On a Dinosaur Hunt in Outback Queensland

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Jun 22, 2017

Sally Webb goes digging for fossils in outback Queensland with two budding palaeontologists in tow. They’re not scared…

We strike gold, metaphorically speaking, with the rib of an ichthyosaur.

We’re on our knees in a large, slightly sunken pit just outside Richmond in central-western Queensland, hunting for fossils under a blistering afternoon sun. Roughly 100 million years ago – give or take 10 million – this place was part of a vast inland sea and, as a result, it’s incredibly rich in marine fossils. We’ve already found several tiny sharks’ teeth embedded in stone, as well as fish scales and coprolites, which is a fancy name for fossilised poo. But the ichthyosaur rib is the find of the day.

I’m on a road trip with my children, Archie, 11, and Lulu, nine, in outback Queensland, exploring the so-called Dinosaur Trail, a loop taking in Winton, Richmond and Hughenden.

Outside palaeontology circles, it’s little known that this part of Australia is rich in Cretaceous-period fossils – and the fossilised remains of massive plant-eating sauropods and carnivorous theropods are among the drawcards of the region. Strictly speaking, the marine fossils at Richmond are not classified as dinosaurs but it’s a moot point for most visitors.

Fossil hunting is hot, dusty and thirsty work and I reckon I’m at risk of RSI from swatting away the flies. But, to be fair, our guide, Dr Patrick Smith, is the one doing all the hard work, chiselling away layers of solidified mud and rock and then inspecting the stones that break off.

Smith is the resident palaeontologist at Richmond’s Kronosaurus Korner, Australia’s premier marine-fossil museum, which we visit before our dig. From the outside the building looks to be little more than a large Colorbond shed but its contents are mind-blowing and include the best-preserved marine vertebrate skeleton in Australia – a plesiosaur nicknamed Penny – as well as one of the world’s largest collections of kronosaurus fossils. 

Unsurprisingly, Smith has the palaeontology lingo down pat and throws around so many names and scientific terms that at times the kids and I get completely lost. What we do understand is just how ferocious the kronosoaurus was, measuring up to 13 metres in length, with teeth the size of bananas, as it roamed the open oceans and inland sea, hunting ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, turtles and fish.

The problem with viewing fossils in the museum prior to heading out to dig is that the kids have unrealistic expectations of what they might unearth. And when we reach the council-owned fossil-hunting site 12 kilometres out of town, which is open to anyone who chooses to dig there, Smith makes the mistake of offering the kids the pick of his tools.

Into the dinosaur capital

Winton, where Banjo Paterson wrote Waltzing Matilda in 1895, is the self-styled “dinosaur capital of Australia”. We visit the Australian Age of Dinosaurs, a not-for-profit museum established by pastoralist David Elliott after he unearthed part of a sauropod femur on his property in 1999.

The site of this museum, an elevated plateau 24 kilometres south-east of Winton, is worth visiting for the glorious views over the surrounding plains alone. But then you’d be missing out on the incredible collection of locally found fossils, including Australia’s largest and most complete carnivorous dinosaur – Australovenator wintonensis (nicknamed Banjo). The theropod’s fossilised remains were found next to those of a plant-eating sauropod – Diamantinasaurus matildae – nicknamed Matilda. It’s theorised that they both got bogged in sticky clay.

The collection room also contains Savannasaurus elliottorum, the most recently identified genus of dinosaur, which was officially published last October. Named in honour of Elliott, who found it in 2005 while mustering sheep, it’s one of several types of long-necked, plant-eating sauropods that existed in Queensland during the mid-Cretaceous period, 98 to 95 million years ago. 

We tour the separate fossil preparation laboratory, where we find shelves of fossils awaiting extraction from the rock in which they are embedded. Teams of mostly volunteers perform this painstaking work and there’s such a backlog of cleaning and preparation that the museum limits its digs for new fossils to three weeks each year.

The beauty of a dinosaur museum in this location is that fossils that would previously have been shipped off to the Queensland Museum or elsewhere can now be displayed in the region where they were found. This year will see the inauguration of Dinosaur Canyon, a Cretaceous-era garden with sculptures of the dinosaurs that once roamed here, with a larger museum to unite the lab and the display areas planned for 2020.

About 110 kilometres south-west of Winton is Lark Quarry, the site of the world’s only known dinosaur stampede. It was here, about 95 million years ago, that a large meat-eating dinosaur chased a horde of much smaller dinosaurs on the muddy shores of a lake. More than 3300 footprints survive and can be viewed at the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument.

In Hughenden, about 220 kilometres north-east of Winton, the Flinders Discovery Centre has a collection of fossils from around the world, its star attraction being a seven-metre life-size replica of a 110-million-year-old Muttaburrasaurus skeleton found locally in 1963. They call him Hughie.

Within minutes they are shattering shale and hammering chisels into earth to break up large stones, possibly destroying fossils as they go. As we discover, the chances of success are greatly increased the more patient and systematic you are.

Smith carefully turns over small rocks and pebbles and within minutes we have identified tiny shark’s teeth embedded in rock, fossilised fish scales and coprolites. I’m a bit excited about an ichthyosaur vertebra, which I put on my special pile of found treasure, then promptly lose. I reveal that I’m having a bit of an Indiana Jones moment but Smith reminds me that although archaeology and palaeontology both involve digging things up, they are very different disciplines. (The former studies cultures, usually prehistoric, while the latter is concerned with plants and animals from previous geological periods.)

After the fossil hunt, we take our ichthyosaur rib to Smith’s laboratory behind the museum, where he uses dental equipment to scrape away some of the sandstone. Representing 100 million years of history and the symbol of our outback adventure, it is the ultimate souvenir.

Follow the trail  

The roads on the Dinosaur Trail are good (car hire is available at Longreach Airport) and, in outback terms, the distances between the main towns aren’t too extreme so it’s a perfect loop to do over a week or so. You don’t need a four-wheel drive, although a vehicle with decent clearance is an advantage, particularly if you end up driving on gravel roads. 

The kids take great delight in spotting the dinosaur signs alongside the more typical road warnings for kangaroos and 53-metre road trains. And the councils in each town on the route have embraced the dinosaur concept with themed garbage-bin covers in the streets.

But on this trip, I also want to teach my city kids about the outback, about the vast distances between towns and farms and about the remoteness of life on the land. I promised them country that is red and brown and dusty and dry; what we find instead is the lushest deep green landscape, thanks to one of the region’s wettest periods on record.

I love explaining to them why the outback pub plays such an important role in country life, complete with chicken parmas, raspberry lemonade spiders (I hadn’t seen one for decades) and happy hour when beer on tap is cheaper than soft drink. We enjoy visiting country bakeries, where we’re offered cream with our lamingtons and “snot blocks” (aka vanilla slices) that are works of art.

The outback driving itself is fun: good roads, no traffic, the occasional emu and masses of wedge-tailed eagles constantly on the lookout for roadkill. Plus, enough road trains for my car-mad 11-year-old to be in nirvana.

Tools down in Longreach

We start and end our outback adventure in Longreach, in the very centre of Queensland. The night of our arrival it seems the entire town has descended on the amphitheatre behind the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame to watch the NRL final on a big screen, then rock into the wee hours to the strains of Lee Kernaghan and his band. (The next night we catch the Queensland Ballet performing in the civic centre, while Troy Cassar-Daley is scheduled two weeks later.) We return to the Hall of Fame the next day to explore its interactive exhibitions devoted to all aspects of outback life and the contributions of explorers, stockmen, pastoralists and Aboriginal workers. My son, Archie, is fascinated by the Royal Flying Doctor Service display and the recorded conversations between remote stations and the doctors’ radio centre.

It’s unlikely that you’ll visit Longreach as a tourist without interacting in some capacity with the Kinnon family. In a stunning example of diversification, these former graziers have transformed themselves into Longreach’s premier tourism operators, running regular sunset cruises on a restored paddle-steamer along the Thomson River – the “long reach” of the river gives the town its name – tours of a working station with sheep-shearing demonstrations and coach rides on modern-day replicas of the original Cobb & Co stagecoaches, which operated for more than 70 years throughout Australia.

Our short coach ride through the streets of Longreach and onto the town common makes us fully aware of how uncomfortable this form of transport must have been. We’re sitting on what would have been the posh seats – at the top, facing backwards – and when the horses break into a short gallop,I hang on for dear life (although the kids think it’s great fun). 

By the time Cobb & Co had stopped servicing the outback, in 1929, the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, founded by Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness, was already carrying mail by air. The fascinating history of the fledgling airline, and by default the development of civil aviation in Australia, is told at the Qantas Founders Museum, another Longreach drawcard. Guided tours of a retired Boeing 747 and a custom-fitted 707 aircraft are among the many highlights here. 

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