Ancient caves, deadly snakes and hungry crocs - Pamela Wade experienced it all during a trip to Queensland's Capricorn Coast.
Ooh! That's a big ... !" These are four words you never want to hear from the guide who's walking ahead of you through the Australian bush. Particularly when said in tones of great surprise. And especially when the crucial fifth word is choked off so you can't catch it.
"What? Big what? Is it a ... " and my own final word choked off too when I peered over Dan's shoulder and saw the shiny brown snake, just under 2m in squiggle, lying in the leaves just ahead of us.
This wasn't just a snake that was brown, this was a brown snake, responsible for more deaths in Australia than any other variety. Dan and I looked at it; it looked back at us. Then, with no drama at all, it simply slid away out of sight into the bushes.
As snake encounters go, it was humdrum - which, as with aeroplane flights, is exactly the kind I like best. I was grateful too for the timing, as Dan and I were on our way back from almost two hours of squirming on our stomachs through pitch-dark tunnels, where the thought of coming nose-to-nose with a snake would have enlivened the experience immeasurably.
Making a triangle with Rockhampton and Yeppoon in eastern central Queensland, Capricorn Caves have been attracting tourists for 130 years, although it's only relatively recently that people have been able to choose between a sedate stroll along boardwalks through echoing caverns, or getting literally down and dirty in some of the more remote corners of the system. I did both, first taking the gentle tour including sweet little micro-bats, rare ferns and a solstice spotlight, and finishing with a soothing sit in the dark of Cathedral Cave listening to Enya played with perfect acoustics.
Next, I suited up in overalls, helmet and headlight for some slithering with Dan. I don't know what was more fun: wriggling on knees and elbows through a twisting tube called the Whale's Belly (there are others named Rebirth and Fat Man's Misery), or The Lord of the Rings moment when Dan turned out the light and challenged me to find the correct exit tunnel from a choice of three. "Fun" in this case meaning "demonstration that I'm not as lithe and adventurous as I'd fondly imagined". It was certainly a relief to emerge to bright sunshine, blue sky and green bush - even if it did contain a snake.
There was another snake at Cooberrie Park on the other side of Yeppoon: Sheila, an elegant carpet python with a seductively smooth and shiny skin patterned in cream, brown and black, such a classy look that I felt distinctly dowdy in comparison when she was draped around my neck. She was, frankly, a great improvement on the large but impassive desert skink that had clung to my blouse moments earlier like a particularly ugly brooch - although nowhere near as cuddly as Teddy, the perfectly-named koala, who sat happily in my arms with his chin on my shoulder.
Cooberrie, a wildlife sanctuary, is all about getting hands-on with the animals, many of them rescued (Sheila had been run over), and most of them native. That was obviously not so for the sanctuary's foxes, but I was surprised to learn that in Queensland dingoes too are considered foreigners. "It's a crack-up," said Keiron, fondling Diddy Boy's fuzzy ears. "They're in Aboriginal rock-paintings, they're not found anywhere else in the world, they're protected over the border in the Northern Territory, but here they're pests." As the dingo nuzzled my face and leaned in for a scratch, I listened for the purr that Keiron had described and thought "pest" seemed a harsh term to use for such a softie - but then, I didn't have a baby with me.
I spent so long canoodling with Cooberrie's animals that I had to postpone my lunch at Koorana Crocodile Farm till after Stacey's tour. "Keep away from the fence," she warned, "it's only a single layer here." Yes indeed folks, just one layer of chain link between us and pondfuls of salt-water crocodiles which, judging by the areas of bent and splayed wire, were big and hungry enough to have had more than one go at snagging a tastier meal than the cow tracheas Stacey was flinging them. Still, if I were destined to become a Gucci handbag or - worse - a kebab, I might be tempted to push the limits myself. So it was all the more startling to see park owner and croc hunter extraordinaire John Lever not only step into the pen with 800kg Buka, but stand right beside that massive pre-historic reptile and dangle dainty morsels above its gaping mouth. "They have a good relationship," explained Stacey. Afterwards, I reckoned I had an even better relationship with a croc-a-leekie pie.
Getting there: If you're catching a red-eye flight from Auckland, get an extra hour in bed, free parking for two weeks and a free shuttle to the airport at Jet Park Hotel. See jetpark.co.nz
Yeppoon, on the Capricorn Coast, is 45km from Rockhampton, an interesting and easy two-day drive from Brisbane. For rental cars see avis.com.au
Where to stay: Capricorn Resort, Yeppoon, is out of town, set in 8900ha of unspoilt bush and wetlands and has two golf courses as well as the usual family facilities, and an excellent Japanese restaurant. Visit rydges.com/capricorn
What to do: The award-winning, ancient Capricorn Caves are located 23km from Rockhampton. They offer wheelchair access and boardwalks as well as wild caving tours. See capricorncaves.com.au
Cooberrie Park Wildlife Sanctuary is a friendly way to get close up to many Australian animals and birds. See www.cooberriepark.com.au Koorana Crocodile Park is a working commercial crocodile farm and tourist attraction. See koorana.com.au
Further informtion: queenslandholidays.com.au
Pamela Wade visited Yeppoon courtesy of Tourism Queensland.