We arrived in Coober Pedy (CP) just after dark after a stunning sunset. (Don’t start me on the night sky. I can't even describe in words how amazing the star strewn night sky is over the outback so I'm not going to try.) Sky cannot be appreciated until you are in a landscape as flat as the outback... you can see it forever, and during the day you can see where the horizon meets the earth so it seems as if you are driving into the clouds. An excellent exercise in one point perspective!
As we walked in to book at our campsite (Riba's) the lady behind the desk simply said "Do you want to go on the tour? It’s leaving now." Perfect timing obviously. So we had a little tour of how you would go about mining opals, from getting your miners licence, registering your claim, finding a seam (we got to try out divining rods) blowing up tunnels, etc. It was a very good overview I guess!
Riba’s is an underground dugout. The dugouts are what Coober Pedy is famous for (apart from opals, of course) and the town's name is thought to derive from aboriginal words meaning 'whitefella burrow' referring to the crazy white men burrowing dugouts into the ground to live in! But very clever indeed. The dugouts are amazing they retain a stable temperature of 22-25 degrees Celsius year round without any form of heating or insulation. The nights are freezing in the outback so the temperature difference was remarkable coming in or out of the dugout...safely inside I simply rolled out my mattress and sleeping bag and had a lovely cosy sleep. Though perhaps a little claustrophobic and completely dark.
In the center of town, there is a lookout. Arriving at it, I instantly realize this is one of my favorite places in the world. This is mainly because of the sign at the top. The lookout ends at a sheer drop. The sign, right at the edge, helpfully informs me that this is a 'no through road'. Underneath, in hand painted letters, it reads 'scenic photos here'. Now, the view of Coober Pedy, although interesting and unique, could hardly be called beautiful. If this sign hadn't informed me of the fact, I would never have known I was supposed to take a scenic photograph. I have rarely seen something that so perfectly encapsulated the wry humor which is intrinsic to the Australian way of life. I love it.
This sense of humor continues at the Coober Pedy Golf course, with a sign that reminds us to 'keep of the grass'. Remember Coober Pedy lies in a desert; there is not a blade of grass in sight. In fact, people wishing to play the course must take their own patch of 'turf' to tee off on, and because of the extreme heat of the day during summer, games are mostly played at night with glow-in-the-dark balls. Interestingly, it is also the only golf course in the world with reciprocal right with the famous St. Andrew's in Scotland. It would be hard to imagine two very different golf courses.
It is this casual attitude that I love about Australia, especially out here in the 'outback'. The very name 'outback' implies this attitude-this huge, vast expanse that covers most of Australia and is one of the most hostile environments on the planet, is casually, with a thumb jerk over the shoulder, referred to as 'oh, you know, out back.' The place names are excellent: 'Bungle Bungle,' 'Humpty Doo' as well as the strings of completely unpronounceable aboriginal names which accompany your journey, providing you with the entertainment of trying to say them out loud as you travel the endless expanse.
I found Coober Pedy particularly endearing because, although tourism has obviously started for this little town, it doesn't seemed to have registered yet. Everything I went to see was part of some local's home, or left open to view with just an 'honesty box' for an entrance fee. The museums were wonderful collections of all sorts of junk and ephemera with hand written notes and a complete lack of organisation. It was wonderful, and although there is already one horrible big resort place I hope Coober Pedy never loses this unique charm.
Coober Pedy is renowned for its opals (you can even still come and mine here if you like) and I dutifully visited some old mines and museums, which were all very interesting, but my personal highlights of the visit were definitely exploring various dugouts and underground buildings. The first, Crocodile Harry's Dugout, being one of the most bizarre places I have ever visited. From what I could gather, Crocodile Harry was some sort of crazy yet amazing German guy who emigrated to Australia, worked in mines but liked to spend his free time striding around in his loincloth, with a full beard, killing crocodiles. One photograph of him was captioned: 'Croc catch for the night: 80.' In the meantime he created his huge and bright dugout, and having studied art, decorated it with weird sculptures (mostly of naked women) and ephemera - the most amazing collection of junk I have seen.
Crocodile Harry has passed away, but his dugout has been left completely intact for us tourists to come nosey around in... down to the last detail, including his soap! All is completed by a hefty layer of dust. Even during his life Harry’s dugout was considered a tourist attraction so people have added their own mementos to his collection by leaving all sorts of things there, including a large collection of underwear, hats, flags, business cards, etc. Most impressive for me was his little bookshelf, his book collection, and his photograph albums, which are left there completely untouched. Being a terrible snoop I leafed through some of his diaries and photo albums and he really must have been the most amazing man. His travels were extensive and amazingly photographed. It was fascinating but I felt so intrusive looking through all his very personal things. It felt, in part, like a shame for them to be left here, collecting dust apart from when the occasional curious tourist leafs through them and I almost wish all his photo albums were preserved in a gallery or the like.... .
The whole dugout, preserved as it was, was eerie, as it felt like you were sneaking around someone's private life; the impression was emphasized by it being completely deserted apart from two dogs, who seemed to live there, but seemed to dislike our intrusion and barked at us constantly. When I left to go back to the car, one of them rushed towards me, obviously prepared to attack, so I left in quite a hurry...I might even have squealed a little. But the visit was definitely worth it, to catch a glimpse into this eccentric man, Crocodile Harry.
The other dugout I visited was the complete antithesis to Harry’s – Faye’s Dugout. Greeted at the door by a sweet old man, he informed us that he and his wife actually lived in the dugout, but kept it perfectly preserved as it had been when owned by Faye. It was definitely a strange experience to be guided around staring at photographs of the man's family on the walls, accompanied by the original 60's décor. However, the dugout itself had an interesting story. Faye had moved to Coober Pedy from Melbourne when the population of Coober Pedy was only 70, and of that, 10 women. Faye bought a one room dugout, which had been used by the postman for 50 years as his overnight parking and sleeping space, and she and two other women simply expanded on that room, spending 10 years creating their dugout by hand using picks and shovels. An amazing achievement. Faye was also a true pioneer in that she provided the first underground accommodation for travelers in Coober Pedy. Faye is still alive, apparently, living in Brisbane. A portrait of Faye still hangs on the wall (looking eerily a bit like Princess Diana) and you can see that her dugout, thanks to the new owners, has been perfectly preserved for us tourists to traipse around in.
The town itself is surrounded by the silhouettes of 'blowers' and mounds of dirt. The blowers are DIY custom made trucks that have been adapted to siphon out the dirt, and as they dump the sand out they create the endless mounds. Opal mining, uniquely, is not done by large corporations, but by individuals. The Old Timers Mine was really interesting in this respect. I cannot get over the hand dug shafts and conditions the miners worked in. However, my favorite part was the attached museum, with all sorts of bits and bobs and junk related to Coober Pedy and opals and mining to explore and poke around in. Apparently there is more opal to be found; in fact in the museum they have 'on display' a real opal seam, which if extracted, could make you richer by an amount in the tens of thousand Australian dollars. Just lying around in a museum wall... Unfortunately, without a lot of mining equipment it would be very hard to steal. Oh well.
Once you get out of the endless mining scenery, however, and about 10km down a dirt track (not much fun in a normal car) you can reach the breathtaking scenery of the breakaways. Following the road, you reach the end and realise that the ground falls away below you, and then stretches into infinity. You are looking down at an immense plain, which looks like the surface of an uninhabited planet, mars, or the moon. It is broken only by the 'breakaways' which rise up below, their tops level with the escarpment on which you are now standing. All of them are levelled off at the top, as if they had been perfectly sliced, and have streaks of beautiful vibrant colours of white, orange and yellows. It’s an unspectacular, unassuming beauty, but watching the sun rise slowly over this landscape, it is one of the most breathtaking I have ever seen. Breathtaking, because I was busy running from one vantage point to the other to stare at as much of this alien landscape as possible sadly not very much. It's too big.
For lunch we also imbibed in an important outback experience – dining on kangaroo, crocodile and wallaby steak, as well an emu sausage. I can’t say I enjoyed it much, especially the kangaroo which I found disgusting. I did quite enjoy the crocodile though, and the emu was interesting!
Having fed ourselves, we went to feeding time at the kangaroo sanctuary and got to feed baby kangas! So cute and also really interesting. Some of the kangas will not be released – one is too stupid, and one is so acclimatized to humans it thinks it is a person! But most will be re-released into the wild. So interesting to see these completely bizarre animals up close; you can’t appreciate how bizarre they are without...
Finally, the Serbian Church was simply stunning. Simple and elegant, with a stain glass window which dictated the shape of the one cavernous hall dug into the earth. Unfortunately we were there in the afternoon; it must be beautiful when the light shines though the stained glass window onto the oranges of the dugout walls.
Read Part 5 -