Friday, September 11, 2009

Coober Pedy

My choice of Cobber Pedy as this past July's Birthday destination was not based on the fact that it is the Opal Capital of the World. My interest arose after reading Jack and Harry: No Turning back by Tony McKenna and Mervyn Davis. The story, set in the 1950's, is of two young mates who ran-away from their home in Perth when falsely accused of theft. Their journey takes them through the heart of the Australian Outback, to Coober Pedy. After finishing the story I was ready for a visit to Coober Pedy, not in search of the shimmering gemstone, like so many others, but in quest for a better understanding of the South Australian Outback.

Drive to Coober Pedy.

If you look at a map you can see that Coober Pedy is in the middle of nowhere. Over 800 km north of Adelaide, it took us 9+ hours of driving, on the very long and straight Stuart Highway. One would imagine that such a journey would become monotonous. It is true that the landscape was flat and dry, and except for the occasional dry salt bed there was not a lot to see. However, it was the subtle changes in the scenery that made the trip mesmerizing. It was amazing to see how such a huge empty space can be so rich in colors, textures and contrasts. The earth would suddenly change--yellow, red, green, orange, white--depending on the mineral composition. The ripples of the clouds across the blue sky mimicked flowing water. Vegetation showed hundreds of shades of green indicating forgotten riverbeds and hidden watersheds. I was surprised by the lack of wildlife. I know that many of the animals of the area are nocturnal, but I expected to see a lizard basking in the sun and perhaps a 'roo or two in the early dawn or late evening. We were treated to a very exciting Emu with chicks sighting-the perfect Birthday gift from Mother Nature.

Mother Nature's birthday gift.

We knew that our destination couldn't be far when we began to see what looked like huge ant piles--the famous opal fields of Coober Pedy. At the tourist office we learned that in opal mining a shaft is dug straight down until some trace opal is found. Then tunnels are dug outwards, at that level. Off the main shaft there can be several horizontal diggings at various levels. The mounds at the entrance of the shaft is the dirt that has been removed either by a blower (a huge vacuum) or by a wench. As I looked upon these mounds, I could not help but feel that Mother Earth had been violated. Man had dug deep into her belly, bringing her insides to the surface and leaving her innards exposed. I also questioned if the land would ever be cleaned up. Sadly it will be left as is, because filling the shafts could cause possible cave-ins during future mining projects. So the opal mining of Cobber Pedy is leaving giant scars across the land.

Opal field of Coober Pedy.

As far as the town itself is concerned, there is no denying it, not only is it in the middle of nowhere, but it is a lot of rock, dirt and dust. The name Coober Pedy comes from the Aboriginal words "kupa" (white-man) "piti" (hole). This is appropriate since more than 50% of the 3,500 locals live in underground dugouts and/or work in the opal mines (statistic from the local tourist office). In addition to homes being underground there are also underground churches, stores, art galleries and even a golf course. The purpose of the underground dugouts is that they provide relief from the harsh landscape--to escape the intense heat of the summer and cold winter nights. However, as you look around town you realize that it would be virtually impossible to remove the word harsh from the living and working conditions in this outback town.
A highlight of our trip was having our own dugout, an underground home that had been excavated in sandstone. It was fair sized, with a kitchen, living-room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. It included all of the modern conveniences. Since we were about 30 meters below the surface, there was no natural light, and it was very quiet. No matter what the weather is outside, the rooms maintain a comfortable temperature ranging from 23°C to 25°C. Unfortunately, we were only able to get the place for one night, and we had to move to an underground motel for our second night. It was not nearly as spacious, but still very comfortable.
Coming from the southwestern part of the United States we are not unfamiliar with mining communities. We have fond memories of the night life in Bisbee, Arizona. We had hoped to see a similar night life, which provide insight to the life of the locals. Unfortunately, even though many of the accommodations were fully booked, other then the three restaurants which were full of tourist everything was completely dead. Perhaps there are special underground places that the locals go to get a way from the tourists, but we couldn't find them. Needless to see we were in bed early, and didn't get a feel for the people that actually work and live in Coober Pedy.
Coober Pedy may not make the exotic list for vacations, but it is a must visit if you really want a true picture of the South Australian Outback.

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