We both looked up. It was a strange sound, obviously unfamiliar to my host. “When was the last time it rained here?” I asked. A pause. “Um… this is the first time this year. Might settle the dust though,” said Nick laconically. Perhaps a good omen to mark the centenary of what some would say is Australia’s strangest town.
I was in Coober Pedy, located in the desert of the South Australian outback, a red dirt town under big blue skies. It’s a town that was founded 100 years ago on opal mining, a town where 50% of the population live underground, and a town that hadn’t seen rain for a while.
As the showers gently eased Nick, the owner of The Lookout Cave Underground Hotel, commended me for visiting during the ‘colder’ months (it was 31° outside). In January it had been an unbearable 43°. The locals avoid the worst of it by living in ‘dugout’ homes excavated out of sandstone hills, giving them a constant 22° and respite from the harsh desert heat and dust. Unlike ‘mole holes’ these homes – like my underground hotel room – are generally at ground level, super quiet and thankfully not claustrophobic. When the rain stopped Nick pointed out the air vents that dotted the landscape, rising like metallic mushrooms giving air to the dugouts below.
Google Maps had already shown me that Coober Pedy was going to be different: the reddy-brown landscape, few structures, fewer roads and lots of dirt. But what the town lacks in looks it makes up for in superlatives: it is, after all, the Opal Capital of the World, down the road is the Largest Cattle Station in the World, cutting through it is the Longest Man-made Structure in the World, there’s the Driest Golf Course in the World and of course, the Largest Underground Hotel in the World (capitals intended). I think it also has the most flies in the world.
I’d timed my visit with the Coober Pedy Opal Festival, which this year was celebrating 100 years since fourteen-year-old Willie Hutchison found the first opal there. The festival kicked off with the annual Street Parade, hosted by jovial MCs keeping the crowd entertained under the blazing mid morning sun. Slowly the flotilla came into view, heavy mining trucks leading the way followed by local businesses, AFL fans and the obligatory Mines Rescue vehicles. In a town of only 3500 if you weren’t in the parade you were cheering it on from the sidelines.
“Where you from eh fella?” asked the aboriginal man next to me, from under his Akubra hat. I told him and then David Mindi Crombie told me his life story. Born inside an open-cut opal pit with his twin brother. Famous for writing songs about Coober Pedy. Performed at the Sydney Opera House on a national tour. Named Coober Pedy Citizen of the Year (1992). A Justice of the Peace. Singing tonight at the pub up the road. I’d picked a good person to sit next to.
The Opal Festival also coincided with Easter so there was no better time to visit one of the town’s underground churches. Father Brian Mathews welcomed me at the door of Saint Peter’s and Paul’s and patiently took me through its history. “The parish is rather large I guess,” he said, standing in front of a wall map. “And we don’t always have a church everywhere. Last week I had mass in the dining room of a pub.” He drew his finger across the boundaries. It went up to Uluru, touched Western Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales. This priest was responsible for a parish area bigger than Texas.
Across from the church was one of the town’s two dozen opal jewellery stores, which makes sense when you consider that 85% of Australia’s opals come from Coober Pedy. “They’re all individual, that’s what makes each one so special,” said George of Opalios, peering up with his jewellery magnifiers still on while polishing a stone. “It doesn’t matter what type of opal you like - cut, rough, milky, black, pinfire – it’s bound to be different to what anyone else has.” He pulled out a solid opal set in 18k gold. Price? A steal at $12,500.
The dirty end of the business was found at Tom’s Working Opal Mine. After the briefing and donning a hard hat, I wound my way down 12 metres underground. Blower pipes, Caldwell shafts, pillar bashing, explosive setting, sump tunnels - there’s a lot to this opal mining gig. Which explains the numerous abandoned drill holes in the area (“Beware deep shafts” “Don’t walk backwards” the signs warn). Even the town’s name comes from the Aboriginal kupa-piti meaning ‘white man in a hole’. The landscapes weren’t just a potholed mess though; this was the scenery that had starred in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Max Mad: Beyond Thunderdome so I arranged to explore more.
“Today we’re gonna go off road for about 600k’s,” said Rowie as I put my seatbelt on. Peter Rowe isn’t your typical tour guide. He’s an official Australia Post contractor and I was joining him on ‘mail run’ from Coober Pedy to William Creek to Oodnadatta. The 12-hour drive would take us across the Great Artesian Basin to the edge of the Victorian Desert.
First stop was Anna Creek Station, the largest cattle ranch on the planet at a whopping 24,000km2 – that’s 6,000,000 acres. To give you a sense of scale, the distance from the property boundary to the unassuming homestead is further then the distance from Auckland to Hamilton. No one was home but Peter dropped off the mail, disturbing hundreds of screeching Corella birds all wanting to make their presence known. To get to Anna Creek we had to pass the Dog Fence, designed to keep dingoes away from livestock. The fence is twice as long as The Great Wall of China; 5600kms of protective barbed wire and posts weaving across three Australian states.
William Creek (pop. 6) is a town so small that it’s entirely surrounded by Anna Creek Station. One thing it does have though – aside from a pub – is an outdoor ‘rocket museum’. I had to squint to read it but that’s what it said: the metal carcass in front of me was part of a rocket used to launch a British satellite from the nearby Woomera Rocket Range. Impressed, I went back inside for some Kangaroo Yiros and a Hahn Super Dry.
The unsealed road that runs from William Creek to Oodnadatta is known as the Oodnadatta Track. Partially built on the old Ghan railway line the track is at times bone jarring, very geologically diverse and a little surprising. In the distance a dingo stared at us. “Hang on to ya hat!” Peter yelled, as he turned the 4WD onto the tundra and raced towards the now scurrying dog. That particular chase was futile but we did get close to kangaroos, camels and hawks. On the way back to Coober Pedy I was regaled with more stories – from the Afghan cameleers to the unfortunate souls who perished in the desert heat. We arrived back long after dark.
The week of celebrations culminated with the Coober Pedy open-air cinema. Held every second weekend it seemed like the whole town had parked up, tuned in, sat back and enjoyed the free ice creams and cheap snacks. It was one of the few above-the-ground activities in town. Of course, like any movie theatre, it began with the “Patrons: Explosives are not to be brought into this theatre” slide, a joke flashback to the old days.
Staying in Coober Pedy made me realise it’s not for everyone. To be honest, it can be a little strange – like that uncle you try to avoid at Christmas – but if you’re ready to exchange more than pleasantries and are willing to be surprised, you’ll find that there’s a lot more under the surface of this unique outback town.
Original publication: Sunday Star-Times