Going underground

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May 21st 2006
Published: August 4th 2006
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Today was arguably half of one of the most inefficient pieces of travel in recent times - I was to drive ~600km to spend a night in Coober Pedy, before coming all the way back tomorrow. With Coober Pedy being the opal mining capital of the world, one third of its inhabitants living underground, and the surrounding landscape providing a post-apocalyptic backdrop to films such as "Mad Max 3", it seemed a genuinely unique place to visit, so efficiency be damned.

The road north from Adelaide was designed to be curvilinear, in order to give drivers a more interesting journey and prevent them dropping off. The countryside was impressive in its bareness - a lot of low scrub, occasionally with trees, and every so often a patch of startling red earth. Near Port Augusta there were a couple of enormous salt flats, gleaming white under the relentless sun, and patterned cloud formations punctuated the soaring blue sky. One stretch of the highway doubled as an emergency landing strip for the Flying Doctors, which seemed to give motorists the rare opportunity of being involved in a plane crash if they timed it just right.

Five hours on, the landscape began to show signs of mining activity, with slag (aka mullock) heaps dotted around. There were many warnings about unmarked mineshafts, down which people are apparently wont to fall every so often.

Coober Pedy itself has the look of a frontier town, its dusty streets and low windswept buildings speaking of an ongoing struggle against the elements and Mother Nature. I'd chosen my hostel specifically so I could spend a night underground, and it was with some excitement that I descended the stairs into a warren hewn from the solid rock, which contained the various dorms. The "rooms" were simply large alcoves off the corridor, with no door or even a curtain, but what they lacked in security they made up for in troglodyte charm.

While wandering around the town, I bumped into a stack of people from various earlier points in my trip - two English sisters from the Barossa Valley wine tour, two German guys from Kangaroo Island, and a Dutch guy who'd been at my last hostel in Adelaide. I suppose this isn't too surprising, as there is really only one route going north from Adelaide. I also spoke to two Irish guys who'd been touring the country for nine months in a small Honda decked out like the General Lee, often driving at night, but who had only seen one kangaroo crossing the road.

With most of the day already gone, I only had time for a small tour of the town. The hostel owner had advised me to visit the Big Winch, a supremely well-named piece of mining equipment that, for added clarity, should have been called the Non-cycloneproof Big Winch, with reference to the force of nature that finally put it out of commission. Of more interest was its location on top of a lookout, from which the entrances to many underground dwellings could be seen. I then visited the Old Timer's Mine, a museum set partly in an old working mine. Fortunately I was issued with a helmet, which limited my injuries during the self-guided tour to merely a sore back from all the stooping, rather than that plus a bruised and bloodied scalp.

Though I don't have the greatest nose for a party, I strongly suspect that Sunday evening in Coober Pedy is never going to feature in a World's Greatest Nights Out Top 10. A pizza in what appeared to be the only open restaurant in town, followed by a beer in the underground bar of the Desert Cave Hotel (tour groups only, by the looks of things), was as much excitement as I could rustle up, so I returned to my subterranean bedroom with the town painted not even a pale pink, let alone red.

The following morning I went on a sightseeing binge in order to justify the ~1,200km round trip to get here. Next door to the hostel was an underground Catholic Church - a sign outside said there'd be no mass this weekend so people should try the church at Uluru instead, breezily not mentioning the fact that that's over 600km away. Just up the road was another lookout, from which I could see an abandoned spaceship from "Pitch Black". Unfortunately most of the string of films that were shot around here were done in the nearby Breakaway Ranges, which are 4WD only and hence out of reach of my plucky Corolla.

During my wanderings around the town, it became apparent that there was a sizable Aboriginal population here, certainly larger (or at least more obvious) than anywhere I've been so far.
Heaps of mullock (slag)Heaps of mullock (slag)Heaps of mullock (slag)

On the approach to Coober Pedy
All the ones I saw were huddled in groups sitting on the ground, or shuffling aimlessly along the dusty streets, clearly under the influence of drink or drugs. I've read a little about the treatment of Aborigines in Australia over the last 200 years, notably certain chapters of "A Secret Country" by John Pilger, and it makes for fairly distressing reading. I'm hoping that at some point on this trip I can dig a bit further below the surface.

My final image of Coober Pedy came from the Crocodile's Nest, the underground abode of Crocodile Harry who is supposedly one of several real-life characters on whom Crocodile Dundee was based. His place is a few kilometres out of town down a rough track and, outside, there were sculptures and strange statues standing in the fierce sunlight. A quiet old man with a neatly trimmed white beard, who I assumed was the gardener as he was tending some flowers near the front door, indicated that I should go inside and so I did. The interior was covered floor to (and including) ceiling in mementos from previous visitors. Some had left T-shirts or baseball caps or business cards, whereas others had put their own art work contributions directly onto the walls. Many bras and pairs of panties were in evidence, as were photos of previous visitors who had been unable to resist posing topless with Harry. Dotted amongst all this memorabilia were images of bare breasts of every colour/size/religion, clipped from a thousand lads' mags. There were a few pictures of Harry himself, a long-haired muscular man with a bushy beard, wrestling crocodiles while clad only in a pair of shorts. He looked like a bit of a stud, but it slowly dawned on me that the "gardener" I'd met on the way in was in fact Crocodile Harry, just 30-40 years on from his prime.

I tried to have a chat with Harry, but his answers ranged from the philosophical to the evasive. Perhaps he could tell that I wouldn't make a great topless photo, or maybe he felt that his choice of career path just edged mine in terms of adventure and interest. Whatever, after a couple of failed attempts to get the conversation going, I left. It's hard to know what sort of fire burns in someone like that when they reach old age. Is he still a crocodile hunter at heart, or just an old man living out his final days in a cave in the middle of nowhere? With that thought, I jumped back in the car and began the long haul south to Port Augusta.

Additional photos below
Photos: 40, Displayed: 26


The Big WinchThe Big Winch
The Big Winch

Ruined beyond repair by a cyclone
Underground churchUnderground church
Underground church

Stained glass window
Coober PedyCoober Pedy
Coober Pedy

Spot the spaceship

6th March 2012
Underground church

Mass time
Can you please let me know Mass times for Saturday and Sunday 10-11/3 2012 as I wish to attend.

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