When the rest of the world emerged from under the cloak of World War I, Coober Pedy went underground. The name in fact is a local Aboriginal term for white man’s hole.
“You see that?” Colin asked. His hand directed us upwards to a slender wooden match that poked out of a crack in the kitchen ceiling. “It’s been up there for 18 years and hasn’t moved. That’s how I know the earth is stable.”
Like many residents in Coober Pedy, Colin lived in an underground ‘dugout’. No matter the weather, the temperature inside a dugout hovers around 72 degrees without the aid of heaters or air conditioning. It’s an unusual architectural legacy courtesy of the WWI trench fighters turned opal miners. Colin’s home is a tourist site courtesy of Faye Nayler.
Faye moved into town in the 1960s to work at a local restaurant. When her employer fired her for not cooking green meat, she made her own café. Then, with the help of two friends, she spent the next ten years digging her own home.
Faye was one of the first people to recognize the town’s tourism potential and one of the first to offer tours of her own house. When she retired to Queensland, Faye sold her property with the stipulation that it must remain a lived-in tourist attraction.
“Do you ever get tired of showing people your home?” I asked Colin at the end of the tour.
“Of course,” he sighed and shrugged his shoulders, “but we get to meet visitors from all over the world.”
Josephine’s Gallery is a five minute walk from Faye’s Underground House. It has Aboriginal art, opal jewelry, and a barnyard odor. The owners run a kangaroo rescue center behind the shop and, like everything else in Coober Pedy, it’s a DIY kind of enterprise.
During the holidays, when bursting fireworks echo across the treeless landscape, Josephine and Terry bring the kangaroos inside. They turn up the TV and let their spoiled marsupial grand kids eat Twisties and drink black tea.
“Now that one is a bit stupid.” Terry affectionately pointed to one of the red kangaroos. “He cries when it rains. Mind you he is five years old, so that is not normal. I have to move him out of the rain myself.”
On the way out of the shop, I picked up a brochure about how to rescue joey kangaroos. It’s not for the faint of heart. Older joeys just need to be kept warm, but furless ones that are latched on to a nipple must not be forcibly removed. The rescuer would need to slice through one side of the pouch and cut the nipple off at the base.
Tie the end of the teat off with a piece of string. The baby will eventually release the teat.
Just down the road, at the bottom of a long staircase, was a room filled with dubious Aboriginal art and the requisite opal jewelry. “Everything is on sale,” advised the guy behind the counter. He was rough around the edges and I had a hard time imagining him daintily arranging the necklace display. The far end of the counter was lined with photos of machines.
“He with the biggest tools wins,” the shop owner explained when he saw me glancing over the photos. “I’m selling my stock off to go into the dugout digging business.” It turned out there was a construction boom of sorts since Chevron found a large deposit of shale oil near Coober Pedy.
Diesel engines pump the town’s water supply from an aquifer and send it through a reverse osmosis treatment. At $5 per 1,000 liters, fresh water costs double what it does in metropolitan Sydney. I couldn’t imagine how much it would cost to import water if petrochemicals poisoned the aquifer.
“Are people worried about fracking?” I asked the owner.
“Yep,” he replied with a slow nod of the head. He seemed worried but also preoccupied with getting his share of the wealth. Seventy percent of the world’s opals comes from Coober Pedy, but that doesn’t mean anyone is guaranteed riches.
Coober Pedy has a growing population of 3,500 but it also feels like a graveyard. It’s a place where cars are left to rust and pie-in-the-sky dreams go to die, businesses included.
Two men were sitting outside the Cup and Opal when Barret and I approached. One guy smiled, jumped up and led us inside. Barret and I were hoping for food but as soon as we entered it was obvious it had been a long time since anything edible had been served.
The tables were all pushed to the right of the café and covered in dust. Two perpendicular display cabinets ran along the left. “I will give you a nice discount,” the man announced with a thick Eastern European accent. “For you- 40% off. Very very nice.”
“I’m shopping for my sister.” I replied as he began pulling out cheap necklaces. “I like it, but she’s so difficult.” Who could argue with a sister in another country?
Just outside the town limit was an underground campsite called Riba’s. The layout of the tunnel was somewhat in the shape of the letter P but with boxy campsites carved out along the route.
Rick and Barbara, the owners, and had started out mining opals until tourism became more profitable. Aside from underground camping, Rick also gave nighttime tours of a mine shaft on his property.
The way opal mining works is that the available land belongs to the government and is only leased for a twelve month period. After registering for a permit, the hopeful miner marks a 50x50m or 50x100m claim with four posts and then registers that site. A person can only have one plot at any time.
According to Rick only one government plot had ever been sold and it was to a German tourist. When word got out about who was ‘selling’ land online, the shady local left town. It’s hard to do business when no one trusts you.
Opals work by diffracting light. More the 90% of the opals found in silica veins are completely worthless potch opals that didn’t have continually even pressure during their formation. The problem with mapping silica veins is that the potch and the valuable stuff show up as one and the same. Between the difficulty in surveying and the council’s mining legislation, there are no large scale operations.
What surprised me most though about the whole process were the homemade components: the newspaper tube dynamite, the black light noodlers, and the safety protocol. If you fall down a shaft remember to spread your arms wide.
Rick pulled out some metal dowsers to show us how to map out silica veins. A plump woman with short bleach-blond hair and a tribal tattoo on her neck volunteered to try the dowsers. Her husband stayed behind with the camera. He had a pot belly and was wearing swim trunks that looked like a baggy Australian flag.
“Slow down,” Rick advised when the woman began to walk down the hall. “Make sure you hold them loosely.”
“I don’t do slow,” the woman replied in a curiously child-like voice. She reminded me of the time my dad hastily declared that he, “didn’t drive over 40mph anymore.”
On our way out of quiet town, down the dusty main road, Barret was pulled over for a Breathalyzer test. It was late afternoon and there was only one other car behind us. Coober Pedy felt so Wild West that I was surprised to see a cop, let alone a Breathalyzer. The frequency of the machine’s beep increased until the test was finished.
“You’re good,” the female officer announced as she walked away. Barret hit the gas. The town was an industrial anthill in our rearview mirror. Hundreds of white triangular mounds against red earth, almost a hundred years of digging.
“Doesn’t it look like the town lost something?” I asked Barret. “Collectively, they just lost it.”
About: Coober Pedy
How to get to Faye’s Underground House: Old Watertank Road, Coober Pedy SA 5723
How to get to Josephine’s Gallery: 131-133 Hutchison Street, Coober Pedy SA 5723
How to get to Riba’s Underground Camping: 1811 William Creek Road, Coober Pedy SA 5723