A rocky road of surprises
WE arrived as latte-sipping, stir-fried-tofu chomping princesses. We departed as beef loving, croc spotting Brahman queens.
Rocky - the beef capital of Queensland - grabbed us by the bandanas, plonked an Akubra on our scones and gave us a dust-and-all taste of country life.
There was no time for checking lippy. Sunscreen applied, we were off to face the day - a day that promised fear in spades for two city chicks (one of whom had the added disadvantage of being a reasonably refined newbie from Europe - hey, throw 'em in the deep end, I say).
This was going to be about rodeos, cow poo and chomping down on steaks as big as most Sydney backyards.
I trembled as I got my uniform together - said Akubra, shod in RMs, jeans and chambray shirt, with a jaunty red neck scarf (one's never too remote to accessorise, thanks very much).
Last month, Beef Australia 2009 came to Rockhampton and gave us a chance to be cowgirls. My companion, an Italian who professed to love cows and know all about farming stuff, eagerly accompanied me on this road trip to rural nirvana.Beefed-up party town
Beef Australia is a religion in these parts, a kind of Olympics for the cattle industry, which fronts up every three years to pit their best against a tough array of judges.
While it is one of the southern hemisphere's most prestigious industry events, with seriously big money changing hands for the best breeders, on the flip side it's a great excuse for a party - and Rocky sure knows how to party.
Certainly, Beef Australia, held at the Rockhampton Showgrounds, gave us plenty of excuses to get close and personal with every breed of beef cattle imaginable (and I'm here to tell you there's nothing cuter than a baby Brahman, all floppy ears and doe eyes).
There were rodeos each night, horse whispering demonstrations, cattle dog training tips - you name it, we learned all about it.
But, truth be told, after two days of traipsing around in cow poo and dust, the novelty had worn off for the Italian and I wasn't far behind - the carcass judging contest kind of did me in.
Remember that cute baby Brahman …?Urban elegance
So it was off to explore the rest of this city - and therein lies the great dichotomy of Rockhampton.
While it's all cowdust and yeehaa at one end of town, five minutes down the way we are sitting in the fabulous riverside café of the new Edge Luxury Apartments, supping on perfectly executed risotto with truffle oil and perusing an extensive and comprehensive wine list.
Smiling waitstaff in designer black uniforms are attentive. Complimentary newspapers are offered.
When the coffee comes, it's rich and delicious. This could be the middle of Melbourne - except the weather's great.
Edge Luxury Apartments are equally as urbane.
Grant Cassidy, a Rocky legend who owns and runs some of the town's best-loved establishments, such as Cassidy's Steak House restaurant right next door, opened the Edge just in time for the Beef Australia crowd - and the 90-room boutique hotel was an instant hit.
They're spacious, beautifully appointed apartments, and our good-sized balcony overlooked the glorious Fitzroy River.
The river runs parallel to Victoria Parade, Rockhampton's historic main street.
Again, the surprise in store here will keep lovers of heritage architecture happy for hours.
Victoria Parade is lined with beautifully preserved and maintained buildings which stamp the timeline of Rockhampton's rich rural history.
Rocky's been around a while, and it's not going anywhere in the foreseeable future.Going down under
One thing we did not foresee was just how much time we'd be spending underground.
Another surprise package was waiting only 40 minutes outside Rocky, when we decided to visit the Capricorn Caves. Now, I've done some caves in my day - caves in Thailand, caves in Malaysia, caves in New Zealand. How good could these be?
Well, it brought me to tears, that's how good.
The sheer beauty of sitting in the candlelit “cathedral cave”, with piped opera subtly setting the acoustic feelgood factor, was too much and out came the waterworks.
I was pleased to see a burly footy player on our guided tour was equally as moved.
These ancient caves have been attracting visitors since their discovery by John Olsen in 1882.
He stumbled across the entrance and, after exploring solo for a few years, decided to invite a few friends up.
Word spread like wildfire and one of Queensland's first adventure tourism attractions was born.
Tours range from easy walking, wheelchair accessible caves to wild caving adventure tours.
There is a caravan park, camping site and cabin accommodation available on site.
Wallabies and other native fauna are plentiful, the bushland tracks are well maintained and there's a host of “orienteering” toys to play with, making this a wonderful alternative for those looking to stay in a perfectly natural, and somewhat unusual, location.Crocs, of course
On the way home from the caves, the Italian was keen to see a crocodile (Europeans love to be scared witless, I've found) - and as luck happened we were just in time to catch John Leaver's tour of his Koorana Crocodile farm.
John and his wife Lillian came to Rocky after he'd spent years working in PNG. He learned much, he says, from the local people there about the treatment and respect of these creatures so, upon returning to Australia, established the farm which operates as a commercial enterprise.
Although a conservationist to his bootstraps, John believes one of the best ways to ensure a safe future for these ancient creatures is to keep them commercially viable - he breeds and harvests crocs but, at the same time, runs an entertaining and informative tour operation.
There's enough snapping, jumping and close-up hand feeding to keep everyone gasping.
You get to hold a baby croc, see hatchlings and walk through the enclosure, safe enough yet close enough to bring some real thrills.
Back in town, we decide to pay a late afternoon visit to the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens and Zoo - a free attraction on the edge of a huge lake which is truly serene.
After a quick stroll through the zoo, which is a beautifully maintained, small collection of mostly native and protected animals (koalas, possums, echidnas and so on, with a great reptile collection and aviary), we sit by the lake to watch the sunset.
My companion finds a stale pack of biscuits in the car and crumbles them for the ever-increasing array of ducks and waterbirds gathering near shore.
She is delighted when a strange head pops up, then another, and another, all after a share - the ducks are joined by some determined turtles looking for a feed.
She loves it. I don't tell her about the sign just out of sight. “Beware, crocodile sighted here.”
Why spoil a beautiful memory?