Man In A Suitcase

Coober Pedy, South Australia

Coober Pedy (the name is Aboriginal for white man's hole in the ground) is a hot and dusty town in the middle of nowhere that accounts for 70% of the world's supply of opals. It's so hot that a lot of people have built their homes underground. The town has a golf course with black greens and players who carry around little hunks of sod to play from. It's a place I read about while preparing for my first visit to Australia back in 1992 and always wanted to see. Yeah, it took thirteen years. Yeah, it waited until my fourth trip to Oz. But now I was finally going to fulfill one of my smaller dreams.

I thought the plane to Kangaroo Island was small until I got on my Rex flight to Coober Pedy. With one small plane a day, at least this time of year, I'm guessing not a lot of people make the 500 mile trip by air. The flight takes almost two hours, in circumstances that might charitably be described as cramped. Oh, and make sure you go before you board. This is the no-frillsiest of no frills flights.

I discovered one of the curious aspects of Coober Pedy while waiting for my bag and looking for a ride to my hotel. A fellow wearing a shirt with the name of my hotel was pushing the baggage cart out to the plane. He informed me that yes, he'd be my ride to the hotel. He was also Rex's agent at the airport. And my tour guide for the afternoon. Oh, and he did a little opal mining in his spare time. What I discovered over the next few days is that Brian wasn't at all unusual; lots of people around here wear multiple hats. Must be all that sun.

I was staying at the Desert Cave Hotel, an amazing place that was carved into the side of a hill in the center of town. The hotel's bar, cafe, shops and half the guest rooms are underground. All that rock helps keep the rooms comfortable, despite the often insane heat outside and the lack of air conditioning within. (Although they do cheat a little; there was definitely A/C going on in the shared areas.) About the only downside is not knowing what's going on outside; turn out the light and you're in total dark. Which is fine with me; I'm used to being in the dark, at least metaphorically speaking.

After getting unpacked and checking out the hotel, I was off on my afternoon tour with Brian, the multifaceted guy from the airport. Our first stop was at the Serbian Orthodox Church. An underground church, which to my mind is highly unorthodox. (Sorry; I'll try to behave.) The church is awe inspiring, both for its natural setting and the amazing religious carvings created from its rock walls. Not surprisingly for the Opal Capital of the World, a couple of veins of opal were discovered during its excavation.

Next stop was the local cemetery. A place like this draws those with a peculiar sense of humor, which may explain its fascination for me. As an example I present the sign at left that points to the cemetery. Yes, it's a boot. For Boot Hill. Which isn't actually on a hill. But what else would you name a cemetery in a frontier town?

And then there's the grave at right. Karl Bratz enjoyed a drink or two in his day. And perhaps he enjoyed them a bit more than was good for him. He's memorialized with a keg for his headstone. His epitaph? "Have a drink on me." There's more to the story, although you'll have to travel to Coober Pedy to hear it. Besides, I have it on excellent authority that it's both entertaining and wholly inaccurate.

Heading underground ourselves, we next visited one of the older mines in town. Opals were first discovered here by accident in 1915, when the son of a gold miner spotted one on the ground. The first mine opened the next year. The Umoona mine dates back to the 20s, with extensive tunnels and living quarters. It's pretty easy to tell the age of each tunnel and lodging; the rough and uneven walls of the passages dug out by explosives and by hand vs. those made by modern machinery, including one perfectly cylindrical tunnel that could be the work of the Horta from the original Star Trek. Of course, if the quality of the carving doesn't give away a room's age, the furnishings provide an extra clue.

Coober Pedy gets an average of 5" of rain a year, which is hardly enough to keep a proper golf course going. And golf is one of life's essentials, right? I mean, if you don't have golf courses, where else will you get to wear those awful plaid pants?

The town's answer is this unorthodox course, whose fairways are made of sand (no shortage of that around here) and whose greens are a mixture of sand and used motor oil. I don't imagine it gets much use in summer, when the mercury rises to 50°C (122°F). But at least there's no shortage of sand traps.

The mines in town are all tourist spots now. Which is a good thing, what with the explosions and the dust and the risk of falling into a fifty foot hole. But you don't have to go far to see the working mines. There's no large scale mining; permits are only granted to individuals, who can pick out a 50x50m or 50x100m plot. And lax rules about cleanup means that there are thousands of conic dirt piles dotting the landscape next to the holes that provided the dirt. I wonder if Louis Sachar ever made it to Coober Pedy. It would explain a lot if he did.

You don't have to go too far out of town to see the desert in all its unspoiled magnificence. It's only 20 miles north to The Breakaways, which puts Monument Valley to shame. If there's anybody who thinks of desert as a colorless wasteland, The Breakaways will set them straight.

The mountains at right are known popularly as the Castle or as Salt & Pepper. But to the Aboriginal people, they're Two Dogs. They identify another hill as the Man, the owner of the dogs. I was going to write that I can't see anything remotely canine in these two. But I've changed my mind. Suddenly I can see a dog lying down in the white mountain. Which is pretty good; I've never been able see the pictures in constellations.

One more landmark before heading into town. This is the Dog Fence, which starts at the ocean in Queensland and runs 3500 miles to the border of Western Australia. The fence serves to keep dingoes from moving south and ravaging sheep. North of the fence are cattle stations, cattle being quite capable of dealing with the threat of wild dogs.

I was told later that cattle ranchers don't let their dogs go near their stock. If their cows become comfortable with dogs, they may not react swiftly enough to a dingo attack.

Wednesday was my free day in town. Up bright and early, I stopped to admire the combination petrol station/roadhouse/barbershop/opal and souvenir shop across from the hotel before heading down the block to the combination supermarket/hardware store. After my encounter with the local wildlife yesterday, I was in search of insect repellent and, if that didn't work, a mosquito net. As picturesque as those hats with the corks hanging down are, I didn't think they'd do much good against the local flies and mozzies.

Now well prepared against the elements, I went wandering. Underground Books, where I found a fascinating biography of 17th century pirate and explorer William Dampier that lasted me until I got home. The Opal Cutter, where I found a large white opal that I just barely resisted buying. (Resisted until about three that afternoon, anyway.) Followed by a half dozen more opal shops, at which I made a few small purchases. Including The Opal Bug at right, where I had a friendly chat with the owner about opals, tourists, Australia and America. And where I declined his kind invitation to visit his collection of snakes, lizards and insects.

Coober Pedy is a popular place for shooting films that need just the right post-apocalyptic or otherworldly setting. In fact, the IMDB lists 18 different productions that were filmed around Coober Pedy. I'm told the artifact at left came from Pitch Black, which I'm embarrassed to say I haven't seen. (Embarrassed only because the cast includes Claudia Black of Farscape fame.) But given the description in IMDB ("a group of marooned space travelers struggle for survival on a seemingly lifeless sun-scorched world"), I would be hard pressed to imagine a more appropriate location for filming.

Eventually I reached my saturation point with opal shopping and tried to capture the town. I hiked up to The Big Winch, which promised an excellent viewpoint. It delivered, although that presented an interesting problem. You see, the nicer parts of town look like a construction site before the landscaping has gone in. (The less nice parts look more like an auto junkyard or Cletus the Slackjawed Yokel's front lawn. I'll spare you those views.) So I took a wander through the Old Timers Mine. And then tried the town's pizzeria. And went back for that opal I'd resisted so well that morning. And eventually retired to the Underground Bar with a book and a bottle of VB. And decided that maybe I understand Karl Bratz just a little bit better than I did yesterday.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California