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Published: January 7th 2007
Salt, salt, more salt
The lake bed is coated in a thick crust of salt, which forms large sheets about a metre square. If you're careful you can peel off huge great pieces of the stuff. An amazing sight.
I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with R. Roadkill. As I mentioned it before it litters Australian highways to an absolutely astonishing extent. As we drove back along the Lassiter Highway from Yulara towards Marla, we kept a tally - to count as a fully-fledged item of roadkill, the body had to be entirely or partially on the road asphalt and had to be vaguely recognisable. Even with these stringent criteria, we counted more roadkill between Yulara and the Stuart Highway - several hundred kilometres of road - than we did cars. It's a wonder that there are any animals left around here...then again, kangaroos are considered pests in these parts and make up over 90%!o(MISSING)f the roadkill.
Major highways running through the middle of the desert being rather thin on the ground, we return towards the southern coast along the Stuart Highway, stopping at the same non-places we discovered on the way - Marla, Woomera. We make an extra short stop, however, at the town of Coober Pedy, about halfway between Marla and Woomera. This oddity of a town is, despite being in the middle of nowhere and hundreds of miles away from anywhere
, rather well-known.
Good facilities !
A highway rest stop somwhere between Erldunda and Marla. Barbeque and fuel provided ! Having miscalculated our fuel requirements, we are by now running on the thinnest of thin vapours and Marla is 20km away...
The reason for this is that the otherwise unremarkable desert that surrounds the town is one of the world's largest and most important opal fields.
With a population of about 3,500, Coober Pedy is about as close to the big city as you are going to get in these parts. The town's rather odd name is a deformation of two local Aboriginal words, kupa piti
, which mean - appropriately, albeit strangely, enough - "white man in a hole". Indeed, not only do a lot of people in Coober Pedy spend a lot of time underground sniffing around for precious opals, but much of the town's population actually lives
there, in holes. Like rabbits. Such are the temperatures during the day here that sub terra
is just about the only place that's bearable - the mercury regularly reaches 40 Celsius.
Always keen to make a few extra bucks on the side, a couple of enterprising locals have opened up their troglodytic dwellings (not strictly the correct term but its onomatopoeic value is just right) to visitors. Curious as we are, we couldn't resist being taken on a tour of one such home. This particular hole, or set of holes,
Mine's bigger than yours...
One of the truly monstrous caravans we have seen on our road trip. This one is, quite literally, larger than our flat in London ! Those grey nomads like to live in style...
was a full-time family home. Dug decades ago - by hand - by a plucky lady who set up a restaurant catering to opal miners - fossicking all day in roasting temperatures is hungry work, I imagine. After changing hands a couple of times the home (I want to say house, of course, but...) was bought by the couple who live there now. As we walk through the door, hewn into the rock, down some steps, the temperature plummets suddenly from barely tolerable to pleasantly cool. It's true, after all ! The whole place would look quite ordinary if it weren't for the fact that the ceiling and walls were bare rock. As we look up we notice a few cracks with matchsticks wedged in - a precaution, the owner tells us, against land movements. If you wake up one morning to find the matchsticks on the floor, you know it's time to move out. To the apparent obliviousness of the owner (which made it all the more amusing), the place was furnished and decorated top to bottom in the most nauseating Seventies kitsch style you have ever
seen. It made Del-Boy's flat look like something out of House &
The Unbearable Whiteness of Lake Hart
One of the many vast salt lakes to be found in the desert. This one, Lake Hart, is particularly large. From a distance it is actually quite difficult to see if there's water there or not...
Garden. Naturally, it all added to the charm - I wonder what the underground property market is like in Coober Pedy ?
So what's all the fuss about ? From a mineral point of view, opal is pretty unexciting (then again, so are gold and diamond but we've gone potty over those for centuries), essentially consisting of slightly wet silica (partially hydrated silicon dioxide
for all you mineralogy buffs). Although I can't say I find these fluorescent technicolour stones particularly attractive, a lot of people obviously do and are ready to part with a whole lot of wonga (see ? I'm becoming Australian already) to buy the best specimens. Add to that the fact that a whopping 97%!<(MISSING)/i> of the world's opals come from Australia, and the result is a multi-million dollar industry with Coober Pedy at its heart. Since 1915 when the first opal was found (by a group of prospectors who had actually been looking for gold) thousands of hopefuls have flocked to the desert in search of these precious stones. In the Thirties the whole industry - like most others - went bust in the Great Depression, to bounce back after War. From the Sixties immigrants
Mobile home ?came to Coober Pedy from far and wide to make their fortunes. The result is a huge expanse of desert riddled with deep holes - so many that road signs on the Highway warn visitors never to walk backwards ! The landscape is also littered with rusting mining equipment - those trucks we saw with giant hairdryers on their backs are actually blower trucks, which somewhat counterintuitively suck up ground up rock from the shaft where a tunnelling machine eats its way through the rock. This method produces a whole lot of mess, which is simply left in large piles called dumps (Australians like to call a spade a spade) everywhere, leaving the landscape looking like Molezilla's been at work.
Not the Stuart Highway, but road-related anyway. An entire prefab house being carted around the Fleurieu Peninsula.
The town is liberally sprinkled with opal shops selling whatever gets dug up around here and in nearby Andamooka. As you would expect, a lot of it gets fashioned into astoundingly hideous jewellery and the like. Alex, keen to own a piece of this bizarre place, buys a very attractive dark blue stone to make into necklace once we get home.
It's outside one such innocent-looking opal shops that Alex and I have our first encounter with Aboriginal
Faye's BedroomAustralians. Bill Bryson once wrote of his surprise at how, after weeks and weeks in Australia, he had not seen a single Aboriginal. Indeed, although white settlers, their diseases and their misguided ideas made short work of much of the population, after not far from a month in Australia, neither had we. We weren't expecting our first encounter to be quite as unsettling as it was.
One of the bedrooms in the underground home we visited in Coober Pedy, all dug - with nothing but elbow grease - by an obviously rather industrious lady named Faye decades ago.
As Alex was browsing amongst the vast numbers of stones in the shop, we heard shouting just along the street outside the shop. It sounded quite heated, so we turned our rubber necks and had a peek outside, before looking quizzically at the shop's owner. When we asked what was going on, the owner rolled her eyes - "Aboriginals". The tone of her voice, apart from suggesting that this kind of commotion wasn't unusual, spoke volumes of the current situation in Australia between Aboriginal Australians and the rest of the population. As is probably the case with many Westerners, I knew of Aboriginal Australians' painful recent history at the hands of European settlers (the film Rabbit Proof Fence being a particularly memorable account of some aspects) and was vaguely aware of the myriad
A.A.D.problems faced by Aboriginal populations - alcoholism, unemployment...The sad list of usual suspects. On this quiet street in Coober Pedy, a group of Aboriginals had assembled on an abandoned plot of wasteland and were having a loud and impossible-to-ignore (even for an English person...) shouting match. The topic and content eluded me, for it was not in English. The dozen or so individuals involved were obviously heavily intoxicated and running into the road in the way of passing cars.
Or Advanced Anti-Seismic Device. The ceiling all over the this underground home is studded with early-warning matchsticks. Very Heath Robinson, but it works - hopefully.
The problem, explained the owner of the opal shop, was that a small number of Aboriginals were regularly leaving their homes in a nearby reserve to come to Coober Pedy, where unscrupulous shop and bar owners served them with alcohol. This last clause would sound completely patronising were it not for the fact that local Aboriginal leaders have spent years begging local businesses not to serve alcohol - or grog as it known - to members of their community. Alcoholism has long plagued Aboriginal populations, where a lack of opportunities and almost 100%!u(MISSING)nemployment in some communities have created a breeding ground for all kinds of social ills. The shop owner then launched herself into a full-scale rant, which went
Kitsch kitsch or ironic kitsch ?something like this...Millions of our tax dollars are being spent on creating five-star reserves for these people. Basketball courts, you name it, they get it. And what do they spend their days doing ? Damaging my business by screaming the place down and scaring visitors and customers away !. Uncomfortable as they were to listen to, her words were fascinating to hear for outsiders such as ourselves - and they left us deeply puzzled. Unemployment in Aboriginal communities is undoubtedly a, if not the, principal cause of alcoholism. But how can the (white) locals of Coober Pedy, such as our opal shop owner, be persuaded to provide jobs for Aboriginals if over the past goodness-knows-how-many-years this is the kind of behaviour they have come to know ? And who, if anyone, is to blame for what is going on in the street ? The bartenders and bottle-shops who serve everyone indiscriminately (not an innocent choice of word) ? The police, who studiously ignore the problem or simply move it along a street or two ? The drinkers themselves, who "have no self-discipline" ? Or how about the easy answer - the Government ? Whatever the answer is, we were left feeling quite unsettled by what we had heard - and not only the shouting. There is clearly a lot of anger and frustration in Coober Pedy about the problem.
Kitsch kitsch I'm afraid. Note the three little round pictures acting as surrogate flying ducks...
While filling the campervan at a Caltex in Yulara a couple of days earlier, I had noticed the pump paint scheme advertising a particular type of fuel as "Opal - a safer fuel for remote communities". At the time I had paid no attention to this, assuming that it was a fancy branding exercise for a fuel that was safer to store for long periods in high temperatures. Increased flashpoint, whatever - I'm not a petrochemist. A copy of the Australian we bought around the time we were driving back down quickly dispelled the illusion. It turns out that the poetically named Opal has a rather darker "benefit" - it's non-sniffable. I couldn't believe it - but that was it. Non-sniffable. Such is the problem with solvent abuse amongst Aboriginal Australians - euphemistically referred to as "remote communities" - that Australian companies have actually had to develop a less volatile fuel that cannot be intentionally inhaled. The fact was mentioned en passant in the Australian in a story about two young Aboriginal boys in a remote settlement in the Northern Territory who had suffocated after becoming trapped in a large fuel tank, ostensibly after having climbed in to sniff the fumes. The short article, barely ten lines of copy, left me profoundly affected.
Alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, domestic violence, lack of educational opportunities, twenty times the death rate from diabetes compared to white Australians, three times the death rate from suicide...It is obvious that the issues we have had a glimpse of today are not all representative of the totality, or perhaps even the majority, of Aboriginal Australians. But against the backdrop of the fabulous tjukurpa or mythology developed over millennia by a people at one with their harsh and utterly unforgiving environment, the list of problems plaguing many Aboriginals today is long and grim.
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