Friday, 5 July 2013

Dinosaurs and Winton (and a little joey!)

Our man practicing. Its not normal to see this in the outback!

We left Ilfracombe on Wednesday morning, after an evening of campers providing the entertainment, I’d had to leave tea and cake to follow the noise of the bagpipes, to see a guy (nice guy we’d talked to the previous night) practicing in the middle of a field! Preferred him there to in the shed really, it was just more surreal! 

The three times world champion gum leaf whistler!
There was a lady singer, but the real star was the three times world champion gum leaf whistler! It’s done like a blade of grass, but she could carry a tune, and be in tune with someone else! Amazing! The drive was just under 200km to Winton along the Matilda Highway. After passing through Longreach after 25km we went through the grand total of zero towns. 

The land was flat and relatively featureless other than some red hills in the distance, Mitchell grass covered the plains with odd trees grouping into clumps where rivers and streams run in the wet season (but not now, it was dry as a bone). The sky was clear blue (as it has been all the time we’ve been inland), the temperature rose as the day wore on and the verges were littered with dead kangaroos. The traffic appeared to be very light with only the odd caravan and Road Train to pass at the speed limit of 110km/hr (quite nippy our little van when it’s on flat ground!), but when we were stopped at some roadworks a huge line built up behind us in no time at all. Glad we were in front as we could zip away and enjoy the isolation on the road.

'Drums' at the Musical Fence
Winton (pronounced ‘Win-un’ by the locals) turns out to be quite an interesting place. It was initially called Pelican Waterhole and was first settled in 1876 by Robert Allen, who resited the town (due to the original being prone to flooding), established the first hotel/store and changed its name to Winton, named after his home town in England, a suburb of Bornemouth. 

The music is Waltzing Matilda and, by using the scale, you can 'play' the fence to the tune
The Lark quarry dinosaur stampede building
It’s generally regarded as the Dinosaur Capital of Australia, having a dinosaur museum with the worlds largest collection of dinosaur fossils and the worlds only recorded evidence of a dinosaur stampede, with footprints in hardened clay in a nearby (well, 110km away!) excavation. It’s also home to Australia’s unofficial National Anthem ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (can someone tell me why it’s in 4/4 time when the Waltz is ¾ time? That’s my ballroom dancing background coming out), composed in 1895 by A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson in nearby Dagworth Station it was first performed in the North Gregory Hotel in the town that year. 
North Gregory Hotel is also famous for giving a bed for the night to Lyndon B Johnson (later president of the USA) after his B-17 flying fortress was forced to land in 1942 after getting lost en route from Darwin and running low on fuel, on a reconnaissance exercise for President Roosevelt to establish the extent of the Japanese advance in the Second World War. Unfortunately the hotel burnt down in 1946, but it has been faithfully rebuilt. 

Winton is also famous for being the birthplace of QANTAS, when on 23rd February 1921 Winton Shire resolved ‘to make a grant to QANTAS Ltd of half the amount expended in making a landing ground for aeroplanes up to 20 Pounds’. QANTAS had their first board meeting in Winton Club, a building still standing in the town. Finally, the town is famous for its opal mining and, after its discovery in 1893, 600 miners were working in the area. It was while looking for opal that a Mr. Seymour uncovered the first dinosaur footprint in the 1960’s.

A sign on one of the short bits of sealed road on the way to Lark Quarry
There’s plenty of other things too, such as a musical wall that you can play and a wall made of bits of junk that are quite entertaining, so with all this to see what should we do? Yesterday we took a walk to the Waltzing Matilda Centre, looked at Arno’s Wall, the one made from iron junk and in the evening ate at the campsite, who provided a three course roast beef dinner (with cake and custard after - except the custard was cold!) for $20, followed by a show with two female buskers, which was quite entertaining. 

Delivery of our banana and custard with chocolate flakes!
(He didn’t realise it was only cake and custard as I’d said when finding out about it that if there was no custard there might be a riot! I was very cruel as I tasted it first, but didn’t mention the coldness, just laughed a lot at his face!) After having told the couple sitting at the table behind of my liking for all things with custard she told me she was going to make banana and hot custard with chocolate flakes on top – how fantastic is that! She’s just been over to say she will be bringing it over at 6:30pm after we’ve eaten our meal and before tonights show at 7:00pm. What a star she is! (yummy it was too, we never had crumbled flake on banana custard when I was a kid!)

Jackies hand showing the relative size of the footprints
Anyway, today we (I) really wanted to go to Lark’s Quarry and see the fossilised stampeding dinosaur footprints, but its 110km along a road that’s only sealed along 50% of its length. Our campervan hire company, Travellers Autobarn, told us we must not drive along unsealed roads (as we have no insurance if we do), or a maximum of ½km in order to get to a campsite. 110km of unsealed road was therefore pushing it! Jackie wasn’t happy, but my need to see real footprints of dinosaurs overcame my reticence and I told her I’d drive carefully over any lumpy bits. The drive was through semi desert, red and black earth with very few trees and few clumps of grass, it was real wilderness and in full sun (maybe getting up to 30 degrees). Occasionally we got bounced around on the ‘corrugated’ sections of the gravel road, but the very loud Meatloaf, Deep Purple and Queen’s Greatest Hits (what else) helped the journey along and, with Jackie singing along, she didn’t seem to notice the bouncing much (except where I swerved a bit on the gravel!). (I had to distract myself somehow, and someone had to keep singing as the lead connecting the ipod is obviously a bit dodgy, so I had to fill in the missing bits!)

A Tyrannosauropus print
A mere 1 ¾hours later we pulled into the car park in a really isolated, barren wilderness, with a $2.9million building, erected in 2002 to protect the footprints in a temperature and humidity controlled building (if they can spend that sort of money on the building, why can’t they build a proper road?). The semi desert area really set the scene for seeing the footprints and I was really excited. They do three guided tours each day, 10:00am, 12:00 and 2:00pm, it was 11:00am when we arrived so we did the short walk to the lookout and read the display in the entrance to get a real feel of the place. 

And another one...
The footprints are 95 million years old and comprise 4 different dinosaurs, Tyrannosauropus, a small Skartopus australis (chicken sized), medium sized Wintonopus latomorum and a large Wintonopus latomorum (no I haven’t made these names up!). The big (2.5m high x 40m long) Tyrannosauropus, being a meat eater caused the stampede when he crept up on all the others taking water on a little peninsular of land at the edge of an ancient lake/river. 

Our guide, an old guy who knew the people who first unearthed it in the 1960’s and 70’s was very enthusiastic and talked for over an hour but for me, just being close to real footprints of something 95 million years old was fascinating. I really enjoyed the visit and am really pleased we made the trip – what a day!

This picture shows the whole area. Water was originally on the left by the wall with the small dinosaur prints littered all over the ground. The Tyrannosauropus prints are on the right, firstly quietly stalking and then, at the top, breaking into a run for the chase. It is not known if it caught anything
We arrived back, in one piece, just, so went and tried our hand at the musical fence! Fortunately no one else was around, as the fence may have been musical, we sadly were not! Back for tea and cake, so while he put the kettle on, I popped over to see if Oz cats 4 and 5 were in evidence (Whitey and Mr.Cat) Mr Cat was, along with the jack russel, and…… a little joey, sadly in the kangaroo carnage, sometimes the mums are killed and the joeys aren’t, they then need hand rearing, and I’d just happened to take my walk past as ‘Skippy’ was out for a hop about and a nibble of grass! I may not have cuddled a koala, but I have now cuddled a joey, so how happy am I?

An Alpacca on the campsite. Apparently he let out a quiet 'ummm' when stroked
One thing he hasn’t mentioned about this campsite (apart from how tightly she packs us all in) is that the water from the artesian basin has various minerals, and hydrogen sulphide in it! Yes the bad egg smell in the ablution block is  joy! Apparently it’s lovely to drink, when left to stand, or after boiling! We haven’t died yet, but I am slightly worried about the discolouration in the toilets, if it does that to them, what is it doing to us? 
Water in the town comes from four boreholes 1.2km deep, bringing water up at a temperature of 83⁰C and is then cooled to 44⁰C. Its source is a vast underground water reservoir that covers up to 20% of Australia, fed by the rivers that flow west of the Great Dividing Range. The rivers here don’t flow to the sea (as Paul Tooze said, Bear Grills would be in trouble as he always said on his ‘Survival’ programme to follow a river and it will always go to the sea!).

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