“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 km outside the town of Winton. Before us lies a once-in-a-generation spectacle; a landscape 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 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.
We are on a two week jaunt to the outback, but we have come to Winton to inspect some bones.
No ordinary bones. But the priceless reminders of the dinosaurs that freely roamed Queensland 95 million years ago when the land was like a temperate forest. Behind us is the Australian Age of Dinosaurs, a not-for-profit organisation with a single agenda to bring dinosaurs to the world.
Smithy hands the baton over to George, a hyper-enthusiastic fossil expert whose slight physique is at odds with his bellowing welcome.
“The Australian Age of Dinosaurs is not just a museum,” booms deep-voiced George with all the showmanship and vigour of the late Steve Irwin. “It's a living heritage and it's uncovering the secrets of the past.”
It's also the only place in the Southern Hemisphere where the public can get their hands on dinosaurs by touring the production shed like we are today, volunteering to prepare dinosaurs, or taking part in a dinosaur dig each August at a cost of a few thousand dollars.
If George looks vaguely familiar, then it's likely that you watched him clumsily romance his way through the 2010 TV series Beauty and the Geek, a show that pits brains against beauty. From the outset, George was voted the most handsome of the geeks and with his boyish charm it's not hard to develop a wee crush as you tour what he claims is “the fastest dinosaur production factory in the world.”
First discovered in Queensland's outback just over a decade ago, the 40 or so creatures that have been dug up since are now scattered in crates waiting to be glued back together.
“There are more dinosaurs in this shed than the rest of the world combined,” says George, and “with just three experts 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.
If the Australian Age of Dinosaurs leaves you roaming for more pre-historic amusement, then the Outback has plenty of other options. Within a few hours' drive south west of Winton is Lark Quarry where you can see evidence of the only dinosaur stampede in the world while due north, Richmond is home to a display of pre-historic marine creatures.
For us it's time to jump back in the car and drive 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 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, is the most coveted position and the modest young ladies of the times preferred to eat dust than face the prospect of smelling the armpits - and possibly the advances - 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 as he steers the five horse-powered beast. “You might be eating dust. But at least it's organic dust out here.”
Refreshed from a night of country comfort at the local caravan park, it's time for day two and the chance to check out Longreach's flagship attractions; the Stockman's Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Museum.
The first pays tribute to the pioneering men and women who shaped the Australian nation while the second takes visitors into the bowels of two full scale air planes and gives visitors a peek at the very first hangar built for Australia's national carrier.
Most people tend to think of planes as faceless flying machines. But the 727 parked on the edge of Longreach Airport has an intriguing history.
The first of its kind purchased by Qantas, this is the same aircraft that brought a young Queen Elizabeth to Australia in 1959, the Beatles to Brisbane in 1964 and our Vietnam veterans home in the 70s. In the 1980s, the 727 was sold to a Sheik who morphed it into a 1980s luxury hotel in the sky.
For some pretty blurry reason – something to do with a secret handshake agreement and a reduced sale price - photos are not permitted inside the aircraft. However, the gold belt buckles, the expansive private antechambers with their robust bidets and the crystal lamps rumoured to be worth $45,000 each indicate an extravagance that goes beyond the family caravan that is taking us to our final destination of Birdsville.
Our plan herein is to drive south to Windorah, roughly following the Thomson River and then tack west to Birdsville, a town legendary for its blistering temperatures, an annual horse race and a magical pub. We are one of the first cars to make it through after the year's big wet and our appearance at the Birdsville Caravan Park heralds the beginning of the touring season.
It might be a little town of just 120, but there are big things in store for us, including a tour run by the local elders.
“Birdsville is where tribes from all over came to meet for corroborees and initiation ceremonies,” explains the soft-spoken Don Rowlands whose dapper Clark Gable moustache and gentle manner is a romantic fit against the cinema sized outback sky. He is here with his long time mate, Jimmy Crombie, as the to introduce city slickers like us to the ways of the first Australians.
Jimmy was born by a waterhole and spent 55 years as a stockman. He is proud that his grandfather came out of the Simpson Desert with nothing on.
“He could put his hand to anything,” said Jimmy. “He made good boomerangs.”
Both gentlemen recount tales of their youth, from secretly watching forbidden corroborees, to digging up tubers after the wet season, and waiting anxiously to be old enough to get their hands on pituri, a magical leaf ground into a gooey paste mixed with acacia ash and then smoked.
Part aphrodisiac, part analgaesic, Jimmy says that with pituri “you could walk for miles and miles with no pain.”
“But like any drug, you can end with a leg up,” he warns with a high pitched giggle.
The tour ends and it's time to get to the heart of Australia, and tuck into the Birdsville Pub's advertised seven course meal: a six pack of XXXX beer and a meat pie.
With that taken care of, we sit back and watch as the sun sets over the outback, throwing a soft pink hue on the newly lush green “sand” dunes that fill the heart of this stunning country.
- Outback Aussie Tours, Longreach, http://www.oat.net.au/
- Australian Age of Dinosaurs, Winton http://aaodl.com
- Kinnon & Co Tours, Longreach http://www.kinnonandco.com.au/
- Longreach Motor Inn: http://www.outbacklongreach.com.au/contact.php
- Qantas Founders Museum: http://www.qfom.com.au/
- Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame: http://www.outbackheritage.com.au/
Word Count: 1330
Author: Shelley Winkel
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