Yeppoon lies a spit north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Chance took us there. We’d driven up from Brisbane and stopped in Rockhampton for the night. It was off-season and there were only two other guests, the O’Sheas. They had emigrated from Cork in their teens and had never been back. Their memories of Ireland were pinched, poor and hazed with romantic ideals. Several drinks later, they admitted to this being their third marriage each – and they thought we’d be shocked.
‘Ireland has changed since you left,’ we said.
They didn’t believe us, they thought we were cool with their marital status only because we’d travelled a bit.
‘Go to Yeppoon.’ They urged. Bonzer place, no tourists, great snorkelling, take a boat to the Great Keppel islands.
One of the great joys of travel is going to places you’ve never heard of before so we drove to Yepoon. It was a lot like Bundoran, off-season. Fish and chip shops, plastic ice-cream cones outside mini-marts, slot machines, cafes, pubs and bungalows with B. and B. signs outside. The big difference was the tropical sun. We booked a boat trip to the islands.
We expected a well-worn, oily, tramp of a boat with a bluff boatman and a noisy engine, instead we were faced with an elegant catamaran, newly built, beautifully appointed and crewed by a bronzed and charming Ulla and Karl. There were three other passengers, a genteel English couple and Rich, a skinny, tow-haired, fourteen-year old, who’d run away to sea. And I thought that had all stopped with ‘Kidnapped’ and ‘Treasure Island’ but there he was large as life and either very shy or very taciturn. Ulla assured us that he knew about reefs for he worked with the fishing fleet out of Yepoon.
We sailed out of the harbour into a sun-dazzled turquoise. A brisk wind had the sea leaping with white caps. The English couple were sea-sick and had to lie down.
There is something magical about sailing, about the alchemy of canvas and wind that allows you skim over the sea like a bird. The air all about us appeared to be flickering, orange and yellow and red. Had the sun gone to my head? Was I was having some kind of vision? But no, the flashes were real for the boat was surrounded by butterflies.
‘Yeah.’ Said Rich laconically, ‘they fly to the islands.’
We reached a sandy cay topped with green scrub and dropped anchor in limpid water. It was time for lunch, spicy chicken, fresh salad, crusty bread, tropical fruit and champagne. The English couple looked wan and toyed with small glasses of water. Then off we sailed again towards a larger island and dropped anchor once more.
We put on flippers and goggles and dived into the water. Under the turquoise skin of the sea we discovered a whole new world. A world of wavy things, pulsating rockeries of living coral, fleshy flowers gently swaying and fish darting in and about. Orange fish with black patches, electric blue fish, silver and rose, maroon , purple yellow, striped black and white, fish with fanned tails, fish with hooked beaks and a quicksilver shoal of sardine.
‘Did you see the shark?’ asked Rich when we came up for air ‘and the sting ray? ‘
We must have visibly paled for he laughed out loud.
‘No worries, they’re small.’
He swam alongside us pointing them out, shark about ten inches long, stingray shimmying into the sand and fish so well camouflaged that the only an expert could spot them. The sardines flashed past, Rich waved his hand and they echoed his movement in sinuous sliver. We spent the next half an hour in the jade-coloured water shape-shifting quicksilver sardines.
When we returned to Yeppoon, sun-stunned and drunk on salt air and blue sea, we went slightly astray and found ourselves on the outskirts of town where we chanced on our first kangaroos. We stopped to watch them nibble the grass in the gloaming and silently thanked the O’Sheas, they might misremember Ireland but they certainly knew their Australia.