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March 8, 2002  (Coober Pedy, Australia)

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So Long, Cruel World

After leaving the Flinders Ranges on Tuesday afternoon (and saying goodbye to the killer Red Gum Trees that lurk there), I drove down to Port Augusta, an interesting old town at the end of Spencer Gulf and my last stop before heading north into the Outback.  It was over 100 degrees when I got to Port Augusta and I got an air-conditioned motel room there that afternoon which I savored for a while, then got ready for my trip north into the Great Beyond.  Port Augusta really does feel like the end of the world, whether you're heading north to Darwin or west to Perth.  Either way, it's a long, long way across endless miles of empty desert.

 

After spending an hour at the Safeway that evening, I got back to my motel room and checked off my supplies:  30 liters of water, 10 liters of emergency gas, 24 cans of Diet Pepsi and 8 cans of Stagg chili.  Yep, I was all set.

 

The next morning, I could feel the heat coming through the motel door even before I opened it, and when I stepped outside at 8 a.m., it was blistering hot.  After packing up my stuff, I pulled onto the Stuart Highway and headed north, beginning my great adventure into the Australian Outback. 

 

Over the past few weeks, several Aussies gave me funny looks when I told them I was going to drive across the Outback from Port Augusta to the Great Barrier Reef.  A typical reaction was, "Why would you want to do that?  There's nothing out there but a bunch of Aborigines."  Interestingly enough, few Australians that I've met have ever driven across the Outback and, in general, I've been surprised at how little Australians have traveled around their own country.  Not many Aussies I've talked to have driven to Alice Springs or Darwin, and hardly anyone has ever been to Perth, except Perthians (Perthites?)

 

Kasey Chambers is one of my favorite Aussie singers (she's not too bad looking, either).  Having grown up on the bleak Nullarbor Plain, not far from here, Kasey is as Aussie as they come.  The name Nullarbor says it all, and here it is.

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That shouldn't surprise me, I guess, since I'm always amazed at how little most Americans have traveled around their own country.  It always baffles me that people like to stay in their own area, whether it be the East Coast, the Southeast, the Midwest, the West Coast or the Northwest.  People in the East think you're crazy to go out West, while people in the West think you're nuts to travel back East.  I think every part of America is interesting, though, and I've never understood the tendency to cocoon, no matter what part of the country you're in. 

 

Anyway, my route for these next several days would be the Stuart Highway, which runs from Port Augusta all the way up to Darwin in the "Top End."  This is the only paved highway through central Australia, and in fact, it's the only paved highway for about a thousand miles on either side of it.  It's named after John McDouall Stuart who, in 1862, led the first white party through central Australia to the northern coast and back.  I'd read lots of warnings about driving the Stuart Highway.  The big danger out here isn't running out of gas or getting a flat tire, since a car or truck will pass by on the highway every 15 or 20 minutes and, by law, a vehicle must stop to assist any disabled driver in the Outback.  

 

No, the big worries out here are fatigue and running over stray animals, including cattle, sheep, and kangaroos.  It sounds funny but running over a kangaroo was my single biggest fear.  Roos are big and can do a real number on a car.  No wonder, then, that most vehicles out here, including trucks, have large "Roo Bars" installed on the front.  The main trick to avoiding kangaroos is to not drive at night or around sunset and sunrise, when they're most active.  That's fine, because that's when I'm least active.

 

Despite all these issues, I was really looking forward to driving across the Outback because I've always enjoyed driving across the deserts of the American West.  I had a good car with air-conditioning, a portable MP3 player plugged into the car's stereo, 300 hours of my favorite MP3 music, and a cooler full of ice and Diet Pepsi.  What more did I need?  Well, O.K., maybe a cute Sheila.

 

Right:  Road sign at the beginning of the Stuart Highway in Port Augusta.  You really feel like you're leaving civilization here.

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Right:  Driving north on the empty Stuart Highway.

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Woomera:  A Modern Day Ghost-Town

After driving for a few hours on the nearly-empty Stuart Highway, I pulled off shortly before noon and drove into the town of Woomera.  I didn't realize it at the time, but Woomera would be the first of many bizarre things that I'd see in the Outback.  

 

Back in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. government decided that they needed a large area of empty land to test-fire rockets and to closely track their progress.  So with the help of the Australian government, they set up a base here and built a town which they called Woomera (an Aborigine word meaning "Stuck in the middle of nowhere") to house the employees.  At one time back in the 1950s, over 3,000 people lived in Woomera and up until 1982, the city was closed to all visitors.  It was something like a "Los Alamos in the Outback," I suppose.  Workers in Woomera had all the creature comforts of modern life, though, including a nice public swimming pool, an air-conditioned bowling alley, and leafy streets lined with modern, suburban houses -- all surrounded by hundreds of miles of nothing.

 

The base has been gradually phased out, however, and today it's all but closed.  Only 300 people are left in Woomera and by the time you read this, that may be down to 200.  I strolled around this rather bizarre town in the middle of the desert for a while and got a pretty eerie feeling.  It's a bit unsettling to walk down a nice suburban street while knowing that just about every house is vacant.  I'll give it credit, though, because Woomera isn't quitting and the folks in this nice, modern community are struggling to hold on.  

 

I walked into the empty Visitor Center and talked for about 20 minutes with a pleasant woman about the town.  She was 25 years old and had lived in Woomera her entire life, but wasn't sure what the future held for her and her young daughter.  "I remember what it used to be like a few years ago when all the American families lived here," she said.  "Everything's closed down now and it's kind of sad."  It was indeed.

 

2-2535_Woomera_Rockets.jpg (43357 bytes)    2-2541_Empty_Streets_of_Woomera.jpg (29414 bytes)   

Above left:  Rockets on display at Woomera.

Above center The empty streets of Woomera.

Above right Woomera's shopping center has seen better (and livelier) days.

 

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Above left:  Back on the Stuart Highway heading north.

Above center:  An immense dry lake at a rest stop.  The flies here really ate me up. 

Above right:  Glendambo, with a population of 2 million flies.  I believe it.

 

The Cave Men of Coober Pedy

After four more hours of driving, I pulled into Coober Pedy late that afternoon.  While Woomera is a bit strange, Coober Pedy is downright bizarre.  If you've seen the Mad Max movies, then you've seen Coober Pedy, because that's where they were filmed.  Coober Pedy (pronounced "peedy," not "peddy") is the driest town in the driest state on the driest continent in the world.  The average rainfall here is a scant five inches, but that's just an average because during some years absolutely no rain falls.

 

There's only one reason why 3,000 people would willingly choose to live in this God-forsaken place:  opals.  In fact, about 90 percent of the world's opals are mined in and around Coober Pedy.  Opal mining draws people in from all over the world and at last count, over 40 nationalities were represented here.  Those few folks lucky enough to strike it big retire early, while the vast majority barely scrape by.  The town is filled with interesting and colorful characters who speak strange languages, some of whom wander about trying to sell opals to any gullible-looking tourist (like me, apparently).  The streets are hot and dusty with mongrel dogs running about and Aborigines sit all day in what little shade is available, sometimes smiling, sometimes cursing, and sometimes throwing empty beer bottles against the walls.

 

Before coming to Australia, I'd read in my guidebook that a lot of folks in Coober Pedy lived underground because of the oppressive heat, and that you can even stay in an underground motel room here.  I had images of holes in the ground with ladders leading down to comfortable, dark caverns.  However, it's not like that at all.  Most people here live in caves burrowed out of the sides of the hills, so the term "underground" is a bit deceiving.  Still, it's a fascinating way to live -- and very practical, since the house-caves stay at an even 70-75 degrees year round, during the summer heat and the winter cold.

 

The poshest motel in town is the Desert Cave, but even there, many of the rooms are above ground.  The Desert Cave and the other cave-type motel, the Coober Pedy Experience, were both beyond my limited budget, so I stayed at a little place called "The Mud Hut," which is a lot nicer than its name would indicate.  It's a wonderful above-ground motel made out of 12"-thick adobe walls, very well insulated and very comfortable -- and very unique.  And the staff is great.

 

With its dusty streets, walled motel compounds, barbed-wire fences, and an occasional Aborigine stumbling about, Coober Pedy has a real Wild West flair to it and, like Key West, it's a place I think everyone should visit once in their life.  Coober Pedy is unlike any place I've ever been.  It's captivating, stimulating, unique -- and I'd never, ever want to live there.

 

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Above left:  Beautiful downtown Coober Pedy, population 3,000.

Above center:  Hutchison Street, the main street in Coober Pedy.

Above right:  Digging for opals near town.

 

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Above left:  Typical scene on the outskirts of town.  There are miles and miles of these piles.

Above center:  Here's a typical 2-bedroom house in Coober Pedy.  Talk about a low-maintenance yard!

Above right:  The Coober Pedy golf course.  Remember to replace your divots.

 

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Above left:  The Catacomb church.

Above center:  The church is a nice, cool place to spend a Sunday morning, even if you're an atheist.

Above right:  The "Dog Fence" runs completely across Australia.  Over 3,000 miles long, it's the longest man-made barrier in the world.  The fence keeps dingoes (on the left side) away from sheep (on the right side).  The entire fence is patrolled every two weeks by scores of local volunteers.

 

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Above left:  Underground Books, a great bookstore in Coober Pedy.

Above center:  I spent three nights here at the Mud Hut Motel, a nice adobe motel with walls that are 12 inches thick.  Despite its name, I'd recommend this place to anyone visiting Coober Pedy.

Above right:  Several years ago, a Coober Pedy resident wanted his children to be able to play in a tree -- so he built one out of iron.  I hope they got tetanus shots first.

 

2-2568_Steel_Telephone_Poles.jpg (25044 bytes)   Left:  Many telephone poles in the Outback are made out of iron and concrete, not wood.

   

John's Amazing Outback Mail Run

For being such a bleak town, Coober Pedy actually has a lot of interesting things to see and do.  The most interesting thing I did during my three-day stay there -- and perhaps the most interesting thing I've done so far while in Australia -- was spend a day riding with the Coober Pedy mail truck.  Twice a week, the mail truck makes a 400-mile triangular run, all on rough, dirt Outback roads, to deliver mail to remote towns and ranches.  Up to 13 visitors are welcome to come along at a cost of US$45 each.

 

We all met at the Underground Bookstore at 9 a.m. and clambered into the 4-wheel drive mail truck.  Our jovial driver, John Stillwell, has been doing the mail run twice a week for the past eight years and had a lot of interesting stories to tell, many of which he shared with us during the next 11 hours.  

 

After leaving Coober Pedy, we drove on a dirt road for about three hours across the most featureless place I've ever seen in my life.  They call this area the "Moon Plains" and the closest thing I've ever seen to it are the photos from the surface of Mars:  no trees, no bushes, and no grass.  Just rock, dirt, and sand -- absolutely barren.  I got excited when, an hour into the ride, I saw what appeared to be a tree looming on the horizon.  Nope, it was just a windmill.

 

Around noon, we stopped in Oodnadatta, a mostly-aboriginal community of 150 people a long way from anywhere.  Now believe it or not, I've wanted to visit Oodnadatta ever since I started planning this trip a few years ago.  In fact, if you happen to have one of my "DelsJourney" travel cards handy, you'll see that it's one of the place-names that I printed on the background of the card.  Oodnadatta fascinated me not only because of its weird name (which, as John told us, means "stinky bush," much to my disappointment) but also because up until about 1930 it was the northern terminus of the Ghan railway.  From here, supplies were transferred from railroads to camel trains, which continued northward to places like Alice Springs.

 

We spent about an hour in Oodnadatta, mostly at the Pink Roadhouse, Oodnadatta's most visible landmark.  While on the mail truck ride to Oodnadatta, I'd met a friendly, retired guy from England also named John, and we got a table inside the roadhouse and started munching down our burgers.  John was a nice guy who loved the cinema and, interestingly enough, he'd seen every one of Johnny Depp's movies. 

 

A few minutes into our conversation about Edward Scissorshands, I heard a loud "CRASH" and the entire roadhouse shook.  I didn't know what it was, but I looked around and saw that someone had driven their car into the side of the building (yes, I'm serious).  I guess the driver, an elderly white woman who was visibly shaken, was planning to park outside the roadhouse but her brakes had failed.  This was something I'd never seen before -- and neither had our driver John in the eight years he'd been doing this.  Ah, life in the Outback!

 

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Above left:  Heading out for an all-day, 400-mile trip on the mail truck.  We’re parked here next to a billabong and some coolibah trees, just like in the song, “Waltzing Matilda.”

Above center:  Inside the hot, bouncy truck.

Above right:  Crossing one of the many streams during our trip.

 

2-2592_Pink_Roadhouse.jpg (42603 bytes)    2-2596_Delivering_Mail.jpg (45084 bytes)    2-2597_Inside_Roadhouse.jpg (55719 bytes)

Above left:  After driving for three hours, we reached Oodnadatta at noon and had lunch here at the Pink Roadhouse.  Just about everything here is pink, apparently the owner's favorite color.

Above center:  John dropping off the bi-weekly mail.

Above right:  Inside the very exclusive Pink Roadhouse (reservations recommended).  I had an Oodnadatta Burger for lunch. 

 

After our eventful lunch, we all hopped back into the truck and continued on our merry way while the thermometer topped 95 degrees.  John (the driver, not the one who liked Johnny Depp movies) stopped at a few vista points along the road during the next hour and we all got out and took pictures, then we stopped at our first ranch-house to deliver the mail.  A young couple with a baby lived here, 60 miles from the nearest ranch-house, and the mail delivery, I'm sure, is the high point of the week for these folks. 

 

An hour later, we stopped at William Creek, which appears on my map as a large dot but is, in fact, just a dusty pub on the dusty Oodnadatta Track with a total population of two dusty souls.  We spent about a half-hour here and I walked into the pub, which was something right out of Crocodile Dundee, and had a beer with some of the locals.  It was really hot outside and after riding around all day in a semi-air-conditioned mail truck, that beer tasted really good.  I mean REALLY good.

 

Our last stop was at the Anna Creek Ranch,  the largest cattle ranch in the world.  The Anna Creek ranch is bigger than Holland but has a total population of only 20 people -- lots of elbow room out here!  Once again, the ranch owner's wife came out to greet us with a smile.

 

After returning to Coober Pedy around sunset, I thought about the Mail Truck run as I walked back to the motel.  I enjoy quiet, remote places like eastern Oregon, central Nevada, and southern Utah but, and without exaggerating, this part of Australia makes those places seem like Coney Island.  It's difficult to put into words how desolate this area is other than to say that the remoteness is overwhelming, even stifling.  The Mail Truck run was a fascinating experience and I heartily recommend it to anyone traveling through Coober Pedy who wants a better understanding of the Outback -- you certainly won't be disappointed.  But if you have a burger at the Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse, don't sit near the wall.

 

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Above left:  Here's the inside of the Pink Roadhouse after the car crashed into it.  Note the cracked beam and broken wall.  Yep, just another day in Oodnadatta...

Above center:  A hunky dude (?) somewhere on the Oodnadatta Track..

Above right:  And another stop.  These folks live 60 miles from their nearest neighbor.  As much as I like quiet, remote places, I don't think I could handle living out here.

 

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Above left:  Downtown William Creek, population 2.  That's the hotel on the left -- the only building in town.

Above center:  The very exclusive William Creek Hotel.

Above right:  A fun-to-read "mudmap."

 

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Above left:  It costs only $5 (US$2.50) to play 9 holes at the posh William Creek Golf Club.  Proper attire required.

Above center:  Road sign on the Oodnadatta Track.

Above right:  Having a beer in the pub before our 120-mile ride back to Coober Pedy.

 

 

 

Next News

March 11, 2002  (Ayers Rock, Australia)

 

 

Previous News

March 5, 2002  (Port Augusta, Australia)

March 1, 2002 -- Part 2  (Robe, Australia)

March 1, 2002 -- Part 1  (Robe, Australia)

February 18, 2002  (Bega, Australia)

February 7, 2002  (Auckland, New Zealand)

February 2, 2002 -- Part 2  (Taupo, New Zealand)

February 2, 2002 -- Part 1  (Taupo, New Zealand)

January 25, 2002  (Hokitika, New Zealand)

January 20, 2002  (Geraldine, New Zealand)

January 16, 2002  (Te Anau, New Zealand)

January 12, 2002 -- Part 2  (Dunedin, New Zealand)

January 12, 2002 -- Part 1  (Dunedin, New Zealand)

January 1, 2002 -- Part 2  (Christchurch, New Zealand)

January 1, 2002 -- Part 1  (Christchurch, New Zealand)

December 24, 2001  (Wellington, New Zealand)

December 20, 2001  (Auckland, New Zealand)

December 16, 2001  (Auckland, New Zealand)  

December 14, 2001  (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)

December 10, 2001  (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)

December 3, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bellingham, Washington)

December 3, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bellingham, Washington)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 3  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 6, 2001  (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 15, 2001  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

August 30, 2001  (Webster, South Dakota)

August 18, 2001  (Watertown South Dakota)

August 17, 2001  (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)

August 14, 2001  (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

August 10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)

August 6, 2001  (Manlius, New York)

July 23, 2001  (Middleton, Massachusetts)

July 22, 2001  (Boston, Massachusetts)

July 20, 2001  (Pomfret, Connecticut)

July 18, 2001  (Denton, Maryland)

July 16, 2001  (Cumberland, Virginia)

July 14, 2001  (Roanoke, Virginia)

July 9, 2001  (Sevierville, Tennessee)

July 8, 2001  (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)

July 5, 2001  (Manchester, Tennessee)

June 30, 2001  (Hohenwald, Tennessee)

June 29, 2001  (Corinth, Mississippi)

June 27, 2001  (Natchez, Mississippi)

June 24, 2001  (Austin, Texas)

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

 

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