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Walking with dinosaurs

July 9, 2010

Cal Orck’o: A long long time ago, before I was here, before the Spanish were here, before the Incas, before even the indigenous Bolivian tribes, some 68 million years ago, this spot 6 kilometres outside Sucre was a busy thoroughfare for dinosaurs.

Dino marks the spot, 6km from Sucre

We know by accident. In 1994, cement workers at the factory that bankrolls much of Sucre dynamited a hillside and revealed what is the world’s biggest collection of dinosaur tracks, bearing 5,000 prints of more than 250 individuals. Trucks still ply away at the site, so it’s unsure for how long the prints will last, especially while the quarry owners talk about blasting the rock “to discover more tracks”.

Tracks criss-cross this vast limestone cliff. Meanwhile, trucks continue to ply the quarry below

Cal Orck’o is an awesome sight: a criss-crossing testimony to extinct herbivores and carnivores on their way to somewhere long disappeared; a flat, even newer America, from before the Andes formed. The Bolivia of the Cretaceous was a swampy landmass, home apparently to several species of dinosaur and a few primitive mammals. At least 8 different species of dinosaur have left their footprints in the clay bed of what was a dried out lake, including T-rex, Triceratops and Brontosaurus. A massive volcanic eruption, 68 million years ago, threw sediments over the precious prints, preserving them for posterity. By 65 million years ago, these impressive animals were extinct.

Three-toed Theropod prints can be clearly seen.

A clash of tectonic plates forced the flat land upwards, so that the lake is now a limestone rockface 100 metres high. Now, in the 21st century, when so many large beasts have been restricted to the fringes of our planet, put behind bars or limited to dwindling ecosystems, the clear prints – some, a metre long – of these enormous free-ranging dinosaurs is a reminder of how small and vulnerable we humans are, of how short a time we’ve been here. The prints are so clear they could still be warm and it’s easy to trace their journeys up and down, some running, others stumbling. The three-toed gait of Theropods like Tyrannosaurus rex are easy to pick out, the big roundish trudge of the armadillo-like Ankylosaurus, and the longest track of all, a baby T-rex, they call Johnny Walker.

A cast of the prints and my hand for scale (which doesn't really work because my hand is higher up. The prints are at least 5x the size of my hand)

We approach the spanking new Cretaceous museum, where a plump, umbrella-twirling man approaches us and informs us that he is our guide. He peers disappointedly at the empty expanse behind us and asks if there are any other tourists joining us. Just the two of us, I tell him.

The museum entrance

Yikes, who jammed that rod up me?

We march silently behind him up the winding path to the museum entrance. There, a sudden transformation occurs, and with a beaming, showbiz smile, he begins his booming, rehearsed introductions over and above our heads to an imaginary crowd: “Hello, to all of you guys and WELCOME to Bolivia’s premier attraction. My name is Juan-Carlos, but you can call me Wanky, most of my friends do,” he announces, dead-pan. “We are fuckers today on prints of reptiles. Do you know what is a reptile? A dinosaur,” he answers, redundantly.

A model of ankylosaurus

And there ends the informative portion of the tour. The rest of our visit involves me and Nick trying to lose our ‘guide’, while he pants up to us telling us we can touch the models so we can know what dinosaurs feel like.

Nick for scale behind a model of a theropod

The plastic ‘recreations’ do nothing to dispel the wonder of catching a glimpse of the cretaceous world, of footprints left unknowingly by the previous rulers of this Earth.

Next door: the cement factory behind the prints' discovery and their possible destruction

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