“Girls don’t ride bulls,” the cowboy answers. I want to know where all of the female bull riders are hiding. “It’s too dangerous. You can hurt your ovaries.” Right. Well, it’s too late to be worrying about my future children. I’m in the pits and about to ride a 900kg yellow bull at the local Rockhampton rodeo. A live one. That’s right, none of that mechanical shit. 

The bull seems very irate. He’s kicking dirt with his hooves and ratting the gate with his heaving body. A group of cowboys are frantically giving me some last-minute lessons.

“The most important thing to remember is: you will fall off.” That’s reassuring.

“No, actually the most important thing to remember is: when you fall – you run.”

These cowboys seem to have very little faith in me. But then, why would they? I made a split-second decision, after a few local brews at the Great Western Hotel to jump on a bull. And before I could back out, I was wearing a helmet, gloves, a vest and straddling a very angry bull. When in Pamplona you run with the bulls, and when in Rockhampton you ride them, right? Not really, it turns out.

The second error of judgement was in thinking they’d go easy on me and give me a nice little bull – more of a cow – that would softly trot around the arena like a Miss Rockhampton pageant entrant.

The third, and most pressing, mistake is that I am wearing red. So, when I inevitably fall to the ground, this beast is going to see me and be really, really pissed off.

The bullfighters, or rodeo clowns, as they’re known, laugh at this concern. “City girl,” they mutter. But I don’t see any of them wearing red.

They place me upon the bull and hand me the rope. “Hold onto him tight with your legs. When you fall, make sure you let go of the rope.” This seems like a lot of last minute instruction. I’m not ready for this I yell as the gate opens. The beast takes off like a bat out of hell. His front legs are in the air and then up go his back legs. He’s determined to buck me off. I don’t want to fall under this heavy beast and I don’t want to fall in front of him to be gored by his horns either. My legs are doing their best impression of a nutcracker, I’m squeezing the bull so hard I think I’m going to break him. Of course, he wins the battle and I fall to the ground, landing on my hip and coughing up dust. I must have blacked out for a few seconds because the next thing I remember is sprinting to the side of arena and scaling the gates like Spiderman. I don’t even realise I have lost a shoe.

The crowd goes wild. “The city girl has lost her boot!” That’s all I remember.

“You lasted four seconds, you did well,” the clown tells me. Only four? I could have sworn it was longer.

But the cowboys seem impressed. I go back to the stadium, sink a XXXX beer and settle into my new position as town hero. Hero – or village idiot – it’s debatable. 

Later that night I meet a local girl who relays a different kind of folklore. “Whatever you do in Rocky,” she says, “don’t fall in love with a cowboy. They’ll break your heart. They only care about one thing: the rodeo.” Luckily, I’m more in the mood for a steak.

Being the beef capital of Australia, I order one of Rocky’s famous steak, but because of my little romp, I’ve missed out. Perhaps it’s a sign that I should thank the bull for sparing my life and become a vegetarian.

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Beef meets the reef

It’s not just a rough-and-ready frontier town full of cowboys and bucking bulls. I soon discover the Capricorn Coast is an area, smack bang in the middle of Queensland, that encompasses all that is spectacular about Australia. It’s where the country meets the reef. And today I am to be acquainted with the stunning marine life in the southern Great Barrier Reef.

Feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus, I board the ferry and am pleasantly surprised to find out it’s only a 30 minute ride to Great Keppel Island where we’ll spend the day snorkelling in and around the reef.

Jumping off the boat and into the stunning blue water we swim with turtles, sting rays and schools of beautiful electric blue fish.

Resurfacing I smell the sweet smell of a barbeque resonating from the boat. I swim up to see the skipper cooking us some of that famous Rocky beef. I’m determined not to miss out this time.

The salt water, the hangover, even the bruising to my body is washed away by this truly tasty lunch and spectacular view. Ahead we can see the shore of Great Keppel Island and we’re the only boat in the area.

After lunch we set off to explore the ‘castaway’ island. Great Keppel Island’s resort is closed for renovations which means visitors to the island are few and far between. We stroll the deserted beach before we are greeted by a couple of backpackers on a quad bike. They tell us they’re working at the holiday village and offer to show us around. We hop on their wheels and they take us to their accommodation. Hidden away in the bush we find Robinson Cruise style tents and cabins.

“It’s very chilled out here,” the French backpacker whispers. We’re all whispering – it’s that quiet.

“It’s my favourite place in Australia,” the Alaskan backpacker says. “I can grab a snorkel from reception and be swimming on the reef in five minutes.” I’m impressed. 

“I’ve been all around Australia,” she adds, “and I still think it’s amazing how close the reef is to the beach.“

The girls then proceed to show us the hundreds of underwater pictures they’ve taken. I’m beginning to think there is something slightly odd about these two. Then it hits me. They haven’t bumped into anyone new for a very long time. They have this deserted-island-cabin-fever look in their eyes. Thinking they may never let us go, and not wanting to miss the ferry back to the mainland, we make our excuses to leave. But not before they show us the pizza place, and the bar, and make us promise to come back.

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Cave to pressure

After a wild night at Emu’s Beach Resort, throwing back body shots and playing beer pong with backpackers in togas (just a normal Saturday night at the hostel I am told) I awake with a shocking hangover. But there’s no time to dwell on that because we’re off to explore another one of Capricorn’s natural wonders – the limestone caves.

The caves were discovered in 1882 by a sneaky Norwegian named John Olsen. He kept the news quiet until he could buy a permit for the caves and open them up commercially. The legend is he tied a rope to his waist and the other end to a tree before lowering himself into the dark caves with only a candle to find his way. 

The cave system, with its huge open chambers, is so beautiful that they often hold weddings and operas inside.

But we aren’t here to listen to orchestra music. I often say when I’m hungover, that I’d like to crawl into a cave, but in hindsight I’d say: be careful what you wish for.

We are “adventure caving” which means we’re spending three hours exploring caves the tricky way. Through tight crevices with sinister names such as ‘Entrapment’ and ‘Fat Man’s Misery’.

Dressed in helmets and boiler suits, mine with an ominous amount of rips and tears, we make our way into the caves. I am already feeling rather fragile and my nerves are tested immediately when the guide leaves us in a dark space, tells us to switch off our lights and make our way through a small tunnel. The hole gets smaller and darker and I’m crawling on my hands and knees searching for an exit. The darkness is playing tricks on my mind. Is this the right way? Is there any air in here? I am losing what little strength of mind I have left and then I hear the guide (or is it God?) “Follow the light”. I make it around the bend, towards his voice. I’ve never been happier to see him.

We then enter the cathedral, where we sit in wooden pews listening to a church organ play Amazing Grace. I could sit here all day, music bouncing off the natural acoustics, watching the flickering light from candles dance around ancient stalactites. But that would be too easy.

 “You’re going to love the next challenge,” he grins. “It’s called the ‘rebirth.’” This is a geologist’s sick joke, I think.

“It’s okay,” says the guide. “You can do the ‘Caesarean’ if you don’t think you can handle a natural birth.”

Needless to say, the caving adventure for me is aborted.

I thought I knew myself quite well but it’s taken a trip to Capricorn to discover I have a fear of caves. Either that, or alcohol-induced claustrophobia.

Give me a bull ride any day.

Alex travelled to the Capricorn Coast as a guest of Tourism Queensland. Special thanks to the Great Western Hotel; Freedom Fast Cats; Capricorn Caves; Koorana Crocodile Farm; Emu’s Beach Resort; and Great Keppel Island Holiday Village.