Americans say “out in the boondocks” (or boonies), Kiwis say “out in the wop-wops” and Aussies refer to anything rural or distant as being “back o’ Bourke” or “out in the never-nevers.”
We are definitely out in the never-nevers now. Our route now takes us north: from Adelaide all the way to Tennant Creek, with a detour to Uluru. We’re still processing just how remote Australia is. We stayed a night in Port Augusta, which calls itself the “Crossroads of Australia.” The north-south highway connecting Darwin to Adelaide passes through town, as does the east-west highway connecting Sydney and Perth.
Port Augusta to Uluru is too long of a drive to make in one day, so we stopped off in Coober Pedy. It’s the only sizable town in this part of the country, and has some attractions relating to opal mining. It’s also famous for having some of the hottest weather in Australia, so in order to combat the heat, many people live in underground dugout homes.Travelers can stay in an underground motel, shop at an underground bookstore, and have a drink in an underground bar. It’s an odd little place. The day we were there, it got up to 40 degrees Celsius… yet the locals told us “Just wait till it gets to 50!” We didn’t stick around long enough to find out. We only stayed two nights, long enough to experience the first dust storm of the season, investigate the underground attractions, and experience underground camping. (Verdict: as I predicted, not comfortable. But it was cool, temperature-wise.)
Before I got to Coober Pedy, I had a very hard time imagining just what an underground town would look like. I didn’t take very many pictures, but I’ll try to give an impression of what it was like.
One of the attractions in town is a free “fossicking” or “noodling” site where tourists can look for opals. These mounds are basically trash heaps, left over from the commercial mining operations. People used to fossick in any old trash heap they wanted to, but that turned out to be a problem since there are mine shafts everywhere, and people were falling down them. Now there is a designated safe noodling area, but it’s pretty well picked through. We did find some shiny stones, but we got to pass them under a blacklight later that night and it turned out to be worthless, an impure form of opal that in miner-speak is called “potch.”
Not everything is underground- the gas station, supermarket, and restaurants are above ground, as are about half of the homes and some shops. Just about everything else is, including churches. To get into an underground building, there is an aboveground part (one story high or shorter) and a door. Open the door and the first thing you see will be a ramp. In this church, the ramp turns 90 degrees and leads to the righthand side of the worship area (there are no pews.) The sides of the building are carved out of the rock. This one is famous for its scalloped ceiling. The floor is sealed, although that’s not always the case. When we camped underground, we slept on the dirt, which is why it was so uncomfortable.