An underwhelmed Brendan Shanahan sees ancient Australian animals come to life (sort of) at Wonambi Fossil Centre. There is something a little depressing about animatronics. They date fast and the illusion is never quite what you hoped. Whether it’s the infamously laughable Ned Kelly re-creation at Glenrowan or a theme park talking rabbit that keeps reassuring you it won’t be long before you reach the rollercoaster, animatronics seem permanently stuck in some melancholy world of lost childhood – a land of jerky necks, poorly synched mouths and weeks of bad dreams.

The Wonambi Fossil Centre is an educational complex outside the town of Naracoorte, four-and-a-half hours’ drive south-east of Adelaide. One of the largest cave complexes in Australia, the area is also World Heritage listed as the site of the country’s largest megafauna fossil deposits.

To bring to life the region’s fascinating prehistory, the Fossil Centre features an animatronic walk-through that promises visitors the chance to “step back in time and discover what Naracoorte was like over 200,000 years ago”.

What’s the Gossip?
Here’s what other reviewers have said:
“Excellent. The centre has life-sized reconstructions, painstakingly put together.”
Lonely Planet

The AT Verdict
Brendan Shanahan, who paid his own way and visited anonymously, says:
“If you love fossils, this is worth a detour.
Otherwise, the appeal is limited.”

The display, which costs $10 for an adult, is an achievement for such a relatively remote area but is, ultimately, a mixed bag. The animatronics range from the relatively impressive, hippo-sized Diprotodon to the Phascolarctos, described as an ancient koala “one-third larger than modern koalas”.

Yes, it’s the slightly overweight koala – terrifying scourge of the ancient rainforest. Try not to run screaming through the fire exit. At the end of the animal trail are a cluster of standard text-box and touch-screen exhibits, doing their bit to justify the centre’s educational value.

Looming over these is an interactive exhibit that, even by the already low standards of edu-tainment, can only be described as deeply lame: large cartoons of various ancient mammals, rigged up to a hydraulic system, wobble their heads when you press a button. But only sometimes.

It’s not that Fossil Centre is terrible. It’s just that for $10, you tend to expect a lot more. Sydney’s Australian Museum, for instance, costs only $12.
Interactive entertainment technology is now so advanced that, were the same level of research applied to, say, interstellar space travel, we would be living on Pluto. So you’ve just got to do better than this. Kids these days are too spoiled for choice for a fat koala with a shaky head to ever compete. For what you get, the Fossil Centre should be free, or at the very least complimentary with the purchase of a cave tour.

The Naracoorte Caves go some way to making up for the Fossil Centre. The park is home to dozens of caves, a number of which are open to the public. Probably the most famous is the Victoria Fossil Cave, containing the largest and best-studied deposit of ancient megafauna in the country. The cave itself is the usual melting-candle affair, but the real attraction is the pit down which, over millennia, countless now-extinct animals fell to a grizzly end.

The tour of the caves is informative, and the replica skeletons help evoke the strange primordial world of prehistoric Australia. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking that a spectacular subterranean sound-and-light show would have been a better investment than the terrestrial robots. And, once again, the pricing structure is extremely complicated and doesn’t offer much in the way of discount incentives to visit more than one cave.

The Details

Where //
10km south of Naracoorte, SA.
Notes //
Cave tours cost $16/adult, $44/family. The park also offers adventure caving and camping sites.
Contact  //
(08) 8762 2340;

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