The Underground Experience

Trip Start Jul 07, 2011
Trip End Oct 10, 2011

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Where I stayed
Riba's Underground Camping
What I did
Explored Coober Pedy

Flag of Australia  , South Australia,
Saturday, July 9, 2011

Today is exploring day – not for opals (although we'll do some of that) – but to look through the town of Coober Pedy.

Because we're staying 5km out of town, this is the first time that we’ll have left the van on its own – contents and all. It doesn’t matter how many times you check, you have to have one more check to ensure everything is locked and shut.  Of course, if anyone really wanted to get in, a knife and 2 seconds of cutting would gain access, but it’s the mental surety of putting the key into the lock and giving it the turn that makes you feel so much more secure.

The entrance to Coober Pedy off the Stuart Highway is marked by a blower-vac truck elevated 50ft in the air with the town’s name painted in big bold letters underneath.  Some wag has climbed it and stuck a Port Power logo on the truck’s door, which I suppose is about as high as they can get at the moment!  (That’s for Garry!)

Blink and you miss it

After driving down the main street in an attempt to look for the main street, we realised that the couple of fuel stations and 78 opal shops was the main street - so we did a loop and parked right outside the Desert Cave Hotel.  They have a free exhibit of the history of the area which runs under their car park and is really well done.  There's even a bit about the building/sealing of the road - a job which they did really well considering how much of a battering it gets from the road trains and the weather.

Another building worth seeing is the Serbian Orthodox church on the outskirts of the town.  Like many other buildings (sic) in CP, it's predominantly underground - in this case in the side of a sandstone hill.  Considering that the whole thing is dug out of a mountain, the main hall is cavernous, with a 5 arched ceiling dug about 30m into the hill.  Either side of the alter are reliefs carved directly into the sandstone which overlook the hall and opposite, at the face of the church, is a stained glass window providing the main source of light for the font and alter.

The (Serbian) folk and community in CP must have a real devotion to their church, because two old guys outside the front were toiling away making tree planters for 100+ citrus trees that were going to line the entrance and parking area - for the congregation to pick the fruit.  Remember it gets to 50C+ in summer time here - which is why the houses are underground in the first place - so these trees are going to need some TLC and these old timers are going to be doing a lot of watering.

It's in the eye of the beholder

After walking up the main street we just about couldn't go much further without falling over another opal shop so in we went.  The beauty of opal is that the appeal is entirely personal.  The problem is that you also don't know the price of what you're asking to look at.  Just like any other jewelry shop, the more posh the store, the more hidden the prices.  If you need to ask; you can't afford it, seems to be the moniker of many.

Megan finally found a nice large oval piece of opal in a gold setting which duly made its way into her handbag before we headed back to Riba's where Neil, Leesa, the kids and Elaine had just arrived from Woomera.

Old Timer's Mine Tour/Demo

After catching up briefly with the Spark's entourage - we all headed back into CP to the Old Timer's Mine where Mick (I think it was his name - if not, "Mick" seems like a great label, so I'll stick with it) does a potted history tour of some of the contraptions used by the whackers in CP.  Mick got to CP 30 years ago after coming for a holiday and he stayed - like about 20% of the other inhabitants of the town.  Like Rick at Riba's, I'm not sure if mining is a lucrative as tourism now, but either way Mick seems to enjoy the story telling and gradual embellishments he makes to the tales - sometimes inspired by the very clientele taking the tour that we were on.

The highlight of Mick's run through is when he cranks up the rock-vac and invites the assembled audience to hold a rock close to the inlet.  Whoosh and they're gone!  You really don't want to get too close or anything too valuable near that tube, because a split second it'll be ripped of you and go to shredder heaven.  This 'sucker' certainly made simple work of the considerable boulder that Matthew offered it.  I just waited for Caitlyn to get sucked up, but she returned safe and well (Grandma!)

Vacuuming rocks has got to be one of the most inefficient methods is clearing material from a mine!  But its got some upsides: First, it gets new air into the mine; Second, is the "Dyson" effect of separating the lighter material from the heavy rock.  Really useful when the stuff you want gets separated as a byproduct of clearing the waste!

Not Chinese Noodles

If you're not a miner, then the next best thing if you're lookng for opal is to sift through all the waste for small chips of opal that the miners have discarded.  Mick brings this stuff in so that the kids (and adults) can have a bash at "Noodling" for something of value.

It didn't take the kids (all of us kids) to find some chunks of colour in the pile, and by the end of it we had a tidy little collection of stuff for the treasure chest.

Breakaways and Dog Fence

About 15km to the north of CP at the start of the south track to Oodnadatta is a uniquely Australian feature: The Dog Fence.  This separates sheep country in the south from (Dingo infested) cattle country in the north.

The amazing fact about the dog fence is that it's a mere 5600km long - stretching from Surfer's Paradise in QLD all the way to the Great Australian Bight in WA!  Those dingos sure aint wanted in the south...

A bit on from the dog fence are the Breakaways - an outcrop of rocky 'mountains' that have survived the erosion of a gazillion years to leave them exposed and sitting well above the plateau below.

They're an interesting drive, and our first real taste of off-road driving, but the bus tours seem to be doing a roaring trade by packing the tourists into dozens of small mini vans and taking them to the lookouts.  I call them the "$ & c" tour because the tourists seem to have more dollars that sense to get conned into going on them...

John's Pizza Bar - 'best pizza' in SA

Back in the main street of CP, sits John's Pizza Bar - which was awarded the prize for best Australian pizza in 2010.  If nothing else, we had to sample what the 'best was' and duly booked for 6:30.  (We also had to go there for Maree!)

Now normally, I wouldn't quote a time like 6:30, but the time is important, because we still hadn't received our pizza by 7:45!  True, the pizza was great and it lived up to the award that it got, but good grief, the service was the slowest I have ever experienced from any restaurant in the world.  And I've eaten at a lot of places across this planet.  We settled for a complimentary coffee - which we had to have 'to go' because it was so late by the time we finished eating.

If you're in a hurry - go somewhere else!  I didn't put a link to John's - find it yourself if you need to...

For the record

Today's Menu:

  • Breakfast: Cereal
  • Lunch: Sandwiches
  • Dinner: (John's) Pizza - Chicken Burger for Caitlyn who doesn't like pizza!
From the mouths of babes:

  • When entering the underground Catholic Church in the main street at about midday, Caitlyn says in the loudest voice "Is this where we're having lunch?  I don't see anything to eat".
From the Gross file:

  • Dust in your sandwich - you can have it with everything in Coober Pedy.
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Lesley on

Thanks for the entertaining daily commentary - I love it! And it helps a great deal because I miss you, Megan, and I need some labels and some good giggles, and where are you??? Having fun in the desert!! And I'm trying to finish the end of financial year with a head cold....

Grandma on

Glad Caitlyn wasn't sucked away by the rock vac !

Loved her comment on the Church !!

What a joy to have her on your travels .

Guess Matthew wouln't make these types of comments ?

Maree on

It would want to be the best Australian pizza after a wait like that!
(Maybe they had to import it in).
Really enjoying your travel blog. Where are you off to next?

Grandma on

Where are you now -- I think we have lost you all ?

Caroline on

We knew the daily essay wouldn't last long! Are you so far away from civilisation that you can't post any updates at the mo? We're looking forward to some more photos, and please tell Matthew we're eagerly awaiting his next blog!

Lyn on

Love Caitlyns' comment sounds like something her mother would say.....and im with Lesley miss ya.....b*^&$ crack not worth having now hehe

teresa on

Pity you had to wait so long for the pizza! but if the locals go there you know its gotta be good! We didnt when we were there at Easter and the pizzas were amazing! Enjoying your commentaries! xxx

Dave R on

Did you go into the rooms in the Desert Cave Hotel/Motel - no windows - pitvh black when they turn the lights off - worse than the underground caves in Naracoorte etc. I would have enjoyed waitning for the Pizza only if they kept me topped up with beer!!!

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