The Road to Becoming OZ Experienced – Coober Pedy from Alice Springs

On The Bus…
From Alice Springs on our way to Adelaide, this was day one of four that would take us southbound from the Red Centre, into South Australia and along the Stuart Highway into Adelaide. Our brand new OZ Experience bus driver Tom, aka ‘The Skipper’, gave us the low down on the trip ahead,

“The Stuart Highway, it’s long, it’s pretty straight… and did I mention, it’s very long.” He wasn’t kidding. From Alice Springs the landscape soon flattened out into red dirt and small scrub for as far as the eye could see. If you were to get off the road and head in a westerly direction from the highway, you’d travel some 2000 kilometres to the Indian Ocean without coming across another soul. As an American I had met earlier said,

“It’s the frikkin’ middle of nowhere man!”

Even as we crossed the border in to South Australia from the Northern Territory there was no change except for the colour of the tarmac. Abiding to a policy of low-impact road construction and aesthetics appreciation regulations, the South Australian Government constructed much of the Stuart Highway using red tarmac, to blend in with the red dirt. Believe me, it works. Red ahead, red to the right, red to the left… ‘Where’s the frikkin’ road man!’

The Highway was named after an explorer John McDouall Stuart. Stuart led an expedition that walked from the south coast to north coast of Australia, the first expedition to do so. It took two years and not one man died, although they all suffered hardships of sores, dehydration and scurvy.

Our driver, ‘The Skipper’, shared his experiences of scurvy with the rest of us. Before becoming an OZ Experience driver, he was a Captain working on yachts in the Caribbean, rubbing shoulders with Presidents and leading Industrialist… now he had us.

Eventually we came to The Breakaways, a strange collection of what look like giant sand-hill formations. From the lookout there is an information board that explains how they came to be formed. Reading that, should you get there, is a much better idea than me trying to explain geological phenomena, using long words that may sound good but make little sense to even me. But what is worth mentioning is that this area is where the ‘Mad Max‘ films were partly made. The area has that wasteland feel, the kind of place you’d imagine waking up to after a Nuclear War.

From the Breakaways, it was a short dash to Coober Pedy, but not before we stopped at the Dingo Fence. The fence stretches for 5000km around the South Australian border and was built to keep Dingoes in the North and away from grazing sheep. We even found another information board about the fence. The fence is the longest fence in the world and we were told that an old man, known as ‘Old Man’, continuously patrols the fence fixing holes. For more information on the Dingo Fence there is even a special Dingo Fence information line, 08 8648 5178.

Coober Pedy
“Coober Pedy rocks man!” Or should I say Coober Pedy is rock… rock, dirt and dust, Coober Pedy is a mining town in the middle of frikkin’ nowhere but very full of opals. I have never come across a town like Coober Pedy and it may sound worrying, but this dirt filled, arid isolated town has gone straight to my heart for being so weird and wonderful.

Because of the heat in the summer and cold in the winter, many of the towns people have excavated their homes underground in the rock. Whilst excavating their dining rooms and ‘main workshops’, some have even come across thousands of dollars worth of opals. When you consider that a three bedroom underground family house will set you back a mere $70,000, that’s not bad real estate.

The people of Coober Pedy have a particular lifestyle, lived almost as an art form based on their way of mining life. They have everything you would expect from a regular town only with little differences. The golf course comprises of flattened dirt, with a rake at each hole to… rake the dirt. Church’s representing a variety of faiths are all built underground. The cricket and football pitches have carefully maintained, you said it, dirt.

In such a harsh landscape and with such a hard working lifestyle, it is only fitting that the people who live there are pretty eccentric. Passengers on the OZ Experience get to go on a tour of the town. It is well worth it, as there is no other way to comprehend the bazaar way of life in Coober Pedy. We visited Boot Hill, the graveyard. The final resting-place of many town legends including Charlie, buried in a tin coffin that he used beforehand as a food cupboard in his kitchen. His headstone is also testament to his greatest love. His headstone is a keg of beer.

Then we met ‘Crocodile Harry‘. Harry is a national legend. Harry, originally from Latvia, was a crocodile hunter in Northern Queensland. Somehow he ended up in Coober Pedy when the Australian government banned Crocodile hunting in the 70′s. Personally I think hunting anything to use it’s skin for footware is out of place in this day and age. But back then, however short sighted, it was a way of life and having met and spoken to Harry, my first impressions of this 78-year-old retired hunter was that he was charming and quite harmless.

Harry’s crocodile hunting is only part of the legend. His underground home is a reflection of things that go on in his head. He is an artist and his cave dwelling defines the unusual and is trimmed with lacy bras from hundreds of donors over many years. He told me he did have a wife, but he kept her across the road, as now again he would have older-women tourists visit his lair.

Harry’s fame and fortune has stretched to Hollywood and back. His home featured in many films such as Mad Max. Even Star Wars nearly made it here, only they thought the area was too green… that’s not a colour I saw there. And that completes the legend of Harry of Coober Pedy – No viagra required. Warning; female’s please take an extra Brassiere on visiting Harry’s place.

Radeka’s Underground Backpackers (1800 633 891 / 08 8672 5223) in Coober Pedy offers an assortment of accommodation in a style in keeping with the town, twenty feet underground. The rock keeps the temperature a constant twenty-five degrees all year round and its not often you get to sleep down a luxury mineshaft. Radeka’s also boasts the cheapest bar in Coober Pedy, a feature that will please most Backpackers in Australia.

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  • David Savage said at 2012-01-05T03:34:05+0000: Good to see my old articles still in circulation! Shots from this trip can be found here: http://davidsavage.net/photog/coober-pedy-desert-town/.