Coober Pedy – day 322/12

Waking up 6.5m underground in a dug out that was excavated decades ago was weird… The sounds of other guest waking up in the cavernous holes (otherwise known as the hostel dorm rooms) were joined with pitch black darkness – until we turned on our room light and then we were squinting like blind moles! Managed to find a bathroom that had cubicles free for all of us where we proceeded to spend our shower time singing across the partitions, only to have a man cough halfway through our rendition of the ‘Muppets’ theme tune – cue some girly giggles from us and a hasty exit from the gentleman. Managed to get a clothes wash done whilst we had breakfast, choosing to sit outside (slightly cold) after spending the night in what can only be defined as a fancy coffin, complete with bunk beds and a mattress. Decided to spend the day walking in the town rather than partaking in one of the over priced tours which, apparently, showcase this town as a mining and tourist mecca. As we walked down the street and out of town towards our first opal mine of the day (that’s right… The first!!), it seemed like we had arrived in a post apocalyptic wasteland with the dry barren desert being riddled with holes, adjacent piles of dirt and signs warning of the dangers of ‘deep shafts’ and ‘walking backwards’. There were rusty car wrecks in front yards of houses that appeared to only have a front porch – the rest of the house is dug underground to cope with the 50°C summer days and lack of trees! Even at 10am in the morning, there were groups of aboriginals loitering on the streets in small groups, either already drunk or still intoxicated from the night before. The scene was the same for nearly every group we passed – swearing, shouting and poor attempts at fighting each other whilst calling ‘hello’ to every person who walked past them. Arriving at Tom’s Working Opal Mine, we were given hard hats and a map before being sent down into the working excavation. We were allowed to try the bosun chair that the miners used to descend themselves into the mine shaft, posing for the obligatory photos with a pick axe as we hung precariously several feet off the ground, not entirely sure if the cable on the ‘Ute’ could withhold our weight and/or had been checked in the last decade. All on solid ground and in one piece with an extensive amount of stone dust on our backs which glowed up under the UV light like a min solar system on our backs, we headed off down into the mine, exploring all the nooks and crannies including the sections where miners are continuing their search for the big vein. Jayne got far too involved in searching for her own small fortune by using the tools in the museum to crack open undiscovered opals in the rocks strewn around the place – alas, no opals found… Heading back up to the reception area, we got to watch a video on opal formation and mining (which was really interesting but I couldn’t tell you anything I learnt except that the big dinosaur skeleton found in Coober Pedy is not in Coober Pedy!). Heading back into town, we stopped off at the bakery to get some lunch of meat pies – the label said beef however none of us have seen any cats in the town – coincidence?!? Just saying! We consume our ‘beef’ pies on the veranda of the bakery listening to the dulcet tones of the fighting aboriginals al. around us. Walked over to the Catholic Church of St Peter & St Paul which was Coober Pedy’s first church and still has a sweet appeal with its statue-filled nooks and hushed classical music. Back to the hostel to have some lunch before crossing the road to explore the underground museum in the Desert Cave Hotel. More information and photos rather than anything else, the display of photos showing how people fall down the deep shafts and how they are rescued was equal parts funny and disturbing – we can only hope that they are staged photos. 

Walking back along the Main Street, we tried to find the leftover spaceship prop from the film Pitch Black but couldn’t spot it, so headed instead to the Big Winch which has sweeping views over Coober Pedy. From the view point it is obvious that the surrounding desert is jaw-droppingly desolate, a fact not overlooked by international film-makers who’ve come here to shoot end of the world epics such as Mad Max III, Red Planet, Ground Zero and (the only one I’ve watched) Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The ‘if’ painted on the side of the big bucket is designed to sum up the towns spirit and from viewpoint we found the spaceship – we had walked straight past it! Heading back down the hill and with a couple of hours still to kill before our night bus to Adelaide, we decided to visit another museum mine – Old Timers Mine. It was an interesting warren of tunnels that was mined in 1916, and then hidden by the miners. The mine was rediscovered when excavations for a dugout home punched through into the labyrinth of tunnels. We started with a demonstration of the ‘blower’, a piece of mining equipment that is fundamentally a giant vacuum cleaner on the back of a ‘ute’ which, predictably, sucks up rocks from one place and blows them out of the other end. We each got to have a go feeding rocks and our arms into the machine – imagine a giant Dyson air dryer and you’ll understand what our hands looked like… Old ladies hands! Literally had to drag Jayne away from the noodling area at the end of our tour as the museum was closing and everyone wanted to go home, except us! We headed to our last stop of the day, Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Sanctuary. A bizarre combination of art and kangaroos left us all feeling a little bit uncomfortable. Clearly not as well funded as Brolga’s sanctuary in Alice Springs, the kangaroos were feed with wasabi peas and banana chips by the tourists. It wasn’t all bad though – Jayne and I bought our Australia painting. An aboriginal night scene around a fire with native Australian animals in the background. 

Heading back to the hostel, we packed up our bags on the front veranda. Jayne and Tracey popped to Johns to get take away dinner to consume whilst we waited for the coach to turn up whilst I guarded the bags, listening to the continuing arguments that floated down the streets from the groups of aboriginals. Walking the five minutes down the road to the coach ‘station’ we ate our food before boarding the bus. Tracey was disgusted as Jayne and I tucked into our local speciality – a coat of arms pizza which is topped with kangaroo and emu meat. Maybe this explains the lack of red kangaroos in the area?!? Had to sit near the front but we all got a two person seat each so we could spread out a little bit. Clearly one of the older Greyhound buses, it was a little rough around the edges with no wifi or in seat USB outlets – not a huge issue except we had all run our iPhones down with the assumption that we would be able to charge them on the bus – fool on us! Jayne and I watched the only film uploaded onto our iPad (About a Boy) and Tracey watched the only film on her iPad (Sixteen Candles), before we all tried to get some sleep on the rather juddery coach. 

Wednesday 24th August 2016

Travelling & Uluru – day 317/7

Having been woken up by the noisy Dutch family in the room opposite and surprisingly not by the night owl Italian man in our dorm room, we were up and ready to start our 400km plus long drive to Uluru. Managed to be out and on the road by 8am, with a quick stop for an ATM, coffee and petrol fill-up, we were on the open road keeping our eyes open for any kangaroo’s that might need rescuing (let’s be honest, we were hoping to find an orphan kangaroo to become our new road trip buddy!!). Tracey drove for the first two hours, enjoying the 130km speed limit on the ‘highway’ (in the red centre – it is a two lane road with no barriers anywhere…). Tracey and I continued singing along to our ‘Australia Road Trip 2016’ playlist whilst Jayne sat in the back, ignoring the sound of the drowning cats, and got on with catching up with blog writing – she is totally my heroine!!

A quick toilet stop at Desert Oaks services which also claims to be ‘The centre of the centre’. Supposedly the closest one can get to the centre of Australia, although even the sign admitted that there are several places across Australia which are also the centre of the centre. Turns out that this service station also had an emu farm with at least half a dozen huge birds milling around in the enclosed area. You could buy food to feed them in the shop so the moment we came close to the edge of the enclosure, we were ambushed by a pack of fierce looking birds with goggly eyes. We were a bit intimidated until we realised that there was a fence between us!! Back on the road, I was now in the driving seat, much to Tracey’s pleasure as the speed limit had dropped to 110km at the most… It felt painfully slow and I caught myself several times creeping towards the 120 on the speedo. It is so easy to lose track of your speed when the road is so straight and the scenery is the same for miles. Tried to be good and follow the Aussie rule of lifting your index finger to acknowledge oncoming vehicles but I missed quite a few. Getting into the stride of things, I managed to finger a police officer before I was promptly ignored by every other motorist on the rest of the journey. 

Arriving at Yulara Resort (the ‘town’ closest to the Uluru and Kata Tjuta rock formations) and tried to check in. Unable to do so until 3pm, we had a picnic lunch in the courtyard of our hotel and then headed over to Uluru to do the base walk. 
Passing through the ranger station to buy our park permits, we drove down the road and were all blown away by the magnificent red rock in front of us. UNESCO site number 53 of our gap year, the sacred rock lies in the traditional lands of the Western Desert Aboriginal people, locally known as Aṉangu. Aṉangu are part of one of the oldest human societies in the world. Uluru is 9.4 km in circumference and rises to a relatively flat top that is more than 340 m above the shallow, red sandy dunes around it. It is truly spectacular, in fact, it looked like it had been superimposed onto a blue sky – it didn’t look real at all as it loomed amongst the desert vegetation.Arriving at the rock, we saw some people climbing it. It seems incredible that despite all the signs and information available about why people shouldn’t climb it, that people still decide to climb this sacred place. Not only do they climb it but they also seem totally inadequately prepared and we saw several people slipping and sliding their way down on the sheer cliff edge. Would have served them right if they had fallen – it’s so disrespectful of the aboriginal culture to this area. 

Starting from the Mala carpark, we escaped the crowds and took the meandering journey through acacia woodlands and grassed claypans. There were plenty of signs to teach us along the way about the diverse plants, animals and geological features of the park. From Kuniya Piti, we followed the snake-like grooves at the base of the rock which were left when the ancestral being Kuniya journey to Mutitjulu waterhole, where we were inundated with people off the day tour from Alice Springs so we didn’t linger to long. I don’t think any of our photos do Uluru justice. We spent about 3.5 hours waking the 10.7km around the the base, although the sections where we weren’t allowed to take photos passed significantly quicker than the sections where we could. Each angle gave us a different glow and perspective on the enormous rock, with its many caves of different sizes and the blackened marks on the rock from algae when the waterfalls cascade during the wet season. Heading back to the resort, Jayne quickly whipped up some dinner for us as we had an early shuttle bus to the ‘Field of Lights’. The art installation is by artist Bruce Munro and consists of more than 50,000 slender stems topped with frosted glass spheres that glow in the darkness. We walked around the pathways that wind through the middle of the installation, which were even more captivating under the dark sky littered with stars and a full moon. Getting advice from the security guard, we headed up to the view point and looked at the installation from above, the moon casting a glow over Uluru – it was spectacular and it is easy to understand why people lose track of time up there and miss there last shuttle bus back to the resort. 

Friday 19th August 2016