In recent years, as much as 80 per cent of Queensland has been a declared drought zone; an enormous swathe of country extending from Mt Isa to the Gold Coast, and Winton, in Queensland’s Channel Country, lies at the very heart of it. The Winton Shire experiences climatic extremes throughout much of the year, with average temperatures exceeding 30°C, maximums in the high 40s from November to March, and a meagre annual rainfall of just 400mm in a good year.
The result is plain to see as you drive along the Matilda Highway – a flat, featureless terrain of unrelenting brown, where even the hardiest of plants, mainly Mitchell grass and mulga, struggle to survive, and the only animals in sight are isolated pods of Brahman-cross cattle and the ubiquitous kangaroo.
But if you had made that same journey 100 million years ago, the climate and countryside would have been very different, as was the local wildlife. Back then, in the Late Cretaceous period, Australia had a cooler, wetter climate due to the more southerly position of the continent. The shallow inland sea that once covered much of Queensland was retreating to the north, exposing a flat landscape of lakes, broad drainage channels, sand bars and mud flats.
Prehistoric Winton Shire was an area of high rainfall, probably more than a metre each year, where ferns, conifers and the first flowering plants grew in abundance. In this lush Garden of Eden, reptiles, great and small, flourished in their droves, for this was the ‘Age of Dinosaurs’.
THINGS TO DO
The Lark Quarry Conservation Park is must see, featuring around 200 individual ‘trackways’ of nearly 3500 footprints – the most concentrated set of dinosaur footprints in the world. The interpretation of the trackways originally promoted by scientists in 1984 describes a life-and-death drama worthy of Hollywood. In fact, this theory inspired the famous stampede scenes in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park and the BBC’s 1999 award-winning series Walking with Dinosaurs.
The theory suggests that a group of perhaps 150-180 chicken-sized coelurosaurs (Skartopus australis) and emu-sized ornithopods (Wintonopus latomorum) had gathered to drink at the edge of a stream leading to the lake. The herd was then supposedly spotted by an Australovenator, a carnivorous predator akin to the mighty Tyrannosaurus, standing about 3.5m high, with long, clawed toes and large, serrated-edged teeth. This solitary hunter slowly stalked the unsuspecting herd before charging in for the kill, startling the smaller prey into a chaotic stampede around the mudflat in their desperation to escape the monster’s jaws.
The stampede scenario makes for a good story but did it really happen that way? More recent research by paleontologists from the University of Queensland has shown that the large tracks apparently didn’t belong to a villainous carnivore at all, but were probably left by a large herbivore similar to Muttaburrasaurus, and that the footprints were most likely made over a period of time, perhaps several days, by dinosaurs going about their business in a fairly routine way.
For people who have a fascination with dramatic dinosaur tales, this rather sober rendering of events is like telling a child there is no Santa Claus. But whatever really happened at Lark Quarry (and we may never know for sure), one thing is certain: it is a truly awesome experience to view this incredible site and imagine a world that was very different from the one we see today.
JUMP UP COUNTRY
Nowadays, the Jump Up Country that surrounds Lark Quarry is a dry and dramatic landscape of flat-topped mesas, sinuous gullies and steep, crumbling escarpments overlooking red earth claypans dotted with spinifex, lancewood and mallee gums. Apart from viewing the trackways, the 400ha conservation park is well worth a visit for the simple pleasure of walking through this spectacular environment.
Although wildlife abounds in the park, most of it shelters during the heat of the day and the most common fauna you’re likely to see in this harsh environment are knob-tailed geckos and netted dragons, descendants of the creatures who left the tracks in the fossils, or wallaroos, spinifex pigeons and echidnas.
AUSTRALIAN AGE OF DINOSAURS
At the entrance to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum complex, visitors are greeted by ‘Banjo’, a very life-like recreation of the carnivorous Australovenator wintonensis. He’s not very big, as dinosaurs go, but his teeth are pointy and plentiful and the three long talons projecting from each digit on his muscular forelegs look like they were custom made for slicing and dicing whatever prey happened to be within reach.
Inside, visitors are introduced to fossil remnants of some of the other museum stars, including ‘Elliot’ (the largest sauropod ever found in Australia), ‘Clancy’ (thought to have been an enormous herbivore akin to a prehistoric giraffe) and ‘Matilda’ (the dinosaur equivalent of a hippopotamus).
The AAOD’s collection of dinosaur relics is uniquely Australian and is sure to capture the imagination of children and adults alike. And, if the stats are any indication, the AAOD has become a significant cultural icon and a huge tourist attraction for the Winton Shire, with more than 22,500 people visiting the museum in 2014.
Readers will be saddened to learn that another of Winton’s major tourist attractions, the Waltzing Matilda Centre, was destroyed by fire on June 18, 2015. Although the town is determined to rebuild it as quickly as possible, that won’t be achieved any time soon and many of the artefacts and memorabilia contained in the former museum, showcasing the region’s links with Banjo Paterson and the foundation of Qantas, have been lost forever. The centre was a vital part of Winton’s tourism strategy and its loss will hit the town hard.
Fortunately, however, there are plenty of other reasons to visit this beaut little town in the heart of the outback. And while dinosaurs may be extinct, there can be no doubt that their fossil remains are alive and well in the Jump Up Country around Winton.
Winton is about 600km south-west of Townsville, via Charters Towers and Hughenden.
Lark Quarry Conservation Park is about 110km (allow for two hours) south-west of Winton, along the partly-unsealed Jundah Road, which is suitable for 2WD vehicles.
The Australian Age of Dinosaurs is 12km south-east of Winton along the Landsborough Hwy (Matilda Hwy) and about a further 11km by gravel access road, which is powdery and corrugated in parts. The last section of this road to the museum is very steep and not recommended for caravans.
- Visit the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument
- Visit the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum
- Bushwalking in the Lark Quarry Conservation Park
- Both Lark Quarry and the AAOD are open all year but the best time to visit is in the cooler months from April to September.
- A fee is payable for entry to the AAOD Collection Room and laboratory facilities.
- Entry to Lark Quarry is free but access to the dinosaur trackways is by guided tour only (a fee applies).
- Camping is not permitted at Lark Quarry Regional Park but a variety of accommodation is available in and around Winton.
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #541 September 2015.