OUT OF THIS WORLD
Lunar landscapes, a space ship and opulent opals make this town a stellar stopover
WORDS BY KARYN FANOUS, PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOSEPH AND KARYN FANOUS
A space ship has crashlanded in the main street of Coober Pedy in outback South Australia! Surprisingly, this does not seem out of place in this quirky town where many ‘buildings’ are underground and the surrounding country would be best described as a moonscape. In contrast to the bleak landscape, the colourful characters and iridescent opal found here shine brightly.
BACK IN TIME
All the way back in 1858, John McDouall Stuart was the first European explorer to experience this other-worldly region while on his first expedition into the centre of Australia in search of good pastoral land. He was unsuccessful on this expedition, finding the country to be harsh and inhospitable, so he turned back. Then in February 1915, Jim Hutchison and his 14 year old son William, along with others from the New Colorado Prospecting Syndicate, were searching for gold to the south of present-day Coober Pedy. While looking for water, William found opal lying on the ground. The rest is history!
The town was originally named Stuart Range Opal Field, in honour of the explorer John McDouall Stuart. Local Aborigine people called it “kupa piti”, commonly thought to refer to “white man in a hole”. In 1920, the town was given the anglicised version of this name, and became “Coober Pedy”.
The description of “white man in a hole” is very apt, as much of the desolate landscape is covered in mine shafts with their associated large mullock mounds of discarded pale earth. Many of the locals spend endless hours down in their mines in the quest for opal, Australia’s national gemstone.
This rare and precious stone is made from regularly arranged spheres of silica which diffracts light, breaking it up to produce the kaleidoscope of colours. There is another explanation for opal’ striking colours. In Aboriginal tradition, opal was created when a rainbow touched the earth.
Coober Pedy is known as the “Opal Capital of the World”. No wonder there are thirty opal retailers in town! Many of the homes are underground, cut out of the sandstone, and are commonly known as ‘dugouts’. At a constant 24 degrees year round, they provide an escape from the extremely hot summers and cold winters.
We arrived in this intriguing town on a surprisingly cold, rainy and windy day in early July and chose to stay at the Stuart Range Caravan and Tourist Park. It was so windy that we had to sleep with the pop-top of our van down as we thought it might be blown right off! The next morning dawned a much nicer day, complete with blue skies.
Our first stop was the Public Noodling Area where we wanted to fossick for opal, an activity commonly known as ‘noodling’. Here you’ll find mounds of earth that are left over from drilling the mine shafts. According to the ‘Opalios’ opal shop in town, “There are no rules to finding opal. Throw your hat and dig where it lands.” So we did just that.
Excitedly we set about noodling with just a small spade, an old plate and a water spray bottle which we used to reveal the opal colours, making them easier to find. We found lots of worthless plain coloured opal, commonly known as ‘potch’, but also found some small pieces of ‘colour’. Although not of any value, they make lovely souvenirs.
For those who’d like to dig underground for opal, you can join a “Down N Dirty” tour booked through the Desert Cave Hotel. You’ll be given basic instruction, a hard hat, torch and handpick and will be taken to the Quest Mine to search for some of your own treasure.
Back in town, we visited a number of the opal shops. As we pulled into the Opal Cave, we were thrust into the future. The spaceship from the movie Pitch Black, a science fiction thriller, sits right out front. Much of the movie was filmed nearby. Once no longer needed, the spaceship was purchased by the Opal Cave owners and, strangely, looks right at home in their carpark!
The Opal Cave was our first experience of an underground building. Apart from the rough rock walls and lack of windows, all else seemed quite normal. Here we admired rough and cut opal. There’s also a museum that is accessed via an unusual subterranean garden.
Next, Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage. The gallery exhibits Aboriginal art, artefacts and didgeridoos. Josephine and Terry have been raising orphaned `joeys` for many years. We were able to watch the joeys being fed and watch the kids who were thrilled to be allowed to hold them. An opal mine and museum lies below the gallery.
The Coober Pedy Drive-In was built in 1965 and is a classic feature of the town. In reference to miners who in the past would arrive with their tools and gelignite in their work utes, an old sign reads: “Patrons – explosives are not to be brought into this theatre”!
Our final stop for the day was the small St Peter and Paul’s Catholic Underground Church. This cosy church is a Natural Heritage listed building as it was the first underground church built in Coober Pedy.
A unique experience, not to be missed, is staying underground. We decided to book into an underground motel, Radeka Down Under, and were kindly permitted to leave our caravan in their carpark. It was certainly a novelty, and as it was pitch black in our windowless subterranean room, we all enjoyed a big sleep-in until 8:30am!
That afternoon we joined the motel’s Desert Breakaways Tour, which began with an interesting tour around town, then moved on to the Anglican Catacomb Underground Church. Transformed in 1977 from an old dugout, the church has been fashioned in a crucifix formation. True to the town’s heritage, the communion table is made from an old miner’s winch.
The Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Course was another feature of the tour. There is not a blade of grass on this most unusual desert golf course, with sand fairways and black ‘greens’. Perhaps more surprising are its reciprocal rights with the prestigious St Andrew’s in Scotland!
Out on the opal fields we felt as though we were in a lunar landscape. Mullock mounds abound and signs declare: “Danger: Beware Deep Shafts”. There are mine shafts everywhere, so take heed of the warnings! The tour allowed us some time for more noodling, which we found to be quite successful.
Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest and Opal Mine and was our next stop. This eccentric character created a bizarre dugout decorated with most unusual objects and was featured in “Mad Max-Beyond the Thunderdome”.
Undoubtedly, one of highlights of the tour was seeing the spectacularly colourful Breakaway hills, so named because they appear to have broken away from the Stuart Range. The Breakaways Reserve is 30 minutes (33km) north of Coober Pedy on Antakirinja Mutuntjarra Lands. These flat-topped mesas set amongst the arid desert are absolutely breathtaking. Their colour is totally unexpected in comparison to the barren surrounding country.
Three different lookouts provide different perspectives of The Breakaways. Walking Trails (allow 1.5 hours) connect to each of the lookouts and take in the three main hills: Ungkata, Kalaya (Panorama Hill), and Papa (The Castle) with its striking twin hills – one white and the other brown. The difference in colour is due to the white hill being weathered faster than the brown hill. The place is also known to Aboriginal people as ‘the two dogs’, sitting next to each other. To the right is Wati (Peaked Hill), the man who owns the dogs.
On the way back to Coober Pedy, we travelled across the Moon Plain, a large expanse of stony desert that looks very much like its name. Numerous movies have been filmed here including Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Pitch Black.
Also here we saw part of the longest construction in the world, the Dog Fence. Beginning in Queensland near Surfer’s Paradise, it spans around 5,300km before it ends near Ceduna on the Great Australian Bight in South Australia. The fence was built to keep sheep in the south safe from dingoes in the north, and can be seen approximately 15km north-east of town.
Back in Coober Pedy, we found that the colour of this town was now more evident to us than when we had first arrived. We had discovered the beauty of opals, the colour of the spectacular Breakaways, and the colourful subterranean-dwelling characters that have made this unique and fascinating outback town their home. Our visit had definitely been an experience like no other. It would be fair to say that we felt as though we had travelled to another world. Where else would you see a futuristic spaceship in the town’s main street?