Coober Pedy, SA, Australia
After the rock loop the bearings pointed back to Stuart Highway, that goes straight through Australia from Darwin in the north to Port Augusta in the south. But instead of turning left back to Alice, we turned right, turned south, turned further into the desert.
Mine! Mine! Mine!
Whereas Kata Tjuta provided the set for Priscilla’s gap, towards Coober Pedy was the setting for quite a few films, mostly of the post-apocalyptic demeanour. Mad Max (the original trilogy) was filmed in the surroundings, and in the town itself the wreck of Riddick’s spaceship could be seen.
Of course, Coober Pedy’s real claim to fame is its opals. Discovered by accident by the son of a prospector (the party had, unsuccessfully, been searching for gold, but had given that up in favour of finding water (just as unsuccessfully)) while disobeying his orders of guarding camp, the opals make Coober Pedy the official capital of the gem.
Due to the immense heat, in conjunction with the obvious need and know-how for excavation, most of the town’s housing is actually underground. The temperature is a nice 18-26 degrees all day, year round, which is a step up from the scorching 40-55 in the summer (and indeed the 5-10 it can sink to during winter nights).
Opals can save, or ruin, your life. Find the right one, and you’re economically set for life. Fail to find enough, and you might end up spending the rest of your time digging for duds, like a grumpy gopher. In fact, the name Coober Pedy is an anglicisation of the local aboriginal term for ‘burrowing white men’. There’s no rational way of knowing where to find the rare gems. The upper limit, as well as the lower, is well established, but the possible layer is some 30 metres thick, and within that, it’s purely a matter of chance. If you want to try your luck, you can get a permit, acquire a land lot, get a tunnel boring machine, a rock vacuum, a partner and a metric shit-ton of patience.
If you’re in a hurry, you can always dig through the heaps of waste gravel. Back in the old days, the excavation was done by pickaxe. An extremely time-consuming method, of course, but at least you didn’t really miss any findings. By using TBM and explosives, some baby gems are bound to be thrown out with the bath gravel, so to speak. It’s all being dumped in big piles and is up for grabs for anyone. I spent some half hour in the scorching heat, and immediately found a perfect digging rock. Using that, I managed to find a lot of worthless quartz, as well as the world’s smallest opal, probably worth several dollars.
Some baby gems are bound to be thrown out with the bath gravel
After feeding some rescued kangaroos, eating some real tasty pizza, and watching colourful sunset over an amazing post-apocalyptic wasteland, we went into our underground cave for a good night’s sleep.
Although both Coober Pedy and Adelaide are in South Australia, it’s quite a fair bit of driving to do. It can be done in a day, but how fun is that? There are salt flats, being used for all sorts of testing, including high speed driving and atomic bombing. The military closes sections of the road every year, and for what, we’ll never know. There is a sort of Area 51, with space research being done by both Australia and other countries, and in Woomera there’s an open air exhibition of actual rockets, bombs, fighters and basically spaceships spaceships SPACESHIPS!
We weren’t quite done with the hikes just yet, either. Up Mt Remarkable, Alligator Gorge cuts through, and it is exactly what is says on the tin, but without the alligators, of course. In the dry season there’s no water in the creek, and it makes for a fun and varied walk on the dried up river bed, between steep rocks and amidst gnarly trees.
A final picnic lunch was held in a park where they, among others, kept both polite cockatoos and albino pea poultry, before heading into the second largest wine district in South Australia, Clare Valley. We had a small and confusingly priced wine tasting, after which we purchased a bottle of the fizzy, to be had at our semainersery* the following day. With that stuck in a combined winebag/esky, we eventually arrived in the hottest capital in the world, Adelaide.
Opals! Opals! Opals! Goddess how I love opals. I did feel a little, how should I put it, scared of getting the opal fever and ditching the tour to go opal-digging. But no, I have no eye for finding the beautiful treasure. I did find a fossil (rather nice), a few pieces of quartz and a lot of flies. But I can still spot the high quality gem at the store. The lovely sales woman shared my talent and we both browsed trough the high quality section. I had promised my hubs that I would not buy anything so I skipped the less pricey parts of the store, instead I explained to the very very nice woman that I would only be drooling and admiring their fine merchandise. Not buying. We then proceeded to admire the finest pieces together. After having thoroughly enjoyed myself it was time to leave. We had the next activity to get to.
Our very cheeky (but nice) tour guide (I have to add “nice” since he now can read this blog??) took us to a small paradise. A paradise that some have to go through hell to get to. We did not (but one could argue that 45 degree heat in a very drought ridden place could indeed be the lesser version of Hell, aka Heck) but the sweet kangaroos that lived there had all been. One pretty roo had been through such a horrid experience that she sometimes would fall over and tremble. Not having some seizure but from angst and PTSD. But she was a very kind roo and very soft. I could have petted her for hours and hours, as well as the young joey with the broken tail. Pink plaster is the thing among the baby kangaroos (joeys). But we had to go to our next activity so the good-bye was short and efficient (we had no more wasabi nuts and therefore the roos left us very quickly and unsentimentaly). The preferred food of kangas, roos, euros and wallabies is wasabi flavoured nuts. Why they love the wasabi? I don’t know. They just do.
The southward journey continued. We got to see the former secret space centre, Womeera. The Swedes in the happy gang of travellers giggled a bit since the name in Swedish is the fancy, uppity word for vomiting. But we got to see albino peacocks, wild emus on a cricket lawn and a bunch of wild kangaroos, euros and other hoppityhops.
The alligatorless Alligator gorge in the Mount Remarkable was very remarkable. Very nice, very warm and very, very impressive. I would very much have liked to have our resident flora and fauna expert with us to tell us all about the cool stones, plants and fauna we saw but alas, someone had to drive the bus to the end of the walk. Turning back and trekking upwards in the scorching heat would surely have sent another one of us to the hospital. Heatstroke is serious business. And so is driving a bus full of vagabonds, so we let our ginger tour guide rest from our questions and wait for us at the end of the hike (with the bus).
*) which, surely, is the expression for the celebration of one week being married?