Thursday, October 10th, 2019 – Coober Pedy, SA to Marla Roadhouse, SA.
Distance travelled only 250 km
In the morning we had breakfast in the shared basement kitchen and a discussion with the family in the “mirror”apartment. Then we packed up and left.
Because we needed, by virtue of the roadhouse “spacing”, to make only a comparatively short hop to Marla, we decide to first explore the dubious delights of Coober Pedy.
The first place we went to, after successfully negotiating the “up” slope and the track, was the Old Times Mine and Museum (Crowders Gully Road). This was a fascinating glimpse into the hardships that miners experienced in the early 20th century. It was an old mine that was buried when it played out and was later rediscovered. With cruel irony, a rich new vein of opals was uncovered by the second dig – just 20 cm from where the previous miners had stopped excavating. Now it is just a museum. There is a short film showing how things worked and you can descend into the tunnels where mannequins show how the shafts were dug, how the miners were lowered into the pit on ropes and how difficult it was to uncover opals with bare hands during the local opal fever. That was in the 1920s and there have been significant changes since then. Today, almost every home in Coober Pedy has a mining machine parked in its back yard. The museum also included an entire underground dwelling, as it would have looked in the 1920s. This included a Post Office billed as “The only underground post office in the world“.
Coober Pedy’s other landmark is the “spaceship“. This was left, in Hutchinson Street, by the filmmakers of “Pitch Black”, one of the many post-apocalyptic films that have been shot there. It did not look much like a spaceship, but we went there and we saw it.
Satisfied that we had not missed anything from this town, we set off northwards again towards Uluru. By our recent standards, the trip to Marla was almost ridiculously short.
For about 50 kilometres after Coober Pedy the landscape was filled with piles of sand and mining machinery. None of this equipment appeared to be in use and, although we did not see a living soul, there must be some activity. For the record, Coober and Pedy, in the Aboriginal language, means “Man” and “Hole”.
Finally, the ubiquitous piles of sand disappeared and there was only a bleak, arid desert landscape and a completely empty road stretching into the distance. It is so easy to understand why so many science fiction movies have been filmed there, it really is like another planet. The monotonous nature of the road must have a soporific effect on drivers. We passed a number of badly wrecked cars that had obviously left the road at some speed. This only added to the feeling of loneliness. The only thing that would have completed the image, but was (thankfully) missing, would have been the bleached bones of a human skeleton.
We only stopped once, for lunch and of course to fill the tank, at the Cadney Homestead, which claimed to be the “Gateway to the Picturesque Desert“. As always, it had filling food and a cheery welcome. Petrol, so far from civilization, was steadily climbing in price and a sign on the door cautioned patrons not to take that fact out on the staff !
With such a short trip, we arrived in Marla quite early, sometime before three in the afternoon. It was really quite warm and we were glad that our room had air-conditioning !!
When we stopped at the front desk, that also serves as a self-service supermarket check-out, there were two nice girls in attendance. Lucie, obviously remembering my series of telephone calls, was tempted to ask which one was Trish and which one was Tracy. The guy I had also spoken to on the phone could only be the server in the restaurant. His voice sounded the same. He was from Brighton in the UK and had run out of money while traveling. He was working there to get enough money to go on to somewhere else – it was so lonely there I did not blame him.
Unusually, when everywhere else was booked solid, the roadhouse seemed to be half empty. This could well be related to the inability of the team of youngsters to accept reservations.
Evening meals in roadhouses are served at fixed times and so we went for a walk while we waited. It was still very warm as evening began to draw in and crowds of birds thronged the few sparse trees. Lucie, who like me has an interest in most things, had clearly been busy with the internet. She proudly identified the birds. The green ones were Musk Lorikeets and the grey and pink ones, which appeared, at rest, to be principally grey, were surprisingly, Pink Cockatoos. Australians call the latter the Galah and it was obvious, from their shrieking calls, why that is !
Roadhouses also serve as overnight camping sites and parking places for both caravans and freight. There were a number of Road-Trains parked along the road as it is hard for vehicles of such length to manoeuvre into the car parks. A hideous stench came from one, which turned out to be a cattle lorry, but filled with camels. We found out that their ancestors, which were used to carry goods, had been abandoned with the coming of the railways. Far from dying, they had taken to the bush and reproduced in large numbers. These unfortunates had been rounded up and were being shipped to, of all places, Saudi Arabia, for meat …. I can only presume the driver had no sense of smell at all.
We had a filling, but wholly unexciting dinner, served by the guy from Brighton. After our meal and another scarily priced beer, which is served in what seems to be a glass thimble and is called a “stubby” we spent some time on the telephone. That day, we had confirmed that leaving the booking of accommodation until the last minute would not be advisable. In general, the places to stay are very limited in number. This would be worse across the Nullarbor Plain, the crossing of which seems to be almost a “rite of passage” to many Australians. Roadhouses there are often up to 200 kilometres apart. It would be easy to get into a situation where, if there was no room at one, we would not have time to get to the next and would end up with nowhere to sleep. Lucie was keen to leave nothing to chance. My assurance that we could, if it came to it, sleep outside, fell upon deaf ears, She pointed out that it was still the end of winter and would be colder in the south, that she did not want to wake up with sand in unusual places and reminded me that just about the only thing she is afraid of is snakes. We had not seen any snakes, but Australians of our acquaintance had warned us that they are everywhere. Some are highly dangerous and there were printed notices, prominently displayed (with accompanying pictures Lucie would not even look at), of those we could possibly encounter.
Making a booking via Booking.com, our usual method, was completely out of the question in those parts. Trip Advisor was equally useless as everywhere was allegedly fully occupied. So the only thing we could do was to sit down with a telephone and pretend it was the 1980s. I actually proved myself and came up trumps. I managed to book rooms for all the nights we needed, even in those places that were sold out according to TA. In one place I snagged the very last room in one of the roadhouses. We had not even arrived in Uluru and we had everything booked all the way to Perth and then back again to Port Augusta.
To the east of Port Augusta there were plenty of possible options that were closer together, so we felt cool about that, but the worrying part was solved.
Relaxed and calm, we retired to bed. Tomorrow, Uluru !