International Travel

Fri, 9 Nov, 2018Justine Tyerman

The Ghan: A day of surprises in Australia’s outback

The Ghan: A day of surprises in Australia’s outback

Justine Tyerman continues her series about The Ghan Expedition, a 2979km four-day, three-night train journey through the ‘Red Centre’ of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide. On Day 3 she explores Coober Pedy’s surreal landscapes, opal mines, underground dwellings and one of the world’s most unique golf courses . . .

I awoke to a dazzling dawn of gilt-edged clouds and red earth glowing in the early morning sun. There was very little vegetation and the horizon was dead flat, like the Nullarbor Plain that mesmerised me on my Indian Pacific journey earlier in the year.

During the night, we crossed the waterless Hugh and Finke rivers. The Finke is believed to be the oldest river system in the world dating back 300 million years. I would love to have seen it in the daylight, or better still been able to jump off the train to watch the grand silver Ghan traverse the bridge over the red, rippled sand of the dry riverbed as shown on many postcards.

At mealtimes on the train, a recklessness possessed me as if there was no tomorrow. Usually such a disciplined and abstemious breakfaster, I decided to have lashings of French toast made with nuts and fruit, the best I’ve ever tasted.

Soon after, we arrived at Manguri a remote siding literally in the middle of nowhere. This was our disembarkation point where eight coaches were lined up to take passengers on a variety of Coober Pedy excursions.  

Our driver Mike was an outstanding guide who filled our 42km drive on a rough, corrugated, unsealed road with a brilliant, informative commentary about all aspects of the area.

Halfway between Alice and Adelaide, Coober Pedy’s economy is based on the opal industry and tourism. The population is about 1900 of which 700 are aboriginal. There are 45 different nationalities all of whom live in harmony.

The region is the opal capital of the world producing about 70 percent of the global production of this beautiful precious stone. Opals were discovered here in 1915 by a young lad named Willie Hutchison, aged 14, who wandered off from the campsite alone against the strict instructions of his father, a prospector. Willie came back with a sugar bag full of opals and also found water so he was quickly forgiven.

Mike pointed south east towards the 23,677 square kilometre-Anna Creek Station, the world's largest working cattle station, 140km from Coober Pedy. And south west towards Maralinga where Britain carried out nuclear bomb tests in the 1960s, and the Woomera Prohibited Area, a 122,000 sq kilometre site declared a prohibited area in 1947. Its remoteness made it an ideal location for rocket research and testing electronic warfare. Important space technology was tested at Woomera that contributed to the 1969 moon landing.

“And all around us, there are kangaroos, snakes, goannas, lizards, emus and brumbies,” Mike said with a sweep of his arm. But they were all hiding that day.

The landscape was dotted with piles of earth called mullock heaps and bent-over towers above mine shafts where prospectors were excavating in search of opals. There are 2 million mullocks in the Coober Pedy area, with shafts up to 60-70 metres deep so you definitely don’t want to venture off the beaten track here.

The towers, known as ‘blowers’, operate like giant vacuum cleaners to suck the earth up the shaft to the surface. They really should be called suckers not blowers.

We also saw a number of ‘black lighting rigs’ where miners search tailings using ultra-violet light. When lit up with a black light, opals glow or fluoresce.

Our first stop was a viewing point above the Breakaways, a breath-taking, surreal landscape where a series of colourful flat-topped hills or ‘mesa’ appear to have broken free and drifted away from the main plateau of the Stuart Ranges.

The breath-taking, surreal Breakaways. 

The colours - white, cream, pale pink, orange, mossy green, red, ochre, brown and black – were astonishing, especially when the sun emerged briefly from behind the clouds. The temperature was comparatively cool here after the heat of Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs.

The Breakaways are located in the 15,000-hectare Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park which belongs to the indigenous Antakirinja people who have inhabited the area, known to them as ‘Umoona’ meaning ‘long life’, for thousands of years.

Submerged under an icy inland sea 100-120 million years ago, the region is rich in dinosaur fossils from plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs.  

“There’s also rumours of large oil deposits underground here but this is a conservation park so that’s where the oil will stay - underground,” said Mike.

The Ghan staff went to great efforts to set up morning tea at the lookout – just in case passengers were hungry or thirsty.

Mike had to drag me away from the Breakaways that day, I was so hypnotised by the other-worldly landscape, but the promise of a close-up view finally got me back on the bus. We drove a short distance to rock formations known as ‘Salt and Pepper’ due to their distinctive colours, or ‘Two Dogs Sitting Down’ to the aboriginal people. Nearby was a peaked hill, known as ‘Wati’ (man), the owner of the dogs, and ‘Sleeping Camel’, a site of great significance to Antakirinja.

‘Salt and Pepper’ or ‘Two Dogs Sitting Down’.

Our next stop was the ‘Dog Fence’ built in the 1880s to protect sheep against dingo attacks. Stretching over 5300km through South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, it’s the longest fence in the world. Costing about $10 million a year to maintain, the fence has saved farmers many more millions in stock losses.

The surrounding terrain is called the ‘Moon Plains’ because of their striking resemblance to a lunar landscape. The earth was littered with gypsum which sparkled in the sun.

At lunchtime, Mike deposited us at the entranceway to an underground restaurant in an opal mine, our first taste of Coober Pedy’s famous subterranean lifestyle. Before dining, we had an entertaining drilling and fuse-lighting demonstration by an old-timer named George, aged 76.

“The average age of an underground miner these days is around 65 so we are an increasingly-rare breed,” he said.

After a delicious lunch served at long tables set up in a series of underground tunnels, we visited the Umoona Opal Mine with guide Jacquie who explained the various types of opal from dark to light, and the way they are mounted. A solid piece of opal can be mounted as is, while thinner pieces, called triplets or doublets, are cemented together on a glass backing.

An opal seam in the wall of the mine.

Opals are valued according to brilliance, darkness, pattern, colour and shape – the more colour, the higher the value. The black crystal opal is the most rare and valuable.

Jacquie also explained the history behind the intriguing name of Coober Pedy, and the reason for the underground dwellings.

When opals were found here in 1915, miners came in their droves, many living underground to escape the intense heat and cold. Intrigued by this strange practice, the aboriginal people described the unusual living conditions as ‘kupa piti’ meaning ‘white man in a hole’. The name stuck and the settlement became known as Coober Pedy.

One of the hottest places in Australia, summer temperatures often reach 45 degrees Celsius with ground temperatures as high as 65 degrees. In the winter, temperatures can plunge to zero. Underground, the temperatures are around 21-24 degrees year-round meaning no heating and cooling are required which allows for very economical living.

Seventy percent of Coober Pedy’s population of 1900 live underground in dwellings dug into hillsides. The houses have normal-looking frontages with wet areas usually located near the entrance due to plumbing requirements but the bulk of the living quarters are underground. Each room has at least one airshaft. In the early days, the dwellings were dug out by hand but now modern drilling machinery is used. The house we toured with Jacquie was really spacious and quite luxurious.

A modern underground house in Coober Pedy. 

If home-owners need extra space, they just tunnel out an extra room or two. No wall, floor or ceiling materials are needed, and there are minimal windows. The sandstone surfaces are painted with a sealer to combat dust and the end product is a warm rose-maroon colour with a swirly marble effect.

“One of the great bonuses of building your house underground in Coober Pedy is that you might find enough opals to finance your construction project,” Jacquie said. There’s little risk of collapse because the gypsum in the rock makes it very strong.

In days gone by, explosives used to be so commonplace in Coober Pedy, miners bought them from the local store along with their bread and milk. The drive-in theatre had a sign that read:  ‘The use of explosives are not permitted in the theatre.’ But there was always some wise-crack who let off dynamite on New Year’s Eve, Jacquie said.

Later Mike took us on a tour of the town, passing the school with 300 students, 30 teachers and the only swimming pool and library in town, the drive-in theatre, shooting range, race course, power station and a 20-bed hospital where specialists fly in once a month. Pregnant women go to Port Augusta to give birth.

We also visited the town’s 18-hole golf course. Officially one of the top 10 most unique golf courses in the world, it’s totally grassless and the ‘greens’ are oiled earth. There’s artificial green turf on which to tee off but otherwise the entire course is dirt and sand. The locals certainly have a sense of humour. A large sign reads: ‘Keep off the grass.’

When it’s too hot to play during the day, night golf with illuminated courses and fluorescent balls is a popular option.

The course is the only one in the world with reciprocal rights to play at St Andrews but there’s a catch – golfers are only allowed to play there in December-January, mid-winter in Scotland.

With an annual rainfall of around 100ml a year, water is a precious resource in Coober Pedy. Water used to be trucked in but since 1967, the town has had the benefit of an artesian water source and a desalinisation plant.

The town is self-sufficient in electricity with wind turbines, solar power and diesel back-up.

Despite the heat, this harsh arid region has been the location of a number of major movies including Mad Max III, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Ground Zero and Pitch Black.

Our last stop before heading back to The Ghan was the exquisite St Elijah’s Serbian Orthodox Church built underground in 1993. Guide Peter showed us around his ornately-decorated church tunnelled deep into a hillside.

In the 1990s, the Serbian community numbered around 150 but there were other Orthodox people of different nationalities as well, many of whom used to travel to Adelaide for weddings, baptisms and other religious ceremonies. So they decided to build their own church.

The main body of the rectangular building was tunnelled using a square machine but for the ceiling, a rounded machine was used to create the beautiful cinquefoil arch, a striking feature of the church. Decorated with icons from around Australia, New Zealand and Serbia, the stained glass windows and carvings are stunning.

The stained glass windows and carvings at St Elijah’s Serbian Orthodox Church church are stunning.

Despite the bumpy ride back ‘home’, a few passengers nodded off on the bus.

As we neared the train, Mike took us to the opposite side from where passengers usually embark and disembark for a rare photo opportunity of the full-length Ghan in the desert, without hundreds of people in the way. A magnificent sight, one that will stay with me forever.

In the distance, I noticed a fire near the train. I drew it to Mike’s attention but he just winked. The fire in question turned out to be a sunset bonfire with canapés and drinks against a backdrop of the lantern-lit Ghan, our home for the last three days. Such a delightful surprise for passengers on our last night, and a perfect way to farewell The Ghan.

Standing around the fire in the dusty clothes we’d worn all day made for a wonderfully informal occasion where everyone chatted about the highlights of their Ghan experience. As I looked around at the animated faces of people who had been strangers a few short days ago, I had a deep sense of happiness and joie de vivre.

Lanterns on railway sleepers lit the way back to my carriage where Aaron was waiting patiently in the chilly evening to tick his list and count heads.

I had a wonderful time over dinner with three other women who had by now become my good friends. We toasted the merits of solo travel and decided there was no better way to meet like-minded people.

Our last dinner was superb – prawn and pork dumplings with sesame seed salad and orange caviar followed by tender lamb back strap with a dessert of chocolate and peanut butter delice with macadamia toffee brittle and berry sorbet.

Later in the evening, restaurant manager Nick joined us in the bar and recited a beautiful poem he had written about The Ghan. It brought tears to my eyes.

As I settled to sleep, rocked by the familiar motion of the train, the thought of disembarking in Adelaide the next day brought a lump to my throat...

To be continued . . .


* The Ghan Expedition is a 2979km four-day, three-night train journey through the ‘Red Centre’ of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide.

*Justine travelled courtesy of international rail specialists Rail Plus and Great Southern Rail.

* Visit Rail Plus for more information on The Ghan and for other epic train adventures around the world.

*A veteran of many rail journeys organised through Rail Plus, I’ve also travelled on the Indian Pacific (see my series of four stories here); and the TranzAlpine. 

*Rail Plus has a dedicated team of experts to advise you on Great Train Journeys all around the world including the Blue Train in South Africa that runs between Cape Town's monolithic Table Mountain and the jacaranda-lined streets of Pretoria.