My first night sleeping underground was quiet, cool and dark giving a great night’s sleep. It would be perfect for anyone working night shift. There was no electical plugs in the cool cavern that was our room, only a light switch and light. There were also no toilets or water of any kind. The temperature below ground in the pinky white rock burrow was always a constant, between 24 – 26 degrees, no matter what the weather above ground, but the air must be circulated via air vents coming into the room from PVC pipes that run from the room to the ground above. These can be seen sticking up out of the ground everywhere.
We went for a walk around the town with the first impressions not real good. Some of the indigenous people were out and about, (well mainly lying in the park). Some were painting, others were drinking and smoking. Some were already drunk as they staggered to meet the rest of the crew. Not the welcoming committee you hope for but it does seem a part of life out here. That’s not to say the’re all like this of course. The indigenous members of the motel’s cleaning crew were friendly, clean and very hard workers. The town consisted of a couple of pubs an IGA store, pharmacy, newsagent, takeaway hamburger and pizza place with Camel Pizza on the menu. There’s lots of accommodation with 2 Caravan Parks, many B & B’s and plenty of Motels. The biggest trade was, of course, from the many Opal shops.
Bargaining would start at the moment of entry. “You get good bargain here Miss,” “Best prices in town.” There was every piece of jewellery and nic nac under the sun, with all types of opals in them. We saw the old Drive-in theatre as well as the old football field. We did find out later that there is another wonderful football field with real grass.
There’s a lovely hotel in town called “The Desert Cave Hotel” and this is where we headed for coffee.
They also have a wonderful interpretive display that told us a lot about the area.
Below is a photo of a digging machine commonly used to excavate the opal mines and the underground houses. Now I understand how the rooves of the underground rooms get their interesting grooves while the walls look like they’ve been carved with a circlular grinder. Thats the way theses machines cut out tunnels.
Of the 3500 people that live here we saw very few. My disappointment was showing a bit and if we hadn’t already booked and paid for a tour of the area we may have just packed up and left, marking the Coober Pedy thing off the bucket list with and moving out as quick as possible. I’m so glad we didn’t! “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover” – So true and that is why we go to Information Centres in the towns we stop at becasue there’s always a treasure trove of knowledge and interesting facts to be found from the locals. This was definately true of Coober Pedy as well. Our tour guide was Jimmy. He’d arrived in Coober Pedy from Greece when he was 17 to visit his brother who worked here and he’s never left. He’s now in his 49th year here. He raised his two daughters here and is totally in love with the place. He knew everybody and every thing about the town and its surrounding area. He’s been on most of the town’s committees and organisations as well, a real key player in the town’s life. We started down the main street with Jimmy showing us a house owned by an Italian family who don’t care how much it cost’s for water as long as they have Tomatoes, Olive trees and other vegetables. I didn’t get a photo but their garden was as good as any home in the city, even down to the lush grass in the front yard. We took in the Coober Pedy golf course next. A round of golf anyone? No grass on these fairways – you do have to roll the putting greens up after use.
We visited one of the underground churches. Here Jimmy is showing us the alter which is an old winch that was used in the past to bring up the soil from the opal shafts. We’d already visited the first underground church built in 1965 earlier in the morning.
The site of the original post office was next. There are now 12 homes in this hill. I did ask how the postman found everybody but was told he couldn’t, so every one has to go to the post office themselves.
Then we saw some of the equipment used to mine opal. Usually this consists of a truck with a motor mounted on it effectively making it into a large vacuum cleaner. The pipes and tubing of this big vacumn cleaner are placed in the opal shafts where the excavated dirt is sucked up by means of a powerful pump driven by the motor on the truck and into a drum that’s been fastened to the top of a derrick. When enough dirt is sucked up into the drum the weight will open the flap at the bottom and deposit the dirt on to the “Dump” mound where it will be meticulously sorted through for opal.
Opal claims around Coober Pedy must have no more than 3 men per claim. That means no large mining camps for 55km down the Stuart Hwy from Coober Pedy. A claim holder must also work the claim for a minimum of 20 hours per week in order to keep it. A small claim is 50 x 50 metres and a large claim is 50 x 100 metres. There’s also an Opal Development lease of 200 x 200 metres which can only be held for 3 months, cannot be renewed and must be on virgin land. With all this you still have to “guess” where you think opal is. There is no known method of detecting opal. A miner needs a basic knowledge of the geological landscape to understand where and what to look for before sinking a shaft, but from then on its pure luck. Jimmy had mined here most of his life and advised us never to start. He worked one spot for a year, put over $2500 in to it and got a whooping $13 out in opal. Others while excavating their houses pulled out between $100,000-$200,000 worth. You would have to be the biggest gambler on earth to commit to a life of digging for opal. Most other minerals, such as coal or diamonds, can be found by sensing equipment and geological knowledge, but not opals!
Opal is formed from a solution of silicon dioxide and water. As water runs down through the earth, it picks up silica from sandstone, and carries this silica-rich solution into cracks and voids in the rock that are caused by natural faults or decomposing fossils. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind a silica deposit. This cycle repeats over very long periods of time, and eventually opal is formed. You won’t find large amounts of opal gathered together in clumps as you would say coal or diamonds. It’ll suck you in like a Poker Machine causing an addictive, “Maybe I’ll win with the next push of the button,” attitude. Opal may reveal itself anytime – with the next blow of the pick or with just one more stick of explosive.
On to “Boot Hill” cemetery. Now, I had read about Karl Bratz who passed away from cancer at 52. He never lost his sense of humour and designed his own coffin of corrugated iron. He had spent most of his life 50 miles from anywhere and said everywhere he went everything was built from corrugated iron. Jimmy the Guide who was Karl’s friend, said in the last few days of his life he left hospital and organised an 18 gallon beer keg and a few bottles of wine for the wake, “To have a drink on me”. That’s what they did, it ended up with 6 of his mates staying to finish the keg. They then used it as Karl’s headstone. The rest of our tour guests, an English couple and 3 Swedish backpackers didn’t seem to relish going into the cemetery but I enjoyed this bit of “Aussie humour”.
Our next port of call was to the “heart” of Coober Pedy, the mines. There is a fence running down the Stuart Hwy 50 feet from the road to stop visitors from stopping and going to “have a look” and then falling into the shafts as they take photos. Unless you have a license you can’t go into the mining areas.
This is not the place to walk or drive at night with 1metre holes that are up to 30metres deep everywhere. They say more people go missing here than anywhere else in Australia. Jimmy swears they find them… eventually.
There are rules everywhere about not walking backwards, not throwing anything down shafts etc.
This claim used the Noodling Machine. Dump material is loaded into a hopper which feeds onto a belt in a darkened cabin and passes under an ultra- violet light. Any opal shows up white and is removed. They usually put women in there so “it’s not so squashy” I could think of so many other jobs that I’d prefer to do.
Finally we got to “Noodle” for ourselves. It does suck you in as others would cry out they had found some opal it’d make you look harder. We were the only ones who found “colour”, 95% of opal found is potch or common opal with no colour. Chris found a large piece of rock with colour showing in a section, the excitement grew as Jimmy told us to break it. As we cracked the rock our fortune turned out to be a tiny spot on the once, fist size rock. You could feel the hope rise and fall in all of us. This is what the miners feel all the time. Instead of walking away it made you go back to crack open other rocks to see if they were holding the next “big one”. The rock is light and easy to break but it didn’t take long to be covered in fine white dust.
Jimmy had to drag us away to move on to the next part of the tour. Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest. This old lecher declared himself to be Arvid Von Blumentals, Latvian Baron who was forced to leave his country after World War II. He worked as a crocodile hunter in Northern Australia before coming to Coober Pedy to fossick for opals in about 1975.
His underground home was featured in the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The cave is adorned with his own artwork and the walls of the dugout are covered with the names and photos of girls who he claims to have seduced. Point being, he liked big breasted women. Apart from all that he did have an interesting dugout and adjoining opalmine. When you look at the amount of dirt that was excavated it stills amazes me the work they got through.
From here we drove out of town to enter a part of this country I will never forget! It simply took our breath away – The Breakaways. The Breakaways are so named because when seen from a distance, it looks as if the land features have “broken away” from the main range – the Stuart Ranges.
This area was once covered by an inland sea. Fossils of the original sea creatures can be found very easily throughout the area. We drove down on to what was once the ocean floor past rock formations called the “Two dogs” or “Salt and Pepper” that were once submerged.
What about this one “The Camel”. A camel lying down, it’s head on the right moving along his neck then to its hump on the left.
We then drove along the Dingo Fence or Dog Fence. It was built in 1880 and finished in 1885. It started out as a rabbit proof fence but it proved unsuccessful so it was converted into a dog fence. It is the world’s longest fence stretching 5614 km.
The fence stands 180 centimetres in height, is a further 30 centimetres buried underground and is completely made out of wire mesh. It spans two states. With the camel explosion in this area (Jimmy said from the original 9000 brought in from overseas there are over 1,000,000 today and we are exporting them back) they are having problems with camels smashing down parts of the fence in search of water or maybe from amorous males when they are in heat. The worst affected spot is the 100km stretch near Coober Pedy. Even Vicki had to lock up the brakes recently when she was confronted with 30 camels standing on the Highway. They would definatley have caused much damage to the truck.
The desert-like moonscape along the fence has been nicknamed the “moon plain”. Usually this has no growth on it but due to the rains last year weeds are growing here. This area has been used in many films like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Ground Zero. The rocks scattered around here have iron in them and when hit together make a very metallic sound.
We came back into Coober Pedy along the Oddnadatta track.
Chris and I were so fascinated by the breakaways that as soon as we had arrived home we got back in our car and drove out there ourselves. Stopping on the plains to experience this “space” on our own is something you need to do. When the wind stops there is no other sound except your own breathing. I have never before experienced that. There was no leaves rustling, no crows, no cars, just dead silence. It is something I will take away with me forever.
Jimmy had told us the sunsets are wonderful and he often takes tours out there for that. As the day goes by, the passing of the sun changes the desert colours, creating photogenic scenes that appear surreal, he wasn’t wrong.
Up at the lookout we were joined by 2 other couples, luckily they too wanted to experience this and everyone was quiet and enjoyed the time. One of the couples had parked their van for the night. They not only got to see the sunset, but also enjoyed the full moon, the stars and the rising sun.
We stayed for the full show, with the sun setting on one side and then the moon rising on the other. The whole Coober Pedy experience certainly hadn’t disappointed. I will never forget this place or the feelings I have for the area. It was a trip of a lifetime. ——————————————- FROM CHRIS I was completely captivated by what lay before us. For five hundred kilometres in each direction, this ancient sea bed stretched before us. What did these mountains look like back then? Was there lush vegetation and prolific animal life? To stand at the edge of these jagged cliffs and stare into the timeless beauty of the stark desert was to indulge in a dreamtime, a dreamtime were the imagination mixes with the sketchy facts and suppositions of today’s geologists. No matter whom you are or what your scientific background this vast landscape leaves you with few facts and lots of theory. The silence assists you to lose yourself in your ponderings. You’ve also become part of the timelessness of it all. A rock picked up and thrown to the valley floor far below, untouched by human hand or foot, will lay there for how many centuries before ever being disturbed. A rare site of another living organism catches the eye; it’s an eagle soaring on the hot wind currents barely needing to flap a wing. The colours are spectacular, earth colours of reds, whites, pinks and blacks all melding together in a landscape no painting or photograph could come close to capturing. The only way to harness such awesome beauty is in the eye of the mind. An inner yearning wells up from deep inside somewhere, a yearning to stay here forever and become part of what stretches before you. What is it that causes this? Maybe it’s just an unwillingness to depart from something so spectacular, so awesome and overpowering. Maybe it’s knowing that many secrets still lay down there; in the fossils just a scratch under the surface, in the minerals that make up the colours in the rocks and in the nooks and crannies of ancient caves that have beckoned exploration for thousands of years. Maybe it’s the opal! How much more of this residue, made from the seepage of uncountable tons water of from long ago, is just under the surface? Whatever the reason, there’s a magnetic drawing to this place that is as undisturbed now as it was when the final drop of water dissapeared eons ago.