A fossil site that shows the beginning of Earth’s animals could provide the company town of Leigh Creek with its own new dawn.
The closure of the Leigh Creek coal mine, its major employer, has threatened the viability of the town 500km north of Adelaide.
Yet a shift from fossil fuel extraction to fossil examinations could bring high-end tourism to the region.
University of California palaeontologist Mary Droser has been coming to see the fossils at Nilpena Station, between Leigh Creek and Parachilna, for 15 years.
“These are some of the most important fossils in the world,” Professor Droser said.
“They are the fossils that show the dawn of the animal age on the planet, and this is the best location in the world for this.”
South Australia’s Flinders Ranges have been described as an outdoor geological museum, with fossils dating back 550 million years, when the area was covered by the sea.
“The oldest thing with a skeleton is here, the oldest evidence of sexual reproduction, which is pretty important, is here,” Professor Droser said.
“All of the major steps in our evolution are preserved here, and beautifully preserved.”
Day tours of the fossils will start in June, with the State Government set to invest in tourism infrastructure and push for a World Heritage listing.
Leigh Creek’s coal mine has closed with the loss of more than 200 jobs, in a town controlled by miner Alinta Energy.
But Premier Jay Weatherill said a handover to government control in 2018 will allow its facilities, including the airport, to be used for other purposes.
Leigh Creek ‘ready’ for tourism
“Because it’s such a high-quality airport, that means we can bring in flights directly to Leigh Creek and they can be here having this extraordinary visitor experience,” Mr Weatherill said.
There are about 500 tourism businesses in the Flinders Ranges.
They have had a chance to meet the government directly at a country cabinet forum.
Tourism operator Michael Anderson said the region was well-placed for growth.
“There is a lot of infrastructure – things like roads, and bits and pieces like that, certainly a good start,” Mr Anderson said.
“(We) also need some investment in marketing overseas to try and get more international tourists out in the district.”
A total of 34 ideas have been received from businesses and community groups for Leigh Creek’s future.
The government said the proposals would be considered over the next three months.