Stephen W Starling
Writer and Photographer

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Spending a Night Underground – Coober Pedy, Northern Territory, Australia

Friday, January 01, 2016

The sun is setting tinting the desert with a rosy glow as I ride on towards Coober Pedy. I’ve been on my Honda ST1300 since dawn; speeding through the sweeping bends of the Gawler Ranges, racing along a gun-barrel straight highway over the Great Victoria Desert, tearing up the miles on a 4,000km adventure across outback Australia to Alice Springs. My eyes are dry and scratchy, body sweaty and stiff, and my bum is numb. I desperately need a cold shower, hot meal, and a soft bed.

 Approaching Coober Pedy the stunted scrub and clumps of spinifex grass clinging to the rocky desert transform into a bizarre moonscape pot-marked with dark craters and pyramids of white stones scattered seemingly at random across the plain. Rusting steel towers stand over unfenced mineshafts and battered trucks sit immobile on flat tyres beside waste heaps of rubble. It is an alien, unloved landscape; an area that once promised the riches of precious opals, but now worked over and plundered, it has been abandoned for better prospects further up the track. 

 A settlement of ramshackled buildings comes into view. Timber frames homes are dotted along dusty streets: they are no more that home-made humpies of faded weatherboard sheets cobbled together under rusting corrugated tin roofs. Red sand blows across the road to pile up in drifts against fences and walls. No gardens surround the houses only one or two spindly trees survive bowed by the incessant wind. No town planning zones either, mine workings invade the residential districts digging up back yards, road verges, and apparently anywhere a whim or hunch suggests a rich seam of opals.

 Despite its dilapidated appearance Coober Pedy is not declining into mining ghost town. It can rightly claim to be the opal capital of the world producing an estimated $13million worth of stones annually, 80% of total global output. The mining started by chance in 1915 when a young boy with a prospecting party searching for gold picked up a stone that shone with an iridescent internal fire. Hundreds rushed in hoping to unearth a fortune, undeterred by remote isolation, harsh climate and shortages of water. 

 Mining activity took a downturn in the 1930s when opal values fell during the Great Depression, but a price recovery and discovery of a new field triggered a new rush soon after World War Two. Many who flooded to the fields were refuges or displaced persons striving to build a new life in Australia. Their descendants with names like Pesnicnke, Millitch and Bilinski still own the mines today: usually operating as small family businesses with only two or three men working each shaft. Their forebears’ mistrust of authority and aversion to accounting also continues in the unregulated cash economy and undocumented deals sealed only with a handshake.

 Early pioneers worked and lived underground like ants creating rudimentary accommodation ‘dugouts’ in disused areas of mines to shelter from the extreme temperatures and choking dust storms on the surface. Local aborigines seeing the miners living underground named the opal fields Kupa (uninitiated man) Piti (hole) which was Anglocized into the town’s present name. Many dugouts are still inhabited, now comfortably furnished with power, water, internet, and three television channels. Often access is via a conventional house that sits over a mine shaft, or through a facade built in front of a tunnel entrance. A couple of disused mines have even been converted to underground churches, complete with readymade crypts. 

 I turn off mainstreet to ride up a low rise to where a motel sign flashes. After checking in at reception, instead of taking a lift up to a room, I follow the jolly, slightly overweight owner down a flight of stairs cut into the floor. We walk along a sloping corridor whose rock walls still carry grooves cut by disks of an excavating machine to an underground cavern some 20m long and 5m wide. Comfortable lounge chairs and a well-stocked bar fill a space where broken opal bearing rock was once sucked to the surface by a giant diesel driven vacuum. A mining gallery off to the side has become a restaurant complete with starched white tablecloths and colourful flower arrangements. Down a drive deeper into the mine, rooms have been built into recesses where workers once toiled. The genial owner explains he has sixteen rooms underground;

 “Business has been so good lately I may dig out four more” he says jokingly in a thick East European accent.

 Apparently, this is not as absurd as it sounds for later I read a sign stuck to a Post Office window advertising:

DUGOUT TUNNELLING. Need a Dugout Tunnelling?  Need an Extra Room Excavating? Call Rick 0433 152 894.”

 I am shown to a recess cut into the rock. It has been converted to a good-sized room with two beds, lamps, table, chair, and a fridge. Strata layers are revealed in the exposed walls and roof; salmon pink sandstone, sparkling white quartz, rusty streaks of iron oxide, interspersed with thin seams of dark sediment. It is a pleasing pattern enhanced by a shiny clear sealant applied to the exposed surface that enriches the warm natural colours. A fully equipped ensuite bathroom has been hewn out of a corner and wardrobe space carved into another wall. The window less cell is not musty or damp as two vents the size of drain pipes have been drilled down from the surface: there is no need for air-conditioning this far below ground, it is a steady 23 degrees throughout the year.

After dinner, I unpack and settle into my dungeon down below. It is quiet; silent as a grave. When I turn out the light it is dark too; black as a tomb. I relax and stretch out thinking this is like being laid to rest in a crypt – although, unusually, this crypt has room service and a soft bed.

    © Stephen W Starling

Get laid to rest in Coober Pedy at the Comfort Inn Coober Pedy Experience Motel, Crowder Gully Road, Cooper Pedy, South Australia 5723, Phone 08 8672 5777.
You will be able to read more about my ‘Ride to The Red Centre’ in an updated edition of ‘Australia- the Long Ride Across’ scheduled for publication in 2018.

 

 

 

 

 


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