We were a mere four hours from 2011’s messy arrival when suddenly, emerging from the vast, red-brown emptiness of the Outback, was… civilization?
Nine (or maybe 19) long and restless hours had passed since leaving glorious ol’ Uluru on the ridiculously early morning of New Year’s Eve. With all its remaining might, our van was finally barrelling towards hints of an actual town.
As Europe’s “The Final Countdown” blared out, I wondered about the countless mounds of dirt piled high by the road. Had we stumbled upon some long-abandoned sci-fi movie set?
I wasn’t far off. We had arrived in the funny little town of Coober Pedy, which comes from the Aboriginal term, kupa-piti, meaning, “white man’s hole”. Coober Pedy is not only the opal capital of the world, but was also the set for films like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Red Planet and The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. In addition to bizarre leftover movie props, rusty car wrecks in every second yard might make you think you’ve arrived in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Located 846km north of Adelaide, Coober Pedy’s 2,000 residents weather the region’s extreme heat by living underground, mostly in old, refurbished opal mines, which I got to experience for myself in an underground hostel.
It is strange waking up in utter darkness, with no concept of time. I’ve got to say I liked it, or maybe I simply appreciated its soothing effect on my aching head after far too many drinks the night before.
Despite my wretched condition the next morning, I managed to pull my pathetic body off the bed and into the 48°C heat (seriously) before we continued to our next stop, Catacomb underground church. Named after the catacombs of Rome, where people used to bury their dead and meet in times of persecution, this church was dug out in the mid-1970s. I can’t say I felt exactly at ease here; while my head throbbed with blurry memories of the previous nights’ alcohol-induced sins, it’s a wonder I didn’t burst into flames.
Still nursing extreme dehydration and a general feeling of imminent death, I joined the group back on the van and was carted off to see the mines. Aside from tourism, Coober Pedy’s main industry is opal mining. Due to the easy access to dynamite, it’s no surprise that local spats often become “explosive”. At one mine, we see a blown-up tractor contraption and our tour guide tells us that all you have to do is say something wrong down the pub and you risk having your equipment blown up. Guess that’s reason enough to lay off the booze!
Miners in Coober Pedy have become so proficient at making homemade bombs that a sign at the old cinema said, “Explosives are not to be brought into this theatre”. What a shame, everyone enjoys some light interaction during a movie.
One especially opinionated letter to the editor at Coober Pedy’s oh-so-originally named Coober Pedy News even resulted in the blowing up of the paper’s office.
Next stop was the Big Winch, where my hangover all but left me for dead at the face-meltingly hot lookout point. One of the town’s many trademark structures, the Big Bucket very nicely sums up the town’s spirit with an optimistic “if” painted on its side. Also here is Coober Pedy’s first, and quite possibly only “tree”, made from the remains of a burnt-out truck. Points for creativity, right?
Just a few kilometres away from the town centre, we are back in the desert, watching in awe at a rainstorm far across the flat plain. It is still incomprehensible to me just how many miles of this harsh landscape spans Australia, virtually untouched by human progress.
We came to a stop next to a rather unremarkable fence. I soon learned, however, as the old saying goes, not to judge this book by its cover. In front of me was the famed Dog Fence, erected as a barrier in the 1880s to keep sheep-killing dingoes out of south-east Australia.
The 1.8 metre-high wire mesh Dog Fence is the longest fence in the world, stretching 5,500km from the Nullarbor cliffs on the Great Australian Bight, across South Australia, into New South Wales and on to Jimbour in south-east Queensland. The fence hasn’t been able to keep all dingoes out of the region, however, as several parts were found to have holes in the 1990s. As I wondered at the never-ending length of fence, my hazy mind wasted its final brainpower remembering Elaine’s cheeky chant in an old Seinfeld episode: “Maybe the dingoes ate your baby!” (Forgive me).
Our last stop in Coober Pedy, and perhaps the most breathtaking, was the Breakaways. This vast reserve gets its name from the various plateaus and massive rocks, which from a distance look as though they have broken off the main land. Actually formed from the evaporation of an inland, ancient Australian sea, the plateaus would have served as islands over 70 million years ago. After the continental shift, however, the climate is said to have changed, evaporating the sea and revealing these majestic formations for millennia of our viewing pleasure.
After several minutes attempting to absorb this huge emptiness before me, I climb back onto the bus, marvelling at just how small I really am as we make our way back to town.
It is a strange old place, Coober Pedy. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, out pops an expanse resembling the likes of Mars or a record-breaking fence. The next morning, we head towards Adelaide with Coober Pedy at our backs and the sunrise to our left and I quietly decide that Coober Pedy surely holds another record: single strangest town on the planet.