Arriving in Coober Pedy, in the South Australian outback, is like landing on another planet. Not just because the place has stood in for Mars in many a movie and almost outclassed Tina Turner in Mad Max III. Not just because of the crazy pits and slagheaps which dot the barren red landscape.
This place… Well, it’s all kinds of crazy, really. Not just the art. Though that’s pretty crazy.
On the fringes of the desert in the second most arid continent on earth, where the mercury can hit 50 in high summer, hundreds of miles from, well, anywhere you’d want to go and even plenty of places you wouldn’t, more than three thousand people choose to live, year-round. Mostly underground.
Coober Pedy is riddled with opal mines and dugout houses, furnished in styles that run from chintzy to billiards to, well, just plain unnerving.
It’s full of scrap metal, junk art, film props, Heath Robinson machines, and, well, scrap metal.
It’s only the fans and chimneys protruding from the dusty red slagheaps which enables you to tell the homes from the mines. And the sights…
The people? Well, Coober Pedy’s population is surprisingly cosmopolitan. There’s a mix of 45 different ethnic backgrounds with tendencies running from hippie to evangelical to, well, bored farm boy racers who like to blow stuff up with dynamite. Y’know.
Or perhaps you don’t. The kind of guys who hang out back of the Italo-Australian Miners Club filming each other doing burnies on dirtbikes and chatting about the availability of nitrous. It’s actually the closest this planet comes, not to Mars, but to Star Wars’ Tatooine.
People just, sort of land here. And get stuck. It starts with a little dynamiting for opal. Then, before you know it, you’re 30 feet down, excavating under your own shack, building little rooms in your warren, tunnelling away from the heat, while the bricks you built above you, when you were new here, fracture in a fashion that would give the average surveyor a heart attack.
Now, I’ve seen cave houses before. At Guadix in Spain, Santorini in Greece, the Dogon in Mali, Matatma in Tunisia. As an escape from desert heat, they make, well, a great deal of sense.
But these ones? They wind. Scraped out with mining machines, their walls textured rock, mining galleries transformed into corridors, kitchens, bathrooms… Dig out a little bit more, as the folk behind the Old Timers mine museum did, and you might well hit an abandoned mine.
This is what they dig with.
It started, I guess, with a rush. The opal rush of 1915, because the rich, red sandstone here holds ancient shells and marine creatures opalised by ancient forces into strands of glittering jewels.
Guys started digging. They carried on. And, when the diggers came back from WWI, bruised by trench life but habilitated to underground, they dug in further.
It made more sense to live underground in dugouts, with a temperature constant at around 22C and decent ventilation than brave the flies, the midges and the dust up above. Someone brought his wife out. A post office began.
And, almost a century on, though the town now makes more money from tourists than opals, it’s still bloody here. There’s a college campus. An ambulance station. A wildlife hospital, rehabilitating baby roos orphaned by Aboriginal hunters. Some seriously shocking public art. Several bars. A handful of restaurants. And, six churches.
Yes. Six churches. Most of them underground.
The one at our motel is called the Revival Fellowship. And it’s built, as these things tend to be, on a miracle. Debbie and Dean, who started the motel, asked God to send the guy who dug it out back from the Pacific to dig the church out. And, miraculously he cames.
It’s a strange old place, Coober Pedy. Populated by large men with big beards. Friendly families. The kinds of lone male that scared off Guy Pearce in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
And wandering Indigenous from the surrounding communities, decanting 5l wineboxes into mineral water bottles every Friday night and drinking them in the dubious shade of the acacias until the cops come round and move them on.
It’s my personal candidate, in fact, for the single craziest town on the planet. What’s yours?