Queensland: Lovely bones

By Pamela Wade

Release your inner palaeontologist and dig for dinosaurs in Winton, writes Pamela Wade.

The spectacular view over Carisbroke Station near Winton. Photo / Pamela Wade
The spectacular view over Carisbroke Station near Winton. Photo / Pamela Wade

Sometimes even a 6-year-old boy has better things to do than eat. Matt's shoulders sag when his mother tells him to take a break from the slow and exacting task he's engaged in, and he trails reluctantly away.

Outside in the sunshine are trees and rocks to climb, lizards and butterflies to chase - but all Matt wants is to be allowed to press his nose back against the magnifying glass, pick up his dentist's drill, and carry on teasing granules of hard clay off something that no human has laid eyes on before: a 98 million-year-old dinosaur bone.

Although at Lark Quarry, 140km away, the rock is imprinted with the footprints of a dinosaur stampede that inspired a scene in Jurassic Park, until 10 years ago Australia was thought to have none as fossils. Then, after a frustrating day moving unco-operative sheep across his central Queensland property, farmer David Elliot picked up an odd-looking rock and the continent's pre-history changed in an instant.

So did Elliot's life: no longer a sheep cocky, he's the founder and president of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, which is based in an unprepossessing-looking green tin shed that stores on its no-nonsense shelves not only the precious bones of dinosaur species unknown to science, but also gives Joe Public - including Joe Junior - the chance to play at palaeontologist.

Nowhere else in the world can ordinary people take part in both digging up, and cleaning off, real dinosaur bones; and eager helpers flock to Winton, 180km west of Longreach, happy to pay for the privilege.

Three Dinosaur Discovery Weeks are held every year, when all sorts of dino-fans sprawl cheerfully in the dirt, painstakingly chipping and hacking away at anything from massive hip-bones encased in rock to teeth and claws that come relatively easily out of the clay.

All year round, it's possible to spend a day working under supervision in the museum prepping the bones: freeing them from their protective plaster casts, then the rock or clay that coats them, until they're clean and ready for identification. It's exciting stuff: the two main dinosaurs being worked on, their incomplete skeletons looming at the end of the shed, are both new species.

Matilda is a plant-eater, built on a massive scale, five times bigger than an African elephant; while smaller Banjo is a raptor, an agile killing machine with razor-sharp claws and 72 serrated teeth, able to run at 30km/h. Their bones have been found in the same pit, and Elliot can only speculate about what else may be concealed under the soil of his huge property, on one of the 30 other sites found so far: perhaps the really big carnivore, Australia's own T-Rex.

Probably they'll call him Paterson. Banjo, Matilda - there's a pattern here. Winton's other great claim to fame is the Waltzing Matilda Centre, the only attraction on earth dedicated to a single song.

It's been sung by such disparate performers as Bill Haley and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Sir Winston Churchill called it "one of the finest songs in the world". Nevertheless, Banjo Paterson's best-known opus isn't long, and there's a lot of repetition in the verses, so surely there can't be much here to detain a passing visitor? Only a couple of hours' worth.

To us, Waltzing Matilda is a bit of a cliché: a jingling ballad learnt at primary school, full of funny words like jumbuck and billabong - but at the Centre a ghostly underwater swaggie places the song firmly in the centre of not only popular culture but history, too.

It's a fascinating story continued through several galleries of interactive displays, linking to the shearers' strike of 1891, depressions, war, high society, outback life and, inevitably, sport.

The recording of John Williamson's rendition in Stadium Australia before the 1999 Bledisloe Cup, with 107,000 backing vocalists, will give goosebumps to even the staunchest All Black supporter, as well as an understanding of how this simple ditty - like our Pokarekare Ana, but with easier words - provides Aussies with an unembarrassingly chirpy way to express deep national pride and solidarity.

"And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended", more of Banjo Paterson's deathless words are prompted later by a view over Carisbrooke Station, 85km from Winton. After eight years of drought, recently broken, splendid scenery is the property's richest resource.

It's a cattle station with virtually no cattle, but Charlie, who farmed here for 50 years, is philosophical. He gestures at the wide plain of green-gold Mitchell grass, orange soil and dramatic rocky outcrops striped in yellow, white and black: "It's good for the land, to have a break like this, a chance to recover."

Over a cup of billy tea and under the vast blue bowl of the sky, he talks about dingoes, Lyndon B. Johnson's unscheduled arrival in a B17 Flying Fortress in 1942, and Old Tom who toiled here for 18 years mining opals with a pick and shovel.

There are more treasures here: bright, sharp Aboriginal paintings under a cliff, stencilled handprints and sunbursts, hundreds of years old.

The local indigenous people drifted away when the settlers arrived, and little is known of their culture: so the purpose of the bora ground, an expanse of shiny, hard-packed pebbles surrounding wobbly circles of bigger stones, remains mostly a mystery.

Charlie, strongly Christian, has little patience for Aboriginal spiritual beliefs, but his love for the land is absolute; and over a sundowner by the dam with young Charlie, it's clear that it's in their blood.

At dinner that night the family shares stories of life on the station, but even more revealing are the casual asides: "You know how a frog screams when a snake grabs hold of it?" asks Penny over the chocolate pudding. Later, in the guest-house, Banjo has the final say: "And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars."

CHECKLIST

* Getting there: The Spirit of the Outback makes for a relaxing journey from Rockhampton, or even from Brisbane: traveltrain.com.au

* Where to stay: Carisbrooke Station offers farm stays that include a tour, opal fossicking and country hospitality: carisbrooketours.com.au

* What to do: Dig for dinosaurs, or clean their bones, at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum: www.aaodl.com; spend at least a couple of hours poking through the Waltzing Matilda Centre: matildacentre.com.au

* queenslandholidays.com.au

* Pamela Wade visited Winton on a Reef to Outback tour courtesy of Tourism Queensland and Queensland Rail. Visit Pamela Wade's travel blog.

Find out more at Australia.com

- NZ Herald

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