For those that think the Outback in Australia is an empty wilderness, this is for you. This is a picture heavy blog, I offer no apologies.
There’s a great Australian Film called Last Cab to Darwin where Rex, a taxi driver from Broken Hill drives to Darwin. We’re going to do about half that trip on this leg. Watch the film, it’s a cracker and the scenery is amazing.
We stayed in Broken Hill for 2 nights in an old Presbyterian Church. This was the only picture I took while in Broken Hill. It’s a big mine with a town in it, and around it, and beside it.
We departed Broken Hill for Wilpena Pound Resort as our first of two stops on the way to Coober Pedy. It was hot and dusty and the horizon shimmered with mirage’s in both directions.
It was to be a 7 or so hour long drive. Due to the ridiculous and unhelpful placement of the Flinders Range of mountains between Broken Hill and Wilpena Pound Resort we did a pretty serious dog leg drive route around them. On the way out of Broken Hill we passed the most massive solar power station I’ve seen. Apart from dust, the next biggest resource Broken Hill has is sunshine.
I am a fan of renewable energy efforts and take pics of the most significant installments when I can. There are a couple more pictures of sites we came across later in this blog.
On the way to Broken Hill we saw a number of Emu’s at the side of the road, which I found very exciting, you may remember from the last blog. First we saw one. Then we saw a pair, then 4 grazing together. 4 times as exciting, excitement doubling every time. For regular readers of these blogs you may have detected a theme. On our travels we see something for the first time, it’s usually a singular creature.
Then later Australia delivers more and more and more until the enjoyment is palpable. We know it’s never guaranteed, otherwise we’d have seen a dozen Platypus’s wandering down the side of the road, which we haven’t . . . yet. However this part of the trip did follow that course. We rounded a corner and saw a field with maybe 6 Emu’s in it. I had to stop and take a picture.
Then a few Kms farther on this happened.
A field with dozens and dozens of Emus grazing in the sunset. I couldn’t count how many there were. I know it’s not easy to see, but every shape in the massive field is an Emu. This was as wide as the camera lens would go but the field was at least 4 times wider than this, all full of Emu’s.
At this moment I had this flashback. In the 1970’s in Northern Ireland there was an attraction called the Causeway Safari Park. My Dad and Mum took us there once. I was in my early teens and I remember my dads car going through two gates, one closed before the other opened. At that time I understood was to prevent the animals escaping. We drove around a vast landscape, vast by NI standards, and saw lions and baboons and other exotic animals roaming the land. It was breathtaking. Return to the present and witness what we are seeing on our travels.
This entire trip around Australia has been like I’m in a safari park but it’s a Safari Park 3,500kms across and 2,500kms wide. The number of exotic plants and creatures we have and will encounter in Australia is exponentially larger than the 4 lions and 3 Baboons I saw in the Causeway Safari Park. And my excitement and enjoyment and desire to learn and experience increased by the same scale. And, as an aside, my english teacher at Carrickfergus Grammar School told me you never should (or is that should never?) start a sentence with a conjunction.
And onward we go. And, in deference to my english teacher, I will try and promise to maybe try to almost never start a sentence with “and” again.
The landscape keeps changing, gradually and subtly. We saw cactii, proper big green eared cactii with spikes. Just like the movies. Then we stopped seeing those. There was a specific zone where they flourished and we had just driven through that zone.
Just past a small place call Olary we stopped at the side of the road to take a selfie of this unique and momentous place. I know it doesn’t look like much in the picture but at this point on the road, after 110 days traveling so far, we passed our 10,000 kms Vagabonding milestone. We thought it was significant that there wasn’t a marker, or a significant feature, just Australia in all it’s beauty.
10,000 kms milestone selfie
But 10,000kms is just a step in the journey we are on so after the selfie we jumped back in the car and on we drove towards Wilpena Pound. Love you Jenni, here’s to the next 10,000 and the next after that and repeat….
We rounded the dog leg in Port Augusta and turned from South West and drove North West toward Wilpena Pound. There was a time constraint getting to Wipena Pound as we were camping and we needed to have our tent up before dark. This meant we stopped less on the road but as we knew we were returning this way, and had more time to spend on the return journey, we didn’t mind so much.
On the way we saw this stuff growing at the side of the road.
There were many spots where these yellow and green globes were growing wild. We didn’t stop but vowed to try and find out what they were on the way back.
We arrived at Wilpena Pound Resort at about 4pm and after checking in started to set up the tent.
They hadn’t had rain in Wilpena Pound in the last 18 months but 10mm of rain was forecast for the next day so I set up the tarp over the tent. I had a half hearted go at it as 10mm is nothing. We went for dinner at the resort bar and I must say it was pretty tasty.
This resort in an outstandingly beautiful location. It’s a giant natural amphitheatre that looks like it’s a wide low valley in the top of an extinct volcano. It isn’t. In reality it’s a natural occurring fold in the sedimentary rocks around the place that look like a ring of mountains.
We were to be there two nights and, as the place is so beautiful, we wanted to do one of the many hiking trails around the mountains to witness it in all its glory. We chose the Mount Ohlssen-Bagge hike, up one of the nearby peaks of not volcano mountains.
This hike is one of the shorter ones in distance but in the ranking range they use from Easy to Very difficult it is ranked as “Really, really difficult, don’t do it unless you are part goat”. As it turned out, only parts of it were worthy of this ranking, most of it was on simple trails as you will see. The rain was forecast for the afternoon so we packed our rain gear and set off early with the hope of getting up and down before it started, but that didn’t work out too well as you will see.
We walked past a dry riverbed full of trees that had been washed down by floods
We learned that in this part of Australia the natural order of things is flood, fire and famine in cycles. Australian plants grow seeds that need fire to germinate. Other plants in the same zone excrete syrupy sap that catches fire easily and as soon as there’s a lightning strike the sap ignites and the fire ravages the landscape. On one such occasion recently the fire was so intense it burned the roots of the trees. Then, when it flooded, the trees had no secure hold and were ripped out by the flood waters to be deposited here in this river bed. We had just started out climb and already it was fascinating.
Whenever we see a set of stairs now we need to take this pic.
The views as we climbed got better and better. Then I posed for the Mountain Man shot.
However, coming down from this position was a little less photogenic.
This is about halfway up. The shapes of the rock formations in the peaks is becoming much clearer.
As we got closer to the top we began to see the features of the mountain close up. They had features like faces. Pretty ugly faces but I’m sure their mother loves them. After one of the more challenging scrambles we stopped for a short rest to catch our breaths and to take in the views.
We had a great view of the resorts solar power station and air strip.
The colours of the plants clinging to the slopes of the mountain here were striking at this time of year.
We saw loads of these balanced stones on the way up and down.
I’ve seen so many now I think I’d like to give them a go myself sometime. Watch this space. Although it doesn’t look like it in the pictures the final part of the hike was a desperate scramble over a shear rock face. But eventually we made it to this sign.
And a little further we got the picture to prove we climbed the mountain.
The views were pretty amazing. According to aboriginal folklore the “Pound” was formed when two Akurras (dreaming serpents) ate a large sum of people gathered for a celebration, which caused the serpents to be unable to move from their eating grounds. They curled around and formed the rim of peaks that surrounded this area. I much prefer this version rather than folded rocks that wore away.
But, observe the colour of the sky in the background. Turns out the Australian Weather Forecasting was as accurate as it normally is and the 10mm of rain forecast was going to be a full on thunderstorm and downpour. We heard the thunder rumble in the distance as we set off back down the mountain.
And then it poured and we broke out our wet weather gear.
The rocks and scenery took on a different and deeper coloured hue in the rain.
As I am not writing this posthumously you can assume we got down safely but I can say some of the more vertical bits were traversed by sliding down on our backsides.
At the bottom of the mountain, on the way back to the resort, there was a short trail with some informational signs. It was from these signs we were told about the fire / flood cycle. It was also on the signs I learned of the existence of “Meat Ants”. The very name is a bit frightening, there was a nest near the sign.
I am told they got their name as they eat the meat of dead creatures but I suspect different.
By the time we got back to the tent the downpour was really kicking in and the wind had picked up. The piss poor job I did of putting the tarp over the tent was paying me back. It had been ripped off one of the corners and was flapping around furiously and the tent was getting soaked. A couple from the neighbouring caravan had tried to fix it up as best they could when they saw the issue, which had stopped it from being a lot worse. The surface water was running around and under the tent as well. So, for the next hour or so, I properly secured the tarp and scraped a couple of drainage ditches around the tent base to keep us high and dry. It worked a treat.
The rain eased a bit. One of our neighbours got a fire going so I decided to try and do the same. Last night and in the early morning we saw these tiny kangaroos we later were told were called Euros or Walleroos. They were very friendly and inquisitive, also they were probably looking for a handout. A couple of Euros came over and stood by me as I was getting the fire going, casting a critical eye over my failing attempts to get soaking wood alight.
Eventually they seemed to say, “He’s useless, lets go next door.”
We went to the bar again for dinner and drinks and again it was delicious. We met another couple and got talking. The chap, (forgotten his name) was a geologist and was up in the Pound on personal geological interest. He told us about the rocks around here and where we could get a picture standing with one leg in the Cambrian Period and another in the Pre-Cambrian period. Interesting as that sounded we had to go the next morning early so would probably never get that picture. It rained again all through the night, the tarp held up and the drainage ditches worked a treat, we were warm and dry.
The road to Woomera
The drive from Wilpena Pound to Woomera was again, around the unhelpfully placed Flinders Ranges and was to take about 4 hours. As it was Monday we had work to complete so we were up early and worked for a few hours before packing the tents up and heading out.
We left about 10 am and drove around and out of the Pound past the heads of the Akurra and saw the mountains from the other side.
Remember the yellow and green globes shaped plants, well we stopped to get a closer look. They are everywhere. They look like someone has spilled them off a wagon but that’s where they grow.
We saw them growing at the side of the roads all the way down to Port Augusta and nearly all the way up to Woomera on the other side of the ranges. I’ve still no idea what they are. Probably alien forms of the balls we saw on Middleton Beach earlier on our trip. Documented in this blog.
Eventually we passed the turn off for Broken Hill we had driven up a few days before, we were on a new road. The next town we stopped at was called Quorn.
Quorn is a familiar name for a meat substitute ingredient made from fungus and sold in supermarkets in Europe. I had to stop. This is a working railway station that has a tourist train that runs between Quorn and Port Augusta. The Pichi Richi railway offers full day or half day trips aboard a restored steam or heritage diesel train on the original Ghan route between Port Augusta and Quorn.
I didn’t take this pic, it’s from their web site. Looks fun though.
The train station is also a museum and tourist office and has this old telephone switchboard as an exhibit.
In Ireland these aren’t ancient, they were still in use up to the 70’s. We left Quorn and followed the Pichi Richi railway all the way to Port Augusta.
We had lunch in the Quandong Cafe.
It is named after a plum like fruit indigenous to Australia. They had lots of produce made from local fruits and herbs. It is a very interesting place. We stopped here and worked for an hour before moving on.
As we drove down the main street of Quorn and back to the highway I spotted the sign over this place.
Onto the highway we drove and onwards to Coober Pedy.
On the road past Port Augusta and up the other side of the Flinders Ranges there are many pit stops. Some of the pit stop signs have a camera symbol indicating a nice view. The picture below is from one of those pit stops with a nice view. Worth the stop I’d say.
A while later we turned off the main highway, passed the famous Spud’s Roadhouse in Pimba and drove the short distance to Woomera where we were stopping for one night on our way to Coober Pedy.
Woomera Village is a working air force base jointly run between the British and Australian Air Forces. It was established in 1947 to develop weapons and carry out experimental and secret tests of rockets and stuff. Up until 1971 it was top secret. It sits in the vast Woomera Range Complex (WRC) where they tested the missiles. The WRC covers an area of 122,000 sq kilometres and it’s a no go zone. It’s one eighth of the State of South Australia and about the same size as England. We found another Survey Mark, really clocking them up now.
We were to stay in the only hotel in the region. The Eldo hotel which was formerly the headquarters for the European Launch Development Organisation. The rooms were old Air Force barracks and very basic and the food was awful. Easily the worst food we have had on our travels so far.
There are 4 barrack blocks, “Redstone”, “Black Knight”, “Blue Steel” and “Skylark”. These were all missiles developed and tested here. We stayed in Redstone.
There was a massive display of stuff developed and used here. In the morning we took a walk up to the display for a few pictures.
Thunderbirds, the TV series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson in the UK began in 1964 and Gerry’s brother was in the Royal Airforce. Coincidence?
There were no frills in Eldo, which included no edible food, no Optus phone coverage and no WiFi. We knew we could get all three of these in Spud’s Roadhouse about 6km away so we planned to work out of there until lunchtime the next morning before driving to Coober Pedy.
Spud’s Road House
Spud’s is an institution on the highway. The late Spud Murphy started Spud’s Roadhouse in 1969. Pimba, the village where the roadhouse is located, has a population of less than 50. I’m sure nearly all have worked in Spud’s at one time or another.
The place has a petrol station, grocery store, general store, restaurant and pub. Rex the taxi driver from Broken Hill stopped here as well on his way to Darwin. Spud Murphy died in 2007 but he has achieved immortality as a result of this place. Well done Spud.
It also provides good old outback hospitality as this sign shows. Its an animal trap.
Pimba to Coober Pedy was to take us about 4 hours. We filled up our bellies in the restaurant and our fuel tank at the pumps and drove back out onto the highway pausing only to snap a picture of this sign.
We turned right.
The road to Coober Pedy is long and straight and goes right through the Woomera Test Range. It passes by the Lake Hart Rest Stop where there was a sign with a picture of a camera on it. We turned in and were glad we did.
Lake Hart is a massive salt lake and up until 1931 was one of major sources of salt harvested in Australia.
It looks like snow.
There are signs of it once being a lake full of water.
I read that the Lake Hart stop is a popular overnight place for RV’s and grey nomads. There certainly were a few there when we stopped. I also read it is so popular you need to get there before midday to get a decent spot. I’ll bet the sunrise is worth it. The Ghan Railway line runs right past the Lake.
We arrived in Coober Pedy about 4:30pm to check into our AirBnB residence. We’d booked a dugout, which is what the underground houses are called in Coober Pedy. The temperature in the summer months is so hot nearly half the residences are underground. On the surface it could be over 50c but underground it remains low 20’s all year round.
It all started with Opals. Over 90% of the world’s opals come from Coober Pedy. The original miners who came here to drill for opals had a residency permit that came with their claim. After they dug a big enough hole in the rocks with no opals in it they lived in the hole and kept digging. There are a couple of hotels and churches that have done the same thing. More of that later.
Our AirBnB place was underground, in a dugout. It had 3 big bedrooms, two bathrooms, a laundry and an outside underground courtyard. It was magnificent. It also had WiFi.
The manager of the place checked us in and showed us around then left us to it. It was getting dark when he left, it gets dark early here. The sky was clear and full of stars. This dugout is about 4km out of town and it was silent and beautiful outside. We knew there was a firepit outside so while I got the fire going Jenni sorted out the drinks. We were going to have a drink under the stars in the middle of the desert in Coober Pedy.
It was perfect. It took us a long time getting here but our goal was finally achieved, we had arrived in Coober Pedy in style.
Coober Pedy Attractions
I had researched a couple of quirky things I’d like to visit while I was here and we also asked the Airbnb manager for tips. The organised tours were out as options, we had to do a day’s work before we could go out and explore and most of those tours were 4 hours or more. The manager told us 2 places to visit, the Serbian Church and Umoona museum. Those two things along with our self researched items were going to be enough for us while we were here.
The Serbian Church
The church was built in 1993 by Serbian Australian miners.
The floor of the church is 17 metres under the surface level and was all dug out by volunteers.
The painted glass window looks particularly impressive.
It’s a pretty impressive place, unique and beautiful. Judging by the evidence we found outside it’s thirsty work digging out a church.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Coober Pedy looks like the surface of a foreign planet, and many movie location scouts have thought so too. One of the many movies filmed here was the Australian hit Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The name of the bus in the movie was called Priscilla and when we saw this unexpectedly we had to stop and take a picture.
At the side of the main street in the middle of the town behind a toilet block, almost invisible and mainly forgotten lies a relic left behind from the film, Pitch Black.
This was one of my personal tourist draws for Coober Pedy. Most come for the opals and the experience, I came for this wreck of a movie prop. Not totally that but it was on the list of reasons to visit this incredible place. The only people who know about this prop are fans of the movie. I was very happy to get this picture, thanks Jenni for taking it, I look outrageously happy.
The spaceship is in the car park of an Opal Mine attraction and we went for a bit of a wander up over the mine. This is what the health and safety guys put over the air shaft of the exhibit to stop people falling into it.
I’ll be willing to bet they only did that so they didn’t have to clean the bodies up every morning.
We traipsed next door to the abandoned spacecraft to the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum, as recommended by the manager of our dugout. It’s an original opal mine and is a very interesting exhibit. It was a deep and large cave, on the walls were pictures of old mines and original machinery and the history of Coober Pedy.
In 1915 Jim Hutchison and his 14 year old son William were digging for water after trying to find gold and dug up an opal, 8 days later the first opal claim was lodged. The local aborigines called this place Kulpa Piti which roughly translates to “White Man’s Hole in the Ground” and from there Coober Pedy was named. It’s in the desert and it rarely rains, water is from a bore 24 kms away and is piped into the town in an underground pipe then cleaned, desalinated in a solar powered desalination plant and stored in a large undergound lake.
It may be dry now but it was once under water in the great inland sea. Fossils have been found from creatures like this.
And if If I ever think modern Australian creatures are scary just take a look at what the ancient ones looked like.
Coober Pedy Hollywood Sign
Across the road from the Umoona and on a hill overlooking the town is the Coober Pedy sign.
We didn’t climb up to it, I just swapped to the longer zoom lens and took this picture. It was getting dark again and you know what that means, back to the dugout for drink by the fire and watching the sun go down.
It was overcast the second night but was beautiful nonetheless.
The overcast sky had it’s own attractions. We were rewarded by this sunset.
The next day we repeated the same pattern, we worked from early morning to late afternoon and then went to see some sights.
First on the list this afternoon…..
The Coober Pedy Golf Club
This is from their web site: The Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Club has been offering a unique course for golfers since 1976. The course traverses the desert flats and gibber hills of Coober Pedy. The greens are black and the fairways are white! Many a golfer have found opal whilst playing a round. Golf is played year round on this unique course.
The course was built in 1976 by a number of determined golfers. It A few years ago a film crew had an idea to film a documentary about the Coober Pedy Golf Course and wanted a juxtapose position so engaged Alan McGregor, the General Manager of St. Andrews prestigious course in Scotland, the “Home of Golf”, to be interviewed along with Kim Kelly the president of the Coober Pedy course. During the interview Kim Kelly kept joking with Alan McGregor, “What about reciprocal arrangements Alan?” Alan McGregor joked back, “Well maybe if you give me an opal mine I’ll think about it” The next day Kim Kelly staked a claim in Alan McGregor’s name and posted a parcel with the claim and a handful of opals to him. In it’s 600 year St Andrews only ever granted reciprocal arrangements to one club, the Coober Pedy Golf Club.
There’s no rain in Coober Pedy, so there’s no grass. At the Coober Pedy Golf Club they don’t let that stop them, the players carry around a small square of artificial turf to play off. The one thing the golfers dislike is grass, it puts them off. If it ever rains and the grass grows they spray it to kill it. It gets too warm to play during the day in the summer so they play every Friday night in the dark under spotlights. It sure is an interesting place.
We stopped for a drink during happy hour in the Underground Bar of the Desert Cave hotel on the way back to our dugout. We got talking to a couple who where taking their friend from England on a road trip from Yepoon to Coober Pedy then onto Uluru. They had just arrived in Coober Pedy. The driver, who was a bit of a raconteur, was telling us of the drive along a 250 kms dirt track which was dead straight for 150 kms then took a hook left then ran dead straight for the rest of the road. He said, “It was like the surveyor had just worked out he was going in the wrong direction and Coober Pedy was over there. ‘Shit, turn left guys and keep going. And don’t tell anyone!'” I didn’t have the heart to point out you shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
Last night in Coober Pedy
It was our last night in this amazing place. We had no more wood for the fire but we still had drinks under the stars that night. It was getting down to 4c and the sky was clear from horizon to horizon, you could see the milky way as clear as anything.
It was a delightful end to this iconic part of our journey.
We’re on our way to the Clare Valley and back to Port Noarlunga. Thats for the next blog.