Friday, July 26, 2019

Day 4 - Sun 18/8.2019


A bright sunny day, but with winds gusting to 60 kph raising plenty of dust.  Reached 18C today, so chilly with the wind factor.

My base in Coober Pedy has been the Underground Motel.  Dug into the side of a hill on the town’s outskirts, it has about 8 rooms in addition to the owners’ quarters.  Nicely fitted out for short stays.  There is a communal kitchen with the makings of a continental breakfast provided for when one is ready for it.  The owner is very obliging, and even did a load of wash for me today.

The town gets its name from two Aboriginal words meaning “white fella down in hole”.  Perceptive! The population is about 1800 — no one knows how many really as this is a place some people come to drop off the map, avoid the tax man or alimony collectors etc.  There are a fair few Aborigines here too, and they speak their own language fluently.  They live in the above ground houses as their culture believes bad spirits live underground.  They won’t work in a mine for that reason.  Local school has 200 pupils from prep to leaving.

Last night I found the underground Catholic Church in time for advertised 6.30pm Mass.  As it turned out, the parish priest ( a Passionist priest I knew from years ago, Paul Crotty) was away this week in Uluru (700km away ..the top end of his parish0.  So a young Indian family conducted a communion service competently for the 15 adults and 1 noisy child there.

I then chose to eat at the Outback Bar and Grill, based on its claim to have won many tourist records in recent years.  It is an attachment to the local Shell servo.  The meal was oversized but tasty.  Back at he motel I did yesterday’s blog and hit the bed relatively early.

This morning I did some exploring around the town.  It is quite a higgledy-piggledy assortment of above ground buildings dumped wherever there is space between the small hills that are home to the underground shops, hotels and private homes.  I doubt there is anything such as a town plan!  Apparently miners are great borders.  They reckon being so far from everywhere that nothing should be wasted.. you never know when it will come in handy.  So the cityscape is littered with broken machinery and other discards, giving the place a very untidy appearance.  “We’re not in the running for Tidy Town prizes” I was told.

After lunch I signed up for a tour of the town and surrounds.  It was in a 4WD mini-bus with an excellent driver/guide.  He was worth every penny of the tour price/. He first took us through a worked out opal mine in the Main Street that has been set up to show off all aspects of the mining process.  Interestingly the rock is so stable that there is no need for the tunnels to be shored up with timbers as is usual in coal mines.  I learned that there are only about 50 active miners left in Coober Pedy, nearly all aged over 60.  Opal is still found, but most diggers never make a living from it.  Each miner takes out a 3 month or yearly lease on a piece of dirt out in the active mining fields (30km each side of the town), only 50 metres square - or 100x50 metres.  They then sink test holes and examine the core from the drill to decide if its worth digging.  Opal is found in small seams in the top 30 metres of rock.  A lot os secrecy surrounds the location of any finds .. and the sales are all strictly cash to avoid ATO scrutiny.  There are no mining companies involved here, it is all small time activity.

Next we visited the Prophet Elijah Serbian Orthodox church, a very large underground space with attached reception hall and kitchen.  No local priest these days, so only a couple of services a year apart from funerals etc.. The church is beautifully fitted out.  A local sculptor has carved various statues into the limestone rock above the altar and in the entrance.

Then it was off to Faye’s house to let us see a not-so-typical underground home.  It was dug into the hillside on 3 levels over a ten year period by three women who also worked in the town.  It has every mod con, and is beautifully furnished.  An above ground level has been added, and this contains a swimming pool and.billiards table.  Today the home is just a tourist attraction.

A 30 km drive north of the town takes one to the Breakaways, a series of variously shaped hills that have interesting Dreamtime stories attached to them.  On the way we stopped to photograph the Dog Fence that passes this way.  Apparently still effective in keeping wild dogs and dingos away from South Australia’s flocks and herds.  The SA government has just announced a $20 million project to upgrade the fence.  We crossed moonstone desert on the way, black pebbles embedded with silica that catches the sunlight and sparkles.

On the way back to town our driver took a detour through an active mining area to let us see up close the working mines.  I wondered why all these disused holes litter the landscape, not filled in.  Apparently it is illegal to fill in or even cover the drill holes or tunnel entrances lest a neighboring lease might tunnel into the hole and have the fill collapse and kill or injure the digger.

It was after 6pm by the time I was delivered back to my motel, so I grabbed the keys and headed up the Main Street to John’s Pizza Bar and restaurant for a quick meal.  Place was packed out, so service was slow but they did serve me a nice serve of barramundi with chips and salad!  Tomorrow I will meet my first stretch of gravel on the trip.  Am hoping for a continuation of this fine weather.

I took far too many photos today and will need to choose a smaller number later.  For now they are all (at risk or boredom)  to be found  here

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