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Written by rxshine on 18 Jul, 2003
Day 1 -- Fortunately we got to the Alice Springs train station early because we had to stand in line to check our bags on the baggage car. There was time to buy a cold sandwich or snack at the station but there was also…Read More
Day 1 -- Fortunately we got to the Alice Springs train station early because we had to stand in line to check our bags on the baggage car. There was time to buy a cold sandwich or snack at the station but there was also a concession car which served hot and cold take out food. The concession food was OK even though it was not open during the entire trip. We traveled economy class but for $180 AUS each we could upgrade to Holiday Class which included a sit down dining car. We didn’t. The train ride in itself was a disappointment. Windows rattled and there was no way to hold food on your lap to eat. The toilet was a pull down thing as was the sink. It was like a toilet in a small travel trailer, but it was clean. There was a movie shown but the sound was too loud. We had seats 1 and 2 which was fortunate because they had lots of foot space. The train traveled about 30 miles an hour and there was not much to be seen since the rail bed was so low.
Finding Coober Pedy in the dark without a train station as a guide is a story in itself, but that is the excitement of travel. We were scheduled to stop at Manguri Station at about 8:30 PM, in the black of night. When we got out of the train there were no lights (except from the van sent from the hotel to pick us up), no station, and no platform. It felt like we were being hijacked. There was a small concrete bunker about train platform level which was all that was left of a previous station. If it weren’t for the lights in the van the train wouldn’t have known where to stop, except for a sign the porter said was back up the tracks a few hundred yards. The van loaded us up and drove down a bumpy dirt road for about 15 minutes (it seemed like an hour and we were convinced we were being hijacked) to our hotel. Eventually we arrived at the only North South road, Stuart Highway, and the town did have some lights so we weren’t hijacked. About 50% of the town is built under ground, so to speak. They chop off the front side of a tall hill and bore into it with mining machinery and make a cave dwelling which they call dug out. It stays cool all the time in spite of the 100 plus temps they get most of the time. We stayed in The Desert Cave Motel that was built this way. It was very nice. Kathy still talks about its unique construction and the white walls with streaks of bright rust. To add to the late evening arrival there was a 1 hour time change, day light savings.
Day 2 -- The breakfast at the hotel was very nice with choice of buffet or menu items. We chose menu items having gotten used to having Mueslix for breakfast most of the time since the buffet was too expensive for our hunger level. The tables all had crocheted table cloths which was unique through out our trip. Who would have expected such charm in the middle of a dusty red desert?
The half day tour started at 8am and was good. It gave an overall view of the area and described the mining system and building construction methods that make this town unique. First stop was a Serbian Church which was cut out of the side of a hill. Inside were statues and Icons that were carved in the walls. There was a lot of room inside including a choir loft with organ. Across the parking lot were a few in-progress dug outs which showed the construction technique. Three methods are used to remove the rock; mining machinery that cuts a rectangular hole like a door way; mining machine that cuts a round hole about 3 feet in diameter; and hand digging. I believe the church was done by hand.
Evidence of mining is obvious everywhere. The most common method is to drill a 3 ft hole in the ground and inspect the diggings as they are removed and dumped on a pile next to the hole. There are lots of piles and lots of holes. Claims are commonly made by recording a 100 meter square of property. It is not uncommon to drop a mine hole right next to a non producing hole and find good opals. Our guide said a miner did that next to an abandoned claim hole and got A$250,000 in a week. Miners can tell when they have gone too far to find opals because the color of the residue changes to pink. This is about 90ft deep.
To see what real opal looks like in the ground we went into a large under ground complex of tunnels and were shown a vein of opal and where it usually occurs in the pattern of rock formation. The miner tour guide said it is very illusive, noting that tunnel construction methods require stone posts be regularly left to support the roof. More than once a post turned out to be the place where opal resided. Opals can also be found by sifting(noodling) through the residue left beside abandoned claims. Permits have to be acquired but any one can do this. In fact there are companies who use sophisticated machinery to do just that. There are signs up everywhere warning about the mining holes. Our guide said his partner accidentally stepped back into one of these holes and broke a couple of bones, not to mention the ordeal of pulling him out of a 90 ft hole.
One of the pasttimes miners enjoy is golf. It is a nine hole course laid out on red dirt. The tee is the only grass and it is about 3ft by 6ft. The green is a patch of dirt that has been oiled to keep it smooth. When your ball lands on the green, rather black because of the oil, you take a scraper like device to level the path from the ball to the hole. There is a clubhouse also that probably gets more use than the course. Golf is A$5 a day.
In the center of town is a rugby football field and a ("footy")soccer field, again all red sand. I can’t imagine this gets much use except to release some tensions. Also in town is a cemetery with a beer keg as a head stone. The miner who died was quite popular and he hooked up a water line to the keg with a sign that says, "Have a drink on me."
While driving around we saw a rainbow which is pretty peculiar out here since there are only 4 to 6 inches of rain a year. In the outskirts of town are some of the larger mining areas with very large piles of residue. It is very desolate and one of the areas is called the Moon Plain. There are petrified trees and areas of mica. Across one portion of this desert like area is a 5000 mile "Dog Fence" to keep dingos away from sheep ranches. There are gates periodically and the fence is patrolled to ensure its continuity. One of the prettiest mountain areas is the Breakaways which was the movie site for the Mad Max movies. One of the vehicles used is in town next to our motel.
Last stop was at the gift shop under the hotel which was connected to the mine next door. We looked at a lot of opals and finally bought one. The diversity of stones and lower comparative price was the key. We had looked at a lot of opals all across Australia and this was the best we had seen. There are other mining areas such as Lightning Ridge noted for its black and gray opals and Mintabie noted for its gray opals, but we had not included them in our trip.
Having to fly out in the afternoon cramped our time to roam around a bit but I wouldn’t stay more than a half day more and fly out the next morning. A note about the guy who hijacked us from the train. He drove the van, helped behind the desk at the hotel, was the porter, took us on the tour, drove us to the airport, went behind the counter at the one-counter outhouse-sized (air-conditioned) airport terminal and loaded the bags on the plane. He was an opal miner with not much luck who did this as a part time job.