The year was 2007. We were at a friend’s 70th birthday party and I was deep in conversation with a rather eccentric economics lecturer from the University of Wollongong.
“There are two great natural wonders of the world in Australia,” he announced. “One is the Great Barrier Reef and the other is Lark Quarry.”
We all know of the Great Barrier Reef but I had never heard of Lark Quarry. He told me that 95 million years ago it was part of a great river plain with a rainfall of over a metre a year. The surrounding forest was lush and green. The day of the event, herds of small two-legged dinosaurs came to drink at a lake. There were carnivorous coelurosaurs about the size of chickens and larger plant-eating ornithopods. A huge meat-eating theropod, smaller than a Tyrannosaurus, was stalking the smaller dinosaurs and then suddenly charged. The stampeding herd left a mass of footprints as they ran to escape.
My first thoughts were, “how come the footprints are still there?” Sun, wind and rain would normally destroy them. However, the footprints were made in half-dried mud and then it began to rain so that the lake rose, covering the tracks with sandy sediments. Subsequent floods buried the prints below sand and mud. Over millions of years, the sediment layers were compressed to form rock.
A local station manager discovered the Dinosaur Trackways in the 1960s He thought they were fossilised bird tracks. However, what he was looking at was the world’s only recorded evidence of a dinosaur stampede.
The day after the party we were heading off with our A-van to Queensland and the Northern Territory with the intention of visiting Kakadu National Park, Litchfield National Park, Darwin and now, of course, Lark Quarry.
On night two of our journey, we set up in a caravan park, meeting up with a friend who taught at the local high school in a small country town. It was almost school holidays and she brought along a few other members of staff to the club where we had dinner. They were feeling cheerful at the thought of the two-week break where they would all return to Sydney for a taste of “civilisation”.
That night was windy and the noise from the palm trees deafened our ears as we went to sleep. I woke in the early morning, feeling excited that we would be crossing the border into Queensland. John stepped out of the van and called out anxiously, (polite version) “Where’s the car?”
To cut a long, sad story short, it had been stolen. After being taken on a joy ride it was stripped and totally burnt out. We caught a ride with the holidaying teachers to a bigger town where we hired a car and drove home. The van arrived on a truck a week later.
So it was not until 2017, ten years later, that we finally reached Lark Quarry. With a different car and a different van we set up camp in Winton and drove the 110 kilometres (65 km unsealed) to the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument. For 95 million years the fossils were sealed underground but exposure to sun, rain, people and wildlife was taking its toll. A building was constructed to stabilise the temperature and humidity and to keep water, animals and humans off the fragile Trackways.
Did it live up to expectations? Well, it depends on what one was expecting. I looked at those footprints, large and small, and tried to imagine the scene 95 million years ago. Just getting my head around the timeframe was impossible. That it was there in front of us, recorded for eternity, made our time on earth seem monumentally insignificant.