Literally going down under

Wednesday, October 09, 2013
Coober Pedy, South Australia, Australia
We'd heard very interesting tidbits, both from pilots and other travelers, that the opal mines were very interesting. You could stay underground to escape the heat, see functioning mines, and get a true taste for the Outback.  Sounded perfect.  So that’s where we went: the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. 

Flying out of Melbourne was straightforward .  I’m really impressed with the quality of the controllers in Australia.  Granted, they want their particulars repeated to them in a particular way, but after a little bit of getting used to, it’s "no worries".  We’re over an overcast layer so don’t see too much of the skyline after 5000’.  As we travel north and west the clouds get less and we see what are very lush areas.  Again, where’s my dessert and void?!  Soon enough…

We anticipated heavy headwinds again so planned for a stop along the way for lunch.  Just like our stop in Stanthorpe, we wanted to just pick a place that sounded good but off the beaten path.  The winner was Renmark.  This town does have some wineries, but it seemed to me so far inland that surely no non-Australian tourists would visit.

We actually didn’t have much headwind at all so made it to Renmark in about two and a half hours.  We parked, called a cab, and went in to town for a sandwich.  For small town Australia it made a very well kept impression .  When I compare the roads and condition of small towns in America, you can see which country is better off.  America’s decaying infrastructure and rural degradation are obvious in a side-by-side comparison.  The boom though sure has made things expensive.  Seriously, Tokyo is inexpensive compared to Australia.  Ridiculous.  I hesitate to write how much a sandwich cost at a local bakery.

After Renmark we start to enter some seriously arid countryside.  Now we’re talking!  There’s barely any vegetation as we fly over dried up lakes and leave vegetation far behind.  It starts to get choppy in the heat as well with all the thermals.  I feel bad for Caroline having to deal with more consistent light chop, but there’s nothing we can do about it. 

With the headwinds we thought we’d encounter, we thought we’d struggle to make Coober Pedy before dark (the airport has no lighting).  But with almost no headwind, we made the airport with hours to spare .  Our database also said it was a gravel strip.  Much to my relief, we saw upon flying over it that it’s paved ;-). 

Johannes put Maggie down smoothly on the narrow strip and we taxied to the ramp.  Just like Stanthorpe and Renmark, we’re the only plane and only souls at the airport.  What was there to greet us, in absolutely insane numbers, were flies!  Un-f-ing believable how many flies relentlessly targeted our eyes, noses, and ears.  Wow.  I hadn’t experienced anything like that since the Boundary Waters.  In the 15 minutes we had to wait for our hotel shuttle to pick us up (no taxis in Coober Pedy), I lost lots of nerves in the fruitless battle to swat away the flies. 

We booked an “underground” room at the hotel and indeed it was carved in to the hill.  I anticipated opal mines to be deep under ground, but the mines themselves are typically max 100’ below ground.  The accommodation is just cut in to the rock of hills, so not really “under ground”, but surely windowless .  That was interesting.  Flick off the light, and it’s pitch black. 

After settling in and a quick dip in the hotel pool we “explored” the “town”.  Walking up and down the main street takes about, oh, 5 minutes, and then you’ve seen most of Coober Pedy.  John’s Pizzeria (surprisingly very good with some of the best fish we’d had all trip!) and local beers really helped assuage my concerns of what we were doing here…

The following morning we heard the solar car race happened to be passing through Coober Pedy.  We saw lots of family followers of the University of Michigan team, so were eager to check it out.  Indeed, against an incredibly strong wind we saw a Dutch team car (3rd place) and Stanford’s (4tH) come in for their Coober Pedy respite.  It was fun to see the teams busy in action spraying down the panels, doing quick impromptu repairs, and yelling at one another to do certain things.  Ahh, the joys of college team building. 

We arranged to do a tour in the afternoon to see what all the fuss was about for Coober Pedy .  We were 14 folks in a mini bus and off on a 5 hour tour of the town, mines, and surrounding areas.  Our guide had one-liners to throw out every few seconds so that went pretty well.  But how much is there really to tell?  We saw the prison, police station, ol bakery, sole school, and the famous golf course.  That’s pretty funny because of course there’s no grass.  Golfers are given a patch of turf on to which to place their ball, so each swing is technically from the green.  The winds were so outrageous though that no one was out golfing.  Needless to say it was also scorching hot. 

It was indeed interesting to see the “mines”.  Again, my impression was that this would be a giant mine with shafts and carts and hardhats and mining lights.  Nope.  Here folks drill into the ground at random down to 100’, test the soil and then move on if there’s no high potential for opal.  There were more than a million “mullets” as they’re called – small mounds of dirt from the drill sample .  Since opal is basically glass, there’s also no scanning, sonar, or other method to see where the opal is.  It sounded like the mining version of gambling, and that’s how our guide also equated it. 

We did drive out to see the Dog (Dingo) Proof Fence, the longest man-made structure in the world, as well as the Breakaways, which looked a lot like Canyon Lands and the Painted Dessert only on a smaller scale.  That was all very interesting, but having been spoiled to have seen great landscapes in the southwest of the US, and having anticipated Potosi-like mega-mines, I was a bit anxious for the tour to end.  A highlight, a Serbian church carved into a hillside, was at the very end. 

For me one of the most interesting tidbits was how they provide power.  Solar seemed logical because seemed about as rare out there as our hunt to see kangaroos, but solar was discounted because they’re not allowed to pump energy back in to the grid .  Odd.  The wind was equally ridiculous (to the point where I went out the airport later to see if Maggie hadn’t blown into the fence!) but deemed too expensive.  There was one windmill providing 4%25 of the energy for the town.  The other 96%25 all came from diesel generators.  Why not put up 25 other windmills?  Surely that would pay off and then they could be completely self sufficient, or?

Our John’s Pizzeria experience was so good the night before that we went back and ordered exactly the same thing.  From there we went back to our pitch-black rooms.


From Melbourne (YMMB) to Renmark (YREN): AV YWE WKB REN at 5000’ and then 8000’ with a flight time of 2h32m.

From Renmark to Coober Pedy (YCBP) it was just WR as the one point along the way and a flight time of 3h22.  We were going to lose radio contact with the controllers that far out into the nothing, so just cancelled IFR anyway about 80 miles out.
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Ohh yeah, I forgot to mention the flies