The building itself is quite discreet, thanks to its low-profile design and earth-coloured exterior. What sets it apart is its extraordinary location, high on a remote, tabletop hill in outback Queensland.
Fourteen miles from the small town of Winton we’d arrived at a perfectly named ‘jump-up’, an ancient plateau looming out of the wide brown plains. From here, a steep road delivered us onto the tabletop where the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum commands spectacular views over timeless plains shimmering beneath blue skies.
It’s all rather visionary, deserving almost of John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park in the eponymous film, however the driving force behind the AAOD is a more modest figure – a tall, quietly spoken grazier in a cowboy hat.
In 1999, David Elliott was mustering sheep on his station, Belmont, when he spotted a strangely-shaped rock in the baked earth. It was the end of a 4ft-long thigh bone.
As well as discovering the continent’s then-largest dinosaur — the 52ft-long, 20-ton titanosaur — he ushered in a new era of excavation on both his and surrounding stations. The subsequently unearthed fossils of hitherto unknown animals were stashed on the Elliott property until 2009 when — with the support of the Elliott family, the local landowner who donated the jump-up, and $1m of state and local government funding — the doors opened on the museum.
David Elliott was insistent that real bones be on display, not replicas, as is the case in most museums. Within the darkened Collections Room of the AAOD are the remains of two newly classified antipodean dinosaurs: a titanosaur nicknamed ‘Matilda’ (Diamantinasaurus matildae), and an ambush raptor (Australovenator wintonensis) nicknamed ‘Banjo’. (Winton is where the famous bush poet A B ‘Banjo’ Patterson penned Waltzing Matilda.)
Paleontologist guide Carlin Webster tells us the two animals were found together in the bottom of what was once a muddy billabong. One theory is that the titanosaur was trapped in mud and attacked by the raptor, although Matilda obviously didn’t give up without a fight.
“And this,” says Carlin, using a laser pointer to indicate the skull of another titanosaur, “is the coolest thing we have in our collection. The holy grail of paleontology is the skull. We used CT scans to recreate the brain case — and from this we modelled the brain of the dinosaur.”
He holds out a cast of the brain in his palm. It’s little bigger than an egg.
The Collection Room is the tip of an iceberg — actually, the tip of the world’s largest collection of Down Under dinosaurs. Not far from the museum is a hangar-size shed containing thousands of Cretaceous-period bones stashed in floor-to-ceiling racks and huge shipping containers.
This is the Fossil Preparation Laboratory. Out in the field, bones have been encased in thick white plaster jackets and transported to the shed; some of the biggest can only be moved by forklift.
“Tourists can join in our dinosaur digs,” says Paul Nielsen, a Winton local and enthusiastic volunteer on ‘Dig-a-Dino’ weeks. “Trouble is, every time we go out, we get another 10 years of prep!”
Within the lab sits another remarkable sight: eight volunteers — many of them tourists; mostly retirees — using tiny pneumatic air drills to free bones from the thick mudstone rock that surrounds them.
“What are you working on?” I ask an elderly lady hunched over a huge magnifier.
“A bit of rib, I think,” she says, applying the tiny drill to a chunk of petrified bone. She consults some notes: “Yes, it’s a piece of Matilda.”
The remains of Matilda and Banjo are still being prepared, so volunteers are constantly adding to the 30-40% of the skeletons so far recovered. Other animals are also coming to light, and as the exhibits grow, so will the museum; there are plans to open a world-class Museum of Natural History on the hill by 2020.
What else can a dinosaur museum do but think big?
Prep-a-Dino volunteers pay from $87 (£40) for a day or up to $582 (£267) for a 10-day stint, including accommodation. Week-long Dig-a-Dino field trips cost from $3,600 (£1,650), including food and accommodation.
Read more about Max’s Queensland trip in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)