The Ghan – Third Stop, Coober Pedy

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About half-way between Alice Springs and Adelaide, in the middle of nowhere, sits a small town in South Australia called Coober Pedy, once the Opal Capital of the world, which seems to rely more on tourism these days than opal mining.

Opals were first discovered here in 1915 and until the 1980’s business was booming as more than one thousand miners supplied opals to overseas markets. But today there are fewer than 100 miners left, production has dropped right off and the people in the town hope that some young blood will come and help to kick Coober Pedy on again.

So why would tourists want to visit a mining town past its heyday? Probably because they want to see for themselves a town like no other – more than half of the 3,500 population live underground due to extremes in temperature – in summer, over 50oC is not unheard of and it can be freezing in winter.

 

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Ventilation pipes mark the “dug outs”

The old miners realised that they couldn’t live in these temperatures, so they started to dig out their mines and live there. Later on they replaced them with underground homes, dug into the side of the hill. Each room has to be ventilated, and in the early days they consisted of wide, open air shafts but when drunken miners kept falling into them on their way home from the pub, they were replaced with thin pipes with mesh on top to keep out the snakes. This is what you see today.

 

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This is a display home underground.

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Electricity is no problem but there is no mobile phone connection underground, so you need a reliable alarm clock!

 

All houses have a front door above ground. Some houses have all the rooms underground and others have built some rooms (such as the wet areas) above ground and the living rooms and bedrooms are dug out. While temperatures soar and plummet, below ground it is always about 23-25 degrees C and they say you will get the best night’s sleep you have ever had.

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We ventured down a mine, had a nice Greek lunch there and spent the afternoon looking around the town and surrounding areas.  It probably has the only golf course in the world with no grass, and the golfers are given a grass mat to tee off.

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There are no gardens or flowers, just desert, and the areas surrounding the town consist of thousands of mounds where miners have tried their luck.

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There are no company mines here, it is too difficult and they would not survive. All you need to find opals is luck!

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Here is a collection of rusting old cars and obsolete mining equipment.  Every few months someone comes into town to take it all away.

One thing there is no shortage of is opal shops, which is just as well;  the only opal chips I managed to find were in the charm I bought for my Pandora bracelet!

Dining out is not a problem; around 45 nationalities are represented, mostly from Europe and the Mediterranean. Very multicultural.

So if you would like to go somewhere really different, do yourself a favour and visit Coober Pedy and stay a few nights in the underground motel. It’s the only place where house reno’s are not a problem. Need another shelf? Dig a hole. Need a walk-in robe? Dig a bigger hole….and you might even find some opals while you’re at it.

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The Dog Fence.  It seems to go on forever, like the red dirt and blue sky

The Dog or Dingo Fence was built in the 1880’s and is the world’s longest fence at 5,614 km or 3,488 miles.  It has in the most part been successful in protecting sheep from dingo attacks.  You may be surprised to know that some sheep and cattle stations can be larger than some small European countries, and tens of thousands of sheep were being killed every year before the fence was completed.

 

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The end of a busy day at Coober Pedy – time to relax with canapes and drinks while watching another amazing sunset.  Then all aboard for a sumptuous dinner in the restaurant.

 

Next morning, the outback reds and oranges gave way to lush green as we made our way into Adelaide and the end of a great rail journey.

 

The Ghan – Second Stop, Alice Springs

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The Alice Springs Desert Park, situated on 1,300 hectares, at the base of the MacDonnell Ranges is where we spent the day with our guide for an exclusive walking tour.

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I couldn’t recommend this outing more highly, and if you ever visit Alice Springs, it is a must-see. But allow plenty of time. You could easily spend most of the day here and you will be truly inspired. There is so much more to deserts than you think, and this educational facility explores everything the desert region of Australia has to offer – the birds, animals, medicinal plants and the people, and the relationships between them.

Our day started with a very interesting presentation by an indigenous guide about the aborigines and their way of life, including their weapons such as boomerangs etc. We made our way past several aviaries of birds for the free flight bird show, after which we got up close and personal with some of the birds and the trainer.

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Then we strolled past dingos and emus and made our way to the Nocturnal House to see various animals moving around and foraging, such as the iconic bilby, numbat and snakes. Our guide was very knowledgeable and answered all our questions.  I was pleased to find out that all the animals here are either rescued or being used in breeding programs because they are in danger of extinction.

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After lunch, we spent the afternoon exploring the rest of the park, which is divided into three separate areas – Desert Rivers, where you can walk through dry river beds and areas which were past swamps and waterholes, discover outback flora and fauna which included a demonstration showing how the aborigines search for food and medicine.

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Next was the Sand Country which re-created the sandy desert and lastly the Woodland which was where we saw kangaroos out in the open.  I liked that the guide would not let us get too close but to stop and observe them from a distance. They seemed very relaxed and after some photo taking, we were formed into a single line and quietly moved on.

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Once back at the train we just had time to freshen up before being whisked off in buses for dinner at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station. The beautiful stone buildings have all been restored and offer a glimpse of how it must have looked when families lived there in the late 1800’s. They were all lit up and each had a plaque explaining how the building was used back in the day.

We arrived at sunset and were greeted by staff bearing glasses of champagne as we made our way to the open central area which was set up with tables with white tablecloths. On the back of each chair was a lovely  poncho bearing the Ghan symbol as a memento of our visit.

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We had a delicious meal under the stars with a live band playing in the background. Before dessert was served, we were given a star gazing presentation which was one of the highlights of our trip. A truly memorable day.

 

The Ghan – First Stop, Katherine

 

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Katherine Station.  It’s a long walk to the end of the train.  We were situated about half-way down.

Katherine is situated on the Katherine River in the Northern Territory, Australia, 320 kilometres south-east of Darwin. The town is a tourism gateway to nearby Nitmiluk National Park, particularly Katherine Gorge and its many ancient rock paintings, which was where we were heading.

 

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There are millions of termite mounds all over Australia, all shapes and sizes.

Our bus took us to the Katherine River, where we cruised between sheer sandstone cliffs down the First and Second Gorges, while our guide told us stories about the traditional owners, the Jawoyn people.  The Park covers 292,000 hectares and comprises 13 sandstone gorges carved over 23 million years.

 

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On our way to the boat ramp

 

There is all sorts of wildlife from bats to crocs;  our guide was very knowledgeable and we learnt a lot about the area.  At the second gorge, we walked a short distance to see the ancient rock art which is believed to date back about 40,000 years.

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We didn’t see any, but the river is inhabited by harmless freshwater crocodiles.  Sometimes the river rises after heavy rain, and saltwater crocodiles move upstream.  These are the ones you don’t want to mess with.

 

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Here is one of the baited traps which park rangers check daily for saltwater crocodiles.  They are relocated to another part of the river.

We had heard a lot about the beautiful scenery at Katherine Gorge and we weren’t disappointed.  We had an excellent guide who kept us entertained with many stories of the aboriginal people, legends and traditions.

A very enjoyable day.