Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Day 6 and 7 – 12-13 April 2007 – Coober Pedy-Marla

Day 6 and 7 – 12-13 April 2008

Coober Pedy – 530 km

Marla – 382 km

Running total – 2,248 km

Soundtrack: Going Underground – The Jam

The Stuart Highway, our now almost constant companion, provided us with vistas of what initially seemed to be desolate and inhospitable landscape, but of course is full of life. Craggy escarpments, little vegetation and bright sun. The road atlas was tempting us with a number of lakes – marked in blue and conjuring images of small, aqua waves lapping against coloured sand, while locals fished and putted about on dinghies.

Of course, in Australia, the term ‘lake’, as well as ‘creek’ and ‘river’, are often misnomers. Most of the lakes we were passing were vast saltpans – flat and starkly white, left over from the great inland sea that covered this area aeons ago, and tempting to try to set a world land speed record.

The wide expanses leave us bewildered

The environment also tricked us into thinking that we would be faced with oppressive heat when leaving the car. To the contrary, a stiff breeze made or outdoor forays chilly.

We entered the Woomera Prohibited Area, and remain unsure of what was actually prohibited. It may have something to do with asbestos, but we wondered more about the notorious immigrant detention facility that was only recently closed – a shameful chapter in our history.

There were few fellow road-users along for the ride, which added to the feeling of solitude. The land was now covered in a seemingly endless supply of stones and rocks and small, stubborn shrubs and grasses, we headed towards Opal central – Coober Pedy. We played “where are the trees” at first, and then it was “where are the shrubs”, and then finally just gawped at the shiny, black ground that glimmered in the sun.

The highway into town was dotted with past and current small mining operations, though it was difficult to tell the difference between the ones in current operation and the ones abandoned a hundred years ago. The technology has changed little in that time. Ultimately it is based on extracting rock and sand from underground and sifting through it, but what modern machinery has done to increase the safety of miners, it seems explosives have filled the void.

Another town built in The Middle of Nowhere (look it up), Coober Pedy has none of the grandeur of Broken Hill. This is a tough town populated by tough people seeking their fortune searching for opals, or providing services for the miners. Houses and streets are situated in an almost haphazard manner – a stretch of land becomes a road because someone needs to get from here to there. There are few trees or plants, replaced instead by cars, utes, trucks and mining equipment either waiting for their next assignment or in the process of meeting their maker.

Our parents might be horrified to learn that we slept the night in a cave. Well, a cave of sorts. It seems about half of the entire population live underground – an ingenious invention brought back by surviving diggers after WWI who discovered that if they dug a hole in the side of a trench they could escape most of the elements. So, rather than burrowing straight down into the rock and sand, houses and other accommodation are built into the side of hills. Interestingly, the particular rock formations are so sturdy they do not require internal supports, meaning large rooms can be constructed, and the rock also retains some of the heat of the day, providing an almost constant temperature. Being April it was quite cool, and our rooms ended up being much warmer than the evening chill outside – so much so that we had to open the one window to prevent us from sweating it out.

I awoke early to get a glimpse of the sunrise and a feel for the desert chill, and was aware of a difference in its bite. I realised there was no moisture in the air. I touched the side of the truck, which was noticeably cold, but dry – no dew like in Melbourne.

We decided to detour off the highway and visit the fabled Oodnadatta. Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, the journey, rather than the destination, was the highlight. The 197 km drive on an un

dulating dirt track took us past Mount Barry and the appropriately named Painted Desert. Australia has a long and proud history of the most uncreative names for places (The Great Sandy Desert, Big Desert, Little Desert, Stony Creek, etc), but this one did not require anything fancier. Fodder for many visual artists, the Painted Desert looked like a fraud – surely nature couldn’t provide such startling colours, shapes and textures on its own…

Oodnadatta was once on the old Ghan rail route, but naturally it instantly disappeared off the map when the old train line shut down. Now, aside from a few historic railway buildings, one of which houses a small museum, the most prominent place in town is the gaudy but functional Pink Roadhouse. Yep, it’s a roadhouse, and it’s bright pink. The key to the museum’s front door was available from said roadhouse, and we explored old photographs of Oodnadatta’s glorious past – well dressed men and women posing in front of prosperous businesses, all now a distant and dusty memory.

  

Another 211 km on the dirt track took us back to the highway and to Marla – there to provide fuel and some accommodation to road travellers. I loved the dirt track – so much less sanitised than highway travel, and no grey nomads towing hopelessly large apartment buildings behind them at 80 km/h. Funnily enough, the kids don’t appreciate the dust and corrugations all that much, but they’ll get used to it.

The desert is alluring and frightening at the same time, and there’s more to come.

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