Dinosaurs, what is it about these creatures from the past that they exert such fascination? Children are enthralled with them and not just children, some of us never really lose that sense of wonder about these amazing creatures. The traces they have left, haunt our imaginations, they give us a much needed sense of wonder in a world that is jaded by responsibility, and cynicism. When we look at a reconstructed dinosaur, fossil or trackway, made by these disappeared marvels, something feels lighter within us, we delight in our sense of wonder and when we delight in our childlike sense of wonder we feel lighter, taken away from the everyday pressures and the weight of our worries. Wonder gives us wings to soar with. Maybe too they give us a much needed sense of perspective. It is good for us to confront deep time, to have our Ozymandias moment. Maybe that is why western QLD is experiencing a tourist boom led by these long gone monsters of the past. They are a wonder, and we need wonder.
In recent years there has been a revolution in evolutionary biology and palaeontology, driven by a rise in interest and some absolutely mind blowing discoveries in the field. South America and Mongolia have delivered game changing discoveries in recent years and now Western Queensland is surrendering its palaeontological bounty. What is especially thrilling is the way this explosion in discovery and appreciation is being led not by experts in the field, although they are part of this process, but by informed and passionate locals, by the graziers who manage the land where these echoes of the past are emerging. People like David and Judy Elliot who are the Winton graziers who have founded The Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum. The Elliots have set a remarkable bench mark but they are not the only locals to recognise and develop, the opportunity these remnants of the past are providing. Winton is the star in the dinosaur trail crown but if you go further north west you will hit the equally exciting locations of Hughenden and Richmond.
The Elliots could write the text book on community engagement with the stellar way they have set about turning their discoveries into something that benefits not just the wider community of Winton and western QLD but sets the standard in content delivery for museums everywhere. When David Elliot discovered a giant femur while mustering, the whole story could have ended with that fossil and the subsequent research and finds by the QLD museum team, and with everything ending up in the Brisbane museum. The Elliots, however, saw the potential of the discoveries and in 2002 called a public meeting in Winton to discuss the possibility to setting up a dinosaur museum in Winton. By the end of 2002 Australian Age of Dinosaurs Incorporated was born, a not for profit aiming to ensure future digs, preparation and conservation take place at the Winton formation itself. Supported by volunteers and community this represented the birth of what has become and is continuing to grow as a major, international standard natural history institution and a major economic driver in the community. A small western QLD town, once only famous for sheep and being the birth place of our de-facto national anthem, Waltzing Mathilda, is now a world centre in palaeontology research and education and all started and lead by passionate, knowledgeable amateurs.
In 2006 the project was further enhanced by graziers Peter and Carol Britton’s donation of 1,400 hectares of mesa or “Jump-Up” country to the project. An area that was subsequently declared a conservation area and the new home of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs. To say this is a magnificently beautiful and dramatic piece of country is an understatement, it is absolutely stunning in terms of natural beauty. While providing the home for creatures from the past it is also nurturing the flora and fauna of the present, the “Museum hopes to encourage the conservation of many endangered fauna and flora found in the Winton region”, making the entire location a natural history gem rich in biodiversity.
With the 2019 declaration of the Jump up as Australia’s first International Dark sky sanctuary they are incorporating an astronomy centre, the Gondwana Stars Observatory into the Australian age of dinosaurs museum development. The development is ongoing with several buildings and attractions operating on the site and ongoing planning and expansion. They currently have the fossil preparation laboratory, the reception centre with cafe and gift shop, attached to that is the collection room proudly housing the museums holotype, (the first example of an identified species against which future discoveries are identified against) collection, which includes the most complete sauropod dinosaur in Australia, Diamantinasaurus matildae, (Matilda) the fossil that started it all, sauropod Savannasaurus elliottorum, and Australia’s most complete theropod Australovenator wintonensis, a particularly significant discovery, nicknamed Banjo. You are greeted by a life size bronze statue of Banjo at the entrance of the reception centre. Finally but by no means least is the pterosaur Ferrodraco lentoni. All of the above specimens are of considerable significance but fossils themselves are not all the Australian Age of Dinosaurs houses.
Recently they opened the march of the titanosaurs, Snake Creek Tracksite exibit, housed in a purpose built hall to display and protect the trackway. Due to the threat of weathering/flooding it was decided to carefully lift and move the entire trackway from its discovery position and relocate it at the jump up in what has to be conceded is a beautiful and sympathetic, building remarkable in its own right.
The architecture of the Age of Dinosaurs is itself an aesthetically rewarding experience, the buildings beautifully complement their environment and purpose adding to the visitor experience, visiting the facility at the jump up really is a great experience in so many ways. The march of the titanosaurs exhibit is a mind blowing exercise in time travel. You enter this beautiful, climate controlled building and walk around, overlooking the trackway, where unmistakable evidence of life past is writ large in the mudstone, not just sauropod tracks but other species as well including non dinosaurs; turtles, crocodilians and lung fish. You are guided around the trackway by by an AAOD, (Australian Age of Dinosaurs), staff member who expertly places what you are viewing in context, bringing the scene to graphic life. Then outside the large glass windows you can see the extremely life like bronze sauropod statues looking like CGI characters strolling across the mesa with the long flat plains in the background. It is an out of time experience.
When you exit the building you can get an up close look at the sculptures, all of the bronze sculptures at the site are exceptional works in their own right, starting with Banjo at the reception centre entrance but they culminate in March of the titanosaurs and the dinosaur canyon galleries. Set high on the mesa, they have taken advantage of this splendid natural environment to create a vivid path of dinosaur dioramas and evolving attempts at recreating ancient flora landscapes by utilising the micro climates of the gullies running off the mesa. The flora re-creation is a work in progress and a challenging one given the environment they are working in. The area is no longer the lush temperate environment that the dinosaurs knew and it is clearly challenging trying to get cycads, palms and pines to grow in the current environment, while also protecting and nurturing the current endemic plant species. I look forward to re-visiting and watching the evolving project. Amongst the canyon you will find the death in the billabong exhibit, a pterodactylus family and a dinosaur stampede,( based on the track ways at lark quarry, more on that in a separate post), it is a stunningly beautiful walk in it’s own right even without the dinosaurs. While the canyon is the only part you do without a guide, they have provided a simple yet useful interactive activity to engage visitors. In front of each display is a plague that is provided to allow visitors to take a rubbing of the plague in their guide book, an activity that is ideal for kids but also engages adults.
The experience of Australian Age of Dinosaurs and it is an Experience with a capital E, is largely due to the really exceptional staff delivering the content. This is no static museum experience but rather an immersive education experience where each part of the AAOD is delivered with explanation by passionate, knowledgeable guides. Due to our travel arrangements Bronte experienced the whole Jump up facility in one half day and G and I came in the afternoon to do a laboratory and collection room tour separately. By doing those sections late in the day we had the benefit of being the only two people on both the lab and collection room tours, so we had very personalised and detailed guidance. I really can’t commend Bec, who took us through the prep lab, and Sarah who took us through the collection room enough, I had the most wonderful afternoon totally geeking out on dinosaurs with two enthusiastic, knowledgeable and passionate guides. Without question the best museum experience I have ever had!
The staff really are a big part of what makes the Australian Age of Dinosaurs such an awesome experience. It is an education experience but not some dull, overly intellectual experience rather it personifies the organisations stated guiding values of: shared curiosity, passionate customer focus, fair-dinkum integrity, dynamic evolution. The staff make AAOD an exciting, inspiring experience. We only experienced the tours but I am eager to return and experience some of the other immersive experiences like a fossil dig and the prep a dinosaur lab experience where you can train to be a volunteer lab tech and continue working at the lab as a volunteer helping in the uncovering and prepping of fossils. On our visits to the trackways the guides also did an excellent job of engaging very mixed audiences from kids, to equally obsessed palaeontology enthusiasts and the older tourist crowd, making the experience a rich and rewarding one for everyone in attendance. I really can’t commend the AAOD enough, it is an experience I think everyone and especially every child should have, it is immersive, inspirational natural history.
I will post more on the Lark quarry trackway and some tips on travelling the dinosaur trail with dogs in another post but in the mean time check out the AAOD website and their fantastic instagram, the AAOD is currently my favourite insta feed, not just for the dino stuff but also for the wildlife posts; brolgas, bugs, echidnas and others. Or check out this abc podcast with David Elliot on Conversations or this one on the moving of the track site, it is well worth a listen. Or this great ABC story on Winton’s dino tracks: Trackways across time, fantastic stuff!