Canadian fossil hunters spend six months tenting in outback Queensland annually, name it ‘dwelling’

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Barbara Flewelling crawls out of the tent she’s pitched on the dusty red plains of northwest Queensland, where she’s been camping for the past six months.

For more than 14 years, the 79-year-old Canadian and her husband Gary have been making extensive trips to the outback city of Richmond.

“As long as our bodies let us crawl in and out of this tent, we’re going to keep doing it,” she says.

Gary and Barb Flewelling say the fossils and friends always bring them back to Richmond.(Supplied: Barb and Gary Flewelling)

It was sapphire fever that drew the couple to Australia in 1976.

But it was a shared passion for fossils and an embrace of a friendly bush community that caused the couple to fall in love with the land they now call home.

“It’s the people. Now it’s like going home,” says Ms Flewelling.

“Because people are like, ‘Oh you’re back, I’ve been thinking about you and wondering if you’re coming this year’. Everyone’s so kind to us.

“It turns out that you meet nicer people digging for fossils than you do when digging for opals or sapphires – people are a lot more open and there’s so much to learn,” says Flewelling.

“Old Dogs That Won’t Die”

Over the years, the pair have become part of the facility in the close-knit country town, while their volunteer roles at the Kronosaurus Korner Museum have helped uncover significant finds in one of the world’s richest fossil regions.

The Flewellings discovered a significant fish fossil during a 2011 dig near Richmond.Supplied: Gary and Barb Flewelling)

Ms Flewelling says some of the finds can be a little emotional.

“My favorite find was Minnie, a baby ichthyosaur. They average about 7 meters long, but Minnie is five feet,” she says.

“It was the first time I found something that wasn’t just a bunch of bones. Minnie was a little creature that swam next to Mom 100 million years ago and I got very emotional about it. It was just a little baby!

“We love it out here – why shouldn’t we?” Mr Flewelling says.

“There is always something new to discover, there are always new challenges. This place is just starting to grow. And it’s really nice to be a part of this growth.”

Gary Flewelling, Dr.  Tim Holland and Barb Flewelling hold an Austrosaurus rib. Gary Flewelling, Dr. Tim Holland and Barb Flewelling holding a rib from Austrosaurus.(Delivered: Patricia Woodgate)

In 2011, Barb and Gary found a 3 meter long prehistoric fish fossil that is over 100 million years old.

Another important find was an ancient saber-tooth fish fossil that they discovered in 2017.

Paul Stumkat, a former curator at Kronosaurus Corner, calls them “very clever Canadians”.

“They seem to be able to stick their digging tools into all sorts of amazing things, and they keep turning up pretty amazing fossils,” he says.

dr  Patrick Smith and volunteers Gary and Barbara Flewelling kneel over the field of view where a rare lizard fish fossil was discovered. dr Patrick Smith and the Flewellings of the Australian Museum at the site where a rare fish lizard fossil was discovered in October 2016.(Delivered: Dr. PatrickSmith)

Years after these finds, the pair show no signs of putting down the tools as they continue to work seven days a week on excavations and help prepare fossils for the museum.

“Today we were digging in high 30 degree temperatures and lugging around a lot of stuff,” says Mr Flewelling.

“We are like old dogs that don’t die. They tend to just roll over and suddenly drop dead. That will probably be a description that fits us pretty well.”

Volunteers Gary Flewelling and Dr.  Patrick Smith kneel in the dirt looking for fossils. Mr. Flewelling and Dr. Patrick Smith looking for fossils at a site outside of Richmond in November 2016.(ABC North West Qld: Zara Margolis)

Although the couple has to return to Canada every year, the couple say they are leaving Australia with stars in their eyes and thinking about next year’s trip.

“We are passionate about what we do. We love the people, we love Australia. Any time an Australian politician does something embarrassing, we feel it, as does everyone here,” says Mr Flewelling.

Ms Flewelling sums up how they feel.

“We call ourselves Can-Australians,” she says.

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