Endangered marsupials, fossilised kangaroos and the largest dinosaurs that roamed Gondwanaland.
These are just a few of the treasures you might discover on a road trip around Outback Queensland.
4WD road trip to Charleville, Outback Queensland
Descending towards Charleville, Queensland’s outback stretches beneath our wings like a Ben Shearer painting from his Cooper Creek period. Dirt roads cross the red earth in a mishmash of shortcuts that run across paddocks stretching out to the horizon. Out here, on the fringes of the Strzelecki Desert, everything is oversized. Stations like Plevna Downs was the former stomping ground for Australia’s largest dinosaurs. It’s also almost twice the size of Singapore, spanning 112,000 hectares.
“You don’t have a bull bar,” observes Monique Johnson from the Cosmos Centre & Observatory. I’d just picked up a 4WD from Avis at Charleville Airport. “Do I need one?” I ask innocently. “I wouldn’t recommend you drive before 10am or after 4pm,” she advises sagely. “That’s when kangaroos are most active.”
After an intriguing insight into astronomy at Charleville Cosmos Centre & Observatory, I head westbound. Following the Natural Sciences Loop and the Warrego Way, I find roadkill to be my relentless companion. As distance markers pass rapidly by, I count corpses to pass the time. On one 10-kilometre stretch, the sum reaches 60 before I give it away.
Emus aplenty graze roadside on fresh tufts of grass, the result of recent rain. However, their Coat of Arms brothers don’t fare so well. Kangaroo carcasses lay strewn across the asphalt like over-imbibed racegoers after Race 7 on Melbourne Cup Day. Opportunistic vultures rise resentfully as I barrel down the bitumen. They can afford to be picky, so abundant is the feast.
By the time I encounter my first 54-wheeled triple-trailer road train, the Diamantina Development Road has whittled down to little more than a single lane of pock-marked tar in places.
I’m heading to Eromanga, 300 kilometres west of Charleville in Outback Queensland. The town’s main claim to fame was that it was once Australia’s furthest town from the sea. That was until Sandy Mackenzie made a discovery that put Eromanga on the world map, changing his family’s lives forever. Not to mention blowing the minds of scientists across the globe. But more on that later.
Charleville Bilby Experience
I have a date with a three-year old named Sarah. She’s the poster child for the Save the Bilby Fund, newly headquartered at the Charleville Bilby Experience. As bilbies are bred in captivity, and listed as endangered in Queensland and vulnerable nationally, Sarah and her roommate Tonka carry a heavy burden. Their population has been decimated by feral cats, rabbits and foxes. Only an estimated 500 wild bilbies remain in the state. The scale of feral cat devastation is staggering. Every 24 hours, 20 million feral cats kill approximately 75 million native Australian animals. Every single day.
Which is where the Bilby Fence comes in. Camp Bilby takes centre stage in the Currawinya National Park. In 2003, the park set up a ‘wild’ enclosure to allow bilbies to live and breed in safety. Its electrified, predator-proof fence provides a 25-square kilometre habitat, free of predators. Recently, a new and improved bilby enclosure rolled out the red carpet for its big-eared residents in 2018.
Thanks to the tireless work of Frank Manthey and Peter McRae, the Bilby Brothers, the bilby is the only Australian animal with its own national day (second Sunday in September is National Bilby Day). You can help the bilby assume its rightful place at Easter by purchasing Fyna Foods’ Pink Lady Easter Bilbies. The initiative annually raises tens of thousands of dollars for the Save the Bilby Fund.
Bilby survival depends on a hot dry climate not dependent upon rain – something the outback has an abundance of. The same year the first residents entered Camp Bilby, not far away, 14-year-old Sandy Mackenzie was re-writing history books.
A life changing dinosaur discovery in Outback Queensland
While mustering sheep on Plevna Downs, a rock caught Sandy’s attention. Later his parents Robyn and Stuart Mackenzie asked Queensland Museum staff to take a look. The information that came back was extraordinary. Sandy’s ‘rock’ was identified as a 95 million-year-old fossilised Titanosaur bone – the first of its kind discovered in Australia. Further findings revealed Australia’s largest dinosaur, which would have stood six meters high and measured 30 metres from nose to tail. Now carrying the name Cooper, the Titanosaur story is on display at the Eromanga Natural History Museum (ENHM).
Supported by not-for-profit Outback Gondwana Foundation Ltd and reliant upon funding, ENHM is a working museum that coordinates annual digs on private property west of Eromanga. Travellers can join archaeologists and paleontologist on a rare adventure, participating in a Dinosaur Dig at a working archaeological site. Find out more about Dinosaur Digs here.
Taking over the Eromanga Natural History Museum
Robyn Mackenzie is the museum’s Operations and Collections Manager. Her eyes twinkle as she recalls the mammoth change of direction life took after Sandy’s discovery.
“I knew nothing about running a museum or prepping a dinosaur bone,” she says. “There were moments during the six years when I was on my own with Cooper’s ulna and thinking, ‘I’m not qualified to do this!’”
With no formal training in archaeology, Robyn was mentored by technical experts from Queensland Museum (QM). Though even QM staff encountered a steep learning curve, having never worked on anything as large as Cooper before. There are now 70 dinosaur and megafauna sites coughing up their secrets. Like 100,000-year-old fossils from three-meter-tall Procoptodon goliah, the forerunner to today’s kangaroo, which provide important post-dinosaur extinction data.
“No-one could ever have predicted how our lives would change. Can you imagine the most random thing that could possibly happen, something that would take you down an unknown path? This is quite a rare opportunity that we were given. When we found those first pieces, we were so excited!” says Robyn. “These discoveries are of international significance. We’re seriously beginning to rewrite the history books on Australian dinosaur heritage.” Establishing the foundation, the museum, which opened in 2017, and the boutique Cooper’s Country Lodge, has been a rewarding challenge. Though Robyn and Stuart still run their grazing property, Cooper and his ilk dominate their lives.
“One day Stuart and I were walking down to the shed lab, when I said I want to dedicate the rest of my life to this project,” Robyn reveals. She says that it felt like someone had handed her a really important package, the only one of its kind in the world, that needed to be preserved, protected and treasured. Fourteen years later does she still feel that way?
Yes, she does. Despite the frustrations that come with being reliant upon funding, Robyn relishes the challenge. She’s like a feisty protective dog with a bone who understands when to stand firm and when to roll over. In this case, the bones she is protecting are of an unfathomable age and play an important role in history.
The big reveal
With the latest exhibit ready to join the Holotype collection, it takes four museum staff to delicately move one half of Cooper’s 95 million-year-old pelvis into place. It’s about the size of a car bonnet. Those who have spent years prepping the fossil carefully remove its protective sheath. The emotion in the room is palpable. Cooper lives on.
So too do the descendants of Procoptodon goliah, despite their modern-day propensity for bitumen.
Outback Queensland is a treasure trove of rare and unexpected delights. There’s plenty more dinosaur bones, animal sanctuaries and extraordinary landscapes to discover. Check out another of our favourite outback road trip routes to Birdsville, QLD here. Or, learn how you can go about discovering more dinosaurs in Outback Queensland’s dinosaur capital, Winton.