Winton is full of surprises, 95 million years in the making.
TrueBlue Magazine - June/July 2019
Words & Photography: Jac Taylor
There was a dinosaur as big as a chicken standing in front of me – just here. Over here was an emu-sized ornithopod, and then here and there, and there… 170 more of their mates, their footprints marking the spot forever. The red rock is telling me the most amazing tale – a story as gripping as any effects-laden Hollywood movie – and I find myself spending the lion’s share of a day surveying a single rock face, 110-odd kilometres out of the outback town of Winton.
The dried streambed has kept every last 95 million-year-old footprint unbelievably well preserved at Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackways, laying out the entire story before my very eyes at the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument. And what a story.
This area was once a wide river plain, surrounded by fertile forest, where herds of smaller dinosaurs would come to drink and cross the river, leaving more than 3,000 footprints in the mud. One day, it is theorised, a rather un-noteworthy event occurred: a hungry, carnivorous theropod – not as large as a T-rex but certainly scary enough for these small fry – strolled up to the watering hole ready for his dino lunch. At least 150 smaller dinosaurs scattered everywhere in terror then formed a stampede, their tracks heading in the same direction east-north-east across the mudflats. The conditions just happened to be perfect to fossilise those chaotic, terrified footprints for a full 95 million years, for us to see today, printed deep and definite (no squinting required), making the episode actually very noteworthy indeed.
Lark Quarry is the only place in the world thought to have captured a dinosaur stampede. Its sheer clarity and preservation, as well as great tours led by passionate people, have made it a must-visit even here, so far out from a town so far out, itself, from Queensland’s cities. Winton seems so humble – a single main drag centring a town that sits in a few neat rows until the red earth claims the landscape again in every direction, it’s more than 1,300 kilometres from Brisbane – but it’s no stranger to firsts.
We head into the outback to see Australia’s roots: our country at its most primary and intrinsic. And if that’s what you’re looking for, Winton is your essential stop. It is the birthplace of so much that defines Australia, and continues to be the archetypal outback Aussie town.
Winton is the home of our unofficial anthem ’Waltzing Matilda’, for one. Banjo Paterson penned it here in 1895, and it was performed for the very first time in the same year by one Sir Herbert Ramsay over at the North Gregory Hotel – a retro beauty in town where you can still grab a bite, a room and a welcoming beer. To the delight of out-of-towners (and more than a few locals), the whole thing has been immortalised forever in the new and very fancy Waltzing Matilda Centre. In true Winton form, it’s another first: the first museum in the world dedicated to a song.
It’s not a bad spot to while away a few hours, either. You’ll also find local art exhibited here, great food at the } Tuckerbox Café, and more important local history. Qantilda Museum documents the birth of Qantas in this area – yes, Qantas may have ‘grown up’ in Longreach, but it was begun right here in Winton, again reportedly at the North Gregory Hotel – and the Great Shearers’ Strike of 1891, which helped mould the modern union movement Australia has today.
Head out a little to the Musical Fence installation (on Kennedy Developmental Road, just north of town) – the first and only one of its kind in the world, of course – and you’ll find one of Winton’s quirkiest attractions: a musical fence. The surrounding musical instrument ‘band’ made of junkyard parts is ready and waiting for visitors to go all Partridge Family (if you’re of that vintage), and no matter how old or young you are, it’s free, fun and certainly unique.
Back in town, there are more family-friendly fascinations at the Diamantina Heritage Truck and Machinery Museum, with exactly the kind of shiny, red firetrucks and such that the eight-year-old inside you would hope to see. And if you’re looking for the outback pub of your dreams, grab a table under the fluttering striped awning of the Tattersalls Hotel (78 Elderslie St) and watch the world go by very, very sparsely. At best, you can watch the local birdlife stream overhead to catch their dinner at sunset, if you’re missing the traffic at home. Inside, popular publican Paul Neilsen keeps the place nice with the basic rules of no jukebox, no pool table and no swearing around the ladies. He loves a chat and, with his history as a tour guide around Lark Quarry, you can get him chatting about dinosaurs for as long as you like.
Then you have one more important visit on your must-do itinerary, and it involves our prehistoric friends once more. The Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum really pulls it all together in a fascinating collection of exhibits that are, once again, a far cry from the traditional bone or two presented under glass. This is as interactive as 95 million-year-old fossils get, split between the Fossil Preparation Laboratory, Collection Room and the Dinosaur Canyon.
Book in advance for a combined ticket with Lark Quarry, or get the ultimate golden ticket, a week’s Dig-a-Dino experience literally digging for dinosaurs on site, helping to find, prepare and study specimens. This year is booked out, and next year is already looking so-so, but if you’re hunting for something more immediate, the Prep-a-Dino two-day package at the Age of Dinosaurs museum might work for you. It’s the first tour of its kind in the world – but, of course, you probably already guessed that, being in Winton.
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