tirsdag 6. september 2011

Coober Pedy: Six Feet Under


Don't run, don't walk backwards, don't walk outside of roads
after dark, look after your kids! Velcome to Coober Pedy.
Coober Pedy must be one of the ugliest towns in the world. The nature is grim; just harsh, red stone desert that looks poisonous. There's no coincidence that films like «Mad Max Thunderdome», «Priscilla, queen of the desert» and «Pitch Black» used the place as location.

The climate is hostile too. So merciless is the heat that half the town's population of 1.900 live underground to escape it.

Maybe that's also why the town looks as it does: The town center spreads in all directions, laid off machinery and car-wrecks are everywhere, and the buildings look like tired warehouses in a harbour that ships no longer use.

Ouside of town things are even worse. There, the flat gravel surface is broken by between one and two million unmarked mines and as many gravel piles.
All this holes make it dangerous to wander freely around Coober Pedy. You've got the danger of falling, the danger of explotions, of being overrun by machinery, and the danger of being hit when a «blower» empties the loose dirt from a mine.

Warning signs on all entry points inform the tourists. That most of the signs are also perforated by bullets, only makes the point stronger: Coober is a harsh place.

But the mines are the whole point. 80 per cent of the world's opals are dug in South Australia. That fact has attracted hardy adventurers from 40 nations.

Now tourists have started following in their 4WD trailmarks. In «White man in a hole», which is what Coober Pedy means translated from aboriginal, they can experience something alltogheter different.

Almost a mile outside of town is Tom's Working Mine where the guide Charlie Skrenya took me deep into the deeps of a modern mine. On the way he explained why the ground around here is as full of holes as a Swiss cheese.

– No one can predict where we will find opals. They can be anywhere. All you can do is to drill and see what you find. It's nothing but a gamble. That's also the reason why no big companies bother with opals, only small companies of one or two people, Charlie explained. And admitted that he spent almost 20 years trying to find his own fortunes underground before he turned to more the predictable tourist industry.

The prospecting rules makes the surface even more perforated: For 45 australian dollars anyone can buy a permit for opal searching. The only requirement is that you deliver the application in person. And you cannot claim an area of more than 200 by 200 meters. You must register your claim within the next day, but don't have to pay anything the first two weeks.

In other words: The rules make it cheaper to drill a new hole every day.

Even more fascinating are the people of Coober Pedy. Many of them are just as extreme as the place itself.

For most of them, the rich opal mine was never more than a dream. Still they have stayed, to give it one more chance, and one more, and one more...

– I came here in 1986. Because I was stupid, said Charlie, who is born Hungary.

In Catacomb Church, one of the town's three dugout churches, I met Brandon, who came in 1975.

– My wife and I were gonna give it two years. When they had passed we hadn't found anything. We found it too embarrasing to go back. Everyone in Melbourne had predicted that we would be broke here. Therefore we couldn't go back empty-handed. It was a matter of pride, he said smiling.

The history of Coober Pedy is also full of women. Strong women. Like Faye Nayler. She came here as a cook in the 60s, and after loosing her job because she refused to serve bad meet, she started her own café.

Today you can visit her home, dug out using picks and shovels by her and two other women. Today's owners Colin og June Maclean welcome visitors six days a week.

Colin Maclean in his kitchen.
– I would hate to live in a house above ground here. Down here the temperature is always between 23 and 25 degrees, said Colin. And there is yet another big advantage of «dugouts»:

– If the furniture don't fit in, you can dig more space for them.

If you're lucky you might even find an opal.

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