STRANGER THINGS

Get­ting to know Coober Pedy.

Australian Traveller - - Contents - WORDS STEVE MADGWICK PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JONATHAN CAMÍ

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.

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