The World Heritage-listed Naracoorte Caves house the only place on the planet with a fossil record spanning the past 500,000 years.
Story By Ian Glover
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is more Jurassic Park than Mission Impossible. You’ll be teleported back to Australia the way it was 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene Age.
You’re standing on a ledge, not worried so much by the giant koala, one-third bigger than you’re used to, quietly munching on leaves the same way modern ones do, nor the marsupial tapir suckling its young. After all, it too is a vegetarian, as is the sthenurine kangaroo and the diprotodon, at up to 2.5 tonnes in weight, the largest marsupial to have ever lived. Even the five-metre-long python crawling towards you along an over-storey tree branch is of less concern than the real threats: a giant goanna and marsupial lion.
Hissing and weaving its head, the giant goanna is a good deal larger than a komodo dragon. Its scimitar-like teeth can cut you to ribbons and its scientific name – Megalania prisca (ancient giant butcher) – says everything you need to know about its temperament.
Nineteenth-century palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen described the marsupial lion as “the fellest [fiercest, cruellest, most ruthless] of all predatory beasts”. Roaring gutturally, raising its massive head, this lion is the largest mammalian predator ever to hunt on the Australian continent. If it succeeds in stalking you down, it will slash your body with the long claws on its semi-opposable thumbs, stab and strangle you with huge incisors, then rip you into bite-sized bits with blade-sharp cheek teeth. Not a nice way to die.
Fortunately, you’re not in a prehistoric rainforest but in awe of the grand diorama at the Wonambi Fossil Centre at Naracoorte Caves in South Australia. The ancient environment, robotic megafauna and their associated contemporaries are incredibly realistic – a must-see, and not just for those with dinosaur-crazed children.
Naracoorte is a pretty town with a Scottish heritage, north of Penola and Mount Gambier in South Australia’s south-east. Named in 1869 after a merger with another town, Kincraig, its etymological root is from the Potaruwutji word ‘ngarankort’, meaning ‘place of the stone axe’. The caves are just south of town and were proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 1994.
“This is possibly the only place on the planet with a continuous fossil record spanning the past 500,000 years,” caves manager Steve Bourne says. “Many sites have longer records but they don’t represent the more recent years. This critical period of Australian history spans the disappearance of the megafauna, then contemporary Aboriginal history and the last Ice Age...”
This story excerpt is from Issue #57
Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2008