Gems, Fossils, Dinosaurs & Geology: a guide to touring central and northern Queensland with boys.
This post is a summary of our experiences over two holidays, to Longreach and surrounds in 2011, then a major road trip starting in Townsville, to Mt Isa, Normanton, finishing in Cairns in 2012. We are a family with late primary aged boys, both of whom are fascinated by dinosaurs & fossils, gems & geology.
Transport Suggestion: On both our holidays we used Queensland rail on the starting leg departing from Brisbane. It’s a relaxing way to start a holiday and a handy way to bring your own car along without actually having to drive yourself. Our boys both enjoyed the trains (something else they are into), especially being in sleeper cabins. The train to Longreach (The Spirit of the Outback) is particularly good, much like an old fashion pub on wheels. The train to Townsville (The Sunlander) wasn’t quite as good, more like a cafeteria on wheels (we should have upgraded to Queenslander Class).
The Dinosaur Triangle, Winton, Richmond & Hughenden: Each of these towns are worth visiting.
Winton – We recommend you start off with The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum just outside Winton (in their newly completed visitor centre), and meet the very genuine and excitable team of locals and interested blow-in’s who are doing some great palaeontology and uncovering serious dinosaur bits (sauropods & large meat eaters). After this head to Lark Quarry (Dinosaur stampede site), where you can see more evidence of serious dinosaur action. The town and its accommodation are not flash, but we STRONGLY recommend you stay out at Carisbrooke Station and give your kids the taste of farming in the outback.
Richmond – We were very impressed by this tidy and proud little town, base yourselves here rather than stay in Hughenden. We recommend staying at the Ammonite Inn (continuing the fossil theme), a local and very tidy motel, with a competent restaurant that welcomes kids. If the kids are driving you crazy there is a lake at the eastern end of town (an easy walk from the Ammonite) that the kids can run laps around, complete with basic water playground. The main dinosaur action is to be found at Kronosaurus Korner (KK), a well-curated collection of marine fossils. The audio guide is quite good, and over this occupied our kids for a good hour. KK’s (dreaded) gift shop is quite good – even selling hammers/picks. Said Hammer/Pick can then be put to good use at the couple of fossicking sites just outside of town (the nice people at KK will give you a map) where the kids can wander around whacking and banging rocks in general. Good luck finding more than broken shells, but fun all the same.
Hughenden – Probably the least impressive town and museum experience of the triangle… However we recommend you do the walks down by the river and fossick for Belemnites (distant relative of the cuttlefish) on the way out to the excellent Porcupine Gorge (see below). Once again the people at the information centre will tell you where to look.
Volcanos & Gorges: A bit of a pleasant surprise for us on our most recent holiday was the range of amazing gorges we visited.
Porcupine Gorge – About an hour north of (the not very interesting) Hughenden, is the spectacular Porcupine Gorge, a place you could spend an entire day or an entire 3 days (if you want to stay at the camp site). Kids can muck around in the creek, play on the rocks, or indeed make their own rock art, as ours did. It’s a bit of a clamber down and once you’ve all expended a bit of time and energy exploring the gorge, the journey back up is a bit harder going. It’s really well worth the journey, its one of those special places that kids imaginations can run wild in.
Cobbold Gorge: This is a great operation about 90 kms (of largely dirt road) south of Georgetown on the Savannah Way. A local family have adapted their cattle station into an eco tourism operation, focussing on the Gorge and the local flora and fauna (and yes, that means Crocs – but freshwater ones). They run a campground, motel style accommodation, a restaurant and bar, as well as tours or the gorge and cattle station. Big hits with our kids were the kayaks on the dam, the excellent brand new infinity pool and the opportunity to wave burning sticks around at the campfire at night (Boys!). Definitely worth a couple of days if you can.
Copperfield Gorge: Wow what a great little find. We were driving from Cobbold to Undara lava tubes and stopped off at the tiny town of Einasleigh for a pit stop and stumbled across this black basalt gorge formed by a Lava Flow from the not so nearby Undara Volcano. Even more conveniently, it’s directly in front of the Einasleigh Pub! We could have spent almost the day here rock hopping and swimming, even better if you had a kayak.
We think our next big Queensland Road Trip will be the “Four Gorges”, re-visiting the ones above and adding Carnarvon!
Undara Lava Tubes: Amazingly flat savannah landscape punctuated by 20 or so dormant volcanos. We stayed at the (far too expensive) “Undara Experience”. It’s the closest to the national park and is one of only 2 tour operators licenced to go into the tubes. We did the 4 hour tour, which was probably slightly too long for our boys – Once you’ve seen a couple of lava tubes, you don’t need to see another two. That said, the tubes were pretty spectacular and worth the trip. We found the accommodation and food to be poor value at Undara, if you’re staying there keep your trip short and bring your own food, or camp.
Way Out West (Mt Isa, Normaton, Karumba):
As part of our trip to the top of the Dinosaur Triangle, we thought we’d also take the opportunity to take our boys out further west to get a sense of “Real Mining”, at Mt Isa, then head up to the Gulf and loop back to Cairns. With hindsight we found our experience west of Richmond (and west of Croydon) to be the least enjoyable of our trip and if we did it again we’d give it a miss. Most of these towns (Cloncurry, Mt Isa, Normanton, Karumba) are not really geared for kids – their market is more of the Grey Nomad variety. There were a couple of mine tours that were interesting for our boys (book a week ahead for the above ground mine tour), but it’s a long way to go (and to come back from). If we had our time again we’d head north from Richmond to the excellent and hugely underrated town of Croydon (but you must get one of the 4 SC rooms at the pub)
Dry season & gorges – both our holidays have been in the dry season. The gorges we’ve visited would not be accessible during the wet season.
Dirt roads and windscreens – Most of the roads out this way are sealed and quite good. However some roads are only sealed for a single lane, which means you’re on the dirt whenever a grey nomad comes charging toward you with a caravan, or when a road train is bearing down on you from ANY direction. So it’s odds-on that you’ll either do a windscreen or get plenty of chips/cracks when on these roads (In a single hour we scored 3 chips and a crack). So make very sure you’ve got travel insurance or windscreen cover on your rental car, and read the fine print of your contract.