Blog #12 – Arckaringa Station – Coober Pedy – Marla – Days 67 to 72 of 180
The morning we left Oodnadatta was a lovely crisp autumn day and was a good day for driving and as our destination was only 75 klms away would be a relatively short driving day. The Kempe Road which is between Oodnadatta & Coober Pedy was in excellent shape when we drove the first section as though it had just been graded. But straight after the turn off to the Painted Desert and Arckaringa Station it turned to absolute rubbish. These were the worst corrugations we had come across so far and our speed was reduced to 15 klm/hr in many stretches for the next 48 klms.
In the distance we could see some low hills rising from the gibber plains with worn down mesa like sections that I had seen previously on Anna Creek Station in The Painted Hills.
One of the best pieces of kit I ever bought to put in my 4WD was a Travel Buddy oven. I mainly use it to heat pies up for a traveller’s lunch but it could do a small roast in a pinch. Today was a Four’n’Twenty pie day for us. By the time they had heated up from frozen we were in the low hills of the Painted Desert. These we enjoyed as we sat up on the lookout for Mount Batterby in The Painted Desert. It was good to get out the vehicles after we being hammered by the roads for the past 1 ½ hrs. We washed down the pies with a nice ice-cold beer.
We were still a bone crushing 10 klms from the station as no camping is allowed on any part of the property except the station. At least there is access to photograph the Painted Desert from the road which you cannot do in the Painted Hills on Anna Creek Station.
The price of $10 a night each at the station was very reasonable. The sign on the gate says “Office is closed from 8.30am to 3.15pm as the kids are doing School of the Air”. Another unique way for kids to learn on these remote stations. Katy and her husband manage this large working cattle station on their own during the winter. We setup camp as it was only just after lunch when we arrived. Two other caravans were the closest to the showers and toilets but we weren’t too far away which was a bonus. That afternoon was spent in the usual camp style with a beer in hand watching other people setup camp and judging their skills. Some were very experienced and setup quickly but some were totally inept. In the end I and another bloke with his wife had to help a lady secure her tent as the wind was gusting very strongly and she was struggling (ladies a bloke would have struggled putting up a tent in that wind by himself and we would have helped him too).
She was from Adelaide and had only setup this tent up in her backyard once before in a very sheltered spot. It took all four of us nearly ½ an hour to secure this tent to the ground. Personally, I would have burned the tent and stayed in one of the cabins. It was not well designed and very flimsy. Camping shops love people that have no idea and would sell them anything. Still, I suppose a tent and some camping gear is much cheaper than buying a caravan or camping trailer when you have no experience. It was also her first time driving on dirt roads as she had come up via the highway to Coober Pedy then turned left down Kempe Road then through Barry Station so only 98 klm of dirt in pretty good condition. I did not have the heart to tell her how badly corrugated the road was out to the Painted Desert but the other bloke did in all its gory detail.
We spent two nights here and both were very crisp but not frosty. The first night was the lunar eclipse which was a bit of a dud for photography but it did allow me to get a shot of the full milky way whilst the moon was obscured. I will put the image in here somewhere and you be the judge of my efforts. The next morning, I was up at 0530 the next morning to go and photograph Mt Batterby. Whilst the light was good the sky was a bit blah so I used some Luminar 4 skills to replace the sky. Again, I will put up the original & the adjusted image and see which you like best.
What I envisaged above but dawn over the desert was not only cold but the sky was a bit blah!
It was a very crisp 2 degC by the time I headed back at 8am for breakfast. There is not much else to do except photography and walk amongst the Painted Desert hills out here. Went back for the sunset shots which were not as good as I expected as the sun’s last rays were blocked by the hills behind me and the colours in the hills became very muted.
That evening I was talking to the station manager and showing my first cut of the images I had taken. He loved them as not many of the travellers had shown them any images. I promised I would drop down and see Katy in the morning and give her some low-resolution images for her screensavers.
By this stage we had made our mind up to go and stay a few days in Coober Pedy to replenish supplies (hint: we were running low on red wine). The station manager told me that there was a range well worth photographing if I like the Arckaringa Hills and that was called The Breakaways some 25 klms out of Coober Pedy. So, we now had a plan for the next few days.
Most of our timing and stops have been fairly random on this trip but we now had a mission to make this years Finke Desert race just inside the Northern Territory. This annual event is held on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend and is a 240 klm tortuous trip (each way) across the desert from Alice Springs to Finke. So, we needed to spend/waste a few days before heading north again.
Next morning, I duly handed over 5 images to Katy on our way out of Arckaringa Station. This next section of road was an immense improvement on the road in and we soon reached the turnoff from Barry Station onto Kempe Road. The next 100 klm was a breeze on this very good section of road into Coober Pedy. It crosses the Plain of the Moon which is a flat gibber desert with nothing growing on it. Some say that we never made it to the moon and instead NASA filmed the whole event on the lunar landscape around Coober Pedy. Driving around this stark landscape, you do wonder if that is true. It certainly looks like the images from the moon. You have to believe the scenery to believe it.
The things you see on the side of the road
I was so pleased to get to town as the road had been long and fairly boring that morning. The only excitement was being passed by a police paddy wagon who was going at a fair rate of knots. When towing a trailer at 90 klm practically anything can go faster than you. As soon as we had phone service we started to look up where to stay. We opted for the Oasis Caravan Park very close to the centre of town. We booked in for three nights. The amenities were fantastic and even though you had to pay a fee of 20 cents for 3 minutes under a hot shower you could keep feeding in coins as the time was cumulative. Water is a very precious commodity out here. If you need to tank up your water tanks on your trailer or van it can be purchased from purpose-built pumps at $1 for 30 litres (no change given but not a big price either due to remoteness).
After setting up camp and a lovely long shower, fresh clothes it was time to go shopping. They have an excellent IGA supermarket in Coober Pedy so we stocked the larder as we can only carry so much meat & veges in our fridge/freezers. The bread was fresh (lovely bateaus) plus a good selection of fresh fruit & vegetables. The next stop was the all-important grog shop. This town has a very strict quantity purchase allowance which I found a bit odd. You can buy as much beer as you like but you can only buy 2 bottles of wine & a single bottle of spirits. They take your driver’s licence details which is shared to all liquor outlets in town so you cannot purchase anymore that day. I have grown a taste for Rioja style wines and luckily for me they had some 2017 Gran Reserva so that was at the top of my list for the day. Enquiries with the guy running it as to how much stock he had left and the answer was another 6 bottles. I quietly asked if he could keep that behind the counter as cousin Greg would be up soon to get 2 more bottles and the following day, we would get the other 4 as our quota.
Coober Pedy claims to be the opal capital of the world. It supports 70 opal fields and is the largest opal mining area in the world. By 1999, there were more than 250,000 mine shafts in the area. These opal fields predominantly yield grey, white or milky opal. The base colour is light and is the lowest grade of opal. The crystal opal has a transparent or very translucent base. These opals can display lots of colours and high brightness inside the stone, which adds to its value. It is formed in old riverbeds in sandstone and differs from opals found elsewhere in Australia. Black opal is mainly found in the Lightning Ridge fields, while boulder opal is found in the inland Queensland fields such as Yowah and Quilpie. Boulder opal is formed in narrow cavities in ironstone.
One thing I could never understand about opal mining is why pursue it – trying to find opal is based on pure luck. No-one knows how much or where opal can be found underground through exploratory means. Opal miners simply peg a claim where they think the opal might be and dig. Around one per cent of opal mining leads to success. Others that don’t have the time to set up a mine or the machinery to dig and burrow, can visit Coober Pedy to try their hand at noodling – the practice of digging through piles of excavated earth which dot the landscape. Today there are very few opal miners left and most would struggle to pay their diesel bills to run their machinery let alone make a good living. I did not notice a couple of large open-cut mining operations which must be seasonal as you could not work in a pit out here in the summer.
The town is famous not only for its opal fields, but the underground dugouts. There are churches, bars, houses, shops and accommodation all found under the ground. The dugouts provide respite to the harsh summer temperatures. Their advantage is the constant temperature which means you don’t need air conditioning. It is said that many of the early settlers to the town were former soldiers who had returned from the trenches of World War I and were experts in the art of excavation and digging.
The sun-baked lunar landscape surrounding Coober Pedy is the backdrop to many movies such as Max Max Beyond Thunderdome, Pitch Black and Ground Zero, among others. There is even an 18-hole golf course. Not a blade of grass in sight. It is reputedly the only golf course to have reciprocal rights with the oldest and most famous golf course, St Andrews in Scotland. Golfers prefer to play at night using glow-in-the-dark balls.
While to town’s population is small, there is a diverse number of nationalities – apparently around 50. We saw the Greek, Croatian and Italian clubs and visited the Serbian Orthodox church.
You can’t visit Coober Pedy without going to the nearby Breakaways. It is a striking rock landscape with flat-topped mesas in a stony gibber desert. More importantly to me was that Jack Absalom had painted these vistas many years ago and I really admired his work. As with all of inland Australia, this area was covered by a sea millions of years ago. The Breakaways were once a large basin formed by the deposition of sedimentary layers over 75 million years ago. Much later – 25 million years later – an extremely durable silcrete layer formed over these sediments. It was later uplifted into a plateau and began to erode along lines of weakness within the durable crust. Surface rocks were formed from the erosion of this silcrete crust and are called gibbers. The massive plateau was broken up and eroded to the shape we see today – dissected tableland of mesas and ridges with steep sloping escarpments dropping onto the gibber rock plains.
Kanku – Breakaways Conservation Park is Aboriginal owned and the entire park is a registered aboriginal heritage site. It lies 32km north of Coober Pedy and it consists of colourful low hills which have broken away from the Stuart Range, hence their name ‘The Breakaways.’
There are two lookout points which highlight the open spaces and colourful environment, leaving an impression of the long gone inland sea that our early explorers dreamt of. From the lookout, the locally named ‘Castle’ or ‘Salt & Pepper’ can be seen in an easterly direction. This outcrop has been used in a number of films and advertisements, while Panorama Hill situated in the middle, features in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Ground Zero. As the day goes by, the passing of the sun changes the desert colours, creating photogenic scenes that appear surreal.
The 74 klm round trip back to Coober Pedy takes you east along the hills to the dog fence. This 2m high wire barrier stretches for over 5,300km across three States, to protect the sheep country in the south from the native dog, the Dingo. The desert-like moonscape along the fence, with its fossilised shells, grey, soft clay dirt and cracks that appear to be bottomless, has been nicknamed the ‘moon plain’. It too has been the scene for numerous movies.
Above is the original image and the image below is what I wanted the sky & environment to be. Winter time out here and the skies are a bit bland most days.
Permits are required and can be purchased at the Visitors Information Centre. As at 2021 the cost is $10 per vehicle or $8 concession.
Damage to my vehicle by now was becoming cumulative due to the rough roads we had been travelling. My original plan was always to get the vehicle serviced in Alice Springs but the list of damage was growing and we could not repair it. My low beam lights had stopped working and I had a smashed glass globe on my driving lights in my ARB bulbar. The light still worked but the glass was smashed. We cut down a plastic drinks bottle and taped it over the area to protect the globe and it still works. As for the low beams it is not a fuse so we think a switch is loose or full of dust but we could not rectify the issue. Our travels have been 95% in daylight with the only night parts when I used to drive to remote locations for sunrise or sunset shots.
Larder & cellar stocked it was a road trip north to Marla. This is a huge roadhouse & restaurant which has a motel & caravan park attached out the back. This small stop was the last stop north for most travellers in South Australia. It is only 70 klm’s from the NT border. It is also the start/end of the Oodnadatta track. Fuel here is relatively cheap compared to Oodnadatta at 152.9 cents per litre for diesel so we topped off our tanks and our jerrycans as we were heading east the next morning to complete our journey along the Oodnadatta Track but only the last section of 208 klm from Marla to Oodnadatta.
A night at Marla cost us $10 each for unpowered sites plus a tasty meal and a couple of beers in the restaurant. The food was good and plentiful. I had a good night’s rest and was up early to pack up my on-road home. A large breakfast at the restaurant and a well-made coffee would be enough fuel until dinner that night.
On the road once again to finish the Oodnadatta Track part of our journey.