Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

42. In and Out of Coober Pedy

The next morning I awoke to the beeping of my watch alarm at 4:30am and stood outside for about five minutes in an effort to spot the Hiyakutake comet, which had recently become visible from Earth again after swinging around the sun. Unfortunately, it was either not visible from where I was standing, or else I was looking in the wrong direction. A few bright lights around the camping area were making the seeing difficult as well. I soon gave up the comet search to return to the warmth of my sleeping bag, knowing that the next night we would be camped far from any man-made lights where the seeing should be perfect.

After speaking to a couple of Dutch panelvanners - reviving memories of the numerous trips Karen and I had taken in our own panel van (not to mention our wedding night) - we rode out into the two hundred and fifty kilometres of nothing that lay between us and Coober Pedy. A good south-easterly breeze pushed us along the flat road at a very pleasant twenty three kilometres per hour average speed. We reached our planned overnight camping site at eighty six kilometres just after midday and met up with a guy from the Department of Transport.

His job involved a regular route up and down the highway, checking all the parking bays and rest areas. He ensured that all the emergency phones were working, he checked that there was water in all the tanks, and he inspected all the other facilities - like shelters, bins, tables and chairs - for breakage. He told us some very interesting stories about the damage he had seen - from a concrete table that had been attacked with a sledge hammer, to shotgun blasts destroying the gutters around some of the shelters which fed water to the tanks. His stories proved to us that there are a lot of strange people driving outback roads. Our paranoia since leaving Port Augusta now seemed very sensible.

The Department of Transport guy told us there was plenty of tree cover about forty kilometres up the road, so after I replaced the tube in my back tyre Karen and I headed for the one hundred and thirty kilometre mark. Two hours later we found a likely site and bolted about two hundred and fifty metres into the bush when the road was deserted. I set up the tent on a flat claypan, with mulga protecting us on three sides. The breeze which had helped us for most of the day died at dusk. A cloudless sky promised a cool night and good seeing conditions for comet spotting in the early hours of the following morning. As usual when camping out, we crawled into the tent not long after sunset, listening to the cars and road trains roll by as we continued our investigation into the question first posed a couple of nights before . How far from the highway would we need to camp in order to have a silent night?

Our campsite south of Coober Pedy

Surprisingly, the night would supply the answer. We had chosen a campsite far from the nearest Stuart Highway parking bay and a quarter of a kilometre off a long, straight section of road. There was absolutely no reason for anyone to stop along this section of the highway, and we hoped for a quiet night. Although we could still hear every vehicle as it passed, with nobody stopping we hoped to sleep undisturbed. The night turned cold, and I woke before dawn. The smooth drone of traffic approaching from the south was interrupted by a cattle grid we had crossed about a kilometre prior to finding our campsite. Thunka-thunka was a car. Thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka was a roadtrain. The cars soon disappeared, but the roadtrains did not give up so easily. Just when the sound of their engines had all but blended into the silence of the night, the thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka came again. Somewhere to the north of us, I blearily realised, another cattle grid crossed the highway.

With forty five minutes to kill while I waited for the comet to show, I set about calculating the distance to the far cattle grid. The next time I heard a north-bound roadtrain pass, I measured the time it took to reach the grid - a touch over four minutes. I repeated the measurement a few times in the interests of scientific accuracy. I then assumed the roadtrains were travelling at about one hundred kilometres per hour. At this speed they would travel one and two thirds kilometres in a minute, so in four minutes they would travel six and two thirds kilometres! This meant the cattle grid was over six kilometres away! This whole exercise in observation and logic kept me awake until my alarm told me to get up and look at the sky.

Outside the tent the night was freezing. After a cursory scan of the heavens - no comet here - I rushed back to the relative warmth of my sleeping bag. When Karen and I left the tent shortly after dawn, the air temperature had not increased significantly. I scraped ice off the map cover on my handlebar bag as Karen wrapped her hands around her cup of coffee, both of us moving from behind the long, morning shadows in a vain attempt to extract some heat from the feeble rays of the sun. Neither of us was in a hurry to pack up.

Two hours later we pushed our bikes back to the highway and re-started our cycle computers for the new day. Within a few minutes the low scrub we had sheltered behind gave way to knee-high grass and desert dirt which would remain with us all the way to Coober Pedy. Along this entire stretch there were no safe camp sites, so we were lucky to have decided to cover the distance with only one overnight camp instead of two.

Just over six kilometres after we started riding, we crossed the cattle grid which had helped to keep me awake in the wee small hours of the morning. So there was our answer. On a still night, with not much bush around, we would have to push our bikes well over six kilometres from the highway in order to escape the noise of the traffic completely! There was no way that was going to happen, so Karen and I decided that traffic noise was not so bad after all.

A little while later we noticed a young man driving towards us in an old sedan. As he approached, he wound his window down and stretched his arm outside. I thought he was simply going to great pains to make it obvious he was about to wave to us, because everyone waves to everyone else in the country, but just before he reached us, he lifted his hand and stuck up his middle finger, leaving it like that until he was well past. What a dickhead! I waved to him and smiled, hoping he would think I had misinterpreted his gesture as a friendly greeting, and so deprive him of whatever small pleasure his act had given him. It made us wonder why a person would do something like that, and we concluded that he must have a pretty rotten existence if that type of act makes him feel better. Still, despite this incident, Karen and I count ourselves as very fortunate. In all of our travels, this one low-life was the only person among the tens of thousands of people we met or passed who went out of his way to be a bastard. It shows just how many nice people there are out there.

Karen and I stopped for morning tea after a long rise to a combined look-out and parking bay at thirty two kilometres into the day. Karen desperately needed something to cheer her up, because the gradual uphill grade and a persistent headwind had dropped our average speed down to about seventeen kilometres per hour. Almost as if they had been sent by some divine force, some caravanners pulled into this rest area in the middle of nowhere and shared some lamingtons and Anzac biscuits with us, restoring our faith in the essential goodness of both mankind and the gods.

We ground out another forty six kilometres before stopping for lunch at a one-bin-and-no-other-facilities parking bay, our bikes propped against the bin while we sat in the dirt. While we ate, the wind swung around to the east. Shortly after we resumed riding, the road swung around to the north-west to provide us with our first tail winds for the day. We needed it. The long distances of the past three days had given Karen an ache in her lower back, and we were stopping every ten kilometres for much-needed stretch breaks. After six and a half hours of riding, we rolled into Coober Pedy at 5pm, having covered three hundred and seventy seven kilometres in three days, the highest three day total we would achieve during all of our travels.

As we pushed our bikes from the office of the Stuart caravan park towards our allocated site, Karen and I were astounded to receive a standing ovation from four people we had met in Woomera. They congratulated us on arriving in such quick time, and invited us over to an afternoon tea complete with Jatz crackers, cheese and jam. We were also given the absolute luxury of sitting in chairs with a back, the number one item on the list of things we most missed about civilisation.

The following morning I continued my search for the elusive Hiyakutake comet, only to find one lone and stationary cloud in the east which completely defeated me. The sun soon rose above the cloudy horizon, producing a fine, clear and mild Coober Pedy day. Karen and I booked an afternoon bus tour of the town and its environs, then spent the morning doing a quick reconnaissance of the main street. A small climb to a lookout in the centre of town gave us an excellent overview. Coober Pedy is, in a word, ugly. But it is also fascinating, a bit like a traffic accident is fascinating. Sure it's gruesome, but you can't take your eyes of it. It is a true frontier town, unlike anything else in Australia, and possibly in the world. Definitely worth a visit, but you probably wouldn't want to live there.

The afternoon tour was led by Janni, a Greek opal miner who says he struck it rich in '79. He had used his money to start a pizza shop in the town, complete with tables and chairs. According to all of his friends, the venture was doomed to failure, but again Janni was lucky. The pizza shop went from strength to strength. Eventually he sold it at a good profit. Janni took great delight in explaining how he, a Greek, had to teach the new owner, an Italian, how to make pizza! With the money from the sale, Janni bought the Stuart caravan park, and almost every afternoon took a bus-load of travellers like us on a tour of Coober Pedy. At a nice profit, of course.

Janni first took us to an opal field for an explanation of claims and equipment, then to an area outside of town called the Breakaways, a stark and colourful series of hills where parts of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and most of the original Mad Max movie were filmed. On the way back into town we crossed the Moon Plain and passed the longest man-made structure on the plant - the Dingo Fence. We also passed the grass-less golf course, dropped into the studio of a local potter, visited the very impressive underground Serbian church and stopped at the Umoona mine, where we saw a demonstration of opal shaping and polishing, and toured a complete underground home. The only complaint I heard about the entire tour was from a little old lady who was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information she had received.

That night I was cooking a barbecued steak dinner in the camper's kitchen of the caravan park when a woman walked up to me and said "Remember me?" I was struck dumb. It was Dulcie, whom we had last seen waving goodbye to us from her home in Benalla two months before. She and her husband Brian had warned us they would be travelling up the Stuart Highway in May, and they had been checking out all the cyclists they had seen on the road, thinking they might be Karen and me. We stayed up talking with Brian and Dulcie until late, swapping stories of our adventures since we had last seen each other.

We learned that Brian had almost driven right past Coober Pedy that evening, because he and Dulcie had visited the town a few years before and thought that once in a lifetime is probably enough. At the last moment he had made a quick decision to stop for the night at one of the town's three caravan parks. Not only had they chosen to stop in Coober Pedy, and not only had they chosen the caravan park where Karen and I were staying, but when they set up their van in the dark, they had not noticed our tent and bikes only twenty metres away. They could so easily have driven right past us that evening, or stayed at another van park and missed us the next day while we were still in Coober Pedy. Our meeting was surely meant to be. Another amazing coincidence.

We shared a breakfast of toast and tea with Brian and Dulcie the next morning before they continued on their way, with me treating it as a partial celebration for finally spotting the comet a little earlier. It was rising very shortly before dawn, so the seeing was not great in the early morning sky. It would hopefully improve in the future.

Karen and I rounded out our stay in Coober Pedy with an exhaustive walking tour around the town. We visited the police station to enquire about the camping situation further up the highway, and then looked at an underground bookshop, the five star Desert Cave Motel and an underground art gallery. When Karen had visited the town on a trip to central Australia many years before she had visited a tourist trap called the Big Winch and taken a photo of the only "tree" in Coober Pedy, a construction made entirely from metal. The Big Winch was now closed but the tree was still in existence. Karen thought that it had not grown very since she had last been in town. We met and spoke to a very strange gentleman from Leipzig, whose offer to show us his underground home we politely declined, primarily because his yard was one of the biggest collections of scrap metal and junk I had ever seen outside of a rubbish tip.

The Leipzig Man and Karen

A return visit to the bookshop led to a meeting with Peter Corst, the owner of the store. He is a famous photographer, postcard producer and artist, and he had been recommended to us earlier in the day by the local police as the person to speak with about camp sites up the track. They said he was always camping out in the wilds, looking for more photographs for his postcards. Peter drew us a mud map which indicated a series of channels about eighty kilometres north where the trees restarted and camping was possible. In the evening we celebrated our last day in "civilisation" for a while with dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

Cadney was the next roadhouse up the highway, but as it was over one hundred and fifty kilometres away, Karen and I decided on two relatively short days of riding, with an overnight camp near the channels that Peter Corst had indicated. Short days gave us the luxury of late starts, so it was not until 9am the next morning that we left Coober Pedy behind us, but not before it had given us something else to remember. Twenty minutes before we left, it started to rain! We donned our rain jackets and pushed on undaunted into moderate northerly headwinds. The rain continued on and off throughout the day. Lunch was taken in the shelter of an optic fibre repeater station, regular structures that were to recur every forty or so kilometres all the way to Darwin.

Lunch at the repeater station

Five hours of tough riding at a miserable seventeen kilometres per hour average brought us to our overnight campsite in the Number Two Channel of Pootnoura Creek. It was the following morning that we passed the small roadside memorial to the guy who had been murdered on this spot three years before. Very comforting.

Morning tea was memorable for two reasons. Not only did the parking bay have tables and seats, but Karen set a new record for the number of flies who used her cup of coffee for a swimming pool - four. This record would not be equalled for quite a while.

We reached Cadney at lunchtime after a short seventy kilometre day with partial tailwinds, average twenty one kilometres per hour despite the bumpy road surface. The area around Coober Pedy had been exceedingly barren and it was now an enjoyable change to ride through trees again. This section also provided more birds than we had seen in the previous few hundred kilometres, with wedge-tailed eagles, galahs, zebra finches, crested pigeons and yellow-eared miners the most prevalent. After showers Karen and I adjourned to the pub where we watched a game of football, did some reading, wrote some letters and struggled with yet another cryptic crossword.

Another short day of eighty two kilometres brought us to the roadhouse in the small town of Marla. Highlights of the day included a new bird - the mulga parrot - plus a couple of other interesting sightings - a single budgerigar, a couple of red-capped robins and lots of black-faced woodswallows. We had also crossed an invisible boundary, leaving the familiar Australian raven behind and entering the territory of the little crow. Non bird watchers would not have even noticed the change. The next outpost of civilisation was a further one hundred and eighty kilometres up the road, so we decided to spend a relaxing afternoon catching up on a bit of bike maintenance, and sitting and reading in the lovely Marla sunshine.

A typical lunchtime

While Karen showered, shopped and sewed, I set up the tent behind the roadhouse and decided to do some bike maintenance. First on the agenda was my pump, which had developed a slight crack in the casing. I taped it firmly and it appeared to work okay. Then, after cleaning and oiling the chains and gears on both Elle and Mel, I replaced my front tyre which had almost worn through to the canvas. Because of the problems we had experienced by not carrying spares in northern Queensland, we now carried two spare tyres. I had a choice between a brand new, expensive Michelin tyre, or a slightly used, cheap, no-frills brand. With less than five hundred kilometres to ride before reaching Alice Springs, I opted for the cheap one, figuring I would probably replace it with another when we arrived there.

It would prove to be a fateful decision ...

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