As part of our Outback Queensland odyssey we headed to Winton in far-western Queensland to check out part of the Dinosaur Trail that’s known around the world as the dinosaur capital of Australia. There are actually four parts to the trail; two are located in Winton, which is 1150km west of Brisbane, and the other two are farther north at Richmond and Hughenden.
The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum is 25km south-east of Winton and has the largest display of Aussie dinosaur bones in the world, plus you can check out the lab where bones are cleaned for display. The other Winton spot is Lark Quarry, about 110km south-west, where you can see impressions of dinosaur footprints in mud from a stampede that occurred millions of years ago.
There’s plenty of fascinating history in the Winton shire and, unofficially, it is the gateway to far western Queensland and beyond. If you want to spend some time here to check out Winton on foot, there are a couple of caravan parks within walking distance of town, in which you’ll find a couple of cool old pubs that date back to 1895; Arno’s Wall, which is a huge manmade wall with quirky stuff cemented in it including the kitchen sink; the Waltzing Matilda Museum; various opal stores; and more.
Head 125km south of Winton and you’ll find the working opal fields and ‘town’ of Opalton, which is steeped in history and still offers the chance to find a little colour if you search in the right places. Being so remote, you’ll need to stock up at Winton as there is no phone service, no fuel (carry enough for a good 400km), no shops and, for the majority of this loop, no help of any kind.
The tar ends about 10km out of Winton and the rest of the drive to Opalton is on wide dirt roads. The countryside is flat, with the occasional jump or rise offering views for the next stint in what is a relentless journey over millions of corrugations. The scrub consists of low mulga trees with scatterings of silver-leafed ironbark across the plains, with stands of Mitchell grass covering the ground.
George Cragg found the first opal in the area back in 1888 and a few years later the first mine was sunk. At this time a piece almost three metres long was found here, shaped like a section of pipe. By 1900 there were more than 600 people living here and Opalton was known for the quality and quantity of its precious rock.
Today the town has dwindled to a handful of tough men and women who are still searching for ‘that’ payload. Opalton is also known for its boulder opal, which forms in an egg-like shape; over time minerals pass through this shape to form an opal colour on the inside.
Other than a few shanty shacks and old relics here and there, Opalton doesn’t look like much these days, and that’s the way locals like it; hidden away and hard to find. Camping is at the Opalton bush camp, where for a measly $3 a night you can set up camp, use the bush kitchen and, if you light up the old donkey heater, enjoy a hot shower. We found that if there are a few campers around everybody pitches in to collect wood and take turns in lighting up the boiler.
Scratching around on other people’s property is normally deemed inappropriate around these areas, but most mornings a local will come down to the bush camping area to get a group together for a free tour around the old mines to show how they work, impart the history of the area, show off some old camps and take you to places where you can scratch around for opal.
You’ll also see where the old town used to be situated, some unique buildings, and the areas in which the current miners are only allowed to use hand tools (no large-scale machinery). Today the ‘old town’ is just a few relics and signs that point out where things used to be, like the general store, the school, the butcher shop and the miners’ houses.
To get here today takes a good two hours of driving, but getting here 130 years ago must have been one hell of an adventure, walking into what would seem like the middle of nowhere. It’s a bloody harsh environment around Opalton, where months go by with no rainfall and summer temperatures often get towards the 50°C mark.
Once a week the town’s 25 or so residents gather at the bush camp for the weekly mail run and a general get-together, as most of the miners’ camps are scattered over 100km². It’s a close-knit community and, even though they might not catch up for more than a week, all the locals still seem to know what’s going on around the place.
The Queensland department of mines has set aside a few acres behind the camping area where anyone can noodle (look for rocks) or fossick. The best way is to take a spray bottle of water and spray the rocks to see if they produce any colour.
After spending a few days in town and wanting to check out the other highlights of the Dinosaur Trail we headed farther south towards Opalton Creek, which is the only spot in the area where the use of heavy-duty machinery is permitted in the hunt for opal. Here, huge bulldozers carve away at hills and take the tops off mountains looking for bucket-loads of colour, but this comes with high operating costs.
The road south is a prettier one than the road coming in to Opalton, with wide creek crossings and huge white gums lining the creek, along with what seems like millions of red and white termite mounds covering the remaining flat grounds. An hour south of Opalton along Opalton Road is Mayneside Station, where you can explore around the heritage-listed ruins. From here you can head north towards Winton; something like a big V road trip back up Jundah Road.
Here the surrounds change to dry and dusty open areas that have little or no vegetation, and livestock has been held here over the years. If you run a good quality GPS, keep an eye out for where you pass over the Tropic of Capricorn; there are no signs on the road, but it’s a bit of a quirky spot to stop for a quick snap.
For the next hours’ drive, Jundah Road remains flat and seems like another never-ending dirt road where the only colour around is red gibber rock under hardened mulga trees. Animal life out here is sporadic depending on the seasons, and we didn’t see any ’roos and only a few crows along the way.
After a while you start to happen upon a few larger jump-up sections where moisture gathers and the landscape changes to taller trees and what seems like tall grasses including Mitchell grass, which is high in nutrition for livestock.
Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackways is located on this higher ground and is only a few miles off the main road. This is one place that needs to be on your must-see list, as it’s the only place in Australia where evidence of a dinosaur stampede has been discovered. It’s a commercialised place where you can buy food, coffee and cheap souvenirs.
Once inside there’s a short video on how scientists think the stampede occurred, and then you’re taken inside a specially built shed where you can view the footprints in the dried mud. Volunteers run the show out here and share a wealth of information on this area and anything to do with the stampede. This is a great place for those with an interest in Australia’s prehistoric past, when mega-monsters walked the earth back in Gondwana times.
Heading out of Lark Quarry up to Winton involves another two hours of rough, undulating outback roads, where you’ll need to find your own comfortable speed after dropping some air from your tyres. The entire trip is doable with a camper trailer, but you’ll need to be prepared for a good 400km of outback roads that rarely see any maintenance.