GOING UNDERGROUND

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An early rise at 07:15 brought me out to the kitchen. Mat and his parents, Sharon and Colin, were seated around the dining table, breakfasting on porridge, cereal and toast with Vegemite and butter whilst watching the morning breakfast show on the telly.

I brewed some coffee from my Turkish\Lebanese blend with cardamom seeds.

The previous night, Mat had brought out coffee that he had purchased in Vietnam.

“It’s weasel coffee,” he said as he presented the tin which had a weasel on the label.

“Lemme guess,” I guessed, “it’s coffee beans that have passed through the digestive system of a weasel.”

“Yup,” he grinned.

“I gotta say,” I began, “I’m curious to know how the first person to see a pile of weasel shit with coffee beans in it thought, ‘Hmm, that would taste amazing!’”

I didn’t try the weasel coffee but they did enjoy my Turkish blend. I gave some to Sharon and explained how to brew it:

“If you fill the pot up, the way I measure it is 4 teaspoons of coffee and then 6 teaspoons of sugar. If it’s half a pot then I’ll do 2 teaspoons of coffee and 4 teaspoons of sugar. Let the water boil and as it does, the coffee will open up, releasing the flavours and aroma. When it boils, the coffee will rise. Just as it’s about to spill, take it off the heat, let it settle then repeat and you’re done.”

After the morning beverage, Mat took me around the farm showing me the shed for housing the tractor equipment, the old sheep shed that now housed his old Camry and his brother’s Holden and the shed that housed his brother’s motorbikes and the lay of the land.

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It had rained during the night and was still raining as the ute slipped and slid up the muddy track. As we reached the hilltop, I could see the Southern Ocean and a rainbow that was sliding out from the clouds into the water.

At 10 AM I thanked the Millards for their warm hospitality and along with Cookie, drove out towards Port Germein, our post-breakfast stop.

Port Germein used to be a happening town back in the days of the late 19th century. It was the gateway to the world as one of the busiest port cities around.

When we drove through the town it seemed to be deserted of any living creature, except for the one seagull that pestered us as I fried up an onion omelette on the electric barbecue.

It was once home to the longest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere until a storm took the end off it, shortening it to a mere 1,532 meters from its previous 1,800 meters (the record is now held by a jetty somewhere in Western Australia).

We headed onwards to Port Augusta, the last stop before turning north into the Outback. An hour later we drove through the busiest town we had seen since leaving Adelaide complete with several traffic lights. We made a beeline to The Outback Centre (which for some reason, had the giant head of a dinosaur as an entry point) for information.

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“Your closest free campsite to pitch a tent is in Woomera, about 60 km north,” said Di, an elderly short haired woman scratching 60, volunteering behind the counter. She wasn’t much for smiling and had a ‘mis-information provided here’ feel about her. “There aren’t any petrol stops between Woomera and Coober Pedy. The water after Woomera is bore water. It’s salty and dirty and I wouldn’t drink it. You can refill water at Coober Pedy. 30 cents will give you about 20 litres worth. The Sturt Highway between Woomera and Coober Pedy will be closed due to missile testing from the nearby air force base –”

“What?” I jumped in.

“As of next Monday,” sighed Di. “So if you make it to Coober Pedy before next Monday, you’ll be fine. Watch out for road trains as they’ll be at least four trailers long.”

A road train is a truck that has anywhere from three to seven trailers (taking the 18 wheeler to 70) that flies along the Sturt highway at speeds that would flatten a town if one were in its way, spitting out rocks, kangaroos and anything else it might hit right out the back and straight into your windscreen.

I looked at the giant dinosaur head. Besides resembling the woman informing us, it was a sign to hit the road.

Thanking Di’s sour face, Cookie and I stopped at a service station to fill up the tank (which was half full). I asked the cashier if she had any old newspapers she was about to throw out that we could use to light a fire with. She enriched us with 4 editions of the Sunday Mail.

We hit the road and I turned right onto the A87 Sturt Highway (also known as the Explorer’s Highway) leading to Darwin. The Outback began almost immediately. And almost immediately I felt the isolation that came with it. The red ground was covered in six-foot shrubbery stretching out as far as a good eye could see, the black road cutting the only tarmac path through it.

The next (and what turned out to be the last) sign I saw placed Woomera at a distance of 177 km. Cookie brought out the map and we could both see that Woomera was at a greater distance than 60 km from Port Augusta.

I kept one eye on the clock and one eye on the road. It was 15:20 as we left Port Augusta. We had until about 17:00 to make it to the camp site otherwise, we’d be camping by the road.

As cars passed us on their way south to Port Augusta, the drivers would lift an index finger to signal ‘hello’. This was customary in the Outback and I raised mine to every car, ute and road train that flew by, applying a new meaning to ‘giving the finger’.

Cookie was immersed deep in her book as I spotted a wedge-tailed eagle chewing on roadkill on her side. It was big enough to take my little car off to feed its young – with us in it.

I kept the speedometer on a consistent hundred K an hour (even though the speed limit was 110) as the outback went from trees and shrubbery to barren, back to shrubbery and trees. Cows were strewn about in the… well, I wouldn’t exactly call it a field… along with sheep and a couple of emus that walked about looking like they were doing the Egyptian.

“Holy shit!” I called out, looking at what appeared to be a, “A pack of dingos!”

The animals seemed to be creeping up to the emus. I slowed the car down until I realised that,

“Hang on,” I said, “don’t worry about it,” I sped up, “it’s sheep covered in red dust.”

As I overtook a three-trailer road train, the sun had started to set in the west. Clouds to the east had red underbelly’s, the colour reflected off the red earth. Without a single sign on the entire drive to Woomera, I was getting concerned as to whether we would get to our campsite before dark.

After almost two hours of driving past dried up salt lakes, a jutting red hill here and there, dusty off-roads and barely visible fences, we finally saw a sign (and signs of civilisation) as we took a left to Woomera via Pimba.

We continued a further 6 k’s down the road to the town that had a replica space rocket on a launch pad positioned at the entrance. I pulled into a caravan park and asked the fella at the reception where the free campsite was.

“Pimba. Spud’s Roadhouse. Gold coin donation.”

“That lady was full of shit,” said Cookie.

I was dying for a piss but I really wanted to set base camp before dark. I sped us back to Spud’s Roadhouse which was filling up with campervans, caravans and roadtrains. I pulled in with my Hyundai Excel hatchback, getting the kind of look one gets when rolling into town with an unusual vehicle.

Inside the roadhouse we were greeted by a diner-styled restaurant\bar with a pokies room (slot machines for the elderly to dispense their life savings), a souvenir shop and petrol station. Number plates from every state (and a few international ones) covered a wall and hand written messages on two surfboards (?) hanging from the ceiling which was also covered in messages from passing travellers provided light reading.

One in particular stood out: ‘Nurses do it with more patience, Jodie, 2011’. I laughed as my eye caught the special’s board. On the menu was ‘Today’s roadkill’.

I dropped a $2 gold coin in the donation box. The lady at the counter had thinning purple-dyed hair and seemed to lack the ability to produce a smile. The lady who served us food was the complete opposite, showing off black-stained teeth along with her sunny misdemeanour.

It wasn’t the greatest meal but I had just driven 448 kms in a race against the setting sun and wasn’t about to get fussy. As the sun set, we pitched our new tent, using the old one as an extra layer to cover the gravel.

The setting sun painted an incredible colour of yellow, purple and orange as the blue sky darkened to pitch black with the stars popping out one by one with the quarter moon overseeing it all.

“Tomorrow,” I began to suggest, “I reckon we get up at dawn, pack the car, make coffee, hit the road for two hours, stop for breakfast and then make a straight run for Coober Pedy.”

“Sounds good,” Cookie smiled as we sat back in the roadhouse so that I could write and she could read. She was keeping me updated on the plot of her book.

“I’ll let you know what happens in my next book,” she said.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“I’d rather get bitten by a taipan,” I said as she laughed. “I’ll give you Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’.”

The night was surprisingly warm. The lady in Port Augusta had said that the forecast for the week would be 15-24 with the nights dropping to 7-14.

Then again, she had also said that Woomera was 60 k’s away.

Returning to the tent, I almost tripped as I was distracted by the gazillion stars watching my every move. I sat at the entrance of the tent in my boxers (it was that warm), wrapped in a fleece blanket and simply looked up until my neck hurt.

I awoke at 07:00 the next morning and as the coffee brewed I stirred Cookie to rise. I repacked the car, checked the oil and water and fixed the horn (a disconnected wire) while Cookie had a shower.

As soon as we had left Melbourne, I noticed the difference in petrol prices. I had fuelled up at $1.39 per litre in the sports and culture capital of Australia. In the City of Churches (Adelaide) it rose slightly to $1.45 per litre. Here in the middle of nowhere, it was a staggering $1.67 per litre.

“I think I’ll ask the lady inside how far it is to Coober Pedy as I don’t trust the information the lady in Port Augusta gave us,” I said to Cookie who agreed.

“It’s 367 kilometres,” said the cashier.

“So about 4 hours?” I said.

She nodded as I wrote our names on a wooden barrel used as a table – ‘Nomad + Cookie 2013’. IMG_2647

The roadhouse was all started by  Spud who established it as a resting place for travellers and truckers. The number plates were from cars that had broken down (this was before there was a sealed highway) and food and petrol was free (except for Christmas Day). Anyone who walked through the door wearing a necktie was either refused entry or had his necktie cut off and pinned to the wall.

Spud retired to Mildura in Victoria in 1989 and passed away in 2007.

We hit the road at 08:35. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the wind was refreshing and I was discovering new ways to put my feet up so as not to lock ‘em into a constant long haul flight position.

As I’m driving a manual (and as there’s no need to shift gears until you reach a town that’s bigger than two tin sheds), I would place my left foot to the left of the steering wheel on the dash and after a hundred and fifty kilometres, control the accelerator with it while my right foot hung loosely on the side-view mirror, the wind whipping between my toes.

At exactly 10:24 I pulled into a rest stop and decided that for breakfast I would make shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish with a tomato-onion-garlic base. At home I’d add red capsicum, mushrooms, fresh basil leaves and a chorizo sausage but being in the Outback I kept it to the base.

As soon as I opened the door of the car I was attacked by a squadron of flies, relentless at trying to get to my eyes that I had covered with my sunnies. It didn’t stop them from trying to land in my ears or get up my nose. As soon as I started cooking, the smoke helped disperse them, leaving me to deal with big black ants that had jaws that could puncture a truck.

We ate in the car as I decided that, “We’ll clean up at Coober Pedy. Fuck doing it with these flies about.”

Cookie agreed as I drove us back onto the A87 and onwards to the underground town.

The name is a derivative from the Aboriginal kupa piti meaning ‘white man’s burrow’ (the town used to be called Stuart Range Opal Field, named after John McDouall Stuart, the first European explorer to arrive there in 1858. It was renamed ‘Coober Pedy in 1920). It’s the opal capital of the world with the precious stone being discovered in 1915 by a 14 year-old boy that had joined his father, Jim Hutchinson, on a gold-prospecting expedition.

Returning service men from World War I came up with the idea of underground dwellings to beat the heat and the flies (can reach a soaring 60 degrees Celsius. It also has the lowest rainfall in Australia). Living underground gave a consistent temperature of 24 degrees.

We hit the mine-infested town with 367 registering on the car’s odometer. Warning signs of deep shafts were placed everywhere. Old mining machinery was scattered about as we passed mounds of dirt where shafts had been drilled. At the information centre we were provided with a map and some details of attractions. I rolled up the attractions paper and used it as a useful weapon against the flies.

Since arriving in South Australia, we had passed large billboard signs that simply read: ‘Stop Creeping’.

“What does that mean?” I asked the girl behind the counter.

“It’s an advertising campaign against falling asleep while driving, making you creep over the speed limit,” she informed us. “I guess it’s only used in South Australia ‘cause you’re not the first to ask.”

Why not just have it say: ‘Don’t sleep at the wheel’? Or ‘Stop when tired’?

We headed down the main drag of Hutchinson St. Every shop had a sign that advertised something about  being underground, having the ‘best prices’ for opals or having underground opals at the best price.

We went through the underground opal museum which showed fossils and remains of prehistoric sea creatures, Aboriginal history and how they were involved in the mining of opals (which they had known about for centuries just never saw any monetary value to it. Since the white man arrived, they discovered that the stones could be exchanged for food rations).

The underground backpackers had dorm rooms at $35 per person so we decided to go to the underground camping grounds. At the reception Rick, the owner, a former opal miner, tried to sell us a mine tour that began at 19:00.

“It’s a pretty comprehensive tour,” he said. “Goes on for an hour where I tell ya basically everything there is to know about mining opals and how to do it. It’s $22 per person and your accommodation is free if you take it.”

I looked at Cookie so that she could tell him that, “I’m not too fussed about it. I think we’ll be going into town for drinks at that time.”

“Not a problem,” he smiled.

“How do I connect to the internet?” I asked as I had yet to post a blog.

“You can’t,” he said. “It’s broken.”

Of course it is.

He lead us outside and pointed out the, “Showers over there, kitchen over there and if you drive round the showers, pick an alcove and pitch your tent.”

We walked down a tunnel that lead underground and Cookie picked the biggest alcove. P1020171

It was here that I realised that when travelling through the Outback, if you forget extra petrol, water, food, you’ll manage. Absolutely no worries in the Aussie tradition. There are plenty of travellers on the road that may (or may not) stop to help out. But if you forget some sort of face netting to keep out the flies, prepare your local insane asylum for your accommodation because these tiny little Messerschmitt’s will take your sanity and shit all over it.

“You are camping underground?” asked a Norwegian backpacker as I cooked dinner.

“Yup,” I replied.

“Just be careful because we camped there last week and my girlfriend found a Western King Brown snake not far from our mattress because we don’t have a tent.”

The Western King Brown snake is a sub-sepcies of the cobra family, the longest venomous snake in the world (making the Aussie second). It is also number 8 in the top ten most lethal snakes in the world and has an aggressive nature that might end up with you being chased by it.

“What did you do?” asked an extremely worried Cookie.

“We got the manager and he killed it.”

Cookie looked at me. “If that happens you’re killing the snake.”

“Er, no. I don’t kill snakes.”

“What?”

“We’re in it’s territory. I’ll get the manager but I won’t kill it.”

After dinner we hit the town for a couple of drinks and a few games of pool (3-0 to yours truly) and the drunk locals recommended making a straight drive to Uluru as, “There’s not much between here and there.”

We hit the sack at 22:30 after I made sure that no snakes were around.

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