Opal Fossicking Where Australian Dinosaurs Once Roamed

Australovenator wintonensis

We jumped at the opportunity to go opal fossicking near Winton Queensland, especially with the exciting prospect of visiting the near-by sites where Australian Dinosaurs roamed, around 95 Million years ago.

In June 2010, our plans were soon hatched to visit Winton, where the Waltzing Matilda Centre houses so much outback Queensland history, before making our way to Opalton, to try our luck at opal fossicking. After that, moving on to Lark Quarry, where the tracks of dinosaurs tell a story of a desperate escape from imminent danger.

The final "must see" on our list was the new Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History, just outside Winton, which tells of the amazing discoveries being made of Australian Dinosaurs in the Winton district. I wrote about these new dinosaur discoveries previously, so we jumped at the opportunity to see them for ourselves.

Our adventure began when, with our friends Sue and Geoff, we set out from Townsville in two camper-vans, heading for the west via the old gold mining town of Charters Towers. Tea Break at Charters Towers We made our way to Hughenden, before turning south towards Winton, a journey of about 600 kilometers by road from Townsville. We were not in a hurry, so stopped several times for a rest and a cup of tea, or to look at something of interest.

We decided to stop for the night at the free park, just near the pub at Corfield, about 80k's from Winton. This was our first night away from the bright lights of the city and under the bright starry sky of the country - always such an awesome experience, as is waking up with cows grazing near-by.

We were amused when we looked out to see the cows all gathered around the entrance to the Pub as if waiting for it to open. I rushed to get a photo but alas, the camera battery was flat! As I returned to replace it, the cows all followed ... so the great photo opportunity was lost.

Cows at Corfiled

Next morning we drove into Winton and stopped at the Coolibah Cafe in the Waltzing Matilda Centre for morning tea before visiting the historical exhibits and library.

There is a lot more to see in Winton than most people realize. The Waltzing Matilda Centre and the historical library are absolutely full of things of interest, and a walk down the main street, Elderslie Street, will take you to the old Corfield and Fitzmaurice Store, which now houses many interesting exhibits, including the old open air picture show, and across the street to my favourite, Searls, the store that sells everything in menswear and much much more.

( It's worth going in just to see the great line-up of old bush hats that have been discarded by their owners as they walked out of the shop in a brand new Akubra!)

It's always good to chat to the locals; they will tell you so much about what to see and do at Winton - or in fact wherever you are.

We spent the night at the Matilda Country Tourist Park, one of the three caravan parks at Winton. It was crowded with touring vans and motorhomes, but the amenities were up to it and the showers and toilets were clean and with plenty of hot water. We were entertained by two visiting bush poets who put on a free show that night, with lots of fun and laughter, especially for the impromptu performance, with members of the audience, of Banjo Patterson's "The Man from Ironbark."

Lark Quarry The next morning, Tuesday, we set off to try our luck at opal fossicking as part of a round trip that would take us on the "Route of the River Gum" through the Bladensburg National Park to Opalton, then back to Winton via Lark Quarry, where the fossilised footprints of Australian dinosaurs can be seen, preserved in stone forever.

Opalton, about 120 kilometers south of Winton, is the centre for opal mining in this part of the world. It has a designated fossicking area where you can try your luck to find the flash of red, green or blue that identifies the beautiful Queensland Boulder Opals that are found here.

After stopping for morning tea beside one of the billabongs at Bladensberg National Park we continued on the unsealed dirt road to Opalton. The road passes through unusual terrain, very rugged in parts, which seemed to change through a variety of soil types and colours, as well as different types of vegetation as our journey progressed.

Waterhole along the road from Opalton

As we neared Opalton we could see some of the rough mining camps where opal miners were working their claims. Others seemed to be abandoned, but maybe the miners come and go. There is a remarkable feeling of entering a frontier town and an expectation of an unusual experience.

We called in to one of the more established-looking camps, with a sign reading 'Outpost' and at first thought no one was there, until we noticed a grinding noise coming from a small shed slightly away from the main building. A young man was cutting into some stone. He stopped what he was doing and in the open and friendly manner of Aussies in the country, directed us to the camping ground, told us that there was no shop, or even a pub at Opalton. He showed us what we should look for when we were fossicking for opals and gave us a mud-map of the area to help us find our way.

(Apparently Opalton was once a bustling 'outpost' with a shop and even a Pub, but all evidence has long since gone.)

Bush Camping at Opalton

We found the bush camping ground after taking only one wrong turning from the unsealed road that winds through the place. There were three or four caravans at the site when we arrived, plus a van that is occupied by a caretaker. The toilets and showers are clean, but there is no hot water. Several bough structures with spinifex thatching provide shade for campers, and there is a tap where you can get the water to wash your rocks when you are prospecting. The facilities are minimal, but the charge of $2 per night is very reasonable.

After lunch, we walked just a few meters from our vans, and started fossicking around the piles of discarded rocks from previous diggings. As the opal is contained in rock, it is usually not visible until the rock has been cracked open, so there are some quite good finds to be had by cracking rocks that have been left behind by previous miners.

Our method was simple. We cracked rocks with a hammer and dipped the pieces into a bucket of water to reveal any gleam of the opal colours.

Fossicking for Opal at Opalton After a while we started to find some small samples and by the time we left the camp site next day, I was starting to get the idea of which stones might contain opal, and which would not.

We slept very soundly after a very pleasant dinner and evening relaxing around the camp fire, under the clear starry sky.

Next morning, after breakfast, we spent an hour or so fossicking some more, before packing up and heading for our next destination.

I was a bit reluctant to leave Opalton so soon as I felt I was just getting the hang of fossicking for opals. Still, we did find a few little samples to take home, and maybe we will get the opportunity to return and spend more time, on some future occasion.

Our next destination, Lark Quarry, was apparently the site of a dinosaur stampede some 95 million years ago. Palaeontologists theorise that a large group of small dinosaurs was grazing or drinking beside a large lake when they were charged by a large, meat eating theropod. The footprints of the stampeding dinosaurs, trying to escape, criss-crossing over the tracks of the theropod, were preserved in the mud and filled with silt, eventually forming a sandstone record of their escape.

The Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackways display is housed in a purpose built display centre about 110kms southwest of Winton and guided tours explain what happened and how the tracks were preserved for all time. A very interesting glimpse of life on earth in the days of the Australian dinosaurs.

After our Lark Quarry tour we continued our journey to scenic Carisbrooke Station where we spent Wednesday night.

Dam at Carisbrooke Station

Carisbrooke is a working sheep and cattle station about 85kms southwest of Winton, Queensland which provides accommodation and tours of the picturesque area, where Australian birds and animals can be found in large numbers. A very pleasant and quiet place to stay.

On Thursday we headed back through Winton and took the Longreach road on our way to see the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum with it's amazing fossil preparation facility.

The Australian Age of Dinosaurs collection sits on a mesa plateau some 20kms east of Winton. The view of the surrounding country from the plateau must be seen to be appreciated.

View from 'jumpup' at AAOD This display and preparation facility for the bones of Australian Dinosaurs officially opened on top of the Winton plateau in June 2009, when the Premier of Queensland announced the discovery and scientific analysis of three new species of Australian Dinosaurs.

Inside, apart from the stunning dinosaur display, you can see at first hand, the preparation work in process by trained paleontologists and enthusiastic volunteers.

It all started when local graziers, David and Judy Elliott started to take an interest in Australian dinosaurs and realised that western Queensland was the former home of many of them. David's dream of establishing such a facility at Winton received financial and other support from many quarters, but the project received it's greatest boost when local graziers, Peter and Carol Britton, donated the picturesque plateau on their property for the home of the 'Australian Age of Dinosaurs'.

What a magnificent place it is.

Dinosaur Bones

The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Society is a non-profit organisation at the cutting edge of Australian Dinosaur discoveries. You can be part of this excitement by becoming a member and supporting the great work that is being done. Get details here.

Sue's cousin Jenny and her husband Andrew had invited our little party to visit them at their property near Winton, so after our AAOD experience, we traveled northeast of Winton to experience a little of life on a 25,000 acre Queensland cattle station. We were welcomed warmly by Jenny and Andrew and their two children, and were made to feel at home in their company.

Once a sheep station, but now turned over to cattle fattening, the station is on the black soil plains that make up much of this part of western Queensland. As this is a low rainfall area, most of the water supply comes from artesian and sub-artesian bores that reach hundreds of feet into the Great Artesian Basin.

Working at the bore On Friday, Andrew asked Geoff and I if we would like to see the maintenance work he and his neighbours were doing on their bore. We, of course, said we would, so we went along to see what was happening.

The bore casing reaches 1,000 meters into the Great Artesian Basin, where the water temperature is extremely hot. As Andrew's bore is a sub-artesian type, the water is pumped from 60 meters to fill an above ground dam, locally called a turkey's nest, where the water cools before it is pumped, or allowed to flow to near-by stations.

Andrew and the other station owners who share the bore water were doing some maintenance on the pump and replacing some of the lengths of steel pipe. This necessitated pulling the pump up out of the bore casing and replacing the old lengths of pipe before lowering it back down again, one length of pipe at a time. Hard, back-breaking work, and to think we city folk grizzle loudly whenever there is a hiccup in our City Council maintained water supply.

Old Shearing Shed

At the homestead, we poked around the disused shearing shed and quarters and Jenny took us for a drive to see some of the station. We experienced a most interesting and enjoyable day learning a little of life on a Queensland cattle station.

Next morning we said farewell to Andrew and Jenny as we set off on our return journey to Townsville. We stopped at Hughenden for lunch at the FJ Holden Cafe, where Frank and Jan Holden have set up a great display of 'Holden' memorabilia and also make great real hamburgers. Across the street we admired the dinosaur inspired works of art.

We had started our trip to Winton, a week earlier, full of enthusiasm, but not knowing quite what to expect. We could not have anticipated what a great success our trip would be. There is so much more to see and do in Winton Queensland than I had imagined. It is a very interesting and attractive town, the Waltzing Matilda Centre is outstanding, and the people of Winton are so helpful and friendly.

Fossicking for Opals at near-by Opalton was great fun and an experience that I hope I will be able to repeat before long, and seeing the footprints of dinosaurs at Lark Quarry and learning about the recent discoveries fossils of Australian dinosaurs at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum near Winton was truly an amazing experience.

Hughenden to Charters Towers