16/10/15 From Kulgera Roadhouse, we headed south and into South Australia, our sixth State and Territory so far.
We followed the Stuart Highway 370kms south to the opal capital of the world, Coober Pedy. I’d been there when I was a 16 year old on a high school bus trip around Australia, and recalled that there were only a dozen or so buildings then. The town had certainly changed in the many years since and was now a substantial size, still showing signs of its rough and tumble mining heritage. With all the clutter and rusting hardware lying around, we had trouble at times working out whether we were looking at someone’s home or an industrial workplace; at times it was both. With the temperatures often exceeding 40C, 80% of the population of around 3,500 live in underground houses or “dugouts” where the rock walls and ceilings maintain a steady 24C day and night.
The name “Coober Pedy” comes from the local Aboriginal term kupa-piti, which means “white man’s hole”. Very appropriate. The landscape immediately around the town looked like an infestation of giant prairie dogs had swept in, with mounds of gravel EVERYWHERE. There are supposedly 250,000 holes around the area, and we were surprised to learn that only 10 miners were currently operating mines. The current soaring price of diesel has put paid to the rest. Opal mining is such a hit and miss gamble that the old days of staking a claim with just a pick and sweaty singlet are long gone.
I went to the local IGA to restock the bare wine cellar and came up against the strange South Australian alcohol law that specifically applies to Coober Pedy and Ceduna. To buy alcohol, we had to agree to having our driver’s licences scanned, and could then only buy one bottle of wine each per day. Fair enough, I thought, but what struck me as strange was that no restrictions applied to the sale of takeaway beer. They would have happily sold me a pallet of beer if I’d wanted it, along with my one bottle limit of wine. Work that one out… Needless to say, I got my one bottle of wine each day we were there and some beer as well.
We did the rounds of the opal shops lining both sides of the main street, and met some interesting characters running them. Most seemed to have Polish or Ukrainian accents for some reason. We also went through Faye’s Underground House, an iconic three bedroom home unchanged from the 1970s. When I saw it, I vaguely recalled going through it back on the high school trip. It looked a little smaller, though but maybe I was just a little bigger than back then.
The crash-landed spaceship from the movie “Pitch Black” was parked in front of the Opal Cave opal shop, looking very beaten up and forlorn, but strangely not that much out of place because this was, after all, Coober Pedy. The spaceship had been bought by the owners of the Opal Cave following filming of the movie, but soon discovered it would never fly again. Much of the movie had been filmed in The Breakaways, a semi-arid desert area north of Coober Pedy. The area is recognised as an ideal testing ground in preparation for the robotic and human exploration of Mars, and is a likely training ground for NASA’s planned Mars mission, if that ever gets off the ground.
We took a drive to The Breakaways Conservation Park the following day. It got its name because the mesas and low hills appear from a distance as if “broken away” from the higher ground of the escarpment. The spectacular barren scenery was also the location for scenes from “Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome”, and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, while the nearby Moon Plain which did come across as very Mars-like was used for the film “Red Planet”.
The homeward leg of the drive took us beside the Dog Fence, also known as the Dingo Fence, built in the 1880’s to keep Dingoes out of South East Australia. Stretching over 5,500kms from Southern Queensland to the cliffs of the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia, it is the longest fence in the world. Oz can lay claim to the strangest things.
Near Coober Pedy, we pulled over for a walk on the gibber desert and found a rock containing a number of fossilised cockle shells. We looked around more closely and soon found some individual fossilised shells and a larger mollusc shell lying on the ground. This area around Coober Pedy was once the muddy floor of an inland sea and now contains fossils 100 – 120 million years old.
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton