We left Spud’s at some horrible hour before sunrise. Since when has there been o’clocks near dawn? Who did that? The bastards. Dad found a handy road train and fell in behind. This is the only way a small car can avoid a kangaroo incident that will cause damage. Luckily nothing happened, and as the day grew lighter we finally overtook the truck. That took a while; it was carrying three x 40 foot shipping containers.
We were entering an area the advertising companies call “The Red Center”, except it wasn’t. Some time during the last two weeks it had rained, and the Red Center was mostly green. The red soil was covered with short grass, which contrasted greatly with the ground where ever there was a gap in the green. What wasn’t covered in grass was covered in saltbush and scrubby trees.
As the sun rose we entered the Woomera Prohibited Zone, a huge chunk of land that was given to the British military so they could test their nuclear devices there. Sometimes they exploded bombs, sometimes they placed a lump of plutonium on 10 tons of TNT and exploded that to measure fallout drift. The road runs up through the eastern edge of the zone. Every 50km or so there was a sign telling drivers that it would be naughty of them to drive off the main road and into the bush.
The speed limit is 110kph but we sat on 130. Eventually the scrub failed and we were in the well-known miles and miles of bugger all you see in the movies and advertising brochures. The road climbed a range of hills (a 20 metre rise looks like hills out there) and we paused at a road-side rest-stop so I could get a photo. It’s the sort of view you’d see on he coast if you looked at the horizon, but without the water. I could see miles and miles.
Outside the Woomera Prohibited Zone the road is crossed by cattle grids at intervals of 20km to 70km. These mark the boundaries of cattle stations, and the station name is announced with a little sign. At a point about half way between the grids you’d pass a sign pointing up a dirt road, saying “Homestead 50km”
It took us 4 hours to reach Coober Pedy.
The first indications that the town was near were signs along the road warning visitors that there were mines around them they could fall into, with a little graphic of a person falling into a hole. 30 minutes later the green desert was punctuated by startlingly white cones of dirt. The ground became hilly (see “range of hills” above) and as we topped a rise we could see a white line stretching across the horizon. This was the southern opal fields of Coober Pedy. From then to the town the ground would be punctuated by clusters of diggings, most of them appeared abandoned but some had lone miners working their claim and sending a column of dust into the air.
Mining is done by digging a shaft vertically until they reach the opal seams, then spreading out underground. The rock they dig is sucked up by locally made self-emptying industrial vacuum cleaners mounted on the backs of old trucks. Every so often one would fill enough to open the lower flap and dump its contents onto the heap. The only signs of life here were the columns of dust and machines that looked like a diplodocus being violently ill.
Coober Pedy is an Aboriginal word that means “Man in a hole.” The word “underground” appears a lot on signs in the town. The Underground Motel, The Underground Café, even an Underground Backpackers. And the buildings really are underground. They have a front facing the road but the rest of the structure disappears into the hill behind. Quite a few hillsides have a door carved into them, and a number of chimneys and air vents poking through the white dirt above.
Coober Pedy’s overall architectural style could be described as “dropped from a great height.” There is no way to take a photo of the town so that it looks like a town and not like a rubbish dump, or wrecker’s yard. The only new bit of machinery in town is a 10megawatt wind turbine on the outskirts. The rest is a collection of old cars and amazing constructions of recycled machines. It’s not often you see a school bus with a bucket conveyer protruding through the roof.
I would have liked to stay, but it was still 680km to Alice Springs and we wanted to be beyond that before sundown. About Mid-day we crossed into the Northern Territory and long roads with no speed limits. I let The Foot dive and we cruised for many hours at 150kph. The turn-off to Uluru zoomed past. I would like very much to take that road but it was a 480km detour, and we had no time to spend there. Uluru requires a few days to see properly. So we zoomed past.
Eventually a range of mountains rose above the scrubby land, the road passed through a gap, and we were in The Alice. About 90 years ago Alice Springs started life as a small telegraph station, one of many in a long chain from Adelaide to Darwin, and then to the rest of the world. Now the town is a modern, largeish country town of 30,000 people. Once again we had no time to look around, and so we pressed on.
Just north of Alice Springs we crossed the Tropic Of Capricorn. We were in the tropics, and from now on the sun travelled to the south of us. The country became rolling hills of red sand covered in grass and scrubby trees, and at sundown we reached the TiTree Roadhouse, a building that served as a petrol station, shop, pub, caravan park and motel. We rented a room for the night, turned the A/C up to Antarctic and lay down in the chill breeze.
Day 2: 2289km from Dubbo.