Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 4
The Town Formerly Known as Wild

© Jens Hültman

Underground Home, Coober Pedy

Underground Home, Coober Pedy, SA

Coober Pedy is rumoured to mean, "white man’s hole in the ground". It is an obligatory stop for all the tour buses and backpackers’ old bombs on their way around Australia. Every traveller in Australia appears to be passing through the opal-mining town where some of the inhabitants live in excavated mining tunnels. However, most people in Coober Pedy live above ground. So much for the myth that "everybody lives underground". Some inhabitants make a living at small-scale opal mining. Most seem to be making a living off the tourists that come to look at the wild and rowdy miners who blow up strangers, the police and each other with dynamite. Consequently, the wild and rowdy miners are scarce commodities these days. If there once was something original about Coober Pedy, it's long since gone. Now it is like a Disneyland with miners instead of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The wildest town in Australia is not that wild anymore.

Rather, the place was swarming with dirty little backpackers. The backpacker culture takes pride in travelling independently, not being one of the mindless sheep herded around by tour guides on package tours. In practice, the backpacker’s style of holiday is not that different from the package tourist’s pampered journeys. Most tourists, either of the package or of the backpacker variety, end up in the same drunken stupor at night, trying to get in bed with the opposite sex. The backpackers travel on long-distance buses or trains, which requires a minimum of individual initiative that the package tourist lacks. You need to plan your route, buy your tickets and find accommodation. Instead of being herded around like a flock of sheep by a tour guide, the backpacker slavishly follows the recommendations of the guidebooks. If the guidebook says, "Go to Coober Pedy!", they go. Coober Pedy is littered with handmade signs promising budget this, budget that. Just what is so original about this type of ‘independent’ travelling is beyond me.

Coober Pedy is the place where many tourists meet the first outback Aborigines. I saw an Aboriginal family walking down the main street with mattresses on their backs to set up camp somewhere on the outskirts. It could have been a scene from the Third World. A couple of days later I would be out in the desert sleeping under the stars on my own. The times I would sleep under a roof in the coming months would become less and less frequent. Later, when I looked back at the beginning of my journey, I could not understand why I slept under a roof at all. The Aborigines I saw were the smart ones, sleeping in the open air under the magnificent stars. The Europeans who locked themselves up in air-conditioned rooms were stupid. Things are not always what they seem.

In Coober Pedy you will find almost every nationality in Europe. I had dinner at a restaurant run by an elderly Croatian, a miner turned restaurant owner. Much of the social life in the very multicultural Coober Pedy goes on in the clubs. The Italian club is especially popular. Food should be good there....

I went for drinks with some Americans at one of the hotels run by Greeks, the dominant ethnic group in Coober Pedy. One of the Seppos was a sporty bicycling boy from Chicago. The other two were "Far Out Happening" Dave from Seattle and his wife Kate. Far Out Happening Dave had a ponytail and an advertising job that gave him the time, money and opportunity to rent a motor home and drive it around Australia.

The Americans started bitching and whinging about Australia in general and Coober Pedy specifically. I hushed them up. Discontented locals have blown up the police station in Coober Pedy a number of times. Internal quarrels between the inhabitants have often been settled by a healthy load of dynamite under the other combatant’s car. If one wants to whine publicly about Australia, Coober Pedy is not the right place. Best to be on the safe side.

They asked me the standard question of where I was going. I told them about my plans to travel west through the desert from Ayers Rock.

Wow, that’s some serious desert’, exclaimed Far Out Happening Dave admiringly.

What would be the opposite of a "serious" desert? A superficial desert? A careless desert? We discussed traveller’s books. Far Out Happening Dave and Kate had met a marketing woman from the leading publisher of independent traveller’s guidebooks. She had equipped them with more guidebooks about Australia than they could ever have asked for. Kate was the more intelligent of the two—people who have the same opinion as yourself easily give the impression of being of the same superior intelligence as yourself, compared to the ignorant and indolent masses. She too had read Chatwin. We talked about The Songlines first, then about In Patagonia. Far Out Happening Dave looked confused. I explained to him that Patagonia was situated in Argentina. This did not relieve Far Out Happening Dave’s state of confusion.

'Argentina? Isn't that in South America?’ he asked.

Kate looked embarrassed. I tried not to laugh. Far Out Happening Dave had probably been home with flu the day they studied South American geography. They left for an organised star-gazing evening with some entrepreneurial local. Stargazing seemed to be an appropriate activity for Far Out Happening Dave. His ponytail waved good bye.

Chapter 5 →