Coober Pedy: Week 171 Part 1

Kitchen at Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

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.

Air vent inside the guest bedroom of Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

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's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

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.

Colin, the homeowner, who lives at Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

“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.”

Terry feeding a baby kangaroo at Josephine's Gallery: Coober Pedy, South Australia

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 grandkids 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.

Underground Art Gallery: Coober Pedy, South Australia

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.

Polaroid of town look-out point: Coober Pedy, South Australia

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 nice. 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?

Polaroid at Riba's underground camping: Coober Pedy, South Australia

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, 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.

More the 90% of the opals found in silica veins are completely worthless potch opals because they 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.

Riba's night mine tour: Coober Pedy, South Australia

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.”The town of Coober Pedy, South Australia

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.”

Polaroid of a warning sign in the mine fields: Coober Pedy, South Australia

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

South Australia: Week 170

Heli pad outside the Chateau Yaldara: Barossa Valley, South Australia

Barret and I made a very important decision while watching National Lampoon’s European Vacation. We decided that we couldn’t miss the Barossa Valley during our first trip to Adelaide. The valley has a lot going for it (like producing 21% of Australia’s wine), but it wasn’t until Chevy Chase slipped into some lederhosen that we pined for the region’s Germanic heritage. We’re tasteful like that.

Just outside the town of Tanunda, is Chateau Yaldara. It’s one of the most famous vineyards in the Barossa Valley because of its beautiful sandstone buildings. It was founded in 1947 by Hermann Thumm, a Georgian immigrant. Because of his German ancestry, Thumm spent several years interned in a POW camp after he first arrived in Australia. Never one to idle, he used the camp’s library to study viticulture and upon release he headed straight for the Barossa Valley.

The misty rain had cleared by the time we reached the cellar door. Along with four other American friends we sampled almost everything on offer before heading into Tanunda for lunch. The air was crisp and carried the scent of a wood-burning fire. It made me wish we had an extra night to stay in one of the old stone cottages.

Vineyards in the Barossa Valley: South Australia

We left the valley in the late afternoon and headed for the A1. The rural route passed Bumbunga Lake, a pink-streaked body of water inhabited by a Loch Ness monster made out of car tires. The only station we received was Radio National, the Australian equivalent to NPR. A retro-disco-Bollywood band from Melbourne was performing live in the studio and each member had an identity like The Skipper or The Bandit Priest.

The saltbush landscape slowly crept up as the Bombay Royale led us on a psychedelic journey. “We’re in a very small space for those listeners who can’t see us right now, and this is the Mysterious Lady talking. But you can imagine in this scene, this set: the humidity and the passion and we go to the Island of Doctor Electrico.”

The sun set before we entered Port Augusta, an industrial town at the ‘Crossroads of Australia.’ The Leigh Creek coal field is 250km north of town and supplies Port Augusta’s two power stations. Usually only one is operational during winter, but the air still had a metallic tang.

We drove straight through town and onto the Stuart Highway- the legendary road which runs north through the center of Australia. It was named after the Scottish explorer who traversed a similar route in 1861. The most dangerous time to travel the highway is between sunset and sunrise. This is when kangaroos are either most active or (obviously) harder to see. At 30mph mid-leap, hitting a ‘roo could be devastating.

An Outback roadhouse: Pimba, South Australia

We were tired and eager to pull over for the night at Pimba. Although, it would have been more accurate to just label the speck on the map ‘Spud’s Roadhouse’. The gas station/café/motel/grocery store pretty much was the entire town.

Inside the shop construction workers in neon vests crowded around a rugby game on TV and the smell of greasy food wafted out of the kitchen. Barret and I didn’t feel like setting up the tent in the parking lot, so we asked the guy behind the counter for a room.

“It’ll be nointy dollas. Cheers mate.”

We drove our car round the side of the building and parked outside a long row of connected portables. The only other occupants next to us were already drunk and leaning against a large industrial truck. The front door behind them was wide open and the lights and TV were blaring. They eyed us as we unlocked our bent aluminum door and a salty lady called out with a grin, “we’re only here for the night!”

Inside a room at Spud's Roadhouse: Pimba, South Australia

The portable was a wood-paneled shoebox with three beds, a projectile vomit stain on the carpet outside the bathroom, and very thin walls.

“Hey, ya got any drugs?”

I spun around to see if I’d left the door open, but I hadn’t.

“Naw,” a guy replied. It didn’t stop him from searching his stuff though. He sounded like a hamster scratching through the walls. Barret and I pulled out some canned food for dinner and glumly listened in our on neighbor’s conversation. A loud voice sounded from behind our unit and then another woman cackled out in the parking lot.

I felt like we were being circled by a pack of hungry dingoes. Was it only last night that we were enjoying a fireside drink at the Grace Emily in Adelaide? The mantle had been covered in candle wax drippings about a foot thick and a giant papier-mâché dragon head hung in the cornice by the stage. I suddenly wished we were back there.

The hiss of a static-y TV channel reverberated through our walls. “Wow,” I mouthed to Barret, “this place is a shit hole.”

About: The Barossa Valley

How to get to Chateau Yaldara: 159 Hermann Thumm Drive, Lyndoch SA 5351 Barossa Valley

About: The Bombay Royale

About: The Bombay Royale performance on Radio National

How to avoid Spud’s Roadhouse: Don’t stop in Pimba

How to get to the Grace Emily: 232 Waymouth Street, Adelaide SA 5000

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