Fossil Hunting in Kalbarri National Park - Keeping Up With Little Joneses

Fossil Hunting in Kalbarri National Park

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Kalbarri National Park had been at the top of my list of places to visit in Western Australia since I arrived back in 2012. In the park you can find evidence of the first animals to walk on land and to a geologist, that’s about as exciting as Disneyland.

We first visited back in 2013 as the final leg of a big road trip up the Coral Coast, only to find the national park closed for road resurfacing. The second time we planned a trip to Kalbarri, the tail end of a cyclone was forecast to hit at the same time so we skipped town again. June 2017 was going to be third time lucky

Jed and Maddie looking out over the Murchison River in Kalbarri National Park

In June we set out on our first road trip with a baby. Maddie was 5 months old at the time and my parents were visiting from the UK to give us a hand during those first challenging months of parenthood. It had been a frenzied time coming to the end of two modules for my masters degree. Now, with two exams completed and Jed fresh home from working offshore, our family was well and truly ready for an adventure.

We set off on a three-week road trip with three main objectives. Firstly, we wanted to maintain our-pre baby hobbies as much as we were able to. We figured that our interests of hiking and camping were fairly baby-friendly anyway so just needed to push the nerves of disturbing routines aside and get out there. Secondly, we thought that if we wanted Maddie to be happy with long road journeys, sleeping in different places, noisy birds at dawn and so on, we had better get started early. Our last goal for this trip, and one of the best reasons to embark on any trip in my opinion, was to show my parents what we love about Western Australia. This trip was a whistle-stop tour of Our WA.

View over the Murchison River

And so, very early one morning, the five of us packed into the car, hooked up the camp trailer and set off. First stop, Kalbarri. I prepared well. Being a geeky geo and keen to demonstrate just how exciting my science can be, I diligently researched and came prepared with rock formation names, palaeoenvironment history and information on fossils we were likely to find.

Jed and I have a little ritual where by the first thing we do when we get to town is drop in the tourist information centre. We usually have a chat with the staff to see what is going on, check out the local conditions for hiking and pick up some leaflets. Now, we must have some bad luck in Kalbarri because the road into the national park was closed again! I’m not always the best at concealing my feelings and on this occasion the look of disappointment on my face must have been glaring. The lady behind the counter quickly interjected that the road into Z-Bend and Natures Window was closed to the public but we could still access the park at the Ross Graham Lookout. I had read that the best fossils can be seen around the Z-Bend area of the Murchison River but no there’s no reason we couldn’t have a go at finding some for ourselves in the other areas of the park. Undeterred, Jed and I set off to find my parents and tell them our plan.

I’d like to think that in the six years I’ve lived in Australia I have acclimatised well. No longer do I keep my shoes on a chair at night just in case a snake or spider take up residence with the explicit intent of murdering me when I go to put said shoes on. Although Jed and I still disagree whether pasta is pronounced ‘par-star’ or ‘pah-sta’, I’m pretty comfortable and sensible when heading out into the bush. My parents on the other hand have more of a ‘fresh-off-the-plane pomme’ mentality and as such were busily preparing for a Burke and Wills-type expedition, i.e. too much useless stuff, not enough real supplies. They did however lend a lot of thought to potential dehydration and had purchased enough bottled water for us to survive a week. I can’t begrudge anyone for carrying enough water so we loaded our backpacks with plenty of ‘just in case’ provisions and off we went.

For this hike we planned on carrying Maddie in her Baby Bjorn. She was always happy in the carrier and enjoyed facing outwards and watching the world and waving at people.

Jed carrying Maddie at the top of the walk down into the gorge

We set off down the path from the car park and started to descend into the gorge. It had been a chilly morning but it was perfect for taking the baby for a hike. We reached the riverbank, a rugged area with large boulders, some polished and rounded from being swept downstream after heavy rains, some still angular evidence of recent rock falls. We made our way upstream, stopping regularly to take in the scenery. Jed was bounding between rocks, pointing out different features in the landscape, assisting me in my search for the fossils. There were plenty of trace fossils called Skolithos, long, thin cylindrical remnants of worm burrows but the conditions didn’t look good for finding the footprint fossils I was so keen to see. Nanny and Granddad were happy trying to identify all the birds they saw.

The distinctive red rocks in Kalbarri National Park were deposited 450 million to 480 million years ago in a time known to geologists as the Ordovician. The landscape was very different at the time with a broad mountain range to the east with rivers running down from the highlands to extensive tidal flats to sea level. The rocks we see today in the park, exposed as the Murchison River has eroded down tens of metres into the rock, are the preserved sandstones of these river systems and tidal flats. These are known as the Tumblagooda Sandstone. Although only one body fossil has been found within Tumblagooda Sandstone, the region is famous for its trace fossils. Trace fossils are preserved footsteps, burrows, root cavities and any other evidence of life preserved in the sediment. Very specific conditions have to prevail for trace fossils to be preserved; the ground cannot be too wet or too dry and it must be calm enough that the traces are not destroyed by wave or wind action. An intertidal zone is perfect.

So what is all the fuss about? Well, the trace fossils in Kalbarri are thought to have been made by ancient arthropods called Eurypterids (sometimes called Sea Scorpions because they look somewhat like modern-day scorpions although are not related) walking up out of the sea onto the beach about 470 million years ago (give or take a few tens of millions of years). These are thought to be the oldest fossils of this kind and as such are evidence for the first ever life on land.

Family selfie on the walk back up to the car

Although the seas were teeming with life by this time, there was no life on land; no animals, no plants, not even moss and fungi. The scene would have been barren like the surface of Mars today. It would take a few more tens of millions of years for the first green algae and fungi to creep on to land from their homes along the edges of lakes.

After about an hour or so, and feeling a little downhearted, we turned around and started heading back to the track up to the car park. It had been a fun expedition and stunning to explore, but we saw no evidence of these trace fossils.

We were almost at the base of the track when I saw a recently fallen boulder perched precariously a few metres up a scree slope. It was about a metre across and positioned in such a way that the once-horizontal beach surface, with ripples preserved, was now angled close to vertical and facing directly at us. Cutting across the ripples were two parallel lines, like what you see if you were using a stick to draw in the sand. These lines were about a hand-width apart, starting at the bottom of the exposed beach surface and veering up and off towards the left. We had found them!

I scrambled up the scree slope with enough excitement to attract the attention of some fellow visitors who had just descended the track. As I neared the tracks I could see that they were indeed what I had been searching for. I put my hand on the rock, tracing with my fingers the path the sea scorpion would have walked almost five hundred million years ago.

Mum looking at the Trace Fossils

I am forever bewildered by the time travel that geology enables for us. Imagine the world that this animal inhabited as it crawled out of the sea on to land for the first time. There would have been nothing but sand dunes, rivers rapidly migrating across the land surface with no vegetation to secure their banks, and barren mountains in the distance. The atmosphere would have been very different to today. Then five hundred million years worth of things happened; dinosaurs, mass extinctions, the rise and fall of civilisations, someone invented the wheel, the industrial revolution, 9/11, McNuggets, the iPhone, you were born, millenials. This all happened in the time between when the Eurypterid walked out onto this beach and when I traced my fingers through its footprints. And yet I am touching those footprints, connecting with that past. That blows my mind. That reminds me how insignificant I am in the grand scheme. That makes me respect and revere Mother Nature, the strongest chick of all time.

Jed posing in front of the trace fossils (top right) whilst Maddie slept, missing all the excitement

I am in my bubble of awe and wonder for a few minutes, I don’t know how long, and then rejoin the real world of today to see Jed, Nanny, Granddad and the two strangers watching, waiting patiently for confirmation that we had found what we were looking for.

“We’ve found ‘em!” I exclaimed before launching into an excited and animated geology lecture, probably quite similar to what you’ve just read.

I look to Maddie to see if she has picked up on all the excitement, but no, she’s sleeping, her little head propped to one side, chubby little cheeks puffed out and her lower lip stuck out as if she’s drifted off mid-way through a big sigh. I figure that at 5 months old, there’ll be plenty more opportunities to share my wonders with her.

After taking some photos, using a lens cap for scale of course, and a few family pics with my new favourite fossil, we track back up to the car and head back to town for a well deserved coke and an ice cream.

This was definitely a successful forage at Ross River. We look forward to returning to Kalbarri and having a look around the rest of the National Park. Keep your fingers crossed the main entrance is open for us next time!

Looking out over the gorges from near the top of the trail
Ancient footprints in the sandstone
Yellow lines show the trace of the ancient footprints in the sandstone.

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