Rockhampton: It's a knockout

By Rod Emmerson

Herald Cartoonist Rod Emmerson takes a tour over his old stomping grounds in Central Queensland and finds himself smiling at crocodiles.
Saltwater crocs at Koorana Crocodile Farm, Coowonga, Central Qld. Photo / Rod Emmerson
Saltwater crocs at Koorana Crocodile Farm, Coowonga, Central Qld. Photo / Rod Emmerson

Rockhampton locals joke there must be something in the Fitzroy water - other than crocodiles - that has spawned a number of gritty achievers. William Knox Darcy who founded BP, tennis legend Rod Laver, two-times NZ Open winner Terry Price and a host of Olympic swimming and cycling medalists are among a long list of local heroes.

Perhaps the genesis lies with the trailblazing Archer brothers who first arrived and carved out Queensland's cattle industry. Notably, the mother of all births from this region was the Australian Labor Party, born out of the Great Shearers Strike of 1891.

Known as the Beef Capital of Australia, Rocky's wide leafy streets are lined with some 60 heritage-listed buildings, while a modern skyline is a thrusting reminder of the commercial growth from the coal mining boom.

A landmark cathedral, colonial pubs, bustling cafes and retail centres resonate with the sound of a new prosperity and a wholesome country life. The numerous beaches and islands of the nearby Capricorn Coast cap off a lifestyle that is hard to replace for its 60,000 inhabitants.

What many locals can be unmindful of, is a generation of wily benefactors who steered the council-owned Rockhampton Art Gallery. Its permanent collection of premium Australian art is now the envy of regional and state galleries.

Olley, Boyd, Blackman, Drysdale, Olsen, Whiteley, Williams, Gleeson, Smart, Perceval - they're all here. So extensive is the $17m collection, that it is soon to tour across two states until 2016.

When we walked through the doors, a Lynley Dodd retrospective was in full swing. The grand lady of children's books is a hero here too and proved a perfect start for our three-day stay in the area.

Crocodile Rolls - The Koorana Crocodile Farm

The safety briefing doesn't mince words.

"Anything on that side of the fence belongs to the crocodiles."

There's a long silence as heads gaze across the riparian landscape. Completely understood in all languages.

I lock eyes with a massive saltwater croc just metres away who's obviously heard this briefing many times and completely disagrees. Everything belongs to him, on either side of the fence.

The gate opens and the dozen or so of us make our way gingerly along a raised bank corridor where we can clearly see crocodiles scattered to the horizon. These are just some of the 3000 on John Lever's Koorana Crocodile Farm.

Reaching into a bucket, Lever hurls chicken pieces into the mire and the crocs snap them up lazily. His talk is littered with polished humour and anecdotes of fact verses fallacy. These ambush predators are the largest of all living reptiles and can grow to a staggering eight metres and weigh in at more than 900kg, all co-ordinated by a brain the size of your thumb.

Evolved some 200 million years ago, they are truly the last of the dinosaurs. Maintenance-free, there's no flea collar, no weekly baths or trips to the vet. So unique is their chemistry, that injuries heal rapidly in the river bog.

John Lever is a charismatic and astute businessman. This is after all a working farm, not a zoo, so don't expect Frank Gehry designed buildings and facilities. It's down-to-earth purpose-built and functional.

One low-key, yet eccentric building does the lot for curious visitors. At one end is a glassed antiquarian display of the usage of crocodile skin through the ages. There's a kiosk and bar, huge skulls, croc jewellery and stunning contemporary leather craft.

Visitors are always welcome and no doubt help keep a steady income, but the real money is in the skins and meat. French and Italian-made crocodile skin handbags, belts and shoe prices are stratospheric. Lever calls it "Conservation by Commerce".

His knowledge and life-long love of these creatures has made him an international expert, regularly relieving far-flung communities of troublesome crocs. There's also 'Croc College', a successful venture training the next generation of crocodile handlers. This has proved so popular, that the ABC has turned it into a television series.

Two types of crocs inhabit Australian waterways. saltwater and freshwater. Freshwater crocs - or Johnstone River crocs - have a more slender snout, only grow to around 2m and are considered harmless. You can buy them from Lever as pets for around $400 delivered and once they get too big for the lounge room couch, he'll replace it with a juvenile for free.

Over lunch, we dine on a mix of tall stories, croc kebabs, croc pie and burgers that John's wife Lilian has prepared in the cafe kitchen. The taste and texture is between pork and chicken and goes down well with good wine.

Lever has just nudged 71 years of age, but has the physique and stamina of an athletic 50.

I had to ask: "What's the secret?" 'You're eating it'," came the reply.

The most memorable of afternoons with the most delightful of people. An absolute must you'll dine out on for months.

The Mercure Capricorn Resort

There's a very cheesy joke: Q.) Where the hell is Yeppoon? A.) Next to your knife and fork. It was even a boot-scooting pub song once, they tell me. I can believe it.

Yeppoon is the hub of the picturesque Capricorn Coast, a 30-minute drive from Rockhampton and on the desirable waters of Keppel Bay.

Back In 1971, a Japanese syndicate acquired an eyebrow-raising 89sq/km of unspoilt tropical coastline and hinterland minutes north of Yeppoon at Farnborough. A protracted protest took hold and escalated beyond nasty but, to their credit, the syndicate held its nerve and ploughed on regardless and 34 years later, their vision has been long realised.

They built a fabulously tranquil, eco-friendly beachside resort, complete with two major golf courses, beachside horse rides and all the facilities and activities you could want.

The forest and wetlands are teaming with wildlife; lorikeets and cockatoos glide overhead while mobs of kangaroos stroll the resort grounds. Obviously a popular haven, when we visited the resort was brimming with a healthy mix of regulars - locals and mining families using it as a weekend retreat. This is the perfect place to base the family for an affordable extended thaw from a New Zealand winter.

Tsurya dining has the very finest in Japanese cuisine but what impressed us the most, was the serenity of the forest and wetlands. Brolgas, jabiru, magpie geese and pelican, this is a birdwatcher's delight, so pack the zoom lens for that Wetlands tour. The resort is also ideally located to use as a base camp while you explore the hinterland, the beaches of the coast or the nearby islands.

In a nutshell: Rockhampton is on the Tropic of Capricorn and is the gateway to 'the north', 'the west' and the islands of Keppel Bay. The region experiences an average of 300 days of sunshine per annum. Average temperature in winter is 23C; it can climb into the high-30s and beyond in summer. Allow at least three days and you will not be disappointed, but be warned, many of the locals arrived the way you did - as tourists - and never left. It has that effect.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Brisbane, from there it's a 50-minute flight or a seven-hour drive.

Accommodation:

Rockhampton: The Edge Luxury Apartments on Victoria St. Great location, high-rise, self-contained, spacious and thankfully air-conditioned with undercover parking.

Yeppoon: The The Mercure Capricorn Resort - A range of room types available. Ours was motel-style with a balcony, spacious and air-conditioned in a sprawling beach setting. Need a base for an extended tour? This is definitely it.

WiFi: A continual problem while travelling in Central Queensland. Nothing worked but when it did, it cost an arm and a leg.

The writer travelled to Rockhampton and the Capricorn Coast courtesy of Air New Zealand, VirginBlue, Tourism Australia, Tourism Queensland and Capricorn Enterprise.

- NZ Herald

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