Throughout the 80s and 90s Great Keppel Island was famous for being “a great place to get wrecked”. This rather full-on marketing slogan was designed to lure young singles 15 kilometres off the coast of Rockhampton to a tiny island on the Great Barrier Reef. And Great Keppel Island is still the closest Australia’s ever come to having its very own Ibiza—or, perhaps more accurately, its very own “Shagaluf”.
John Gollings was the photographer who took the following photos used in the “Get Wrecked” campaign, and he’s partly responsible for the island’s debaucherous reputation. Until 1981, Great Keppel was what he describes as a “middle-class family resort”: a healthy, wholesome beach retreat where couples could take their children for good, clean fun. But the Island was struggling to turn a profit, and when they opened a roundtable discussion for ideas on how to rebrand effectively, one advertising agency came up with a compelling proposition: get rid of the kids and families, and turn the Island into a singles-only resort.
“Get wrecked on Great Keppel” was the tagline—and John, then in his late 20s, was charged with capturing that philosophy on film.
“We decided to really push the raunchiness,” he tells me over the phone. “We deliberately played up the drinking and the girlfriends and the slightly touchy-feely stuff, and then as time went on we introduced nudity.”
John’s photos quickly reached an inquisitive demographic via the sealed sections of magazines like CLEO. Topless women frolic in the surf; topless men lounge on the sand; topless men and women press their bodies together in various suggestive positions.
“We were specifically aiming for images of getting wrecked, in a fun way,” he says. “A bit flirtatious: we invented activities that allowed for lots of touching and interaction.”
The most popular of those activities was a move known as the Keppel Sandwich, where a pile of men and women would stack their naked bodies on top of one another. Recreating the Sandwich was a must for any visitors to the Island: like posing in front of the leaning tower of Pisa. With John’s photos as the archetype, Great Keppel fast became a case of life imitating semi-pornographic art.
“When the kids went up there they copied what was in the brochure: they did what they were told,” he explains. “Have a drink, have a bit of a flirt, dance away the night."
Article continued below but check out our doco on the actual Ibeza:
When asked to sum up Great Keppel during this wild, hedonistic heyday, John uses the word “escapist”.
“It was specifically for singles, and they specifically went up there to drink and dance,” he says. “If you got too drunk you just fell asleep in the sand, so it was really was the perfect place to get wrecked. Very much a party island.”
He also tells me about the famous gardener of Great Keppel Island: an “incredibly handsome”, perpetually shirtless young man whose “self-appointed task was to make sure every girl found love”.
John continued to shoot Great Keppel over the course of six years, capturing the drinking, dancing and general depravity of the Island in all its heedly glory. Overall, the campaign was a raging success, producing some “strong, memorable, graphic images which have stood the test of time.”
But the resort, and Keppel Island as a destination, have not stood the test of time.
Today the resort is a dilapidated ruin, bought in 2006 by a Sydney-based real estate company Tower Holdings, who have spent the last 12 years struggling to resurrect it into of a five-star luxury complex. Red tape has made that hard, and according to John Great Keppel has “lost its mojo.”
More recently, it was announced that a cryptocurrency consortium could be taking over the entire island in a world-first property deal. But the days of getting wrecked and engaging in consensual Keppel sandwiches are likely gone for good.
“I don’t know anywhere in Australia since that has done it. You’d have to go to Fiji or Thailand now to get that same sense of letting your hair down,” says John, wistfully. “There’ll be nothing like it ever again.”