ‘wheelchair friendly’ (I’m not sure where, but there must be a special path for wheelchairs.)
In the learning centre, before our tour commenced, it was interesting reading about the caves being discovered by European settlers. Bats have made these limestone crevices home for some of the caves’ 390 million-year history. But John Olsen, a Norwegian migrant stumbled upon them in 1882, returning home through the ‘bush.’ I guess caves are not something you expect to find in the Tropic of Capricorn! He applied and was granted a title on the land and in 1884, ‘turned’ the caves into a ‘tourist’ attraction.
The acoustics inside one of the large caverns – the Cathedral Cave – is remarkable. Our tour guide played a recording of the gospel song Hallelujah to prove this point. We sat in pews – an interesting re-creation of a church, until our guide turned the lights out and we were plunged into an eerie darkness.
Performances by the Underground Opera Company take place during the year.
The Caves have accommodation options – see their website – but we escaped like a bat out of hell (pun intended) returning to Oshen for sunset drinks.
Yet another highlight of this fab road trip was in the Gladstone Region’s seaside community of Agnes Waters and the tiny township of 1770.
Agnes Waters lays claim as the most northern surf beach. The open beach we accessed through the Agnes Waters Caravan Park took my breath away and I now understand why my camping friends have over the years, flocked to this pocket of paradise to pull up stumps for a week. Like Bundy, one night was not enough!
Before entering Agnes, we wandered through the Paperbark Forest Boardwalk. A ten-minute walk through an enchanting forest of paperbark trees.
We couldn’t find the butterflies the tourist website boasted about, but what a gorgeous discovery in the @visitcapricorn region. The only sounds were chirping birds and the rustle of paperbark as the gentle breeze brushed the multicoloured trunks. I was expecting fairies to appear at any moment.
The Town of 1770
Watching the sunset over the water munching on fish n chips from the local cafe in the town of 1770, where Captain Cook landed 250 years ago (celebrations planned were canned because of COVID) was the perfect way to end the last night on our road trip journey.
Yesterday we took a tour through the oldest tourist attraction in Queensland at the Capricorn Caves, this morning we were walking a long stretch of sand on Yeppoon’s main beach. Today we’re wandering through a paperbark sanctuary and will visit Captain Cook’s place of landing – 1770.
There are not many positives to say about COVID. The economic pain, the loss of work for many, and sadly, for some, the loss of life has been devastating. But it made me take a good, hard look at my home state of Queensland and plan an adventure that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise tackled.
And look at all the places, people and creatures I discovered along the way.
Including Bundaberg – where I am heading next week with my lads!
A big thank you to my partner in crime, Catherine for joining me on this adventure, and for checking out all the weird and wonderful places along the way. Oh AND for doing all the driving (I’m not travelling in your VW Golf she told me!)
For six months, we backpacked around Europe in our early 20’s, shared a flat in London for two years, and can now add a road trip from Brisbane to Yeppoon and back to our repertoire!