Walking with dinosaurs: Outback Queensland’s dinosaur trail
DINOSAURS. What’s not to love about them? Monstrous, long-necked vegetarians or killing machines with nightmare teeth: it doesn’t matter. If you get bitten as a kid you’re hooked for life.
Some collect the stickers and never grow out of it. They’re called palaeontologists and they play with dinosaur fossils for a living. The rest of us have Hollywood. And, in Queensland, something else, too. Bones. Lots of them.
They’re there waiting for you, and if you’re keen enough, you can even dig them up and work on them without a PhD.
Fossilised dinosaurs, some weighing 20 tonnes or more and around 100 million years old, are scattered across Outback Queensland and all you need to get closer to the bone, so to speak, is a car and a plan.
Follow that triangle (distance about 550km, plus a 220km round trip to the Lark Quarry dinosaur stampede site out of Winton), and you’ll see everything you need to go back to childhood in four days.
Here’s how to do it.
PS. My starting point on the triangle was Hughenden, and I got there from Townsville, but you can join the dinosaur trail at any point that suits your home base.
Day 1: TOWNSVILLE TO HUGHENDEN (377KM)
Get going early, around 8am. The dinosaurs aren’t going anywhere but there’s stuff to see on the way and you need to get to Hughenden with plenty of daylight to get used to the outback and explore the town.
Charters Towers, 134km from Townsville, lies at the junction of the Great Inland Way (Sydney to Cooktown) and the Overlander’s Way (Townsville to Tennant Creek). For a time in the 19th century, Charters was the second largest city in the state and one of the biggest goldfields in Australia. It even had its own stock exchange. These days it’s a beautiful showcase of fine colonial architecture. The Venus Gold Battery is worth a visit.
Further west, the historic and atmospheric Prairie Hotel, about 40km east of Hughenden, is a great pit-stop for a late lunch and also a good accommodation option (one hotel and two motel rooms). Publican Tom Duddy has run the place for years and knows about hospitality.
In Hughenden, you’ll get your first dinosaur/fossils experience at the Flinders Discovery Centre. What’s the Hughenden-Fossil connection? Well, the region was on the edge of an ancient inland sea whose buried sediments contain a treasure trove of terrestrial and marine dinosaur fossils. People have been finding them here for 150 years.
Check out the centre’s impressive array of fossilised marine reptiles and dinosaur bones and its skeletal replica of a Muttaburrasaurus, a long-necked sauropod.
You’ll find a number of hotel and motel accommodation options in Hughenden, including the Prairie Hotel, and if you have camping gear and a day up your sleeve, take a look at Porcupine Gorge National Park, a 65km detour north of town.
Tip #1: Forget Jurassic on this trip. Google Cretaceous
Tip #2: The main attractions on the Dinosaur Trail all cost money and you can save some by buying a discounted Extended Attractions Pass, which covers all of them, at the first one you visit.
Day 2: HUGHENDEN TO RICHMOND (112KM)
Don’t stress about an early start today… the next stop, Richmond, is just up the road. Richmond got palaeontologists excited with the 1989 local discovery of an almost complete skeleton of an ancient marine creature, plesiosaur.
This and other impressive marine vertebrates as well as terrestrial dinosaur bones are housed at Kronosaurus Korner, which was ‘Dinosaur Central’ in western Queensland until later discoveries shifted a lot of the focus to Winton.
You may see scientists at work at Kronosaurus Korner, and the museum also offers periodic volunteer laboratory work as well as occasional dinosaur digs. You can go on short, guided fossicking tours in the tourist season (May to September) and there are free fossil hunting sites close to town. I found nothing on my visit, but other fossil hunters have been luckier.
A good picnic and BBQ spot in Richmond is Lake Fred Tritton, where you can also chill out and maybe throw a line in. Back in town, have a look at the historical walk before you settle into your digs, so to speak.
Tip #3: A fair bit of the Dinosaur Trail from here is on unsealed roads, including much of the next leg – Richmond to Winton – as well as the Winton to Lark Quarry road. These sections may be unsuitable for most caravans, and conventional vehicles don’t like them in the wet season. Call 131941 or local police for a road condition report.
Be careful. On gravel roads in the outback, pull over if you see a truck or road train approaching. Try to avoid travelling an hour either side of sunrise or sunset. Roos are stupid and suicidal. They break cars that hit them.
Tip #4: Don’t rely on mobile reception unless you’re with Telstra. Ask about free WiFi hotspots in the main towns.
Day 3: RICHMOND TO WINTON (218KM)
Leave early, around 7am. You will be in Winton in time for morning tea or coffee at the excellent bakery on the main drag, Elderslie Street. But don’t dawdle here. You have to be at Lark Quarry (110km) in time for the one-hour guided tour of the dinosaur trackways at 2pm. Take water and cash (not cards) for incidentals.
After the tour and a look around, make your own tracks for Winton, where you’re spoilt for accommodation options. Top of the range is the art-deco North Gregory Hotel.
The atmospheric Tattersalls Hotel is where the al fresco dining action is, but the family-friendly Winton Hotel on Werna Street has good value meals with a vegetable/salad buffet thrown in.
If you’re in town on a Friday night, check out the historic Winton Club on Oondooroo Street for a simple meal and a good chat with the locals. Check with Peter at The Bakery for the club’s details.
If you have time, you might be able to catch an impressive outback sunset on a nearby mesa called Rangelands, but you need to take a tour. Vicki Jones of Red Dirt Tours in Winton can take you there. She also does tours of the town, the dinosaur sites and other attractions.
By the way, the iconic Waltzing Matilda Centre, almost destroyed by fire this year (2015), is closed for a partial re-opening in April, 2016, and a full re-opening a year later.
Day 4 WINTON TO HUGHENDEN (215KM)
Okay, back to the dinosaurs and another early-ish start. The Australian Age of Dinosaurs (AAOD) museum and research centre is on another mesa (jump-up) about a 25-30-minute drive from town off the Longreach road.
Plan to arrive early (maybe 9am) and allow about three hours. Your pass or entrance fee will get you into the museum area (collections room) to see some huge dinosaur skeletons and other displays and also includes a tour of the laboratory to see people working on the fossils.
You can become one of them or even join a dinosaur dig if you access the AAOD website and check out how to become a volunteer. Wow! This is an incredible way to go back 95-100 million years, believe me, and if you’re doing lab work you can stay on-site on the jump-up. AAOD serves good coffee and snacks and has a big range of souvenirs.
From here you can complete the Dinosaur Trail triangle by returning to Winton and taking the tarred 215km Dinosaur Way to Hughenden via Corfield and Stamford. If you didn’t see Porcupine Gorge at the start of the trip, this is another chance.
Of course, you could just forget about completing the triangle and go home through Longreach if it makes sense and you have time to explore it, but that’s another outback travel story.
Speaking of stories, check out this one about David Elliot, a fourth-generation Winton resident who discovered Australia’s largest dinosaur, Elliot.