Outback site draws scientists on hunt for prehistoric gold, writes Leah McLennan.
The noise of a front-end loader searching for prehistoric bones rises into the air, along with red dust, in this parched paddock in western Queensland.
It's a cook-an-egg-on-the-ground kind of day on the outskirts of Winton, a town best known as the birth place of Waltzing Matilda. But the stinking hot weather doesn't bother the posse of scientists and volunteers huddled around the loader, eagerly waiting to see what else might be hidden in this black-soil plain.
The group is hunting for bones in a dinosaur graveyard stretching hundreds of square kilometres. For the experts, finding dinosaur bones that are 98 million years old is a dream come true, while for many of the volunteers it's the holiday of a lifetime.
Queensland Museum paleontologist Scott Hocknull is overseeing the dig. "I've been passionate about dinosaurs since I was about 8 years old," Hocknull says. "Coming out to Winton is one of the most exciting experiences that I've ever had."
The 13 volunteers on this week-long field trip vary in age, from 23-year-old Alex to 83-year-old June. Also taking part is a retired couple from Newcastle and their adult daughter ("we just love fossicking"), a single mother from Picton in New South Wales ("I've loved dinosaurs since I was a kid") and a retired woman from Brisbane ("I'm a repeat digger, so I'm known now as a dugger").
Joining them is Winton grazier and dinosaur enthusiast David Elliott, who spends the bulk of his time organising these digs.
Elliott stumbled on a bone in this area when he was mustering sheep. "I went straight past this patch of rocks and noticed something that didn't look like normal rock, and I thought I have to investigate it," he says. "It turned out to be a lump of dinosaur bone."
Fossilised footprints and tiny pieces of bone had been discovered in the area, but nothing as substantial as the huge thighbone. After showing his wife Judy, David sent the specimen to the Queensland Museum for identification - sure enough, it was dinosaur bone.
Since that day 10 years ago, digs in this area have produced the greatest hoard of dinosaur bones in Australia. Many bones belong to plant-eating sauropods, four-legged giants with long necks and tails, measuring about 20m long and 4m high, and weighing as much as five elephants.
The bones are displayed at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, a not-for-profit research centre 20km out of Winton. Anyone over age 18 can participate in the digs that take place three times a year. Volunteers can also work in the laboratory, helping to prepare the bones for display.
After a lunch break, David announces the group will move to a site a short drive away. The convoy of four-wheel-drives bounces under a sky devoid of clouds until David points towards a small patch of earth.
He stops the car, bounds into the paddock and then whisks some dirt to the side to reveal a giant femur. He is soon joined by Scott, who takes the bone and smiles like a Cheshire cat.
"This is very exciting," Scott says to the crowd around him, "because this is the bone of an animal that we haven't found before."
And with that, everyone from fresh-faced Alex to octogenarian June caught a fresh dose of dinosaur fever.
Outback Queensland is not only renowned for its friendly characters and country charm, but also for its quirky and quintessential events. Here are just a few ...
The October Moon Festival (October 2, in Richmond) is a day of music, fun, races, and finally an evening beside the beautiful Lake Fred Tritton. Jazz under a full moon and the great northern starry sky is an experience not to be missed. The usually quiet town of Richmond, known for its fantastic Kronosaurus Korner Fossil museum, attracts a returning crowd of friendly faces.
The Cunnamulla Fella Festival (November 7-9, in Cunnamulla) is a celebration of the region's proud pastoral heritage. Horses and bull riding, a demonstration of bushman skills, live country music and a carnival atmosphere provides all the ingredients for a great Outback event. The festival includes the spectacular bull ride on Saturday evening by the Professional Bull Riders Touring Pro Division, where you can personally witness some serious riding by the best national and international bull riders. A fireworks display will follow, with great music and entertainment into the night. The festival provides great family entertainment, friendly hospitality and a jam-packed, three-day programme.
Birdsville Races (held in September) is the second race meet in the Simpson Desert Racing Carnival. Dubbed the Melbourne Cup of the Outback, crowds of 6000 converge on Birdsville every year for two days' quality racing and entertainment. The 13-race programmes feature top horses from all over Australia competing for the coveted XXXX Gold Birdsville Cup and more than $170,000 in prize money. Entertainment includes Fashions of the Field, Fred Brophy's Boxing Troupe, Equine Fun Day, and a giant auction.
There are three dinosaur dig weeks a year between July and September, each catering for up to 13 people over age 18. No palaeontology experience required. The six-night stay includes a week of digging, a trip to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum, Outback accommodation, meals and transport to and from the dig. See Adventureoutback.com.au for more information.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand.
Explore more at: Australia.com.
The writer was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland.