My latest port of call is Coober Pedy, about 680km south of Alice Springs, on the edge of the erosional scarp of the Stuart Ranges.
Once again I found myself trundling along in the arid red heart of Central Australia, my trusty caravan rolling along behind.
I vaguely remember reading somewhere that almost 150 million years ago, this area was totally covered by ocean. As the seawater receded, climatic changes caused a lowering of the underground water tables. As water ran down through the earth, it picked up silica from sandstone which ran into cracks and voids. And then as the water evaporated it left behind a silica deposit – fast forward millions of years, and an abundance of opals were waiting to be discovered! And so it was that I came upon an interesting and intriguing change in the countryside.
Plenty of termite mounds are to be seen in the Western Australian Gascoigne and Pilbara regions, but here there were what appeared to be kilometre upon kilometre of closely knit never-ending ant hills everywhere. As far as the eye could see were mounds of dirt and rock discarded from mines, giving the area an almost lunar or Mars-like landscape. The closer I drove towards the town, it appeared as through the countryside in its entirety was completely covered in these big pseudo termite hills. Then I noticed warning signs galore; signs warning passers-by of the danger of falling into mining shafts, dangerous area, keep out, old mine shafts, for photography stay on designated tracks.
The town itself is built on beds of sandstone and siltstone 30 metres deep and topped with a stony, treeless desert. Within the town is a network of underground dwellings. Who in their right mind, I wonder, would want to live in a hole or a burrow in the ground, unless they are a wombat or a rabbit? No wonder the town’s name originated from two indigenous words kupa piti, meaning “white man in a hole.”
I had parked the car and caravan; time for a coffee, I thought. At the café I shared a table with a rather scruffy and weather-beaten old fellow who sported a stained and bushy long grey beard, yellowed teeth with yellowed fingers. He clutched a tobacco pouch in one hand and was deftly rolling a cigarette, one handed.
“Do you mind if I join you?” I asked, there being no other chairs or tables available.
We got talking. He had spent most of his life in Coober Pedy and said he had found a few opals in his time. At times he’d been “flush with money” and other times he’d been “dead stony broke”, but the lure of striking it rich in opal mining had kept him, and many others like him, in the town for many years. Even though the region produces four-fifths of the world’s precious opal, he believes the supply is now drying up.
I was told that due to the region’s low rainfall, high cost of water, and lack of topsoil, no trees and very little plant life exists in town.
“No trees? No matter,” my new friend said. “Me mate fixed that. Look up there high on that rocky and cutaway hill and you’ll see a good-sized tree. Me mate had a red-hot Sheila ee wanted to get hitched to. Nah, she said, I couldna live in a town with no trees. So ee says to himself, I’ll fix that. Ee gets a bit of metal out, odd bits and pieces, old excavatin’ quarryin’ stuff, gets out the welder and shit bang wouldn’t ya know it, in no time he’d that mighty big metal tree growin’ up there, so there’s a love story for ya!”
He continued with his stories. “Have ya heard of the dog fence? It’s a long bloody fence. Ya betta go fer a drive and have a gander, it’s not too far from ’ere, not far from the Breakaways, ya betta see them too. Go later in the day when it’s not too hot, and don’t forget ya lid on ya head.”
There is no doubt that Coober Pedy is one of earth’s hot spots, and in the early days it was soon discovered that the coolest place to live was beneath the earth in underground dwellings to escape high temperatures that can hit 54 degrees Celsius. The harsh summer desert temperatures meant that many preferred to live in caves bored into the hillsides. A standard three-bedroom cave home with lounge, kitchen, and bathroom can be excavated out of the rock in the hillside for a similar price to building a house on the surface.
These places of residence remain at a constant temperature, while surface buildings need air conditioning. Like a lot of things in Coober Pedy, even religion has gone underground to overcome the oppressive heat and by going underground they have still managed to create beauty. The Serbian and Catholic churches were well worth a visit with stained glass windows and icons, the underground shops were worth wandering around in too, as was the underground hotel.
In 1858, the area was called the Stuart Range, after a Scottish explorer named John McDouall Stuart. Opals were discovered in 1915, but the mining industry didn’t really get going until after World War II. In the 1970s and ’80s, there were more than 1,000 miners in the town. Now there are less than one hundred, according to my newfound friend.
Nevertheless,with all this talk, I did do as he instructed and drove off to see “the long bloody fence”.
Outside of town in the Breakaways is the Dog Fence or the Dingo Fence of which the Cooberpedians boast as the longest fence in the world. It is certainly no ordinary fence, it’s a huge feat of engineering that was designed to keep Dingos out of the farmlands of South Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland. It has been surprisingly effective for an old rickety fence, some posts still standing that are 100 years old or more.
The dog fence stretches over 5,300km and a fencer is employed for twelve months of each year to keep it intact.
The Breakaways, a mountain range some 25km from Coober Pedy, is a striking dark red rocky landscape with native flora and fauna, and a sacred site of the Antakirinja Matuntjara Yankunytjatjara people. The surrounding conservation park is owned and maintained by them.
Known as the ‘Opal Capital of the World’, Coober Pedy is a fascinating and unique mining field, remaining rich in geology, history, and Aboriginal culture. I am sorry I didn’t have to time to spend a few more days in this fascinating destination. It was well worth the long and arduous drive to visit.