Sunday, June 13, 2010


Coober Pedy (kupa piti - white man in a hole) is an ambiguous place, neither welcoming nor forbidding. In the middle of the South Australian desert, on the Stuart Highway roughly halfway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, this frontier town is well named. It is certainly a place of white men and their holes. Holes to seek fortune and holes to disappear in.

Since surface opal was discovered by gold prospectors in the early 20th century, it has been a magnet for fortune seekers, a remote outpost where pasts are forgotten and lives restart, and more recently the entry to alien landscapes for film makers. This was my second visit and with the exception of those trading and dealing with tourists, the chemist, the supermarket, the petrol station, the hotels and motels, I don't think I've seen a local white man. But then I didn't go out drinking at night. This time I did see aboriginals, in sad clusters under wispy gum trees, a woman in a blue dress sitting cross legged, alone, tapping the earth with a stick, a tall awkward man walking along a footpath keen to keep out of my way, a group of teenage girls in garish clothing, one in Lolita sunglasses, striding along purposefully to nowhere.

There is no leasing. Claims are staked and claims are small, several hundred square metres maximum. This is no place for corporate enterprise, but for everyman, and everyman for himself. Accents and names are European, German, French, Croatian. Some faces are Asian and Subcontinental. In this melting pot, questions aren't asked, not by blow-ins anyway. Tins sheds house opal traders and dealers in aboriginal art and artifacts. Traps for the unwary on all counts I thought. There is little room for provenence around here, personal or otherwise.

The fabled underground hotel is scooped out into the side of a hill. Coober Pedy sits among a small cluster of small hills where summer temperatures are rarely less than 40 degrees C, and often higher. The corrugated bare walls and ceilings inside are mottled brown, tan and cream, and anything but claustraphobic. The feeling is cave, cave dweller, constant, temperature perfect, safe, secure, embryonic. It is just that there's opening glass doors instead of a rock to roll away. And a perfectly good en-suite.

The mine fields are an endless terrain of mounds of earth, giant ant's nests where the layers of gravel, sandstone and clay have been sucked from the earth into piles, as the drillers bore down into the silica layers where the opals are waiting. Perhaps. Our driver was a garrulous German who came thirty years ago for a few months, who had wild stories of big finds and dazzling stones, and who I could never imagine being anywhere else.

(Click on pics to enlarge)

One mound, one hole, repeated, repeated, repeated.

A short drive out of town takes you deep into ancient sea beds (the Breakaways)

and into desert of disarming minimalism (Moon Plain).

Night came quickly, the temperature dropping and the sky bleeding through brooding clouds. We hurried into our cave.

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