Travelling Australia - Journal 2009
6-9 June 2009 - Coober Pedy
We stayed in Coober Pedy for the nights of 6 to 9 June. Looking at some things we had not had time to visit on our previous two hour visit here in 2005.

Coober Pedy exists for opal mining. Tourism is an additional source of income for the town but tourism relies entirely on the opal industry; if opal mining wasn't there tourism wouldn't be there either. Approaching Coober Pedy by road from north or south the traveller is greeted by hundreds or thousands of conical mullock heaps where miners have dug for opal. The requirements of a mining lease do not include filling in holes so abandoned open holes remain as a trap for the unwary; numerous signs warn of the dangers of being careless.

The town's shopping centre contains many businesses selling the finished product of opal mining - cut and polished opal set as jewellery in rings, ear-studs, pendants, brooches, tie-pins; any form of ornament. Many of the outlets for opal are simultaneously displays of opal mining. Quite a few of the early mines are located in what is now the main street and have been converted into tourist attractions where visitors can walk into the side of the cliff and enter the mine. Several modern mines outside the shopping area have become tourist attractions where the amount of mechanisation on display can be compared with the hard manual labour of early 20th century mining.
Cloud This ominous cloud approaching the caravan park provided strong and gusty wind to move things about and about one millimetre of rain.
One obvious mechanised item is the truck mounted blower - which is really a sucker. This is a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up sandstone debris left by tunnelling machinery in mines and dumping it in piles of mullock on the ground above the mine. Engine and fan machinery are mounted on the back of a truck while the hopper collecting the mullock is elevated and offset so sand and stones fall clear of the machinery. The claims area is dotted with elevated hoppers sticking above mullock heaps like prehistoric animals.

Building underground developed as part of the opal industry but has become a tourist attraction in its own right and a selection of underground houses, churches and businesses adds to opal mines on the visitor timetable. Supposedly, many soldiers returning from the First World War moved onto the opal fields and easily adapted to living in the dug-outs they had made looking for opal. They found the temperature in their dug-outs was consistently in the low 20s; cooler than outside in hot weather and warmer than outside in the cold weather. These early dug-outs were primitive with no services but the concept of living underground to avoid the heat has developed to the stage that an underground house is equipped with all the features and services of any modern residence and appear identical to ordinary houses except for metre thick sandstone internal walls.

Underground houses, business and churches dug into the sides of existing hills have a conventional front with entrance and often carport or garage entrance; the roof, sides and rear are all in the hill with a plethora of vents and skylights dug up to the surface for ventilation and natural light. One of the few concession made to being underground is that water, sewerage and electricity connections are at the front of the house to minimise excavation. Another concession is that sandstone internal walls still bear the regular vertical grooves left by the mechanical excavator and now under a layer of clear sealant.

The Breakaways is a natural attraction which does not rely on opal mining. This is an area about 33 km from Coober Pedy where erosion and natural processes have led to isolated mesa formations near the edge of the Stuart Range tableland. Exposed lower layers of different coloured clay under the silcrete capping layer form a startling view from two lookouts. The road continues past a variety of erosional formations; all easy to see because there is hardly any vegetation in this area of rocks and very little rainfall.

Returning to Coober Pedy the road passes close to the dingo fence. Built in the nineteenth century and kept in good order still, this fence is claimed to keep dingoes out of the agricultural parts of South Australia so sheep can profitably be grazed; if the fence didn't keep dingoes and wild dogs away, pastoralists believe they would be forced out of business by dogs killing their sheep. This region was also devoid of vegetation.

Providing water has been a ongoing problem in Coober Pedy for many years and was eventually solved by installing a reverse osmosis filter to treat bore water. The result is excellent and Coober Pedy water is particularly good but expensive ($5 for 1000 litres) and caravan parks try to reduce water use. Water is not provided to sites and coin-operated showers eliminate long showers. Town water is available at only a single tap in the park we used. Coin operated dispensers provide water for filling tanks. These restrictions may be understandable from the park's business point of view (they don't want to pay for the water used) but do not make visiting Coober Pedy more pleasant.