When we first started planning our trip, two things were immediately and indisputedly on the agenda. The Qantas Founders Museum at Longreach for our wannabe pilot, and Winton’s dinosaurs for Little Fish, our budding paleontologist. When I asked if he would be like Dr Scott (for the uninitiated, Dr Scott is the paleontologist on the Dinosaur Train), we were told, “I’m going to be Dr Discoveros!”
Friday morning saw us on the road early-ish, and after a quick pit stop at the roadside fruit van to top up supplies, we were Winton bound. The excitement came with the first signs – Age of Dinosaurs, 10km. The cry came from the backseat ” Dinosaurs!” – and from that point onwards, coherency was never an option, with the silence punctuated by shouts of “Dinosaurs!” every time a dinosaur sign popped up. There are several reactions that have made our family folklore – O at 16 months leaping two rows of children from a standing start to throw himself at Maisy Mouse. O at 3.5 screaming “stop the car, daddy, THOMAS IT’S THOMAS DADDY STOP THE CAR!!!” as we pulled into the car park as a life sized Thomas the Tank Engine pulled into the Zig-zag Railway train station. Mama Bug rendered completely literally speechless at being told we could borrow a car and Paris was only four hours drive away and why don’t we go there (Daddy Bug still claims it’s the only thing in the last 11 years he’s ever seen rob me of the power of speech so completely!). And this? Our precious Fish almost jumping out of his skin, enraptured and incoherent? Yeah, up there in the stories of adorable we will tell forevermore.
Rising up out of the flat landscape, the jump-up made for some spectacular views as we climbed higher and higher. As I organised our tours, the smalls and daddy had a sticky beak at the “Banjo” sculpture out the front. A bit of time to kill seemed the perfect excuse to hit up the cafe for a coffee and lamington, and soak in the views from the escarpment. This sunburnt country of ours? Yeah, I’m with Dorothea Mackellar. Europe took my breath away and stole my heart, but the wide open red space of the outback speaks to me in a way the beauty of Paris never could.
The first half of our tour took us to the laboratory, the largest working lab in the Southern Hemisphere. We saw a wall full of excavated fossils that had been wrapped in newspaper and plaster on site and then brought to the lab for detailed examination – that one wall was 15 years worth of work for them! They only dig for two to three weeks each year, because of the backlog. We got to see a real life paleontologist at work, which, really, looks not all that interesting. Pick up rock, look at it, put it down, type a bit. Lather, rinse, repeat. Behind him was a fossil of a dinosaur nicknamed “Wade “, a specimen they are hoping to have published in the next year or so. Previously they had published “Matilda”, and with 30% of her skeleton, she was one of the most complete published dinosaurs – when “Wade” is published they will have 60% of his skeleton.
The second half was back up at the main museum where we got to “meet” the fossils of “Elliot”, the first dinosaur discovered at Winton, “Banjo” and “Matilda”. The presentation included an animation of the skeleton pieces into a full dinosaur, and it is truly amazing what they can decided from just 30% of the total bone mass.
The tent set up and camp organised, we decided to wander into town and have a look about, and grab our tickets for the Lark Quarry Trackways.
Getting to the ten o’clock tour meant leaving at 8, so we were up and about, and on the road nice and early. It was around 110km out there, but dirt pretty much all the way, hence the longer travel time. We did get a few patches of bitumen, including one really long straight, complete with signs telling us “No parking next 1.5 km – Emergency Air Strip”! Which really, was in better condition than the levelled patch of red dirt with a wind sock and painted tires that was optimistically signposted “airport”…
We arrived at Lark Quarry with twenty minutes or so to spare, so fed the hordes and waited for our tour, where we saw fossilized footprints from a stampede and heard the reconstructed story of what scientist believed had happened.
Just down the road was a lookout where we stopped for a picnic lunch before taking the scenic route home past Carisbrooke Station. No wonder these outback stations are so large, the ground is so dry and picking quite sparse.
For dinner we decided to go out and have a meal at the North Gregory Hotel – notable for being the birthplace of “Waltzing Matilda” – which sounds all delightful and nostalgic until you learn it’s burnt down three times since then!! But the meal was delightful, so yummy, and the perfect close to our time in Winton.