15: Opal Noodling for My Fortune – Coober Pedy, Uluru/Ayers Rock …

15: Opal Noodling for My Fortune

7 August 2002
I have decided that my aforementioned “sandglobe” idea should be patented to provide the Australian souvenir market with a much-needed alternative to the cheesy stuffed fluffy koala and roo market. These are the things that occupy my mind whilst zooming through the flat barrenness where rigormortised road kill is about as interesting as it gets at times.

But on this particular day we had little hope of any further zooming, and drove the car at 20km/h with a mangled wheel bearing to the nearest SOS phone and rest area to pitch our tent for the night. We discovered definite negatives to arriving somewhere after dark, when in the morning odd smells filled our nostrils and runaway toilet paper clung to tufts of grass around our tent – the toilet of the Outback!

Once we had finished kicking the broken SOS phone, we turned to the task of pitching our tent. Our kind neighbours in the parked motorhome next door, Alf and Doris, made us some tea and sat around commiserating with us and trouble-shooting. It was eventually decided that Matt would hitch into town early the next morning to see if we could afford towing. After a long morning of playing with their pet dingo, Matt arrived with the shocking figures we would have to pay for towing. So we risked more damage at 20km/h until it was evident that any further driving would end up just costing more money in the long run.

A nice man with a satellite phone called the towtruck to our rescue just 55km out of Coober Pedy. So $100 later, we found ourselves in this hip, hop and happening place. The dust settles on you quicker than the scorching sun can, and we spent 3 days there contemplating our fate at the hands of a tetchy ill-mannered mechanic.

On the first night, Gloria managed to swear and insult him, not good considering he held our fate in his hands. When we went to get some things out of the Pajero the next day, he screamed at us, saying that if we ever put one foot on his land again, he would have us arrested. How did I get between a feisty Italian woman and frazzled outback mechanic? So we stayed away.

We watched sunset, after sunset, after sunset from the town’s biggest attraction ‘The Big Winch’. In fact it is an exact replica of the original – another fake. We walked from one opal cave to the next and did a bit of noodling for opals in noodling dumps all over town. Found a few remnants, but not enough to get excited over. The local aborigines were mostly drunk, and I got threatened in a supermarket when I saw them shoving things into their pockets. A sad remnant of past sins – I guess, being from South Africa, I should know about that.

The Red Centre
When all was fixed and we faced the ‘damages’ that would have to be paid, we continued our journey with a little less optimism than the first time. But besides a few minor worries we made it to Uluru/Ayers Rock, The Olgas/Kata Tjuta and King’s Canyon!

We had a great few days of bushcamping (where we weren’t meant to) and hiking in valleys and mountains. The rock was as expected – no misconceptions or illusions were shattered. I did the walk around and not to the top, out of respect for the locals who do not wish this sacred site to be tramped all over. Most people climb it anyway.

With only one expensive campsite to choose from, we decided to accept the invitation of the open arms of the bush. (But we did a minor detour through the campgrounds for a sneaky shower beforehand, why not?) King’s Canyon had the most amazing walks and views, and we hopped on the 4WD track up to Hermansburg toward the end of the day – also not allowed. This is aboriginal land and very closely monitored, strictly no camping along the way.

The road is heavily corrugated, and our old paranoia returned as we imagined the car rattling apart at every bump. We came across some comical road signs out there. Instead of standard government-issue signs on poles, we got old white-and black-painted petrol drums. For slowdown it said, “Liftum foot up” and to resume at normal speed further along it said, “Puttum down again”.

In total defiance of the law, we pulled off the side of the road when the sun was going down and set up camp. It was extremely dusty and full of paper thorns that stuck to your clothing and pierced the tent. Gloria cooked us up some spuds and cheese and we pondered life before heading off to bed for another three-dog night. We reached Hermansburg early in the morning, where we found a pioneer settlement that served what is rumoured to be the best scones in the Outback. So we sampled some and made our way the last few hundred km’s to Alice Springs.

Heading North
We found a really cozy hostel and it wasn’t long before we were saying our final good-byes. Matt was heading back to Sydney to meet up with his girlfriend, and Gloria and I had found a ride with Chris the Pom up to Darwin. So with all our history, we said a misty-eyed goodbye, one which we agreed came in the nick of time to spare us from any shallow graves in the Outback.

Alice Springs was also a place to recover. We partied at Melanka’s bar at night and took in the sights of the town during the day – in other words, we were far busier at night! After a few days in Alice, Gloria and I hopped into Priscilla, a little white Holden Gemini from the 70s with a Pom named Chris. We drove like the clappers for the first day, playing tunes and only stopping to stretch the legs and see a man about a dingo. We reached Katherine by nightfall and fell into bed at Backpacker’s Paradise.

We hooked up with Tracey, another Pom, and headed to Katherine Gorge. We arrived midday to start our hike, so Gloria and Tracey opted to stay behind and swim whilst Chris and I walked a few km’s to the top of the gorge. We finished off with a cold swim with the crocs and snakes, of which we saw none – thankfully!

Once we had dropped Tracey off, who was headed to Uluru, we went to the hot springs just a few km’s out of town. We made our way down to the springs in the dark and jumped into some nice warm bathwater, with bubbles! We soon got used to the idea of dark all around and dark water, but not straying too far from the steps at the water’s edge.

After we had pruned up sufficiently, we sat chatting to a local who had spent his life hunting dingoes and selling their pelts and mustering on a huge cattle ranch up north. There are cattle stations in the Northern Territory averaging 14,000km square, which is approximately the size of Holland. We also watched his dog chase a wallaby into the water. When the wallaby didn’t come out the dog went in after him, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when the wallaby put its paw on top of the dog’s head, trying to drown him. The old bloke got really upset and called his dog out, or he would have drowned.

Tired from all the action, wet and cold, we headed back to the hostel.

If you want more information about this area you can email the author.

Filed under: 170