Saturday, March 15, 2008

Going Underground?

Frankly, I was ready to see the back of Adelaide. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but when in years to come I deign to recall those few days, I will forever have the mental picture of me trapped in a kind of human rotisserie, turning slowly over the flame until I emitted a pleasant sizzling sound.

A 5.30 am start, then, for my journey to Coober Pedy, remote underground mining town and location for such sci-fi classics as Mad Max and, more recently, Pitch Black starring human lintel, Vin Diesel (despite this it is actually a great film).

Our ultimate destination was Alice Springs over 1000 miles away, and so the journey was to be split up into two days of bum-numbing cross-continental driving.

We were picked up in a minibus at 6.00am by the relentlessly cheery Steve, whose perma-tan was matched only by his perma-grin, like he’d a had a huge lungful of nitrous oxide before he’d set off.

The first few hours were spent asleep while Steve gunned the Groovy Grape tour bus out of Adelaide and into the desert. Yes, that’s right, Groovy Grape. Jesus – it sounds like some programme some Christian youth workers have put together to keep the chavs off the street and the alcopops on a Friday night: “Hey kids, come down to the Groovy Grape on Friday night. There’ll be shandy, Twister and someone has brought in a copy of Goonies on VHS”

When we’d all woken up the landscape had started to change; the vegetation was sparser, the trees shorter, the sand….well….sandier. Soon we were passing giant salt flats previously inland seas before Australia broke away from Asia and became warmer. And when we called in at a petrol station the thermometer read 43c in the shade. The bloke at the counter reckoned it was 48c in the centre of the car park. His wife disagreed, she guessed at 52c. I settled for an average at 50c.

We arrived at Coober Pedy at around 7.00 and immediately set up camp in a hollowed out cave rammed with metal bunk beds, before heading out on to the mounds of pink earth which dominated the town skyline.

Coober Pedy is home to 80% of the world’s opal production and so the town resembles a cross between a Martian building site and a Wild West watering hole. Rusting cranes sit atop salmon coloured dunes, homes are carved into the cliffs (Coober Pedy is Aboriginal for White Man’s Burrow), whilst huge sun-weathered men in fluorescent tabards brush dust from themselves in the glow of the setting sun.

Coober Pedy was great. Its remoteness, harsh environment and unearthly atmosphere created a real alien feel. But I must take issue with the literature billing it as “underground”. “Come and visit the underground pub” says the bumph. However, piling earth on top of something at ground level does not constitute “underground” in my book. As one member of our group pointed out “that means the ground floor of my house is underground as it’s buried beneath my first floor”

The temp reads 43c in the shade

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