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We didn't 'Planet'! One camper van. Two blokes. Four weeks. What could go wrong?

Underground

AUSTRALIA | Monday, 9 April 2007 | Views [1999]

Early morning we departed Williams Creek significantly lighter than when we had arrived. Two of life’s essentials, fuel and beer, are extortionate, and after filling up with both we could afford to stay no longer. Our quest to organise a flight over Lake Eyre has failed miserably, so we set sail for Coober Pedy armed with the phone number of a man who could help.

This may seem to be turning into some sort of wild-goose chase, but as it happens we are heading in the general direction anyway. Coober is famous for two things; opals and underground houses. More importantly for us, it lies on the main Adelaide to Alice highway and we can pick up the bitumen for the next stage of the journey.

I really am not sure if travellers make a special effort to come all the way out here, but if I had, I would have been severely disappointed. It is known for its “edge of the world” atmosphere – as far as I am concerned, it seems more like the end of the world. Some 5000 sq km around town are covered in mounds of white spoil from open mines old and new, and it certainly feels like another planet.

In town itself, the dusty streets are almost deserted as people stay hidden from the harsh climate. It is an area of extremes in heat and cold, explaining why 50% of the population lead a subterranean life. This has led to something of a tourism industry, and travellers can now visit an underground church or sleep below in a hotel or backpacker hostel.

The type of mining that goes on is mostly small independent operators, rather than the usual big business. Consequently, most are run from home and many houses have yards that are packed full of rusting machinery. In every direction there is heaps of metal, remains of trucks and digging machines. When Mad Max was filmed here, they would have had to do very little work to the set, apart from maybe tidy things up a little.

This is a good place to mention the Aboriginal population, for the area is near their traditional (and now protected) lands. There are plenty around Coober, some of whom appear to be involved in the mining themselves. When scribbling on my own website over the last two years, it is the people that always make my travels what they are to me. I am interested in people and their traditions and I have gone to great lengths to find out more. In this respect, Australia is a surprisingly difficult country for me to be in. It is quite possible to spend a lot of time in the country and never even meet an aboriginal person. Next, travels to the more conventional areas such as the East Coast or here will often only reveal the worst image of them – the homeless and drunk – of course something found in all races all over the world, but a problem that always stands out more among individuals in an otherwise affluent society. The danger of this is that people can and do carry away an inaccurate impression of who they are. Millions of words have been written about their history, the atrocities and the social problems – the reason you will not read any on here is not because they do not exist, but because I am neither brave enough nor educated enough to do so. I have my opinions, but I am not in the habit of airing them in public unless I really know what I am talking about. I just thought I would mention that, because it seems strange to visit a country and not write anything about the most important aspect, the native people.

Taking its name from the Aboriginal word “kupa” (white man) and “piti” (hole), Coober Pedy produces most of the world’s opals. They were first discovered in 1913 by 14 year old Willie Hutchison, and since then the area has drawn people from all over the world. Today it is possible to see many nationalities in the faces, and you don’t have to dig too deep to hear stories of million dollars finds.

We spent most of a day chasing down our contact, whom we hoped would get us airborne. It seemed this was once again a very bad piece of information, as his price was even higher. With hindsight, if we had had the intelligence to observe the map a little closer, it would have been obvious that Coober Pedy is much further away from Lake Eyre. Planes never go further for cheaper. The bottom line is, we were told in no uncertain terms, flying mine workers in and out of the big mines in South Australia is a lot more lucrative than dealing with smelly travellers. He simply does not need our business. We decide we have now done enough – we said we would stand on the lake, and we did.

Without further ado, we turned left out of the little underground town and rejoined the surfaced road for the long trip to Queensland. Matt and I have a date – though not that kind (nobody loves us), and we have just days to make our rendezvous.

Our three day journey took us south to Port Augusta (known as Port-o-gutta to the locals), then a steady north east direction all the way home. We only re-traced our steps for a short section through Broken Hill, and so will have achieved a near perfect loop. In fact, by the time the Travellers Autoban Ambassador van reaches Sydney, it will be more like a figure of eight. Doing the trip was actually quite interesting in as much as the speed made for many contrasts from one small town to another or one landscape to another. From outback SA we passed back into western NSW, and once again the talk among the locals is of water shortage. All along this route, evidence of shrinking towns is rife – deserted main streets, boarded up shop fronts and metal security shutters over windows.

We stopped often to refresh and refuel, and people talked freely about how whole families are packing up and moving on, along with the jobs. This is all attributed to the ongoing drought. In Bourke, I was actually held hostage in the great information centre by a lovely woman who was so desperate to keep us there. This is a famous little town that sits on the Darling River on the very edge of outback Australia – hence the Australian term for anywhere remote, “Back of Bourke”. I felt terribly guilty as I was only there to find out where the library was, and lied that I intended to stay several days. Thus, she talked me through every aspect of Bourke and then insisted I watch a fifteen minute video. The town used to have a thriving tourism industry, much of which revolved around the Darling River, but with no significant rain in nearly ten years, things have changed. She explained that many farms have drastically cut back or packed up altogether, a story we have heard many times already.

Over the next couple of hundred kilometres, we followed the old droving route of the Kidman Highway. Droving routes, as I have written before, probably sum up classic Australian settler history more than anything else. Along their length roadhouses, hotels and bars serviced the hardy men that travelled through; Legendry drovers and bush rangers moving cattle to greener pasture or markets (or away from where they had been stolen) and miners searching for their fortune. Today, these are still legal routes along which to move animals; and it is still happening right now.

With so many farmers out of water, grass and luck, some have chosen to hit the road. Literally, they pack up and walk their cattle south. The road is wide, and either side there is at least two hundred metres of common land. The way it works is this; some farmers actually intend to sell their animals, and while on the move they are fattened to increase value. Some that we spoke with were simply going on an extended walk-about for several months. They head south to keep the animals in condition, in the hope that by the time they turn around and head home, rain will have breathed new life into their paddocks. Because a surfaced road drains so much water, the grass either side is usually quite lush, and this is what makes this such a tempting proposition today (by the way, it is also why every type of wildlife likes to hang out on the roadside, and why driving at night is for lunatics only). The whole family usually travels with them, living in a camper or tent. Day and night, they keep watch over the animals and try to keep them off the road, moving their camp each evening at a pace dictated by the cattle and the available forage.

After three days of solid driving, we flirted with the border between QLD and NSW, making a tiny diversion to the service town of Texas, just because I wanted to go there. Another hour or so got us to Stanthorpe, Matt’s home, where we could rest and clean the van up ready for our next mission. This one may well end with broken bones.

Resources

Bourke tourism

Travellers Autoban

Coober Pedy

Tags: ambassador van, on the road

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