Magnificent Journey in Time
IT’S been millions of years since dinosaurs roamed the land.
Yet there is still activity in the place near one of the greatest concentrations of these creatures’ footprints on earth.
I am at the Age of Dinosaurs Museum, about 12km south of the Outback Queensland town of Winton.
There is a new sealed road leading in from the highway since my last visit. That was in 2015 during a road trip to Darwin.
Winton is close to the half-way point on the 3400km trip from Brisbane to Darwin – one state capital to the next.
I meet up with the museum’s operations manager Trish Sloan at the laboratory that is perched on top of the jump-up site – 1801ha of freehold land rising dramatically out of the landscape.
It is predominantly a 75m high mesa that forms a natural flat-top plateau 7km long and 2km wide, a wilderness area surrounded by steep cliffs, massive boulders and deep gorges.
Walking trails, stunning views, and an abundance of natural flora and fauna make it an outstanding destination in itself.
Trish tells me about the changes that have taken place at this facility in the past couple of years. It’s a place that is dedicated to finding, cataloguing and restoring the incredible collection of bones and fossils found in the area.
As well as expansion of the museum/laboratory, the first steps have been taken in the construction of the $30million Stage 3 of the site.
David Elliott knew two things when he saw a funny bone in a paddock in 1999, the femur of a dinosaur.
Being a third generation sheep and cattle farmer from the Winton area, he knew the soil. And he knew he had found something big, in more ways than simply the size of the bones.
At present a visit to the museum includes tours of the information/display centre and the museum/restoration laboratory.
Stage 3 will see the construction of a working dinosaur museum facility with preparation laboratory, collection and type room facilities, classrooms, theatres and comprehensive displays.
A dinosaur canyon has been constructed, incorporating outdoor galleries and life-size bronze dinosaurs scattered throughout the gorge that sits below the site of the future building.
This is the biggest single step the project will take and it includes the development of comprehensive education programs, teacher development courses, overseas study tours and scientific research programs.
“We have run out of room so we are expanding into the car park,’’ Trish says. “It’s the start of evolving the laboratory a bit more. It will allow us to do heavier work.
“Once the bones are dug up they need to consolidate it, put the bone into a hard case casting to keep it protected and ready for preparation.
“It’s a very slow process.
“The bones rule the lab, we don’t.’’
The museum is Australia’s largest fossil preparation facility and has operated since July 2006.
It provides an introduction to what we have been walking over for so long, a history of the area dating back 93 million years to when Winton was on the edge of a great inland sea and dinosaurs roamed freely.
The new display centres around a cast about 4m long taken from a site dig last year.
It includes nearly a full vertebrae of a dinosaur that the museum has named Judy.
“I believe this is the most complete in our collection, Trish says. “Judy was uncovered in May-June.
“We went back in August and discovered the other shoulder bone, shin bones, femur and rib.
The cast is 4m long and contains 9-10 vertebrae.
The next item Trish shows me, among the remains of a fossilised tree dating back 93 million years, assorted shellfish and fossilise plant life, is a meteor that came to earth in 2004.
“I was driving into Winton,’’ Trish recalls, “and it lit up night sky.
“There was an explosion, it went from bright to dull.
“I got into Winton and everyone asked if I’d seen it.
“I sure did.’’
Trish became affiliated with the museum by being part of the dig team.
Her passion and persistence has been rewarded, by carving out a career and establishing herself in Outback Queensland.
From coffee maker to virtually running the show, she has found her direction in life.
Her enthusiasm for the sense of discovery has been matched by the encouragement from The Age of Dinosaurs Museum founder David Elliott to go on and become operations director at the distinctive natural history landmark.
She started as a rock guide, telling people about the geology of the area but not dinosaurs.
That was at the Lark Quarry site, about 110km south-west of Winton.
Lark Quarry sprang to international prominence when a ringer from Cork Station found some unusual tracks found embedded in rocks at Happy Valley Station.
The first imprint was not much bigger than a bird. Yet the most exciting find was yet to come.
It was at Seymour Quarry and came about by accident while fossikers were looking for opals.
Instead they found the tracks of pre-historic mammals and dinosaurs.
Scientists followed the gullies and luckily found the stampede. A track wave of 3300 footprints.
It is the most concentrated site of dinosaur footprints in the world.
There are many ideas on why so many and what caused the stampede at Lark Quarry – a large predator dinosaur hunting smaller ones, a major climate event such as flooding, a volcano or a meteor shower?
The fact they were so incredibly well preserved seems to point to an event of nature such as flooding occurring at the same time as the stampede.
What they have done at the Age of Dinosaurs Museum is try to represent a life-size model of the dinosaurs involved in the stampede at Lark Quarry at a site much closer to town. At the same time they are trying to recreate the environment as it may have been at the time.
Reading about not just the dinosaur finds near Winton but the Lark Quarry site and understanding the impact became an addiction for Trish.
Even on her holidays she takes part in environmental training in order to incorporate nature tours at the museum.
In Outback Queensland’s main visitor season from April to September there are about 26 employees on site at the museum and 14 are guides.
The museum runs volunteer programs such as Prep a Dino, a specific course that involves 10 days of training to see where they specialise.
Volunteers can be part of a dig program as well.
“It’s held once a year but is hard yakka, with a lot of digging with shovels,’’ Trish says. “Prep is the discovery part.’’
At that stage of the tour Grace Elliott steps in and takes me off in an electric-powered vehicle for a tour of the new dinosaur canyon.
“There is a word you will here a lot … jump up,’’ she begins, “but that’s inaccurate.
“They didn’t jump up out of the ground. It stayed behind as the rest of the land eroded away over millions of years.
“They used to connect to those similar jump-ups 20-30km away.’’
Everything in the dinosaur canyon is life-sized in a true reconstruction of the creatures found in the Winton area.
There are the huge dinosaurs as well as the cute and cuddly.
The museum is to be constructed nearby. It will be the gateway to the dinosaur canyon.
Already, the carefully-graded boardwalk through the canyon accommodates wheelchairs, buggies, the lot.
“We do not say ‘no’ to anyone,” Trish explains.
“We’ve had a great response. The views alone are worth the effort.
“The canyon brings a third element of seeing things in a natural setting.
“This year has been the busiest ever – almost 30,000 visitors.
“During the school holidays we had 350 a day, families, kids, grandpas, aunties.
“It’s a bush walk back in time.”
And it has come about all because of David looking down at the ground and making that discovery.