Australia's Red Desert
Far from anywhere and covered with dust. But a few brave souls--Eastern Europeans and "Crocodile Harry" --call it home. Even when it's 10 feet under.
By KEVIN DAVIS
Special to the Sun-Sentinel
10 March 1996
Sun-Sentinel Ft. Lauderdale
A blizzard of dust was sweeping across the Australian Outback town of Coober Pedy, coating everything with a reddish-brown mixture of dirt and sand. The streets were deserted except for a few Aborigines who sat with their backs against a brick building to shield themselves from the violent gusts. The main business district was a ghost town surrounded by a lunar landscape.
A couple of battered four-wheel drive trucks rumbled down the road; their signs read: "Explosives."A man brushed red dust from the windshield of his Volkswagen bus as if it were snow. Everything was quiet except for the whistling sound from the plains beyond.
Coober Pedy is in the Outback of South Australia, in the middle of the continent, hundreds of miles from any major city. Its name, in the Aborigine language, is "white man's hole in the ground." There are thousands of holes in the ground, in and around town; they have been left by opal miners; opal mining is still the main industry.
Though there have been others. The town and the nearby desert served as the background for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome with Mel Gibson, and was featured in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The dust flew in my eyes, up my nostrils and into my ears as I stood on a dirt road near the center of town. My clothes, hair and shoes were layered with it. The few pedestrians covered their faces with their arms and hands. The cars parked outside were caked with dust.
I spotted a white house on the corner with a hand painted sign that said "Joe's Tours."I opened a wooden door and walked into an office where two people sat, a man and a woman. The woman yelled at me to shut the door. The floor was covered with dust.
"Today is not the worst dust storm we've had," Maria said, and I could tell by her weary expression that she had seen many. "It's not great, but it's not the worst."
She and her husband, Joe, immigrants from Croatia, had moved out to Coober Pedy 25 years before as part of the opal rush. The town, it turned out, was full of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East. Its full-time population of 2,000 swelled to 4,000 in the winter.
"It may not look like much on the surface," Maria said. "But it's a good place. There are good people here."
Joe told me that most of the town was in mourning today for a teen-ager who had been killed in a car wreck a few days earlier. (He'd been drag-racing through town.) "Things like this don't happen too often around here," Maria said. "The town is very closeknit."
In the Outback, there's not much outdoor activity: It's mostly desert and it's usually blazing hot. Though Maria said some enterprising opal miners got together 20 years ago and built a nine-hole golf course. They steamrolled dirt into fairways and greens.
"Actually, we don't call them greens. We call them `browns,'" she said, explaining that the putting areas are made of a darker dirt. The fairways are separated by old tires and a few scattered trees.
Maria said that about 30 percent of Coober Pedy's residents live in underground homes, which keep them cool during the insufferable heat of the summer. Many of the homes are actually abandoned mine shafts, outfitted with all the modern appliances and furniture of normal homes. You can tell where there's an underground abode because the residents plant trees above them to make sure no one drives over them. They are about the only trees around.
The town has several underground restaurants, motels, shops (where you can get good deals on opals) and two underground churches. I walked into one that reminded me of film footage of the Beatles' old Cavern Club in Liverpool.
Maria reminisced about the tough old days in the Outback when people had to supply their own generators if they wanted electricity.
"We made our own," she said. She remembered how water had to be imported from other towns before Coober Pedy residents built a water desalination plant for the well water.
Except for a few main thoroughfares, the roads around Coober Pedy were still made of dust. On days such as this, when the wind kicked up, trucks sprayed salt water over the roads to try to control it, but under the relentless sun, this would work for only a few hours.
Eventually a few other visitors showed up, and Maria put us in her minibus. Leaving town, I could see dirt mounds in every direction.
These were the opal fields where miners searched for their fortunes. Australian law allows anyone who is at least 16 to stake a 50 square meter claim and dig a mine. You have to be 18 to handle explosives. "Some go for 20 years and find nothing," Maria said. "A novice can hit paydirt right away. It's all chance."
Farther out, Maria showed off one of her favorite spots, the Breakaways, a small range of white and multicolored sandstone mounds and rock formations that broke away from the Stuart mountain range. This area is also known as the Painted Desert for its brilliant changing colors; it was here that portions of both of the earlier mentioned movies were filmed. Maria brought out some photos of Joe and herself hamming it up with the cast on the set of Priscilla. (Returning to the States, I rented the movie and indeed they were in it.)
Maria then drove us out onto some opal mine fields, carefully dodging the shafts, which could swallow the van. We sifted through a mound of dirt outside one of the shafts - what's called `fossicking' or `noodling' - and after about half an hour I found a decent looking rough opal, worth maybe 20 bucks.
From the opal fields, we drove on to the Moon Plain, a vast flat landscape covered with black rocks and pieces of fossilized seashells. Maria pulled the minibus up alongside a wire fence that ran across the plain as far as you could see in either direction. This was Australia's famous Dog Fence, stretching for 5,760 miles and built to protect grazing sheep from hungry dingos. Longest fence on earth, Maria said. There were no dingos, or sheep, visible on either side.
Getting back into the bus, Maria suggested we stop and see Crocodile Harry, a reptile wrestler who used the moniker `Crocodile' long before Paul Hogan came along.
From the outside his home looked like a big pile of dirt; it was, of course, an abandoned mine. There was a sculpture garden made from rusted-out cars and pieces of metal and junk. There also was a wooden outhouse with an obscene greeting for those who dared to use it. Maria yelled out Crocodile's name. "You have to be careful with Harry," she warned. "He might be drunk. Sometimes he stays drunk for a week. He can be rude, but he is harmless."
Unfortunately, or fortunately, Crocodile Harry was not at home. But we went inside his cave anyway. There were no doors, just openings. Maria lighted some candles so we could see inside the cool dankness. On the walls, on the floor, on top of the tables, were pictures of Harry - a tanned, handsome, bearded man with long hair and no shirt. Here he was wrestling crocodiles, here he was posing with women. Everywhere he looked as if he were having fun.
Another table was covered with news clippings about Harry, along with an open bottle of rum and a pouch of cigarette tobacco.
Kevin Davis is a free-lance writer who lives in Chicago.