Cry me an ancient river bed, dino face


That I might find a dinosaur seemed, to my parents at least, the most plausible of all my frankly very weird childhood ideas. The family had already sat through an afternoon of dim entertainment during which I decided I could fly and drafted by brother into cutting me wings out of butcher’s paper for the attempt.

At one stage my idea of mustering cattle consisted of asking them very nicely to please move in this or that direction. In my head we could do away with the horses and motorbikes and helicopters and just engage in a brisk series of conversational vignettes. Never mind that I was requesting them to head in the direction of their eventual slaughter, I thought it an idea with merit.

Every child is obsessed with something and for me, after my red gumboots and the coarse sensation of impending death, it was dinosaurs. After a brief early desire to become an opera singer — my first and only performance underneath a tank stand infested with spiders was regrettable — I blindly settled on becoming a doctor. I was five and the sight of blood made me feel like a sack of jelly so this, too, was ill-advised.

Once, my brother fell from the top of the stairs after climbing them and cracked his head open on the tiles. The Royal Flying Doctor Service was called and we carried him to the airstrip. My dad, followed by mum, followed by me, the blue heeler and the pet lamb all sauntered over to the dusty strip and watched as he was stitched up under the wing in the beating sun. It was then, with clarity, that I realised: I have thought this through poorly.

So, two careers cut devastatingly short I turned to the profession which holds us all in her bosom as young boys: paleontology. I would become a dinosaur hunter.

The author busy not finding any dinosaurs

Australia’s search for dinosaurs suffered from its own sort of cultural cringe for people who, you know, cared about that sort of stuff. Even in the ancient Gondwana land mass Australia was an edge on the edge of a wonderful expanse of prime dino real estate. Consequently, the animals that evolved here were specialised and cool but kind of weird, like the kids in extension maths class.

Trying to find them was half the battle. Australia’s geological landscape has changed very little in recent ages and what few discoveries have been made tend to be by graziers who tripped over a fragment of a bone exposed only by the grinding assault of extreme weather after thousands of years.

The first dinosaur bone fragment found in Australia was in 1903 in Victoria at a place now imaginatively called Dinosaur Cove, although we didn’t really get back there for another 75 years because, presumably, people had other stuff going on in their lives. We are not here to sit in judgment.

In 1844 a British chap was sailing on an expedition around “NE Australia” when he apparently discovered some limb bones, a claw and a bunch of tail vertebra belonging to a dinosaur. He then promptly didn’t ever tell anyone about it even though his job was to chart new species of (alive) animals and even though he wrote a book about the rest of the trip a few years later.

The fossils eventually wound up in, of all places, the mammal wing of the Natural History Museum of London after passing through various personal collections and being announced in 1891. Sadly, the bones appear to have been mislabelled and the dinosaur was actually one found in England which is altogether quite depressing.

A very big sauropod — this is a technical term — was found on a cattle station called Durham Downs north of Roma in western Queensland in the 1930s. This was a sign that dinosaur hunting was in my blood because it was on this station that my mother met my father, quite a bit later.

This 12m long beast was given the unfortunate scientific name of Rhoetosaurus brownei and probably died from embarrassment sometime before the onset of the Cretaceous.

Rhoetosaurus brownei. Died from being laughed at.

I had no particular skills as a dinosaur hunter aside from an encyclopaedic knowledge of the known species and a keen sense of my own God-given right to a discovery. What I lacked, it seems obvious now, was a working knowledge of how regular dead animal skeletons differed from those that have been fossilised through the impressive might of geological forces.

My earliest discoveries tended to be from cattle that had expired in the paddocks and even ones that we had shot ourselves.

“Mum, is this a dinosaur bone,” I would ask.

“No darling, that is the thigh bone from a steer.”

Gutted.

But there was no shortage of skeletons and no limit to my attempted scientific fraud.

“This?”

“That’s a tooth from one of the stallions, and you already tried to get money from the Tooth Fairy for it.”

Who did my mother think she was? A paleontologist? Skeletor, the Identifier?

It went on like this for years, until my parents divorced and we moved off the station. By then the only bones I had left were three ram heads and a mouse which I kept in a matchbox because if life has taught me anything it’s this: don’t throw out the mouse in the matchbox because one day a troll guarding a bridge might demand it as payment for safe passage.

One day.

I ended up donating the rams heads to my high school art department in part because I have a commitment to incubating artistic endeavour wherever it may grow and in part because they smelled horrific and were to inspiration what the United States military was to early psychological research.

We let our dreams die, eventually. We have to. The agonising part of growing up is realising that unless you really want to commit to becoming a dinosaur digger — and let’s face it, my hands were scarcely built for turning doorknobs let alone raking about in the rock in the Gobi Desert — then you’d better jettison those hopes like unsuspecting survivors in a sinking canoe.

The truth of it was that my new home, though ringed by extinct volcanoes, was as likely to throw up dinosaur skeletons as the plughole in a bathtub (which we all thought was a portal to another dimension, if we’re honest).

Dad moved to a cattle station near Winton and after two visits he finally relented and took me on the 70km odd trek to Lark Quarry, home to one of the finest dinosaur stampede impressions in the world. It may, in fact, be the only one but who among us is qualified to draw the line between a run-of-the-mill stroll and a stampede?

About 3300 individual tracks are imprinted there, the scene of a carnivorous beast chasing a bunch of smaller animals across the mud. My dad didn’t quite understand the significance.

Fucking emus. (Lark Quarry)

“Looks like a bunch of fucking emus ran across here, I could have shown you that back at the homestead,” he grumbled.

I took out my field notebook and began to make notes as I responded.

“You’re right, dad. Many of these animals were about the size of modern day emus, and they may have even had feathers,” I said.

Dad left to get a drink of water and to see if any of the other families there had a better son.

Part of the allure of dinosaurs is their size and although it needn’t have mattered it always bothered me that Australia’s catalogue of entrants to the genre consisted mostly of small-to-mid-sized herbivores. Certainly there were no tyrannosaur rivals or anything with a neck long enough to make it worth attaching a GoPro.

I couldn’t know it at the time but nearby, in 2005, they would eventually discover a massive long-necked beast with heavy set hips and an extra big thumb for supporting truly astonishing weight. This one, naturally, was called Wade and may have been the first instance in Australian history of any thing sporting a mullet.

The years dragged on, I graduated and landed a job as a journalist where you can write about people doing the things you might have done if you had an ounce of application. In accordance with the family motto: near enough was good enough.

And so I came to read the Courier Mail sometime around 2009.

In 2004, so the story goes, the 14-year-old son of a grazier near Eromanga (which has the pleasant claim to fame as being the farthest town from the sea in Australia) found what he thought to be an interesting looking rock while, you guessed it, mustering cattle. His name was Sandy Mackenzie and the station was Plevna Downs.

Stuart and Robyn Mackenzie with not just a very big rock (should have been mine)

I froze. Those fuckers. They were my old neighbours, one cattle station over from the one on which I had spent the vast majority of my childhood picking through shitty rocks with all the desperation of a parent at the Easter show lost-and-found.

Envy is not a useful emotion. This is the kind of advice given to you by the kinds of people who casually stumble across the largest God damned dinosaur bone ever discovered in Australia, the 100kg, 1.5m long thigh bone of a new species of Titanosaur which would come to be called Cooper after the creek system which feeds into Lake Eyre.

It is not useful for you to wish upon such people sudden misadventure in a ravine or vigorous reflux but here I was, succumbing to my base instincts.

Cooper should have been my discovery. It is to the detriment of this society that I was not fated to stumble in a similarly fortuitous manner. We have been deprived, therefore, of a species of dinosaur called the Ricky Raptor.

I rang mum and immediately explained my sense of fragility only to be greeted by howls of laughter.

“After all those cow bones! Oh, Rick! After all those cow bones!”

She began to wheeze in the manner of somebody who will never again hear anything quite as funny.

It turns out Plevna Downs was quite the dinosaur graveyard. They’re still digging and so far eight different species of animal, including potentially three new ones and two titanosaurs, have been found. You could trip out there and not fuck it up.

And then there is me, the bone rejected.

I find myself irrationally angry that, having come so close, the bloody dinosaurs couldn’t have had the decency to die some place else.