There are lots of ways to approach an overland travel itinerary when we’ve turned tail to head home. We can follow the major arterial roads, put the rig in top gear, turn on some music and let the world simply pass us by. We get home quickly this way, but we may risk driver fatigue and we’ll certainly miss out on some terrific opportunities to learn more about this great country.
Another way to approach the trip home is to meander from point to point, stopping when something interesting catches our eye. Better still, we can pick a travel theme and let it shape how we select our routes, and where we focus our time.
If you reckon the best experiences in life usually happen on the detours, then a trip south from the Top End offers some fascinating locations that show what life was like here in Australia in prehistoric times and, happily, also takes in some of the country’s best wine regions.
So we thought we’d have a closer look at what’s in store where things went ‘Roar!’.
The truth is that Australia has an amazing pre-history with many significant sites waiting to be explored. Indeed, the oldest evidence of life on Earth was found in Australia. At 3.48 billion years old, the single-celled organisms uncovered in the Pilbara in 2017 are 14 times older than the dinosaurs that existed from about 240 million years ago to 65 million years ago.
If your sights are set on dinosaurs of the sort that made the movie Jurassic Park a cult-classic in the 1980s, head up to the James Price Point on the Dampier Peninsula and you’ll be in an area dubbed ‘Australia’s Jurassic Park’. Here, an unprecedented 21 species of dinosaur tracks have been found; some of them the largest dinosaur tracks ever recorded. They include the only confirmed evidence of Stegosaurs in Australia.
Down south, evidence of a T-Rex relative was first found at Dinosaur Cove in the Otway Coast in the ‘80s — the first example of this giant in the Southern Hemisphere. And this year's discovery of 80cm dinosaur footprints near Oakey, Queensland, has heralded the existence of Australia’s largest Jurassic-era carnivorous dinosaur.
Dinosaurs aren’t the only thing we have on the ‘mega’ scale. There are 250 fossil-rich sites throughout Riversleigh in Far North Queensland with public access to one of them. Here, the fossils virtually leap out from the rocks.
Riversleigh has proven the existence of a goanna-like crocodile that may have climbed trees, and something called 'Fangaroo' — a kangaroo with huge canine teeth.
The site has also revealed a 15 million-year-old skull of an Obdurodon dicksoni — which was a 1m-long platypus with teeth! If that doesn’t impress you, close your eyes and imagine walking along a rainforest-covered river 26 million years ago and coming face to face with ‘Big Big Big Bird’ (as the locals call it) — Dromornis murrayi. This 2m-tall vegetarian weighed in at 250kg and was a distant relative of the duck.
Basic camping is available near the fossil sites. Or, if you’re looking for somewhere to take a dip, Adel’s Grove or the Lawn Hill campgrounds will fit the bill.
While you’re admiring the crystal clear (crocodile-free) waters at either of these sites, imagine the 5m-long Baru darrowi crocodile that got around the rivers here in the Mioscene Period.
As you continue your trek south to avoid the impending monsoon season, it makes sense to stop in at Mount Isa to visit the Riversleigh Fossil Centre. Here you’ll gain a better understanding of the significance of the Fossil Fields. Informative guides can show you the laboratory where fossils are removed from the rock, and there are interactive displays to engage the kids. If you’re planning next year’s trip, we’d recommend coming here first to ensure you get the most out of your visit to Riversleigh.
RUN FOR YOUR LIFE
Now, we all know that to escape a lion, you simply have to out-run the person next to you – right? Well, that’s the lesson that 150 coelurosaurs (dinosaurs the size of chickens) and plant-eating ornithopods (about the size of an emu) learned around 95 million years ago. Their story is laid out for all to see at the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument at Lark’s Quarry, Winton.
This site is an easy drive south of Mount Isa down the Landsborough Highway, refuel at Winton and head down the Winton-Jundah Rd. Here you’ll find the world's only recorded evidence of a dinosaur stampede. To set the scene, imagine a herd of these small two-legged dinosaurs drinking at the lake. It’s the end of the dry season and the water has receded, so they’re all standing up to their ankles in the half dried mud along the shore line, minding their own business. Then along comes a 3m-tall, 8m-long carnivorous therapod.
It slows down as it surveys the smorgasbord in front of it. It stalks, then charges after them. You can imagine the panic and sheer chaos of 150 dinosaurs dashing through the muddy bank to out-run everyone else in fear of becoming this thing’s lunch!
The muddy footprints are preserved in stone because, soon after this incident occurred, the rains came. The rain filled the tracks with sandy sediments. The area was then flooded, covering the tracks in a metre of sand and mud.
The Willandra Lakes Region of south-west NSW is another must-see for the wannabe palaeontologists amongst us. Often referred to as Lake Mungo, this landscape is now semi-arid, which is a far cry from how it appeared two million years ago. Back then, a system of Pleistocene lakes supported a unique biodiversity. Until a few thousand years ago, the (Tasmanian) Tigers and Devils roamed these parts. Earlier again, mega-fauna species such as the Zygomaturus lived here (imagine a wombat the size of a VW Beetle weighing 500kg). There were also the Procoptodon and Genyornis which were 2m-tall kangaroos and flightless birds that weighed more than 200kg — now that’s a sizeable Coat of Arms.
While impressive, the region’s fauna is not what makes this place famous. In 1968, the remains of a 40,000 year old female were found in the dunes of Lake Mungo. In 1974, the ochred burial of an Indigenous male, known as Mungo Man, was also found nearby. While humans are known to have ritually buried their dead for at least 100,000 years, the cremated remains of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man are between 40–42,000 years old and pre-date other records by over 32,000 years. So it’s easy to see why their discovery is considered to be so significant.
In addition to the remains found at Lake Mungo, nearly 460 fossilised human footprints were discovered in 2003. This is the largest example of its kind in the world. Doubtless there are yet other wonders still to be found — exposed by the winds and rain.
You never know if you’ll be the one who’s ‘in the right place at the right time’ to make the next big discovery, so keep your eyes to the ground.
If you are travelling this region, you’re spoilt for choice in regards to wineries. Just to the west is South Australia and the gateway to the Barossa. Closer still is the Riverina and to the south is the Murray Darling region where they’ve embraced a range of non-traditional wine varietals such as Viognier, Tempranillo, Grenache, Petit Verdot and Colombard. Further south, and you’ll find yourself around Melbourne’s well-known Macedon wine region. Whichever wine region you choose, you’ll find many family owned and run wineries who’ll be eager to welcome you.
THE WAY OF THE DINOSAURS
The coastal approaches to Melbourne are bristling with pre-history. The 40km coastline between Inverloch and San Remo south of Melbourne is known as a dinosaur mecca. Around 120 million years ago, this area was a valley that separated Australia from Antarctica. The Flat Rock fossil site, a few kilometres from Inverloch, includes the highest concentration of bones at any site along the Victorian south coast. And, whether you’re a palaeontologist or a day visitor, there’s plenty to see for those with a keen eye — including fossil tree stumps exposed at low tide alongside dinosaur footprints.
Further west, Dinosaur Cove near the Otway Ranges on the Great Ocean Road has been actively dug since just after Federation. The site itself is hard to reach, located beneath 40m-high bluffs on the eastern side of Rotten Point. Not one for the faint-hearted.
From Warrnambool, it doesn’t take much convincing to keep pointing the rig west. South Australia offers some real ‘wow factors’ for would-be palaeontologists. Central among its drawcards is Naracoorte (sister site to Riversleigh), located just over the Victorian border along the Limestone Coast. Naracoorte is among just 11 World Heritage Listed Fossil Sites. And it is easy to see why.
At Naracoorte, the caves have acted as pitfall traps, collecting animals for at least 500,000 years. So, while the caves don’t hold fossil dinosaurs, they certainly hold the most complete and best preserved fossils of Australia’s iconic megafauna, spanning several ice ages until their extinction roughly 46,000 years ago. Pleistocene fossil vertebrate deposits in the Victoria Fossil Cave at Naracoorte are considered to be Australia's largest and best preserved.
Since 1858, when the first discoveries of Naracoorte fossils were published, 23 fossil deposits have been found in 13 of the park’s 28 caves. This includes the remains of the Tasmanian tiger — that’s right, they used to be all over Australia until the dingo was brought over from South-east Asia.
Other remains include the marsupial lion — imagine a wombat that evolved into the largest carnivorous Australian marsupial ever known! Inside its jaws were enormous (4–6cm long) slicing and shearing blades that a modern dentist would call pre-molars.
Happily, Naracoorte is located in the heart of one of Australia’s favourite wine growing regions. With names as familiar as Coonawarra, Padthaway and Robe, there are plenty of reasons to stay a while.
GO THE DISTANCE
So there you have it. A 3500km journey from Australia’s tip to toe, travelling through time to take in some of the nation’s most fascinating pre-historical sites and its best wine regions.
Once you’ve whet your appetite, you’ll find there are plenty of other locations where you can learn more about this ancient land. Here are a few to get you started:
National Dinosaur Museum, Canberra, ACT
All of the large state museums will have a section on paleontology but the National Dinosaur Museum is home to the largest permanent display of dinosaur and prehistoric fossils in Australia. Canberra also boasts some great cool climate wineries with spectacular rieslings.
Age of Fishes Museum, Canowindra, NSW
This is one of only two fish fossil museums in the world and is a National Heritage site due to its international scientific significance. This fossil deposit is aged between 360 and 370 million years old and contains the remains of thousands of freshwater fish. The Cowra and Canowindra region is also flush with wineries with chardonnay and shiraz the region’s varietal heroes.
Fossil Cliffs, Fossil Bay, Tas
The cliff exposure in the Fossil Bay area is recognised as the best example of lower Permian strata in Tasmania, if not the world. The cliffs are studded with a prolific amount of fossils of the thick-shelled clam Eurydesma. Pinot noir is the champion varietal of Tassie.
Purnululu (Bungle Bungles), Ord River, WA
The limestone karsts here hold bands of Cyanobacteria that represent some of the oldest lifeforms on Earth that are believed to be up to 3500 million years old. It’s a bit warm up here for making wine but the Ord River Irrigation Area punches out other crops to fill the larder.
SIP, SIP, HOORAY
When you’re on your Big Lap, dashing to the tip or simply escaping the southern winter, there are 65 wine regions begging for you to stop and taste a tipple or two. In fact, there are a combined 170,000 hectares under vine in New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania — and a smaller area in Queensland.
Wine-Searcher currently lists 5115 Australian wine producers, helping Australia to claim its place as the fourth largest wine exporter and seventh biggest wine producing country in the world! Not all of these are the ‘big guys’. There are lots of smaller wineries out there who need your support, particularly after the turbulence caused by last summer’s bushfires and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic.
Until recently, wine tourism was the fastest-growing sector of the wine industry, but not any more. Indeed 2020 is being dubbed as one of the toughest years on record for Australian wine producers.
So shed your ‘winesolation’ and get out on the road: you’ll discover locally made and family-owned food and wine experiences in some of the most unlikely places on your adventure.