“Welcome to my backyard called Queensland,” announces Alan Smith, a burly country bloke whose Labrador-like excitement for his homeland quickly rubs off on our small tour group.
We are standing on the edge of a “jump up”, a sharply rising mesa an hour and a half’s drive from Longreach and 10 kilometres outside the town of Winton. Before us lies a once-in-a-generation spectacle; a landscape that is bloated with emerald green acacias, fat mulgas and flocks of kite hawks patched around lush green grass and newly flowing creeks. Like the rest of country Queensland, it’s obvious that two seasons of rain have transformed the once red plains into a rich tapestry of life and colour.
“You couldn’t pick a better time to be here,” says Smithy, the owner of Outback Aussie Tours and a long-term local who reckons he hasn’t seen it this good since the rains of 1990.
Behind us is a big tin shed. It’s no different from the thousands of Titan sheds found in industrial estates around the country, but it’s what is inside that has brought us here.
There are bones in there!
No ordinary bones. Inside are the priceless reminders that giant dinosaurs freely roamed Queensland 95 million years ago when the land was littered with cycads and redwoods more telling of a temperate forest. This is the Age of Dinosaurs, a not-for-profit organisation with a single agenda - to bring dinosaurs to the world.
“The Age of Dinosaurs is not just a museum,” booms deep-voiced George one of three fossil experts permanently stationed here. “It’s a living heritage and it’s uncovering the secrets of the past.”
It’s also the only place in the world where anyone can get their hands on dinosaurs by either touring the production shed like we are today, volunteering to prepare dinosaurs by scaling the soil from the bones, or taking part in a dinosaur dig each August at a cost of a few thousand dollars.
First discovered in Queensland’s outback just over a decade ago, the 40 or so creatures that have been dug up since are now lying in crates waiting to be glued back together.
“There are more dinosaurs in this shed than the rest of the world combined,” bellows George, “and with just three in the team, our lab has 25 to 30 years of work ahead of us.”
I think of my own growing inbox and suddenly feel less miserable.
Of course that finishing date could blow out if any of the team has mishaps like Freddy, the giggling 19 year old fossil fixer from Darwin with a slight case of butterfingers.
After beavering away for a month on the humourous bone of a 20-metre long mid-sized theropod known as Banjo, Freddy accidentally dropped the bone smashing it into pieces and delaying completion by months.
It may have been the humourous bone, but I’m not so sure Freddy found this funny!
If the Age of Dinosaurs leaves you stomping for more pre-historic amusement, then the Queensland Outback has plenty of other options. Within a day’s drive there is Lark Quarry where you can see evidence of the only dinosaur stampede in the world while Richmond is home to a display of pre-historic marine creatures.
For us it’s time to jump forward a few million years to the late 1800s where Richard Kinnon is waiting in Longreach to take us on a ride that promises to tickle our other historical tonsils – a tour of the town’s quaint centre followed by a short gallop along the original mail track on Australia’s last operating Cobb & Co Stage Coach.
My companions and I scamper to the top of the buggy and squeeze our denim clad bottoms onto a single plank behind the mountains of old-fashioned trunks. This, we are told, was the most coveted position and the modest young ladies of the times preferred to eat dust than face the prospect of smelling the armpits of the drunkards below.
Luxury it may be, but without seat belts we spend much of the ride clinging to each other as the carriage bolts and bobs across the track.
“Don’t worry,” yells Richard who’s driving the five horse-powered thrill ride. “You might be eating dust. But at least it’s organic dust out here.”
A fourth generation Longreach resident, Richard and wife Marisse have a passion to keep history alive. Their Longreach business also includes Kinnon & Co, a cavernous store in the centre of town that sells an absolute trove of country goods including jars of old-fashioned boiled lollies, polished saddles and the best freshly brewed coffee this side of the Black Stump.
Refreshed from a night of country comfort and a snoozy lie in at the friendly Longreach Motor Inn, it’s time for day two and the chance to check out the big icons: the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Museum.
The first pays a wonderful tribute to the pioneering men and women who shaped the Australian nation while the second takes us into the bowels of two full scale air planes and the very first hangar built by Qantas.
We learn that the 727 parked on the edge of Longreach Airport has a history of magical moments, having brought a young Queen Elizabeth to Australia in 1959, The Beatles to Brisbane in 1964 and Michael Jackson and Madonna around the globe. In the 1980s the plane was sold to a nameless Sheik and transformed into a palatial hotel in the sky with expansive sleeping quarters, crystal lamps and robust bidets.
I take a seat and drink in the history of the plane only to learn that Hollywood hunk John Travolta also chose this very spot to sit when he decided to purchase his own Qantas 727, incidentally the 13th and last of its type bought by Qantas.
I may be a budget kind of girl, but it’s clear that even I know how to keep fabulous company. And with that, I grab my travel companions and head round the corner to the open-air Cattleman’s Bar and Grill to tuck into a juicy steak and a big red sunset over a blooming green outback.
You are right, Mr Smith. You couldn’t pick a better time to be here.
Originally published 15 March 2011. Shelley Winkel on behalf by Tourism Queensland. This story is copyright free and amy be reproduced.