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The town where dinosaurs and Jesus mingle

Papier mache dinosaur Image copyright ALAMY

Jesus and the dinosaurs are living happily alongside one another in a town in Canada - but can the peace last, asks Tom Holland.

Drumheller is definitely the place to visit if you like dinosaurs. Perched amid the fossil-rich badlands above the town, the Royal Tyrrell Museum is probably the greatest treasure trove of palaeontological riches anywhere in the world, boasting everything from three complete tyrannosaur skeletons to a single delicate dinosaur feather preserved in amber.

Drumheller itself, not surprisingly, is an absolute monument to Mesozoic chic. There are concrete dinosaurs everywhere - in car parks, on pavements, even on front lawns. Pretty much every shop, it seems, features a cartoon triceratops.

There are some in Drumheller, though, who see in their town's status as the dinosaur capital of the world a more serious business opportunity. Zeke Wolf was an oil man - but retirement hasn't dulled his relish for making a buck.

Image copyright Science Photo Library

"No-one has better dinosaurs than us," he declares with evident pride, as we leave Drumheller, and drive along the ravine-scarred river valley which extends north out of the town. The gleam in Wolf's eye, I suspect, is one with which his erstwhile colleagues are thoroughly familiar - but it isn't an oil strike that he wants to show me.

Pulling off the main road, climbing a winding track past a rusting ski lift, and bumping across a scrubby plateau, he brings the car to a stop. In front of us are yet more ravines, with craggy, vertigo-inducing drops. "This," Wolf tells me, "is made for zip lines. You put a zip line from this side of the ravine to that side, and you've got the best zip line in Canada. But it won't just be the ravines make it the best." I look at him expectantly. Wolf smiles. "I'm going to fill that ravine with dinosaurs."

They are, he tells me, surprisingly cheap - made in China, an animatronic dinosaur will set you back a mere $6,000 (£4,000) a head. Wolf plans to invest in an entire herd of long-necked sauropods, and a pack of velociraptors. He asks me what I think, and I readily agree that the experience of travelling on a zip wire over an assemblage of Mesozoic megafauna would indeed be a distinctive one.

Wolf sighs. "There's only the one problem, really." He turns and points back down the ravine. I look. There, past the rusting ski lift, at the head of the valley, I see what he means. It is an astonishing sight. Gleaming white crenellations, classical pillars, and three crosses on a hill: it seems to be a replica of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.

Image copyright Tom Holland
Image caption The Badlands Passion Play: Drumheller's other big attraction

And so it is. Drumheller, it turns out, is home not only to the world's greatest dinosaur museum, but also to Canada's foremost biblical extravaganza - the Badlands Passion Play.

The following day, when I go to visit its executive director, Vance Neudorf, I meet a man no less in love with his vision of the future than Wolf. The Passion Play, Neudorf tells me, has been going strong for more than two decades - and it is, like the flower of the cactus when it blooms once every year, "a beautiful thing".

Unlike Wolf, Neudorf is not much interested in turning a profit. The Passion Play is staged largely by volunteers, for the love of Jesus, and the sheer joy of performance.

Just like Wolf, though, Neudorf has big plans. In this summer's forthcoming production, he tells me, he intends for the first time to have Pontius Pilate ride on stage in a chariot. His ultimate ambition is to build on the side of the very hill where Wolf is looking to station his velociraptor pack a full-scale replica of Bethlehem.

It all sounds rather ominous: one further battle, perhaps, in a war as old as Darwin. Somehow, though, I suspect that a compromise will be found. Drumheller, unlike the American Bible Belt, seems to have a taste for it.

Image copyright Tom Holland

The same town which boasts the largest walk-through dinosaur in the world - an 86ft-tall (26m) tyrannosaur, four and a half times the size of the real thing - is also home to a colossal statue of Jesus, which stands with its arms outstretched on a hill above the outskirts. Originally, Neudorf tells me, the concrete dinosaurs which now adorn Drumheller's streets had been gathered at the statue's feet.

It is a wonderful image - and gives me hope for the future. After all, if Christ could be shown preaching to stegosaurs and sauropods, then why should visitors to Drumheller not be able to follow a dramatisation of St John's Gospel with a zip-wire ride over a velociraptor pack? It would certainly tick my boxes.

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