Arriving at Coober Pedy for the first time was a mixture of surreality and anxiety. It felt like no other small outback town we had visited, every building had a temporary feel but the flaked paint and old gardens told us the they were temporarily located right where they were, in perpetuity.
There were just so many people around, the hustle was almost intimidating. Not sure why, considering where we were but nevertheless, I had read good things about camping out of town at Riba’s Underground, so we made our way back out of town to find Riba’s.
Down a corrugated road which promised William Creek if we didn’t find Riba’s we didn’t have to travel far, passed what appeared like caravans and a plethora of white anthills we turned in to Riba’s. Manicured succulent and cacti gardens and faultless gravel roads, bordered with stones, Riba’s presented an incredibly neat picture. The site office was built into the hill, underground. Our no-nonsense host gave us a plot and a discount for dinner in town. Their Wifi room, another deeper cave in the same hill was quiet, warm and offered pamphlets and guides to anywhere from Flinders Ranges to Cullamulla in QLD
We rolled out on our gravel site, but the suggestion of pizza in town had us thinking of nothing else. After snooping about the very clean demountable amenities block and camp kitchen we took ourselves back into town for pizza, hoping to be back in time for the Mine Tour. Despite how early it was for dinner, everyone must have had the same idea. and like them, we enjoyed as much of the giant sized pizzas (and a naughty coke) as we could and took the rest back to camp.
We got chatting to our neighbours, a retired couple from South Africa, touring Australia in their Delica and Oztent. They had been touring for 6 months and looked right at home.
It was so warm we, full of pizza sat around soaking up the ginormous sky and waited on our Mine Tour to start. Equipped with our headlamps there were around 10 of us and our host kept us entertained with his well run tour of the mine with enough humour to balance out the geology lesson. No glamour in scratching for opal, a dusty drug of choice under the black light. But we thoroughly enjoyed the insight. At least it explained what all the conical mounds of white were about the town.
The insanely bright night worked in our favour, going over the vehicle, tightening this and that. Re-organising the Tetris within the cabin, I was already frustrated with our storage solutions on the back seat. Nevertheless, everything in its place we attempted to go to bed early, choosing to zip up the canvas a little higher as the moon was a spotlight.
We had breakfast in town, and went down to check out the IGA, which was a monster. Like Bunnings, CRT and IGA all rolled into one, it was huge. Thankfully, in the paint aisle I found Shellite! Anxieties abated, I was ready to go. While our clothes dried in the realllllly dirty laundromat (Riba’s only had a clothesline and we were doubtful our jeans would dry in the morning chill) we decided we had better check out the recommended bakery and fill up the water tank at the Water station. A dollar gave you 30litres, the line up allowed us to chat with a couple of the many, many caravaners. As well as a local Aboriginal man in a bright white Akubra about “The Track” of which he warned us against.
No excuses we were ready to go. Last SMS to Mum, SPOT Gen 3 set to track and we headed out of town, this time swinging auspiciously north towards the airport.
Didn’t take long to run out signal, sealed road and opal mounds. We aired down and the dirt turned ceremoniously a darker red. We stopped at the expected fork in the ‘road’ and read the sign for ‘The Track’. Out of date, it warned of no fuel or services for 1300km and of the adverse and isolated condition of the unmaintained route ahead.
We were hoping to reach Emu Junction, or really anywhere in between by the end of the day. The mallee bushes were huge and lined the track, casting shadows. This made it quite difficult to discern washouts from shadow. Trying to find the comfortable speed for the corrugations was proving a challenge too.
It was right when I was saying that we were doing alright, referring to our coping with the uncomfortable ride around 75km in, that I misinterpreted a shadow for the biggest washout thus far. It hurt, and rattled I dropped the pace, not trusting myself any longer. The mallee grew thicker along the track until we came to the dog fence. There was no gate, the track veering to follow the fence. With the western side clear of mallee, it was now easier to see and relatively easy, the wheels within the shallow ruts pulling us along like a railway line. We were talking about how far we were travelling to find the gate when there it was. Feeling like the first micro-phase was completed we pulled up in the shade for a rest.
Hopping out I was struck with two things, the insanely purple red colour of the dirt, and the new level of quiet. This was of course the precise ingredients I sought on this journey.
Once my eardrums began to settle from the drive, around 30 seconds of standing outside taking it all in, they could hear a new noise. Hissing, and it was coming from the rear of the LandCruiser. Holding my ear to the rear tyre it didn’t seem like a flat, but I called for backup. Thats when we noticed the puddle underneith. Our water tank was leaking.
I moved the LandCruiser out of the shade for inspection and thats when it went from a hissing to tap-like flow. Not good. While we rolled around under, trying to suss out the extent of damage I noticed the driver’s side airbag was looking all skew-iff.
After struggling with it, trying to straighten the bag by loosening the cradle we weren’t making any progress, and by now we had lost considerable daylight hours, water and confidence. It would be my guess, the washout I hit with more speed than intended may have hurt more than first thought. Covered in the beautiful red dust we were chasing, we dusted off and took in our situation, our location and the finer details. At closer look, the red dirt was filled with black crystal, mesmerising. We also noticed the abundance of tail tracks, some snake and some smaller and intermittent, I couldn’t quite work out. You could only imagine the peak hour traffic the area must have after the sun had set.
Now feeling a little more calmer and resolute about our situation.
600km from Ilkurlka Roadhouse, which promised fuel, supplies and moral support of our journey but no mechanical assistance.
1300-odd kilometres from Laverton
100km from Coober Pedy and possible help with the airbag and water tank.
We decided. Lets return to Coober Pedy.
The return drive wasn’t without event, we spotted a pair of Bustards, insanely strange and large birds, that had alluded us on previous trips. This one strolled across the Highway like it was no big deal. Without a decent zoom lens my photos failed to capture him, but my eyes did. Strikingly ugly, seeing them in the wild felt like another privilege.
Around 30km away from the dogfence I could hear a rattle, and then a clunk. Deciding to pull over, the light now done for the day we discovered the MaxTrax mount the RaptorRacks bolts had rattled loose. Feeling energised, I sprinted almost a kilometre back down the road with my charged up headlamp looking for the lost bolt and nut before finding it. At least one point to us this round.
Walking back I was reluctant to give up the amazingly succinct way the stars were shining, if not for the equally ridiculous moon obstructing my view, I think I could have touched the stardust. I broke out the tripod and tried to take some photos but I wasn’t prepared for the moon, damn spotlight. I decided I would read up on technique back in Coober Pedy, and resigned to appreciate the view with my own eyes tonight.
We landed back at Riba’s and checked in for another couple of nights. Politely declined another mine tour and opted for dinner in town, steak and salad and a coke to temper our adrenaline. Tomorrow we would hunt down a workshop.