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Monday, 10 April 2017

Coober Pedy - Opal Capital of the Universe

Coober Pedy (South Australia)
Distance Travelled:
538 Km

Dead Things:

So, early on Tuesday morning we left our stopgap lodgings in Port Augusta and buckled up for a lengthy drive to the centre of all things ‘opal related. Yes, we were on our way to none other than the world famous (in Australia, at least) Coober Pedy. I’d heard a lot about Coober Pedy – mostly shady tales of drunken ruffians roaming the streets, blazing heat (the likes of which would give Death Valley a run for its money), ramshackled houses and ramshackled people. I am glad to report, that Coober Pedy in real life did not disappoint. But, I’ll get to that shortly.

These are your choices… take it or leave it!

The drive up the Stuart Highway towards Coober Pedy was spectacular. The view was resplendent with vast arid salt plains, a discordance of gnarled but somehow thriving plant life, and all manner of dead things strewn along the side of road (fun to poke a stick at – but pretty pongy in the baking hot sun) . Seriously, there is a lot of death out there. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter any of the human variety – but, by the end of the day, we had counted a grand total of 16 poor beasties that had met an untimely demise. This seemed momentous enough to warrant its own special 'dead things' page in our kids’ diaries – as well as inclusion in this blog…

 …For those wanting to play along at home, on this stretch of our journey we came across the following dead things: Kangaroos (x5), Wallabies (x5), Wedge Tailed Eagles (x2), piles of bones (x3) and a 'big fat cow' (x1) - thanks to Nat and the boys for dutifully cataloguing all of the carnage in its full splendour, to be replicated here). Be sure to watch out for future updates on the nature based road toll. We can’t wait to see what’s lying squashed around the next corner!!

Daniel checking out a salt lake

The forlorn animals whose lost lives became our drive-time folly also became islands of great excitement – inasmuch as they also attracted other (possibly yet to be mown down) wildlife of their own. Along the way we were lucky enough to get up close and personal (albeit whizzing by at 100km an hour) with at least half-a-dozen wedge tailed eagles. Of these, there is one whose image is now emblazoned in my mind. This steely nerved chap, who happened to be feeding on the carcass of a fallen wallaby in the middle of the opposite lane, didn’t even flinch as we sped by. No, instead of taking to the air in a majestic display of grace and power – it stayed put until the last moment; raised its head and glared at us. I swear, it seemed to be trying to pierce our car with its intensely brilliant yellow eyes. Perhaps it was sheer stubbornness, or an absolute sense of certainty that he was the king of this domain – but either way, I can’t help think that this was perhaps the reason two of the bodies on our dead things list were sadly beautiful specimens of this bird’s kinfolk.

Cuppa time on the road

We arrived at Coober Pedy late afternoon. We knew we were getting close when the landscape suddenly became dotted with mine shafts and towering piles of cast-off mining rubble. These mounds, robbed of their precious milky-white stones, grew into ever more massive pyramids the closer we came to the township.

Piles of cast offs from opal mining at Coober Pedy

Nestled on the highway turnoff towards to town sat a curious sign, topped with an old mining truck, announcing to weary travellers that they had made it to this strange little hamlet. Driving through the streets, it was clear this wasn’t an affluent patch of the world. Shops and houses were boarded up, standing dejectedly next to vast parking lots of broken down and rusting cars. There were two supermarkets, both with their own peculiar smell, to serve the locals and passing tourist trade; and a handful of mechanical services to keep us all chugging on our way. Otherwise, Coober Pedy seemed to be devoted almost entirely to the reason for its very existence – opals. All manner of opal related shops, mines tours and trading posts lined the surrounding areas; as well, of course, as a seemingly thriving opal mining industry. All of these were interspersed with caravan parks and other accommodation for us outsiders, who had come to gawk at this place and the people who make it their home.

Welcome to Coober Pedy!

Pulling into the dusty Oasis caravan park, our little Jayco Eagle was dwarfed by a row of massive trailers and camper homes that were parked alongside us. There were large gates at the front entrance to the caravan park, to keep the gawkers and the locals safely separated after dark. But inside the little gated community in the middle of nowhere, there was a sense of comradery amongst those who had made the pilgrimage across the dusty plains to get here. Having arrived late in the day, the first evening was spent setting up and cleaning out the trailer, having a few beers and chatting to our fellow travellers.

Popping into the local bottle-o that afternoon to pick up a couple of drinks, it was a new experience to not only have to show ID – but also for it to be scanned by computer and checked against a database to make sure I hadn’t been banned from buying alcohol in this region.  It turns out, I was fine. Phew!
After a good night’s sleep, we were up early the next day for a wander around the township itself. Luckily, everything that was on offer for the intrepid tourist who wanders into this dusty corner of the world was well within walking distance – even for those family members with shorter legs than the rest of the troop. Well, mostly...

Why did you bring me here dad?

It was hot, but luckily the cunning residents of Coober Pedy have come up with an ingenious way of beating the lashing blows of the sun. It seems the tyranny of the sun can be thwarted if one lives far out of its reach – and the best place to do that appears to be underground. So, underground we went. First stop was the Old Timer’s Mine.

Being the first site to be mined in this area, the Old Timer’s Mine has now been preserved as a museum. Wandering up the dusty road, passed another graveyard of dilapidated cars and broken mining equipment, it was almost surprising to be greeted by a very chipper and welcoming women at the gift shop desk who explained a little about the mine (dissuaded us from spending extra for the audio tour) and ushered us into a little nook to try on hard hats before descending down a flight of wooden stairs into the opal mine. Actually, it wasn't entirely that simple. Daniel took one look at the large “WARNING” sign posted at the top of the stairs and decided that going underground was a ridiculous idea and there was no way he was going to wear one of those horrendous looking hard hats…

Obligatory safety sign, which nearly curtailed Daniel’s underground experience

Eventually, with much coaxing, Daniel did join the rest of us at the mine entrance. Despite his initial uncertainty, in the end he was begging to go through again (if only to get out of the heat).

The hand carved mine was stunning to behold. The scars on the wall left visual echoes of where each blow of a pick axe had landed over a century ago. There were still seams of opal lying in situ, where the miners either hadn’t uncovered them fully, or had abandoned their mining for some unknown reason. It was cramped, dark and claustrophobic, but mercifully clear of the dust and arid smoke the original miners had had to cope with. Moving through the mine, the shafts and caverns gave way to a gentle slope ending in a large landing. This was full of old mining gear, as well as a host of paraphernalia from everyday life of the era. The journey through the mine also ended with a glimpse of what life in an underground house would be like, with the miner’s original dwellings still available to see. This consisted of a series of four or so rooms (complete with bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and living area) all carved into the rock, the electric wiring for lights and other appliances dangling from the ceiling. This house had in fact been occupied by a family until late last century.

Returning to the surface, blinking in the bright daylight, Ben and Daniel tried their hand at opal hunting (noodling, as it’s known) in a pile of mining cast offs. And so, with a fistful of opal chips, quartz and other shiny rocks, we made our way back to the camp site for lunch and a well-earned break.

We made our final foray into the surrounds of Coober Pedy later that afternoon. We set off in the car and took the 75 km drive to a place known as the Breakaways, which are a series of rock formations that became separated from the nearby mountain ranges many millions of years ago – and now seemingly float in the middle of a desert all alone. Arriving just before sunset, the colours were magnificent – striations of an array of colours stood out in the dying light of the day. It was a shame the flies also seemed to enjoy the spectacle, as they came out in force and seemed to be trying to chase the hapless onlookers away.

Ben admiring the majesty of the Breakaways at sunset – Coober Pedy

Before the sun left us entirely, we managed to make our way down to the dingo fence – which we were informed earlier by a very helpful gentleman in the Coober Pedy Information Centre, was the longest man-made fence in the world. Stretching over 5,300km in length, this fence seemed to add further credence to my earlier supposition that South Australia will stop at no lengths to keep out unwelcome pests. I’m not sure how effective the fence has been, but it certainly made for a lovely photo!

World longest man-made fence (dingo and cattle fence)

 After wending our way along a hole-pocked dirt road, we made it back to the caravan in time for dinner. Tomorrow we would be saying goodbye to the intriguing, if not somewhat slightly unsettling, Coober Pedy – with its troglodyte dwellings, boarded up buildings and magnificent scenery. I’m still not sure what to make of this small town in the middle of South Australia – but I’m certainly glad I came and joined the gawkers - simply to experience it for a few days.

Bye ‘d bye,


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