On the Tropic of Capricorn
730 km south of Townsville on Bruce Highway. Rockhampton is on the Tropic of Capricorn (the actual spot is marked by a spire beside the road, on the southern approach to town). This puts Rockhampton on a par with Rio de Janeiro. However, apart from this geographical coincidence there is little resemblance between the two. Rio’s Copacabana Beach may be the beefcake capital of Brazil, but Rockhampton has no beach and is simply the ‘beef capital of Australia’.
Rockhampton (known locally as ‘Rockie’) is one of the oldest towns in this part of Australia. Why? Curiously, the place was founded by accident. In 1858 there was a gold rush in this region of central Queensland, but it turned out to be a false alarm. As a result several hundred hard-bitten would-be millionaires found themselves stranded with their packs, shovels and prospecting sieves on the banks of the Fitzroy River. The place developed into a rough-and-ready encampment, which soon became a popular watering hole with stockmen from the surrounding cattle country.
Prosperity hit Rockhampton when they started mining copper at Mount Morgan, just 40 km south of town. Evidence of this golden era can still be seen in the elegant 1890s sandstone houses along the riverfront.
Other sights include the two famous bulls, cast in bronze, which stand on the two main roads into town. The one to the north is a Brahman bull, the breed favoured by the stock-breeders to the north of town, and the one to the south is a Hereford, the breed favoured by the breeders to the south. They were erected by a colourful mayor called Rex Pilbeam, who evidently knew his local citizens better than they realized. Apart from the magnificently proportioned bronze bulls, he made sure that several extra pairs of bull’s testicles were also cast. Inevitably one night some boisterous local lads emasculated one of Pilbeam’s bulls, and blundered off laughing into the night brandishing their trophies. Next day the lads were astonished to see that a replacement pair had already been stuck back by their prescient mayor.
Rockhampton may be a fairly big town by Australian standards (a population of more than 60,000), but it’s in the middle of nowhere. For hundreds of kilometres there’s only remote grazing country, with nothing but the empty horizon bubbling in the heat haze.
There are just a couple of things worth seeing here. The Dreamtime Cultural Centre (www.dreamtimecentre.com.au) is north of town. This is the heritage centre for the central Queensland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. On show is a curious mix of legend and history. In fact, the two don’t really mix at all in the Aborigine past. The history is largely a sad succession of oppression, tragic rebellion and cultural decline. But the legends are something else. Here you get a chance to try and comprehend the complexities and mysteries of Aborigine culture. It’s well worth the effort. They are among the last people on earth who remain in touch with the distant origins from which we all spring.
Just over 20 km north of town on the Bruce Highway you come to a settlement called The Capricorn Caves (www.capricorncaves.com.au). Around here there are several fine complexes of caves which honeycomb the surrounding limestone (fossilized coral) hills. Most popular are Olsen’s Cave and Cammoo. The caves have the usual astonishing stalactites, petrified rivers of stone, coloured lights and grim commentary. There are also colonies of rare carnivorous ghost bats, who, despite (or perhaps because of) their unobtrusive Draculean lives, are now an endangered species. Those who can’t stand grimly humorous commentaries or batty jokes should press on for the Fitzroy Caves, which you’re allowed to explore on your own. But be warned: these caves are unmarked, unlit and have numerous creepy inhabitants (including bats and spiders).