At 8:58am, we set out from our camp site, heading to Coober Pedy. I took a look at my fuel gauge and realize that the Explorer was becoming thirstier, it was now gulping 16.1 litres of fuel for every 100kms I covered. The only solution would have been to adjust my driving but I can’t do this here, I had to drive in accordance with the road condition which is terrible. We headed northwards on the Gosses Road and in as little as 10kms, joined the Stuart Highway, ahead of Glendambo. We turned left, in a North Westerly direction. We were now on the Stuart Highway. Behind us is the South Australian government warning to users of the Kingoonya detour to be aware of the risk they are taking. We have successfully overcome this with our vehicles bearing the tell-tale signs, all covered in thick red dusts.
On the Stuart Highway, we were again joined by the road trains, similar to the experience on the Great Eastern Highway. This time, the principal commodity being trucked are cattle. A few times, I had to switch to Channel 40 on my radio to speak with their drivers so as to mutually agree on when it will be safe for them to overtake our convoy. We were travelling at a little below the speed limit but could see that the trucks had no patience for us. This communication exchange was crucial for the safe use of the roads.
The Stuart Highway is a two lane road, well maintained and clearly marked for safe use. For most part, the traffic was very light as one moves northward through barren landscape to the right and left of the road. Somewhere, on our distant left, we could see the shape on top of a mountain that looks like an Aztec shrine. I asked on the radio if any of my team members had an idea of what it was and the responses I got were so mind challenging. Victor said it was actually erected by the Aztecs in 1100BC while Blake added that it was done before the continent separated, when the Aztec were able to walk to Australia on dry grounds. We now have our own “Believe It or Not” radio programme.
Some 90kms to Coober Pedy, the low land was interrupted by a range of mountain through which the Stuart Highway made a cut. We stopped at the Ingomar rest area. It was a good time to stop, at least for a nature break and to curb the weariness that comes from driving long distances. One of the signs inform us that we are on the Explorer Way, the same way that John McDouall Stuart took in 1862 to traverse the Australian continent from south to north. I took note that I was travelling on sacred grounds – it was the case of The Explorer on the Explorer Way. I also thought how wonderful it would be to see the journeys of Mungo Park, Hugh Clapperton and Richard Lander depicted somewhere in Jebba, Sokoto and elsewhere in and around Nigeria respectively. It sort of brings into reality that what we are benefitting today are the outcome of the labours of our heroes past and this, if well documented, would spur many to greater achievements. Another part of the sign talked about other routes that can be followed to discover the Australian outback. It mentioned the Old Ghan Train, the dreaming and discovery trails. The Old Ghan, which we would visit later was the train that connects Darwin, a port in the Northern Territory of Australia to Adelaide, in its south.
Here at the Ingomar rest area, our attention was drawn to the environmental risks posed by Buffel grasses. The terror of the outback, the Buffel grass, is depicted as a nuisance rapidly taken over the outback, displacing native vegetation and a great fire risk. Even here, in the plant kingdom, Africa is in the sight of the world being given a negative bashing. The post explained that Buffel grasses were imported from Africa by Australian farmers who grew them to feed their livestock. However, over time, these grasses have become a colonizing force, spreading faster and more rapidly than the indigenous grasses. They have become well adapted to the local climate. I was impressed by this last statement and gave three “gbosas” to the Buffel grasses. It shows that adaptation and thriving is not only an human attribute of Africans.
We were encouraged to stay within marked paths and help to stop the spread of the Buffel grasses. I grinned at the contradiction that is inherent in this. Here the white man, himself an occupying force in Australia, is intent on controlling the spread of the grasses. While this is not a bad idea, I thought the larger issue of the white man’s occupation of the continent needs to be resolved. The clamour for this is growing by the day, attested to by the growing rejection of everything that reminds the indigene about the occupation. A case in point, the cacophony of voices rejecting the current Australian day and asking for another day to be selected that will be embraced by the whole Australians.
As had been mentioned elsewhere, no other country in the world has gotten it as right as Australia has done, when it comes to protecting its native fauna and environment. Everywhere you go, there are testimonies to this. One of the presentations here draws our attention to the importance of the arid landscape through which we are travelling. Barren and isolated, the sign accepts but points out that it supports unique and amazing plants and animal lives. It asks us to consider our actions carefully and how we affect the environment.
We entered Coober Pedy from the south on the Stuart Highway. One doesn’t need to be told that the town owes its existence to mining. Well, once you start seeing the mountains of limestone heaped all around and doting the landscape, you are in Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is the Opal capital of the world, 90% of the world’s production of Opal comes from here and its surrounding areas. Everything here is about Opal mining, if you are not in the Opal business then you have no business staying here. Unlike what obtains in other mining cities like Kalgoorlie, the environment appears totally neglected and abandoned. Heaps of excavated limestone sands dot everywhere the eyes could see. It seems once the miners lay hold on the Opal, nothing else matters. It was an eyesore seeing the degradation of the environment as a result of the mining activities. The regulators must have gone to sleep in terms of the minimum standards required to abandon a mine site here. Open mines dot the sides of the road, and everywhere else.
Prior to checking-in at Riba’s, we decided to drive into the town and have a first look at what it is like. As we approach the turnoff to the right to Hutchinson Street, we come across the monument erected to welcome visitors to Coober Pedy. On our left was a black painted truck, with “Sicko 66” inscribed boldly in white on its doors mounted on 6 tall pipes. Beneath it are the words “Welcome to Coober Pedy”. It is a blower truck. A visit to the Old Timers Mine later provided the needed education on the significance of blower trucks to the opal mining business in Coober Pedy. We pulled up at the Shell filling station to top up our tanks. This is the first filling station we have seen since our departure from Wirulla, 535kms away. I was still carrying two full Jerry cans, each containing 20lts petrol, on my roof.
A voice came up on the radio, it was that of Victor, the other Victor. If I were Mr. B (that’s my call sign for this trip), I would get rid of the red Jerry Cans, he said. I was still attempting to decipher this message when Victor came on the radio and said he would speak with me later. Well I bought fuel at $1.49 a litre, an outrageous price I would say and pulled out of the station. Victor came by and in a whisper started explaining to me how Aborigines sniff petrol and why he would consider it wise for me to lock my fuel up in my truck for the night. He drew my attention to the windows and doors of the houses around us and mentioned that I should notice how they are barricaded with steel frames, a deterrent to stealing by the aborigines. I thanked him for the advice, he actually had my interests at heart. However, in doing this, he was unknowingly becoming part of a growing problem. Years ago, as a young undergraduate student, I had been taught about the Labelling Theory in a sociology class. In summary, it is the theory of how the self-identity and behaviour of individuals are determined and influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them. In essence, it explains a view of deviance according to which being labelled as a “deviant” leads a person to engage in deviant behaviour. Some will call it the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping.
In my mind, I got to think about how the world has become so bad. In this conversation with Victor lies a host of issues around labelling, he didn’t realize them. To him, he was simply being candid and helpful. I had earlier checked out the statistics around petroleum sniffing and it is not as widely rampant as people have come to make it to be. Yet, what he had unknowingly done was to use the actions of a very few members of the population to bundle together a whole race of people and castigate them. This is atypical, not only to Victor, but to many of us in discussions. That pride of Africa, the beautiful wordsmith, Chimamanda Adichie’s thoughts around this came to my recollection. In a TED talk, she has implored us to beware of the dangers of the single story. I also gave some seconds to ponder what the rest of the team, white skin people, could have been saying behind my back about my being a Nigerian. Could they have been saying am a fraud, a 419ner, or what?
Our Camp, for the next two nights will be Riba’s Underground Camping and Caravan Park. We had come off the Stuart Highway and taken a right turn unto a dirt road into what looked like an active Opal mine site. A little ahead we came to the gate of the park. At the gate, we paid our fees for the nights we would be staying and were shown our way around the camp site. The camp has an above ground kitchen, bathroom, toilet and a TV room.
The underground area was carved out of the white chalky limestone, one could immediately feel the benefit of having an underground building. The difference in temperature between the surface and the underground area was remarkable. It was really cool inside. One doesn’t need any air conditioning here, it was cold enough. The marks on the walls show the fork end of the machinery that had been used to cut into the soft rock to create a habitable space. There were locked bedrooms as well as open space camping available. The sunlight rays from the surface penetrate into the deep darkness that the carved out underground would have been through sunscreens embedded at the top of the caves. I took a look at the hole made for these sunscreens and noticed that the underground space was almost 6ft plus into the depth of the surrounding rocks. The entire structure is low maintenance, cost effective, sustainable and an ecological friendly life style. Arising from the dangers that carbon monoxide poisoning poses, cooking or the use of any gas appliance underground is prohibited. To use the bathroom and other utilities, one has to come to the surface. This was particularly challenging at night if one has to answer nature’s call.
A favourite adage of the Yoruba people of South Western part of Nigeria goes thus – “Ba gun’yan ninu ewe, bi a s’ebe ninu epo epa, eniti o’yo ko ni s’alai ma yo”. It means that if we choose to pound yam in a leaf and make the soup in a groundout shell, those who will be full will still be full. This says a lot about the way we take life, in that different people, faced with similar circumstances will thrive differently. As we walked into the underground area where we planned to spend the night, the outside temperature was 35 degrees centigrade. So hot that nothing really grows anywhere here in Coober Pedy. You can’t make a living in Coober Pedy growing vegetables, is a favourite saying. That said, just at the entrance were all these desert plants and they are thriving. I broke one of them and was surprised to see that it was full of water. Yet, other plants can’t get water from this arid area of limestone geology.
I had longed for a bath as my body had become sticky from the dusts again. It was a pleasant relief to shower. The left over food from the previous night was warmed over the stove in the kitchen and I was glad to have a warm meal again. My visit to the TV room was a little disappointing, the TV had no reception. There were visitors books all over the place. The few I checked went as far back as 2003. I went through the comments and newspaper cuttings in some of them and they clearly show that this accommodation business has been an essential part of Coober Pedy history and will continue to be.
Group dinner was planned for 6pm. Nancy and Ned were my passengers for the trip to the Shell Station where we entered the Outback Bar and Grill. The floor of the restaurant was packed full, one will find it difficult to believe the numbers here given how far away we were. The bar doesn’t seem to have the same numbers, probably because the night was still young. I ordered for Lemon, Lime & Bitters with a “The lot” Burger. At a cost of $20, it was value for money. The Burger was filling and it was an uphill task for me to finish it. Noting the presence of strong phone signals, I strolled out of the restaurant to make a few calls to my family. I was sitting outside the restaurant within the grounds of the Shell filling station when a vehicle with an Aborigine woman drove by. She wound down the passenger window and shouted “I love you”, blowing kisses at me. Before I could say anything, the car was gone. I stayed here for a few more minutes, watching as the traffic slowly crawled along the road. I also observed the locals, as they came into and leave the bar. If life in Perth was laid back, that in Coober Pedy must be said to be far behind.
My crew, Nancy and Ned, were still bent on staying for some more hours in the pub. I took my leave and drove back to Riba’s. It didn’t take long to settle into my bed and sleep off. Overnight, I had a dream. In my dream, someone was nudging me to describe in a sentence what Coober Pedy was. I said “Opal and underground living”.
By the time I woke up in the morning, most of the team members have headed into town on adventure. I woke up pretty hungry. I drove out of Riba’s , headed right on to the Williams Creek road, stopping at a sign showing that the road leads to the famed Oodnadatta Track, an unsealed 617 km (383 mi) outback road between Marree and Marla via Oodnadatta. At this time of the year, all roads were open but of course only to 4WD and Heavy Vehicles. Nothing deters the Australian sense of adventure, not even road corrugation, extreme heat and remoteness of the areas. As I stood under the sign, two 4WDs with their campers on tow passed me and headed in that direction.
I did a U turn and headed back to the Stuart Highway. At the junction of the William Creek Road and Stuart Highway, I stopped to take some pictures. After coming this far, I needed some pictures to show that “I have been there”. The main attraction for me was the large road signboard at the T junction. It shows Port Augusta was towards my left and Coober Pedy to my right. An all white 3 sails wind mill lies in the far distance behind the road signs. We are in red dust country, everywhere I looked it was red, stony barren ground all through.
A couple, tourists like me I suppose, were heading towards Coober Pedy in their camper van, they alighted from their vehicle when they saw me struggling with my camera equipment. “Can we help”, they asked? Sure, any help will be most welcome. A few introductions thereafter and they helped to take some amazing pictures of me, standing by the road sign on the highway. It was a delicate one, I needed to pose for the pictures as well as ensure that I did not stay in harm’s way by being on the road while one of those trucks cruise by on speed. It was a laughable scene when they were to get back into their vehicle. The various guides and handouts the wife was holding got blown away by the wind. The wife and I chased the papers into the shrubs and as we came closer to picking them, off the winds blew them again. Finally, with our breaths almost off, we caught up and picked the papers. We laughed over this comical event and they were soon on their way.
I got back into the Explorer, took the right turn and headed towards town. Three wind mills were to my left, a little ahead on my right was the monument road, I took this diversion and was immediately beside the Stuart monument. Its is on the list of must see attractions in Coober Pedy. This monument is nothing but a boulder of Coober Pedy limestone unto which a piece of black marble slab has been fixed. It is barely noticeable but, of course, it has a road named after it – the monument road. The words written on the slab talk about John McDouall Stuart as being the first European explorer to have reached the vicinity in 1858 on the quest to find a route from South to the North of the Australian continent. Nothing was said about the first aborigine inhabitants of this area nor those Aborigines who might have escorted Stuart on each of his six exploration journeys, their names are lost to history. Is it that they were less important than Stuart or because they did not diarise their journeys there was nothing to show that they lived? I took notes, the lesson was not lost to me, I probably may not be the first Nigerian to have reached these out-lands but I will be the first to document my journey and hence would not be lost to history as those Aborigines are.
I headed straight to the St. Elijah Orthodox Serbian Church. It is another important tourist attraction according to the visitors’ guide. It is described as a fine piece of underground architecture. On approach, nothing outstanding marks the building apart from the surrounding landscape. The church has a massive, well polished wooden door and lovely stained windows. These were fixed to the bottom of the limestone rock and are the frontal appearance that any visitor sees. No painting or cement plastering on the exterior walls, none were needed. The stone plaque embedded in the wall informs that the church was commissioned in 2013.
Nothing outside indicates that any living soul was around. I carefully opened the thick door and was immediately faced with a gentle, wheelchair accessible, stairway. Everywhere I looked, inside the church, the dredger that had carved the spaces had used its iron bucket to make great designs within the rock formation. The walls were scraped smooth and fine. Inside was cool, a pleasant relief from the hot temperature outside. The walkway led into an open hall at one end of which was a wooden wall panel within which were encrusted various glass murals of Jesus. On the other end was the glass window that we had seen from the outside. A twisted red rope demarcates the wooden wall panel as off limits but one is still allowed to peep inside it. On its other end, was a table (the table of shew bread, I suppose) with three crosses on it. A great artist has carved into the wall a statue of Jesus Christ with a moon crescent on his head, his glory.
By this time, a group of tourist had also come into the building. I took the step of flights and went up to the next level of the church. From here, I could look down into the open hallway, observe the new tourists and their activities. Nothing else was attractive in the church and I quietly eased myself out.
I was back on the corrugated road and happily cruising along slowly when a Kanga chose to hop into the front of my vehicle and dashed up the hill. I waited to see if the partner was hopping along but sit wasn’t. In my rear view mirror, I could see its partner slowly crouched at the edge of the road observing the scene. There was no other vehicle on the road which meandered here and there before branching off to private properties that jot the landscape. The road was unsealed and I am sure no one here cares, not even I.
Prior to embarking on this trip, I am not sure I have heard the word opal and for sure, I really do not know what it means. Opal, as I came to learn, is a non crystallised minerals made by silicon dioxide combined with water. On the average, each stone takes more than 6 million years to form and are captivating because of their unique “Play of Colour”. In short, the colour of a piece of genuine Opal changes with lightning. It is this characteristics that make many become a prisoner of colour to Opals.
My next call was the Old Timers Mine. As I approached the entrance to the museum, on the left were some artefacts, an introduction to opal mining. One was a blower, the early type, a little bit different from the black one raised at the welcome to Coober Pedy sign. In all honesty, Coober Pedy looks like a Martian environment and it is no wonder that a couple of films dealing with space travels and extra-terrestrial beings have been filmed here. Outside the Old timers mine, one will get to see, feel and touch the spaceship created for the Vin Diesel Science Fiction movie, Pitch Black. It looked eerie.
Entering the mine, having paid the entry fee, I was handed a hard hat and a map. It’s a self-guided tour. Soon I got to see the common sense in having the hard hat on, after banging my head on two hard surfaces on the low walls of the mine. It is a beautiful museum with three opal stones still encrusted within its limestone walls. It provides a history of how Coober Pedy came to be. At the museum, one gets transported immediately to the past, the early days of Opal mining in Coober Pedy. There are still images of miners at work with the equipment they use. As you move within the museum, you will get to the underground rooms, which depict what it was like to live underground in the early days of opal mining. Close by was another exhibit showing what living underground is nowadays. It was a very informative visit and I enjoyed every aspect of the visit. I ended up spending more time at the museum than I had planned.
From the museum, I drove a little bit into the town and checked out a few stores for Opal. It quickly dawned on me that, to an untrained eyes like mine, any stone could easily be sold to me as Opal. These stones are not cheap and I chose not to take a risk of ending up with a fake stone with my hard earned money. All the stones look the same and I didn’t know what is genuine from fake. I settled on picking a towel and a hat as gift items. From here, I went to visit the Catacomb Church, another underground church. It was the centre of attraction before the Serbian Orthodox Church was built, or should I say dug ? This is a very simple church, nothing fancy but Jesus still gets preached. I think it would have been better appreciated if I had visited it first before seeing the Serbian Orthodox but having seen the Serbian, the Catacomb Church didn’t evoke much artistic feeling in me.
The blower monument, welcoming all to Coober Pedy, was my next point of call. Situated almost at the intersection between Stuart Highway and Hutchison Street is the sign that says Welcome to Coober Pedy with its surrounding area decorated with Aboriginal arts and flags. There, the black blower truck stood at the centre, towering above everything else. A few other tourist soon stopped by, taking pictures as well. The monument was a recognition of the importance of the blower technology to the Opal mining business.
The rumbling in my tummy dictated it was time for lunch and I headed to the Outback Grill and Bar. The food here was nice and the crowd lively. As I was going through lunch, a team of South Korean students, sporting T shirts with the inscription “K.N.U.T Solar Car Team” entered the bar. This was the Kookmin University Solar car Team. They were quite young and here at Coober Pedy are way away from home. They came in three vehicles, two branded with Bridgestone and Boeing logos and are solar powered Kia cars. The third car, I suppose, was probably carrying the equipment for repairs and breakdown. I was later to find out that they were actually preparing for the 3,021kms Adelaide to Darwin World Solar Challenge 2017. The future is here, I said to myself. The next morning I met the University of New South Wales Sydney team with their car, aptly called Violet. When I spoke to this team, I was informed that their car can make 50kph on a good day. I did also note, while at Riba’s that, apart from South Africa, there was no other African presence at the competition where the future of energy was being put to the test. What makes this calamitous was that a high school from Japan, the Goko High School, participated and no representation from our institutions of higher learnings, Africa was missing from the table of nations, and this is saddening.
The team had agreed to have dinner at John’s Pizza, a popular pizzeria outlet in the town. On the menu was a specialty rightly called the “Coat of Arms” as it is made with Emu and kangaroo meat, both animals unique to Australia and that cannot walk backwards. The atmosphere was lively at John’s, mostly travelers calling in for dinner. With a good view of traffic, the pizzeria is a great place to spend an evening.
Back at Riba’s, it was a full house. Mostly non-Australian tourists all along and the camp was swarming with people. I emptied the last 40ltrs of fuel I was carrying into the Explorer and felt lucky to have internet signals, I got online to catch up with development in the modern world.
As I started yawning, I snugged myself into my swag in my underground room and slept off.
Things to do
- Riba’s Underground;
- Stuart Monument;
- Old Timers Mine;
- Catacomb Church;
- Serbian Orthodox Church
- Welcome to Coober Pedy,
- The Breakaways