Monday, 28 August 1995

Coober Pedy

Marla to Coober Pedy (Stuart Highway) 233 kms

Our evening was not everything we thought it would be, with multiple interruptions being caused by a succession of problems the children had. Despite this, we were able to be away by 9:00 am and were heading at great knots to Coober Pedy.

We arrived at midday and soon had the tent up and were looking for things to do for the afternoon. No sooner had we pulled up at the caravan park office, than a tour bus stopped to pick up those wanting to go on what was described as the definitive tour of Coober Pedy. This was one of those occasions when we were happy to act on the spur of the moment, so we jumped aboard and soon found ourselves in tlie company of Joe, of Joe's Tours.

Joe migrated from Israel and arrived in Coober Pedy thirty five years ago, ready to make his fortune in the opal fields. His own fortune was enough to give him a stake and he has built up a handy tour and accommodation business. He heads a family business he hopes to pass onto his sons. Throughout the afternoon, he entertained us with his dry wit and his great knowledge of Coober Pedy. He has a passion for the place and took a good deal of time to explain how the town used to work and the changes which have taken place in the last few years.

According to Joe, things were alright until a tourist fell in a hole and now all leases have had to be fenced off and warning signs put up. Once holes have been dug, they are not filled, as other miners can take up the lease at a later date and they will not have the expenditure of digging a shaft if one has already been put in.

Our tour encompassed both the mining leases which surround the town and the town itself.

Our first port of call was the golf course, which would make the purists shake their heads in disbelief. The tee is a small mat of synthetic grass, the fairways rolled dirt and the "greens" are oiled dirt. The nine holes of the course "are always crowded on the weekends" according to Joe.

From here, we began to head roughly north, but this varied as Joe zigzagged across the opal fields so we could see the small leases at close hand. He showed us and explained the use of the various machines used in the mining of opal and all of the time, he punctuated it with his dry humour. It became clear he believed there was no place like Coober Pedy and the more regulations could be kept out of the place, the better it would be !

After hearing about the world according to Joe, we called in at Crocodile Harry's Nest - an underground mine which has been turned into the weirdest home for the weirdest man you are ever likely to meet. The tunnels that originally gave up the opal which has fed Harry's strange artwork and way of life, have been filled with the household goods he required to live and create. However, where normal homes finish, Harry's goes much further, but in the most warped manner imaginable. The walls and ceiling are lined with comments and signatures reflecting an amazingly multicultural input, but the staggering thing is that all have been recorded only by young females. In fact, only virgins may sign his walls !

Sam & Sarah digging for opals
Large sculptured nudes adorn the walls in various places throughout the "home"; a photo gallery shows a much younger Harry hunting, capturing and killing crocodiles and sharks in the Northern Territory; press clippings are displayed in another alcove, revealing his search for virgins to sign his walls. This strange man, of Estonian origin, had an awesome reputation. Indeed, we were warned by Joe that to be young, female and friendly, was to invite advances from Harry and all the more so if he had been drinking the evening before ! To be honest, whilst we found this a fascinating place, we were not displeased when we left, as Crocodile Harry seemed like an unbalanced, unsafe character and the place made Sue and Sarah feel very uncomfortable.

Back in the bus - our restart delayed because a young, blond, Danish female was caught talking with Harry - we continued across the opal fields and viewed more machinery at work. Before long, we found ourselves out of the bus and scrounging about tailings taking our own chance for fortune. This process is known as "noodling" and apart from giving gou the chance to get rich quick, it also affords the "noodler" the guarantee of dirty hands, feet and clothes. However, the kids enjoyed this fun and Sarah actually found a few pieces of pretty, but invaluable opal and was very excited.

With dust clinging to our clothes, we dropped into the bus and continued on our way toward our most distant destination on the tour, to an area called the Breakaways. It is an area consisting of a number of mesas and buttes overseeing a large, flat plain which had millions of years ago been a sea. Many
outstanding fossils have been found in this area. The tones of the layered rocks making up these mesas are quite stark in colourful contrast to the surrounding dryness. The Breakaways has featured in a number of well known movies and teleseries. The most notable recent addition to the list was the highly successful "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and Joe told us some funny tales about the production. In fact, Joe can be seen in the movie, as the driver of a jeep who picks up Terrence Stamp's character when he is lost in the desert.

Another well known Australian production to be shot here was "Stark", the joint BBC I ABC Ben Elton written story. Again, Joe had lots to tell us about this and soon had some snap shots circulating through the passengers on the bus.

The Breakaways
Our stopping point at The Breakaways gave us a perfect example of the movie magic that has punctuated Coober Pedy's history. With a magnificent backdrop, a Korean crew was working on the last scenes to be shot at this location, after a week of shooting. We had no idea what the movie was about, but we did have an opportunity of playing with one of the props: a two metre python . Sarah held the snake at one stage, very much to the surprise of the older people on our tour.

Onward again, we were shown a section of the Dingo fence: but a fence, is a fence, is a fence !

It was back to town and a call into the underground Anglican Church. This was a beautiful place and I found it hard to be in there, with evergone crawling all over the place. It was decorated with pieces of local wood used in the making of the furniture at the alter.

Joe took us past the salt water conversion plant, which changes salt water into drinking water. The original cost of the finished product was to have been $60 per thousand litres when the original pricing was put forward by a private company. That being the case, the people of the town got together and bought their own unit and the council now produces water at $30 per thousand litres. This still makes it the dearest water in the world ... according to Joe.

Our second-to-last stop was at The Big Winch: a tourist stopping place where opals can be bought, set in all types of ways and from all types of quality ranges. It was a beautifully decorated showroom and looked much better than the dusty customers now browsing the shelves. Above this, the "Big Winch" is set on top of the highest hill in the town and celebrates the hand winches which have been used on the traditional shafts in the area.

Finally, Joe took us to his accommodation quarters, to show us how the old hill sides are used to full
advantage after they can no longer provide a wealthy opportunity.

There was no doubt this was a value tour, with the four and a half hours only costing us $3 a head for each hour we were with Joe. His sense of fun and bank of knowledge made it well worth while and we achieved much more than we would have by touring about on our own.

The last treat for the day came with the children discovering a television was available at the caravan park. Sarah went completely crazy when "Lois and Clark" came on a 7:30 pm, having not seen her favourite show for two months ! At 8:30 pm, they trotted off to bed with smiles on their faces, having had their TV hunger satisfied for another few weeks.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments will be moderated before being posted.