Elisabeth Easther visited Winton in Queensland’s Outback and discovered that travel writing has all sorts of Jurassic perks.
Ninety-five million years ago, on an ordinary day by an ordinary lake, the Lark Quarry story unfolds. At this point in history, humans had yet to emerge from their primeval swamps and Australia was part of Gondwanaland, a wet, temperate rainforest, home to a veritable Jurassic Park of dinosaur species.
If we could travel back in time, we'd see plesiosaurs, crynosaurs and pterosaurs, not to mention an astonishing-looking thing called an ichthyosaur — like a dolphin with a shark's tail and razor-sharp teeth. Its eyes were allegedly the size of dinner plates. Happily for the resident carnivores, the land was also home to all sorts of enormously tasty herbivores, some of which were estimated to grow up to 20m long and weigh 30 tonnes. Mmm, delicious.
Employing a liberal dose of dinosaur CSI, The Dinosaur Stampede National Monument at Lark Quarry illustrates how dangerous life was for these creatures. Visitors to this site are offered guided tours and can take pleasant walks in the hills behind the quarry, but it's the story behind the footprints that leaves the biggest impression.
Inside a vast protective hall, prepare to be amazed when you see actual dinosaur prints up close. There, etched into a stretch of rocky clay are the remnants of a prehistoric stampede, the only relic of its kind in the world. The frantic foot shapes are thought to have belonged to approximately 180 coelurosaurs, creatures the size of chickens who ran for their lives from a terrible foe. Judging from the predator's 50cm footprint, it's believed the bad guy was a 6m tall carnivore known as the Australovenator.
Reading the prints like a book — aside from the pure wonder of gazing upon marks left by living things millions of years ago — paleontologists believe they've discovered a snapshot of dinosaur behaviour. Well beyond what they might have looked like, frozen in time, these claw marks give some idea as to how they might have lived. And died.
A pity for the victims, but this has proved a priceless gift for dinosaur aficionados and — largely because of the perfect geological conditions — not only was the ground ideal for making and saving the prints, because the area subsequently became a quarry, this also meant humans were drawn to the area to make the discovery.
Lark Quarry is mind-boggling and fires up the enthusiasm for all things prehistoric, which meant there was only one place to go next: The Australian Age of Dinosaurs (AAOD).
On top of a 4000ha ironstone plateau, this acclaimed museum is home to the Southern Hemisphere's most important dinosaur laboratory. At the lab, experiences on offer include viewing real-life paleontologists at work, sitting in on lectures, watching a short movie, then hanging out in the cafe to gaze across the immense table-shaped plateaus known as "jump-ups".
Thanks to the rotating soil profile, bones are naturally brought to the earth's surface and, though fossils were first discovered in the 1930s, the exciting work didn't begin until 2002 when David Elliott a sharp-eyed sheep farmer, realised what rich pickings the land contained.
Since then, squads of passionate paleontologists have descended on the area, where three major skeletons have been painstakingly jig-sawed back together. Affectionately known as Elliott, Banjo and Matilda, this prehistoric trio represent an estimated 10,000 hours of work by enthusiastic amateurs from around the world working side by side with experts and academics.
Serving these dinosaur shrines, the tiny town of Winton (population 900) sits smack in the middle of nowhere, so the villagers have come up with a range of additional attractions to give tourists even more reason to visit.
From the classic country pub (run by the affable Paul Love) to the Waltzing Matilda Centre, the outdoor theatre to Gotye's musical fence, one of the most enchanting excursions is the Rangelands Sunset Experience, led by Vicki from Red Dirt Tours.
Vicki pointed out that the botanical specimens surrounding us deserved just as much respect as the dinosaurs.
Having survived all manner of cataclysmic events, instead of giving up the ghost and becoming extinct, the trees and shrubs all managed to evolve to withstand whatever nature threw at them.
To stand the test of time, some hardy trees learned to immediately send out new shoots following a fire. Some trees took that adaptation one step further and came to rely on fire to open their seed pods.
Vicki's small bus toiled to carry us up into the furthest reaches of Rangelands Station, where high winds had sculpted the gnarly tree roots into sinister shapes, their slow surface growth a stark contrast to what we were told were extensive root systems, another adaptive survival technique. The further we travelled from civilisation, the more otherworldly our surroundings became. The earth became a network of cracks and chasms, in places up to 3.5m deep, with eerie rifts and gaping channels caused by eons of erosion. Grinning with buckled, misshapen teeth, the land gave the impression of wanting to swallow us whole.
Happily deemed indigestible, we returned to the face of the plateau and our timing was perfect because, if I thought I'd seen sunsets before, this one made all the others look like faded, jaded pretenders.
Here, in the back of Australia's beyond — the middle of nowhere — nature turned up the visual volume and, with refreshments to mark the passing of day, we toasted the grand landscape and the creatures who'd walked there before us.
Getting there: Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Brisbane, with flights five days a week continuing to Longreach. Lark Quarry is 110km SW of Winton, Queensland.
Details: Red Dirt Tours' Vicki Jones runs a range of day and half-day trips in and around Winton.