Getting to know Coober Pedy.
NOTHING YOU ARE about to read is true. Some of the names have been changed, too; once by me and once by them. It’s not that the inexplicable yarns that Coober Pedians breathlessly share never happened. Getting them on the record or proving them, however, is another matter. Dig too deeply and forcefully for facts and you automatically qualify as ‘shiny-shoe officialdom’, the enemy, at which point the trap door slams shut and the story ends. Instead, go with the flow and let the outpost’s egalitarian eccentrics talk. If you listen without prejudice, an intriguing outback mosaic assembles itself that will make your life seem so Excel spreadsheet. Coober Pedy’s characters aren’t as tough to unearth as the town’s raison d’être, the opal, either. Just say hello, like I did to ‘George’ (not his real name), and then hold on for the ride… The door moans shut. The lights snap off. It’s so black that I have to see with my ears: nothing but my own staccato breathing. Garrulous George isn’t saying a word now, after the invitation to see his “rock collection”. Is he even still in here? A crisp click, like a rifle being cocked, cuts through the dead air. Seconds later, the word ‘Welcome’ forms on the ceiling on a makeshift illuminated sign. “D’ya like it?” asks George. “I made it m’self. From gypsum I found in the desert.” Lights on, George’s dugout is brimful with bits, pieces and thingies scrounged from here and there: a used bullet collection (not from his guns, apparently) and abstract art made from waste metal he “came across” at Woomera, hundreds of kilometres away. His magnum opus is a human-sized stick figure, fashioned from tree branches. Its googly eyes stare me down psychotically from underneath a straw hat. A self-portrait, perhaps? From a velvet sack, he retrieves a solid-rock sculptured penis. Ceremonially, he inserts it into a pre-made slot between Branch Man’s legs. “Ta-da.”
The white and brown hills known as the Two Dogs rise out of the desert of the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park .
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The entrance to Jam B&B carved into the desert; The surrounding desert can be surprisingly colourful; Trevor Berry has made a life for himself running the Old Timers Mine; Head there to explore the town’s history. OPPOSITE: Hutchison Street is the town’s main drag.