Whatever happened to Great Keppel Island?

Tower’s inability to close the deal and begin work has seen a grassroots campaign rise against the development, led by Michael Powell, an intense 61-year-old retired nurse who runs an antique shop in Rockhampton.

Since he became involved last June, Powell has provided both structural rigour and dogged research skills. He helped launch a Facebook group called Don’t Destroy Great Keppel Island – motto “build it or bugger off” – which jousts with OKOF (known to some as FOKOF).

Powell was a founding member of protest group Ya Nga, which means “mob” 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 Don’t Destroy Great Keppel Island group meeting, to which residents John and Suzy Watson were invited as owners of a yellow-trimmed beachfront house surrounded by coconut palms.

John, 70, calls the resort staff lining up for a barge to leave their home “the saddest thing you’ll ever see in your life”. One, nicknamed Duck, died 12 months later (“basically of a broken heart”).

The couple, who have owned their property since 1994, walked through the resort grounds just after it had closed. “It was really strange and eerie,” says Suzy, 68. “There was nothing there. It was in such bloody awful condition, we looked at each other and said, ‘no wonder he doesn’t want to keep this place going.’”

The boats stopped. Many tourists thought the island – an iconic party destination in the 1980s with the slogan “get wrecked!” – had closed for business. But two resorts, the Holiday Village and Hideaway, remain open, with some beach houses available for rent. There is a dive shop, pizza hut, souvenir shop and 17 exquisite, isolated 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”. On the complex’s southern border, dew is being burned off the tall grass as the scent of lemon eucalyptus rises with the sun.

The abandoned buildings stretch on, with broken windows and missing or open doors where guests once shook sand from their feet. It’s as if aliens beamed away all the people. Filmmakers approached Tower to shoot a disaster movie there in 2013, with the working title Last Resort.

In an attempt to secure Asian backing, Tower applied for a casino license in 2014, a request denied by the LNP government. OKOF was formed after the ALP government also denied a bid for a smaller, “boutique” gaming licence (or BGL) to service 35 tables for high-rolling guests.

“We can’t understand why [Tower] doesn’t put in for a brothel,” says Powell, with withering sarcasm. “It goes with an eco-resort just as well as a casino does, and it certainly goes with a casino. It’d be a niche market, it’d employ our daughters – let’s face it, they’re all so lazy they could do work on their backs. In all seriousness, it’s that laughable.”

Signs promoting pro-Tower lobby group, Our Keppel Our Future (OKOF), which is pushing for a BGL for the development, are a visible sight in Yeppoon businesses – and a reminder of continuing differences of opinion.

OKOF’s pro-development ads, along with support for a BGL from both the LNP and Tower, could hurt the ALP’s chances of winning Capricornia, a federal target seat.

The solidly pro-Tower local paper, the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, ran a poll showing 64 per cent of residents wanted a new resort with a casino, almost triple the 24 per cent who didn’t want one.

Powell admits, with disarming frankness, that he doesn’t care whether Tower succeeds and may well visit its resort if it’s built, but intends to fight as fiercely as he can.

Ya Nga is hoping to exhaust Tower’s patience. “The best way we can get him [Agnew] off the island is by enforcing the lease conditions,” notes Powell. “He has approval to build this thing and you’re pissing in the wind if you want to revisit that, because it’s done and dusted.”

Brett Lorroway offers to drive from Fisherman’s Beach to Svendsen’s Beach. The trip illustrates the island’s absurd beauty and Ya Nga’s strategy – at one point his quad bike passes through clouds of blue and green butterflies, which burst around us as if someone is reaching into a bag and scooping them into our path.

Lookout No.1 sits at the first crest, with a simple hut offering respite from the beating sun, looking east into a valley where Tower’s villas are planned. The roads are steep and eroded, no longer passable by four-wheel drive. We pass the old homestead, now shuttered, where pink oleanders and hoop pines grow and dozens of feral goats graze in a nearby field.

Tower is responsible for, among other things, maintaining the Lookout hut, which no longer has a water tank for thirsty travellers, the roads, the homestead – which used to welcome visitors – and controlling the number of goats, which locals claim have dramatically increased.

Powell argues that Tower is shirking its responsibilities. Penrose disagrees, flicking through pictures on his smartphone of his work inside the homestead repairing wiring and roof tiles dislodged by possums.

“Every time the naysayers do something, it ends up in my lap,” he says.

Not all islanders agree the goats cause excessive harm. Lorroway says “they do less damage in a year than people do in a day”, while the Watsons printed a mocked-up picture of a goat in a firies’ helmet in Spectator, arguing the animals mitigate fire risks by eating vegetation.

But goat control is a lease condition and Powell means to ensure Tower sticks to the letter of every one of the 140-odd federal and state mandates. He will hope for a repeat of Tower’s late lease payment of $250,000, settled this April 1, which could have seen the leases cancelled outright.

Queensland’s Minister for State Development, Dr Anthony Lynham, tells SBS the government is working to ensure Tower “meet their other obligations under the lease conditions, including land and cultural heritage management requirements”.

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