Going underground

21 to 24 September 2019

Rawnsley Park Station to Coober Pedy, 681km

Stefan decided against breaking our journey to Coober Pedy at Woomera. He didn’t think that I should wake up on my birthday in a town which exists solely to service the Royal Australian Air Force missile testing base. Rather he decided to drive an epic day to ensure I woke up in the town that, like Broken Hill, I had assumed to be fictional when the Priscilla bus rocked up amongst its troglodytes.

His determination was nearly thwarted by our first experience of the equation between the Stuart Highway’s diesel prices and the frequency of service stations (or lack thereof!)

Deciding not to fill up at Pimba where fuel was $1.89 per litre, we played a game of diesel chicken when we also, somewhat recklessly, passed the servo at Glendambo. With 255km still to go and no diesel available until Coober Pedy itself we watched the fuel gauge fall with each passing kilometre. Tick was very, very thirsty when we finally got to town and our first stop was to give him a good drink.

Emerging out of the bare, dry desert, Coober Pedy doesn’t look much like a town. It is more like a large collection of mines with the occasional tin roofed building.

We were back in opal mining country but there is one key difference between Lightening Ridge and Coober Pedy. Here, where the rock is different and summer temperatures regularly hit the 50s, almost everyone lives underground.

And it’s not just homes, with their tell tale ventilation chimneys, that are underground. Their bars, art galleries and churches are subterranean. There is just so much more going on in Coober Pedy than it seems from the surface. It’s hard to imagine there is a population of 1762 living and working there, somewhere.

My birthday was spent relatively quietly and above ground with a visit to Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage. Kangaroos and joeys (plus other animals and birds) lucky enough to survive the roads are taken to Josephine’s to be nursed back to health. Australia’s strict native animal laws doesn’t allow them to be released back into the wild so some of them end up staying in the courtyard behind the gallery. For the joeys, a padded bag and old towel is substitute for their mother’s pouch. This cute but faintly extra terrestrial looking one emerged for a quick hop around before heading straight back in to its safety.

Inside the gallery, as well as a large collection of opal jewellery, indiginous artist Tommy Crow was working on one of his unique and beautiful sunset dreaming paintings. These vibrant outback landscapes with their silhouette mallee trees, kangaroos and emus against bright sunsets are so evocative of the sights we have seen we just had to buy one.

All day Stefan insisted that I wear my birthday badge, including out to dinner in the evening. Somewhat surprisingly Coober Pedy has a choice of highly recommended restaurants including John’s Pizza Bar, ranked in Australia’s top 10 pizza restaurants. For my birthday dinner, however, we plumped for the Outback Bar and Grill at the Shell service station. Granted it was a strange location but its Greek influenced food was excellent.

The next day we did something we don’t usually do and took an organised tour of Coober Pedy and the surrounding area. Like the restaurant, this tour had come highly recommended by a couple we met at Rawnsley Park Station so we decided to give it a go and it was, as they promised, excellent.

We started in one of the town’s old mines, right on the main street. Our brilliant tour guide and local resident, Aaron, explained that the local council had closed all the mines in the centre of town when there were so many tunnels it became a health and safety risk. Mining is now prohibited inside the town but this, apparently, does not stop residents applying for permission to dig “extensions” to their underground homes – if they find opal, what a coincidence!

One of Coober Pedy’s most famous homes is that of much loved resident Faye who came to the town as a cook, set up a cafe and dug her own home out of the rock with the help of a couple of women friends. She also mined for opal and the swimming pool room built above ground suggests that she did very nicely from it!

After Faye’s, Aaron took us to one of the town’s most spectacular churches – the Serbian Orthodox Church built by Serbian opal miners in 1993. Nothing to look at from the outside, inside it is beautifully carved into the rock.

Next we headed outside town to visit the desolate Moon Plains. It’s not hard to understand why movie makers come here to film science fiction. It’s pretty remote but its not quite as far as Mars. Temperatures can reach 60° in summer making it more like the sun than the moon.

Across the plains stretches the Dog Fence. One of the largest structures in the world it covers a distance of 5614km from Western Australian to Queensland, intended to keep the dingoes out of the sheep stations of the southern states. It’s quite a job keeping it good repair, every 300km or so section is tended to by an individual worker. It’s not entirely effective as we learnt from Ernie’s presence at Trilby Station.

From the fence it was a further bumpy ride along the Oodnadatta track to find the Breakaways, another of the stunning backdrops for Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

Once at the bottom of an inland sea, these sandstone rock formations don’t need drag queens for added colour. They glow with reds, oranges and yellows with flashes of bright white.

We stopped to stare at this sunset view whilst enjoying some sparkling wine with nibbles.

Before the tour finished and we returned to Coober Pedy, Aaron drove us right into one of the opal fields with their thousands of white heaps and accompanying, unfenced, 30m deep shafts. Estimates suggest that the opal fields of Coober Pedy are full of more than a million shafts.

Some miners have stacked their claims in areas where more industrial mines were started, noodling through the debris to find left behind gems, including our guide, Aaron. Ask him, however, if he has found any opal and he’ll give the same answer all miners give, “Still looking.”!

Above ground Coober Pedy introduced us to South Australia’s state emblem, the striking Strut desert pea. Amongst all the dust these bright flowers were refreshing to see.

We had toyed with not continuing further north under our own steam and flying up to Alice Springs later to visit Uluru. It was a long drive through the desert to get there but having got so far we decided just to go for it. Trouble was that it was the school holidays and the last month in which the traditional owners of Uluru were closing the controversial climb up the rock. That meant it was very busy indeed and we couldn’t get in to the campsite when we wanted to go. But an extra day in Coober Pedy was an easy price to pay for our lack of planning for our onward journey to see that big rock…

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