Deep in the South Australian desert is the famously quirky town of Coober Pedy, full of people wanting to get lost, fortune seekers and plain old eccentrics. Steve Madgwick digs in…
Nothing you are about to read is true. Some of the names have been changed, too; once by me and once by them.
It’s not that the inexplicable yarns that Coober Pedians breathlessly share never happened. Getting them on the record or proving them, however, is another matter.
Dig too deeply and forcefully for facts and you automatically qualify as ‘shiny-shoe officialdom’, the enemy, at which point the trap door slams shut and the story ends.
Instead, go with the flow and let the outpost’s egalitarian eccentrics talk.
If you listen without prejudice, an intriguing outback mosaic assembles itself that will make your life seem so Excel spreadsheet.
Coober Pedy’s characters aren’t as tough to unearth as the town’s raison d’être, the opal, either. Just say hello, like I did to ‘George’ (not his real name), and then hold on for the ride…
The door moans shut. The lights snap off. It’s so black that I have to see with my ears: nothing but my own staccato breathing.
Garrulous George isn’t saying a word now, after the invitation to see his “rock collection”. Is he even still in here?
A crisp click, like a rifle being cocked, cuts through the dead air. Seconds later, the word ‘Welcome’ forms on the ceiling on a makeshift illuminated sign.
“D’ya like it?” asks George. “I made it m’self. From gypsum I found in the desert.”
Lights on, George’s dugout is brimful with bits, pieces and thingies scrounged from here and there: a used bullet collection (not from his guns, apparently) and abstract art made from waste metal he “came across” at Woomera, hundreds of kilometres away.
His magnum opus is a human-sized stick figure, fashioned from tree branches.
Its googly eyes stare me down psychotically from underneath a straw hat. A self-portrait, perhaps?
From a velvet sack, he retrieves a solid-rock sculptured penis. Ceremonially, he inserts it into a pre-made slot between Branch Man’s legs.
“Ta-da.” A Wolfe Creek Crater poster comes into focus next to the light switch near the door.
I shake hands with George, and rush to my next (utterly made-up) appointment. George is the quintessential Coober Pedian: a harmless, rule-loathing freedom-seeker who chooses a desert cave over a suburban one.
This delicious eccentricity defines the town, but its residents fail to appreciate it. Instead, they pine for the unhindered and unhinged good old days; the frontier town’s lawless renaissance of the ’70s and ’80s.
“It was really wild, wild west back then,” says Umoona Opal Mine manager, Nick Troisi (real name, probably). “You could still buy explosives in supermarkets.”
Not content with simply extracting opals from the terra-extra-firma with their shopping-trolley TNT, locals found an ancillary use for it: as the Great Leveller, literally and figuratively.
Stacks of mining machinery, the courthouse, a Greek restaurant and a police car were blown up to varying degrees.
“No one was ever killed,” Nick says. “That’s just how disputes used to be settled in a town where we’ve had 100 years of white settlement , but police for only 50.”
Of course, most incidents went officially unsolved (but were ultimately resolved).
Still today, ‘Explosives are not to be brought into this theatre’, flashes up on the drive-in screen before the main feature.
Yet it’s disingenuous to pigeonhole the population of Coober Pedy as nutty outlaws.
In fact, it’s very hard to say anything definitive about the population, because no one has the foggiest clue who or how many people actually live here.
The reflex retort to that question is always, “You mean, officially or unofficially?” The 2016 census was a calamitous failure Australia-wide, but that’s about standard out this way.
The 2011 version recorded 1695 residents in Coober Pedy, but the District Council deduces it to be around 3500. Others guesstimate 4000-plus.
“Census-takers would be met with a shotgun,” according to an anonymity-preferring local character. Let’s just call her Calamity.
“People come here running away from partners, situations, money or war zones. They just don’t want attention.”
First World War diggers seeking fortune and purpose led the charge, followed by a multicultural drip-feed – initially Greeks and Italians who preferred gemstone roulette to building dams – which pooled into 45-plus cultures today.
Epithets render surnames redundant in this part of the South Australian outback.
You’ll likely run into Russian Ivan, Pommy John and even Chicken Man. Remember, don’t dig too deeply.
“Even sworn enemies, like Croatians and Serbs, get along out here,” says Calamity.
The Croatian Club and (underground) Serbian Orthodox Church are within a stone’s throw of each other – yet no stones have ever been launched.
The new kids in town are Sri Lankans and Filipinos (often on 457 visas), left to serve in the restaurants and hotels while others tunnel into their respective futures.
To see a true local, look into Barney Lennon’s eyes as he surveys the strange landscape of mesas and low hills that constitute the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park, 30 kilometres outside town.
The one white and one brown hills that comprise ‘Two Dogs’ are an impressive sight to an outsider; they seem to contemplate the moon-like plain’s eternal nothingness.
Two Dogs is far more than just a nice sunset spot for this indigenous elder and grandfather. It is part of his story, his ancestry.
But even Barney admits to having had an opal-esque glint in those eyes. “I used to mine just the other side of the Breakaways, too,” he says. “Hard work, but I loved it.”
Hard graft is integral to everyone’s backstory in Coober Pedy, but the million-dollar question still can be a touchy one to ask.
“About 50 per cent go broke and one per cent make it big,” says Trevor Berry from The Old Timers Mine.
“The rest make a living; one way or the other. In 30 years, my friend found $50,000 of opal on his best day. In his worst year, he found $250 worth.
You can be on the bones of your bum, but every day you could hit the one.”
Forget notions of picks and lanterns, the modern opal miner uses bulldozers and excavators to work football-field sized claims, in a week instead of a year, usually in partnership to share the crushing costs ($1000 a day for just one machine is a commonly bandied-about figure).
The clientele at local hangout John’s Pizza Bar & Restaurant (where the pizzas are cheesy and colossal) are the reality of a rapidly ageing demographic, looking more like sunburned Santa Clauses than Chesty Bond.
No one admits to striking it big in the past couple of years (nudge-nudge, wink-wink).
Then again, who in their right mind would tell a stranger that they have a human-fist-sized gemstone on their bedside table?
Whatever the truth, the key to not eating dirt for dinner (and continuing on your quest) is to have a spouse who works a non-mining job, probably somewhere on Hutchison Street.
The main drag radiates the same laissez-faire, post-industrial higgledy-piggledy visage it has for years.
It certainly won’t be on the Tidy Town judges’ radar anytime soon.
The low-rise, boarded-up-in-places CBD is replete with emporiums, motels, clubs and ‘tourist attractions’ that all claim to be proxy opal galleries.
On the back streets, Coober feels like Cuba; veteran cars and trucks from various epochs lie dead and dying: Austins, Dodges and Kingswoods.
A Mad Max Interceptor lurks in one junkyard, which you’ll only see if you’re reckless enough to wander past the stay-the-hell-away signs.
‘Danger Keep Off’ forewarns another sign affixed to a Star Wars-looking spaceship beached in a carpark; a cast-off prop from the film Pitch Black.
Paradoxically, it’s one of the least dangerous things in town.
Coober Pedy is still movie-set utopia, especially if you’re looking to replicate Mars or a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The infinite waste-dirt mounds piled around town and beyond, like a cataclysmic acne outbreak, certainly enhance the otherworldliness.
This OH&S cataclysm is not about to change soon. “There’s no back-fill order in Coober Pedy [you don’t have to fill in your holes] and we don’t want it,” says miner John.
“This helps out the small guys, the secondary miners, who haven’t got a drill or machine.”
Famously, above ground is only half the story here. Many long-term Pedians prefer life in underground dugouts; used mines or custom-blasted sanctuaries.
Save for the fact that the dugouts were unceremoniously gouged from the earth, they are the perfect eco-friendly housing initiative.
Thoroughly insulated, a dugout’s temperature settles in the low 20s even when outside it’s well into the 40s.
Jam B&B gives a flavour of just how liveable and homely a cave can be.
Outside it’s an unassuming quadrangle carved out of the blonde and pink earth, fringed by gardens of succulents and bougainvillea in the shade.
Inside, scrapes, gouges and veins in the rock look like post-modern wallpaper patterns, set against tiled floors and chandeliers.
A surprising amount of light finds its way in from the front windows and mining-strength vents keep the air unexpectedly fresh.
Claustrophobes won’t necessarily be able to look on these bright sides, especially once the lights turn off.
Naturally, even the act of constructing dugouts subverts strict regulations that constrain prospecting under the town itself.
“People ‘renovate’ instead of mine,” says Nick Troisi. “They have 21-room underground ‘homes’. “It can be chaos down there. People accidentally tunnel into a neighbour’s room and say, ‘whoops, sorry, I’ll just reverse’.”
For all the supposed bedlam, Coober Pedy self-regulates where and when it needs to.
Millions of bucks of polished opals sit in shops, homes, and under car seats, secured only by pacifiers, roller doors, big guns, ‘attack kangaroos’ and unspoken threats involving bottomless holes.
But you get the feeling that these are overkill, if not entirely superfluous. The esprit de corps here transcends even the opal itself. While the gemstone is unquestionably the lure, it’s not the sole reason people stay for a lifetime after a fleeting visit.
“Look how far I can see – that’s freedom,” says Terry from Josephine’s Gallery (and kangaroo orphanage). “I drive out of town and it’s like a load has lifted off you. In Sydney, there’s the cloud of people and pressure that you can’t escape.”
If you’ve had a hard time and want to get a fresh start, this town is happy to accept you.
You can live like a hermit or go to happy hour every night; no questions, few judgements.
Local cemetery Boot Hill (miners die with their boots on, so the legend goes) is full of people who gladly chose “shit pay and freedom over a ton of debt and a life you hate”.
Of course, in death as in life, the names and dates on the headstones are up for debate.
Details: Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy is (at least) a nine-hour drive (850 kilometres) north-west from Adelaide along the (sealed) Stuart Highway. For a more adventurous route, consider the Explorer’s Way via Lake Eyre and the Oodnadatta Track. You’ll need a 4WD (read our story online, search: ‘Explorer’s Way’).
Desert Cave Hotel – Stay underground in the centre of town, complete with underground bar and cafe.
Jam B&B – For something more intimate try this B&B on the outskirts.
Contact Wayne Borrett, Arid Areas Tours, for a town tour or to the Breakaways, the Dingo Fence and beyond. aridareastours.com