What happened to Great Keppel Island?
Tower’s failure to close the deal and start work saw a grassroots campaign against the development, led by Michael Powell, a 61-year-old retired nurse who runs an antique shop in Rockhampton.
Since becoming involved last June, Powell has provided both structural rigor and relentless research skills. He helped start a Facebook group called Don’t Destroy Great Keppel Island – “build or fuck” motto – which jousts with OKOF (known to some as FOKOF).
Powell was a founding member of the protest group Ya Nga, which means “crowd” in the language of the island’s traditional owners, the Woppaburra. The 11 members, including a Woppaburra representative, communicate and plan via a private Facebook page. Powell attended a meeting of the Don’t Destroy Great Keppel Island group, to which residents John and Suzy Watson were invited as the owners of a yellow-lined beach house surrounded by coconut palms.
John, 70, calls resort staff queuing for a houseboat to leave their house “the saddest thing you’ve ever seen in your life”. One, nicknamed Duck, died 12 months later (“essentially of a broken heart”).
The couple, who have owned their property since 1994, walked through the resort just after it closed. “It was really strange and mysterious,” says Suzy, 68. “There was nothing there. It was in such a horrible state, we looked at each other and said, ‘No wonder he doesn’t want this place to go on.’
The boats have stopped. Many tourists thought the island – an iconic party destination in the 1980s with the slogan “get shipwrecked!” – had closed its doors. But two resorts, the Holiday Village and Hideaway, remain open, with a few beach houses available for rent. There is a dive shop, pizza place, gift shop and 17 gorgeous secluded beaches.
Visitors can still see the flagship resort’s public toilet block, behind an ugly metal fence with signs warning “private property” and – ironically – “construction site”. At the resort’s southern border, dew burns on the tall grasses as the scent of lemon eucalyptus rises with the sun.
Abandoned buildings sprawl, with shattered windows and missing or open doors where guests once shook sand from their feet. It’s like the aliens are teleporting everyone. The filmmakers approached Tower about shooting a disaster movie there in 2013, with the working title Last Resort.
In an attempt to gain Asian support, Tower applied for a casino license in 2014, a request denied by the LNP government. The OKOF was formed after the ALP government also turned down an offer for a smaller “boutique” (or BGL) gaming license to service 35 tables for high profile customers.
“We can’t understand why [Tower] don’t put in a brothel,” Powell says, with withering sarcasm. “It goes just as well with an eco-resort as it does with a casino, and it certainly goes with a casino. It would be a niche market, it would employ our daughters – let’s face it, they’re all so lazy they could work on their backs. Seriously, this is so laughable.
Signs promoting the pro-Tower lobby group, Our Keppel Our Future (OKOF), which is pushing for a BGL for development, are a visible sight in Yeppoon’s businesses – and a reminder of the lingering differences of opinion .
The OKOF’s pro-development advertisements, along with the backing of a BGL from both the LNP and the Tower, could hurt the PLA’s chances of winning Capricornia, a federal target seat.
The resolutely pro-Tour local newspaper, the Rockhampton Morning Reportconducted a survey showing that 64% of residents wanted a new resort with a casino, nearly triple the 24% who did not.
Powell admits, with disarming candor, that he doesn’t care if Tower succeeds and may well visit his resort if it is built, but intends to fight as hard as possible.
Ya Nga hopes to exhaust Tower’s patience. “The best way to have it [Agnew] off-island is enforcing the terms of the lease,” notes Powell. “He’s got the approval to build this thing and you’re pissing in the wind if you want to see this again, because it’s done and dusted.”
Brett Lorroway offers to drive from Fisherman’s Beach to Svendsen’s Beach. The trip illustrates the absurd beauty of the island and Ya Nga’s strategy – at one point, his quad raced through clouds of blue and green butterflies, which burst around us as if someone were searching in a bag and picked them up on our way.
Lookout No. 1 sits at the first ridge, with a simple hut offering respite from the beating sun, looking east into a valley where the Tower villas are planned. The roads are steep and eroded, more passable in 4×4. We pass the old farmhouse, now closed, where oleanders and hoop pines grow and where dozens of wild goats graze in a nearby field.
Tower is responsible, among other things, for maintaining the Lookout hut, which no longer has a water tank for thirsty travellers, the roads, the farm – which once welcomed visitors – and controlling the number of goats, which locals say have increased dramatically. .
Powell argues that Tower is shirking its responsibilities. Penrose disagrees, flipping through photos on her smartphone of her work inside the farm repairing wiring and roof tiles dislodged by possums.
“Every time the naysayers do something, it gets in my lap,” he says.
Not all islanders agree that goats cause excessive damage. Lorroway says ‘they do less damage in a year than people do in a day’, while the Watsons printed a simulated image of a goat in a fire helmet in Spectator, claiming the animals mitigate the risk of fire by eating vegetation.
But controlling the goats is a condition of the lease, and Powell wants to make sure the tower strictly complies with each of the roughly 140 federal and state mandates. He hopes for a repeat of Tower’s late lease payment of $250,000, settled on April 1, which could have seen the leases canceled outright.
Queensland State Development Minister Dr Anthony Lynham told SBS that the government is working to ensure the tower “meets its other obligations under the terms of the lease, including the requirements in the management of land and cultural heritage”.