Heading Bush, Day 4 - William Creek and Coober Pedy

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November 28th 2009
Published: December 15th 2009
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In the morning we cooked some breakfast on the fire before packing up camp and finding our way back to the Oodnadatta track. We headed north for a while until we got to a very scenic lookout point over the main section of the lake. There were also some information boards that explained why the lake forms and that it is part of the Great Artesian Basin that covers quarter of Australia, making it the largest and deepest artesian water basin in the world. I had assumed that the lake would be devoid of life seeing as there is only occasionally water in it. However, we learned that there are a variety of fish, lizards and frogs that call Lake Eyre home. Some of the fish are able to survive in the dry salty ground without water for up to ten years while they wait in a kind of hibernation state for the water to come. Very strange but also very cool.

An hour of so on from the lookout point we visited "The Bubbler", an underground spring that bubbles up to a mound in the earth in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately the water is too hot for swimming but it was amazing to find water bubbling from the surface of the earth in the middle of the Australian desert.

We drove on for a couple of hours until we reached William Creek where we stopped for a rest and to fill up on fuel of both the diesel and caffeinated varieties. Depending on which sign in town you believe, the population of William Creek is either two, twelve or twelve and a half. The half is the pub dog and the disputed ten seems to be temporary summer workers. Either way, it's not a busy place. The pub is famous for being one of the most remote pubs on earth and we dropped in to say hello and get ourselves a coffee. The interior is festooned with various souveniers that travellers have left and we spend ages wandering around reading notes, beer mats, driver's licences, and anything else that has been pinned to the wall by a passing tourist. There was even a thong hanging over the bar that had been kindly donated by an apparantely friendly lady. The coffee was surprisingly excellent quality and really helped after an unfortunately poor night's sleep in the wind by Lake Eyre. The town also had a few interesting artifacts opposite the pub, including the remnants of a space shuttle that had crash landed in the outback and an old locomotive that was used in the building of the Ghan railway that we spend a little while looking around.

After filling up we headed on down the track past Lake Caddiwarrabirracanna, the longest place place name in Australia. When we decided that we needed to take a break and stretch our legs Ian simply pulled over on the utterly deserted road (we had passed less than ten other vehicles in four days) and got out the Aussie rules football for a kickabout. Having seen the Swans vs Cats game back in August I had been keen ever since to get my hands on a footie to try out my skills. The ball is the same shape as a rugby ball but to pass you either drop kick or handpass, a strange method of holding the ball in one hand and punching it to your teammate with the other. It was rather odd to be having our first kickabout on an empty strip of the dusty Oodnadatta track in the blazing morning sun but also somehow rather appropriate. We played for half an hour or so before the heat became too much and we got back into the bruck and headed off. Shortly afterwards we crossed the dingo fence, a pest exclusion fence that runs from about mid way up the east coast to about half way along the south coast, effectively cutting off the south east corner of Australia. It was completed in 1885 and was designed to keep dingoes and other pests out of the fertile and extensively farmed areas of New South Wales and south Queensland where many sheep were being killed by the wild dogs. It is one of the longest structures in the world and is the world's longest fence, stretching for 5,614 kilometres. It has been largely successful although there are obviously gaps where roads run through it and holes have been found at various points along the fence. We were now entering dingo country and would have to be a little more careful with storing food and rubbish at night.

That afternoon we arrived in Coober Pedy, the opal capital of the world. The small town was established in 1915 when a teenager found the precious stones in the earth. He was the young assistant on tour with a group of prospectors who had heard reports of opals in the area. Willie had been left behind at the camp to guard the group's belongings while the adults went in search of stones and water. While they were gone young Willie Hutchinson found both water and opals nearby and was the toast of the expedition. Miners moved in to scour the earth the following year and Coober Pedy was formed. However, the town is in the middle of the Australian desert where daytime temperatures regularly reach over 40 degrees. The low humidity and cloud cover mean that as well as blisteringly hot days, the town also experiences very cold nights so the fledgling town was a very inhospitable place to live. The locals soon had a bright idea. As mines were dug and either exhausted or yeilded no opals, there became various spots around the area that were full of empty mines and underground caves where people were shielded from the harsh climate outside. People started to turn these into homes and even today nearly three quarters of the town's population lives underground or in the base of hills. Passing Aboriginals saw this bizarre phenomenon and named the area "Kupa Piti", translated as "White man in a hole". The locals heard this name, Anglicised it to Coober Pedy and the name stands today.

We checked into a hostel that had dorm rooms and a shower cut into the ground at the base of a hill and took a well earned shower, our first in four days if you don't count the dip in the river on day two. We also took the opportunity to charge all electrical equipment that had run down as there are not many power points in the outback! Ian had booked us onto a tour of a mine nearby our hostel so, feeling very clean and refreshed, we walked in for our tour at 4pm. We were shown a brief video explaining the history of opals, Coober Pedy, and the town's importance to the global market of the stones - apparantley over 90% of opals worldwide come from the area and the land is still mined today. There are even piles of excavated earth that have not been sifted that tourists can go search through for the precious stones. People do occasionally make big finds and there was even rumours of a million dollar opal being discovered a few years ago by a passing traveller. We would have gone and had a look ourselves but we were enjoying feeling properly clean for the first time in days and wading through mounds of dust and dirt were not high on our agenda!

Next our guide showed us how to cut, smooth and polish the stones using before leading us through an old mine that has been set up to show the typical underground house in Coober Pedy. The rooms was surprisingly large and airy and the temperature was nice and cool without the aid of air conditioning, something that would be utterly impossible at the surface. Our guide explained how fresh air is drawn in through vents, electricity is wired into the walls and clean drinking water is pumped in from a nearby underground source. You can even have a skylight drilled through the ground above so that you receive some natural light in the rooms. If you need to extend your house all you need to do is dig an adjoining room, providing this doesn't cut into your neighbour's house. The house actually seemed incredibly comfortable and welcoming and we both left wanting to dig ourselves an underground house back home!

Afterwards we had a wander around town to check out some of the other underground buildings such as hotels, shops and even a church. In the evening Ian treated us all to some delicious pizza at a local restaurant before we all headed to the pub (also underground) for a few beers and a couple of games of pool. Much as I had enjoyed sleeping in swags the previous few nights the soft bed in the hostel was very welcome and we both slept soundly until morning.

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8th June 2010

great part of the world

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