Great Keppel Island: experiencing the Great Barrier Reef on a budget

As mentioned in my previous post, we decided to use our hotel in Rockhampton as our base for 2 nights so that we could finish the year with a bang and visit Great Keppel Island as a day trip. 

Let’s be honest here: we have always been reluctant to pay the price of a luxury holiday in the world-renowned Whitsunday Islands. Whenever possible, we try to find alternatives that would suit our budget and match the experience: white sand beaches, crystal clear water, tropical fish and corals.

We certainly were not disappointed. To date, Great Keppel Island is one of the best Australian destinations I have ever been to. I would strongly recommend it to anyone seeking an affordable taste of the Great Barrier Reef. 

Booking was made through Keppel Connections and return tickets cost $90 in total, allowing us to roughly spend 6 hours on the island. That’s a pretty good value considering we were in the busiest time of year.

Logistics and preparation

The day before, we headed to the local supermarket for supplies so that we could pack our day packs for the adventure ahead, making note of the following key points:

WATERPROOFING: Our bags needed to be waterproofed so that we could take them canoeing. We achieved this by using garbage bags for items like towels and spare clothes and by double-bagging important items like cameras, wallet, car keys in zip lock bags.

FOOD CHOICES ARE LIMITED ON THE ISLAND: We packed wraps and sandwiches as well as dried fruit and protein bars. A burger and drink was included in the ticket price. However, we did not assume that we would like it since we generally don’t eat burgers. It turned out that the line on the resort was really long anyway; so, we made the right choice.

TAKE AS MUCH WATER AS YOU THINK YOU NEED: Then double it, or at least try. You could easily find yourself caught on an isolated side of the island away from the restaurant. You will not have fun if you are rationing your water out in the afternoon or if you cannot even spare a few drops of water to wash the sand from your hands.

GETTING TO THE FerrY

The Capricorn Coast Tourist Drive

The ferry was not due to depart until 10:45, which gave us enough time to cruise along the Capricorn Coast Tourist Drive, taking a detour via Coorooman to Emu Park, heading up the coastline through Kinka Beach, Cooey Bay then Keppel Bay Marina.

KEPPEL BAY MARINA 

The first car park when you arrive is exclusively for vehicles with boat trailers. We found it a bit confusing when we first arrived.

Cars, utes, 4WD’s must continue to the adjacent car park where there is plenty of parking, albeit without shade. The Keppel Konnections Ferry departs from the “Red Jetty“.

Loading onto the boat takes at least 20 minutes while the boat is stocked up with supplies – food for the restaurant and eskies full of BYO beer for some of the passengers. As far as we could tell, there is no charge to bring your own esky on board, even it is enormous.

Let the fun begin!

The boat runs aground when it arrives at Great Keppel Island. There is no wharf. Just soft sand, which the boat rams into before the deckhand sets up a ramp for the passengers to descend onto Fishermans Beach, which is the main beach of the island.

Slow down…

and the world will reveal itself to you

Our ticket entitled us to a choice of activity for 1 hour. We chose paddling in a double canoe and were rewarded almost immediately. As we approached the headland of Shelving Beach, we spotted a turtle.

We jumped out for a swim in the crystal blue water and took a few shots. Even though Shelving Beach was the next to the main beach (Fisherman’s Beach), there were remarkably less people.

Excited by the thought that the beaches further around would be even more isolated, we headed back in double time to return the canoe at the end of our hour.

We asked the staff for directions to beaches which we could walk to but still make it back in time for the ferry. We were recommended Long Beach, which was only the third beach along from the main beach.

The walk from Fisherman’s Beach to Long Beach only took us 30 minutes. Yet, the beach was almost completely empty when we arrived except for 2 or 3 small boats moored at the very east end of the beach. Given Long Beach is approximately 1.6 km long, we felt like we were alone in our tropical paradise.

It still seems unbelievable that a 30-minute walk was enough to give us the beach to ourselves… on an island… in the Great Barrier Reef

We find this time and time again on our trips. Whether it is a rainforest walk in the Gold Coast Hinterland or the walk to Carlos Sandblow at Rainbow Beach, it only takes a 30 min walk to give us an isolated patch of nature all to ourselves.

We ate our lunch staring out at the many shades of blue of the Coral Sea and proceeded to have another swim.

Suddenly, out of nowhere we spotted a sea star (better known as a starfish despite not being a fish) washed up on the beach. It had 8 legs, albeit two of them had been amputated at some point. It was flipped upside down, exposing the hundreds of little tube feet on its underside.

It was fascinating to watch the sea star pull itself along the rocks with its little tube feet without any discernible movement of its “limbs”.  I am by no means an expert but my best guess at identifying it would be Luidia australiae. If you can correctly identify it, please leave a comment.

We also spotted another turtle about 10 metres from us, swimming parallel along the beach and disappearing with a quick burst of energy.

Refreshed by our discoveries, we returned along the path from where we came in, we stumbled accross a handful of goats (“cabrit” as we would call them in Guadeloupean creole).

Upon arriving at the southern end of the Fisherman’s Beach, we saw another sea star, this time with 5 legs, no visible tube feet on its underside and a much less floppy body than the other first sea star.

We showed a little kid who had been camping with his family wandered over and asked us what we had found. He said, “Oh, it’s a starfish”, and then continued on his way. He was so blasé about it. We could only guess that he had already been on the island for a few days and become so accustomed to seeing such things that it was commonplace for him. It was a big deal for us.

A word of warning and a compliment to the safety of the ferry crew

The ferry was booked out for our departure time. There was a family of three who wanted to leave since they had missed their earlier connection. To the captain’s credit, he spotted that the extra three people would make the boat over capacity. The next ferry was at 21:50, which is less popular and was not overbooked.

We were willing to stay another few hours to appreciate the sunset on the island so that this young family could take our place but unfortunately no one else offered their place.

This is a testament to the priority that the crew gives to safety but also a warning to anyone who thinks that they can miss their boat and catch the next one. Ferries to Great Keppel Island are limited each day, as are the seats aboard.

After buying an ice-cream and cold water at the shop at the marina, we headed travelled back by the most direct route. It required vigilance as is was “kangaroo o’clock” as we like to call it.

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