Saturday, September 28, 2013

The long way home

Once we'd finished drilling, I had to drive the core samples back to Brisbane. Oh, and did I mention that I'd bought a 1927 Dodge vintage car up there? I had to get that home somehow, too! Of course, I didn't come home via the most direct route.

South of our field area was the town of Winton. For a geologist, Winton's famous for two things, the Australian Age of Dinosaurs centre (, and Lark Quarry ( At the Age of Dinosaurs Centre, palaeontologists patiently extract dinosaurs from locally sourced boulders. I'd found some marine reptile fossils while drilling, so showed them to the resident palaeontologist for identification (probably a plesiosaur). Visitors can take a course on fossil recognition and extraction, and are then able to work in the extraction room for a few days.

Lark Quarry, about 70km south of Winton, has probably the world's best collection of dinosaur footprints. In one beautifully-preserved slab, you can see how chicken-sized dinosaurs were chased across mud flats by a much larger dinosaur. Having been so recently stalked by a cassowary, I think I know how they felt!

The countryside surrounding Lark Quarry is colourful but very, very remote. Old time opal miners discovered the footprints, and originally though they had been made by birds.

Little feet..

Followed by BIG feet...

The preserved quarry is now kept dry and cool inside a large shed. The visitor's centre is fantastic, and with coffee would be perfect! 

From Lark Quarry, I kept driving south, stopping for the night to camp on the bank of the Barcoo River. The road was entirely dirt, linking farms on the edge of the Tanami Desert. At one point I stopped to climb this ridge and look back. Just as well that I did, as I found that one of the Hilux's rear tyres was half flat (the bottom half). With 13 boxes of core, half a vintage car and 400-odd km of dirt roads, that was hardly surprising.

Unnamed ridge, somewhere between Winton and Quilpie, and the highest spot for ages!

Did I mention that I bought a vintage car while we were drilling? This should keep me busy for a while...

 1927 Dodge-osaurus

When I stopped in Quilpie, I was approached by a guy wondering what sort of car I had strapped to the back of my Hilux, as he collects Model T Fords. Lots of them... Iron really doesn't rust out west, it just turns brown!

Cape York, Cassowaries and Cooktown

Ok, during my first break I'd headed north to Cobbold Gorge and the Gulf of Carpentaria. The second was north-west to Lawn Hill, near the Northern Territory border. It was a while since I'd seen the sea, so for the third trip, I decided to head up Cape York before turning east towards Cooktown. Steeped in history, Cooktown's a place I'd always wanted to check out.

Windfarm at Windy Hill, near Ravenshoe

A cassowary stalking tourists (me!) at Mt Hypipamee National Park. A cassowary is essentially a Velociraptor with feathers and a bad temper.

For future reference, this is much, much too close!

Balloons over the Barron River, Mareeba. 

I drove as far north as the township of Laura, and Lakefields NP, before turning east. A few hours later, I popped out on the coast at Elim Beach, famous for its coloured sand hills.

Elim Beach. This was as far north as I've been up Cape York.

Cooktown's only an hour south of Elim Beach. It's a pretty and surprisingly well-developed wee town, and I stayed there two nights. If you go there, the restaurant on the pier has blue cheese icecream. Sounds weird, tastes wonderful.

The lighthouse on lookout hill. Captain Cook was stranded here in 1770 after damaging the Endeavour on the Great Barrier Reef. While the ship was being repaired, he would climb the hill to watch the weather and work out a route through the reef.

Sunset from Lookout Hill

  Cooktown after dark

I took the coastal Bloomfield Track south from Cooktown. This is supposed to be for 4WDs only, but in the dry season a 2WD car would be able to get through, I think.

 Bloomfield Track

The Daintree forest 

 One of the beaches along the Bloomfield Track

I camped the next night at Wonga Beach, before continuing south down the coast.

At Port Douglas I stopped for a coffee and to visit the wildlife sanctuary. I'd seen enough 'roos, wallabies, crocodiles and cassowaries in the wild, but some of the birds and lizards were charming.

Lawn Hill National Park

My second camping trip in northern Queensland was to Lawn Hill National Park. Lawn Hill is essentially a gorge cut through Precambrian sandstone by a spring-fed river. You can walk along the cliff tops, or kayak up the gorge. I absolutely loved it!


Geology: Science before safety

These ripples are about 1.5 billion years old!

 Rows of termite mounds

The cliffs of Lawn Hill Station.

I camped at Adel's Grove, about 8km from Lawn Hill NP. The camping area is under huge, shady trees, and it has a restaurant, bar and kayak hire so that you can paddle up the river. It has a general store and fuel bowser, and they run tours through the Park and to nearby, privately owned scenic spots. In contrast, the National Park campground was open, sunny and dusty. My recommendation is definitely to stay down the road.

About 50km south of Lawn Hill is the world-famous Riversleigh fossil deposit. It contains fossils of many of Australia's land-based animals, and charts the evolution of Australia's famous marsupials and megafauna. 

For the geologists: above the Precambrian sandstone is a Cambrian limestone. Rainwater seeps through the limestone and becomes saturated with carbonate. The various spring-fed rivers (Lawn Hill Stream included) are carbonate-saturated. At various times through the Tertiary, the climate has been wet enough to produce small lakes across the plains. In warm weather these would partially evaporate,and the water would become super-saturated. Animals trapped in mud along the banks, or walking onto rafts of crystallised carbonate would get trapped and preserved in the redeposited limestones. The region's now dotted with hard, elevated limestone outcrops, each one a window onto a specific period.

Riversleigh locality 'D', the only portion of the fossil reserve open to the public. Leave your geo-pick in the car!

The Cambrian limestone, with silica nodules. 

Closeup of the silica nodules. These have nothing to do with the fossil story, they just look cool!

 A turtle in the redeposited, Tertiary limestone.
A crocodile 

Northern Queensland - adventures by the dozen!

Studying geology at Uni, we assumed that our careers would be like one long field trip, maybe with slightly less alcohol consumption so as to survive past thirty. The reality is that most of us end up working in a mine, making sure that the always-hungry processing plant has a steady diet of coal or metal ore. But sometimes we get lucky, and get to go exploring for new deposits. I just spent three months in northern Queensland, and had the sort of adventures geologists dream of.

Because our field area was a couple of hours from the nearest town, we stayed on a cattle station. That meant we had to be self sufficient, and we learned a lot about farming in what is, for nine months of the year, a semi-arid grassland. It's a hard land to make a living off.

Sunrise on the plateau

All quiet except for the Kookaburras

 Sundown from our camp

A farm cat hunting for mice 

A helicopter and a swag. All a bloke needs in the Bush.

Because our field area was so remote, the drill crews flew straight to site.

An abandoned Diamond T truck. The front half, anyway! 

Flathead Ford 

Abandoned farmhouse 

Queensland's a huge state. When I was working in Moranbah, I visited a lot of the National Parks and towns in the centre of the state. We were based a lot further north this time, so I decided to spend my week-long breaks seeing the north of the state.

Trip 1: Cobbold Gorge, Karumba, Blackbraes NP

Copperfield Gorge, Einasleigh

 Termite mounds, Forsayth

Cobbold Gorge - cut through Cretaceous sandstone

Fresh-water crocodile.

The Gulf of Carpentaria

 Gulflander - a tourist train running between Normanton and Croydon

Moonrise over Blackbraes NP

Mist from the lake at Blackbraes.