Coober Pedy

Unbelievable but true - an epic journey

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Background

(this intro is for those who are unfamiliar with the the outback, click here to skip this)

Local folklore has it that Coober Pedy means something like whitefellow's in deep hole in the ground. This correctly describes a town where families live in dugouts, underground homes to stand the enormous heat of 50°C in summer. It is still best defined as something between a frontier town and a Greek tourist trap.

Since the early twenties, both the professional and the desperate have been searching the ground round Coober Pedy for opal, a crystalline modification of silica. Despite the harsh conditions, the long distance to civilization, the almost complete absence of water, the prospect of hard work in the deep dusty shafts of the opal mines attracted seekers of fortune in their thousands. Few ever experience the lucky strike, the big or rarely brilliant find they all hope for.

Those who aren't lucky enough to drill the right hole or whose claim is simply running dry often turn to noodling. This is a method of taking a closer look at all the scrap white rock transported from the shaft or underground mine. A conveyor belt transports the crushed stones into a sheet metal cabin, where the noodler examines the rocks passing by under a UV lamp. It must be a great job to sit in a red-hot cabin, in total darkness except for the gleaming potch here and there, breathe the dust and to sore your hands hoping for another 5 $ piece. As the digger working down the shaft certainly has already put aside interesting morsels, noodling is by no means a way to earn riches. More likely, it's an extra dollar here and there for those on the dole or a pension. The advantage is that you don't have to work as hard as in the mine. This story is a about a noodling machine.

To appreciate John's journey, I'd also like to give you a rough idea about the distance covered:

Winton - Boulia 358 km
Boulia - Birdsville 386 km
Birdsville - Marree 540 kms

Marree - William Creek 208 kms
William Creek - Coober Pedy 175 kms

 

 

 

A flat tyre

 

On a hot day early in November 1999,a party of two vehicles were driving from Birdsville to Mungerannie. Travelling the northern part of the Birdsville track had been rather slow after heavy rain. So I was delighted to see the track had just been graded north of Mungerannie. But suddenly I felt the all-to-familiar pull to the side of the track, the feeling which makes you brake immediately. After I had jacked up the Toyota, changed the wheel, loosened the jack again, I examined the whole over a tinnie. Strangely, the hole had a V shape. So back I went in the fine white gravel to find out what had cost me one of my better tyres. What I found 200 metres back and neatly graded in the surface looked to me like a fencepost. So I picked it up and smiled wearily to Neil the old truck driver's comment:

- " So you have been saving on tyres again, always only touching the ground with one at a time..."

- " I know this one's beyond mending, we'll buy a new one in Marree" I said.

The next day I spent a fortune in Marree on diesel, two brand new 10 ply tyres and Australia's best steak sandwiches to soothe my stomach. The price was fair, though. We thought it was a good idea to head on to William Creek, as it was only past 1 PM

Some 100 kms from Marree, Neil spotted what he dreaded most:

-"TOURISTS!!! A busload of Groovy Grapes, us long distance travellers have to get the cold drinks in William Creek before they do."

-"You don't have to tell me twice" I agreed. For once I had the perfect excuse to do 80kph on a gravel road.

 

Another kind of flat tyre

When we were in the lead nearly 6 kms to the tourist bus, a UFO (undefined f** obstacle) appeared on the crest in front.

It didn't exactly resemble a cattle truck, for the two miles behind it weren't obscured by flies. Combine harvesters are also rather rare in the driest part of the desert, so roadworks were the other only possible explanation.

Neil soon stopped next to the weirdest contraption I'd ever seen. The driver was ovbviously attempting to remove a very shredded tyre from a very dented rim.

Neil's polite offers of assistance were denied. I wouldn't have offered him anything but a beer and a lift, the project seemed completely pointless. Leaving the two men chatting, my technical interest was attracted. Or rather my morose sentiments for wreckyards. The truck simply looked like a moving bomb disposal.

Three wheels of the ten on truck an trailer had just the bare rims, two tyres were blown and the spares didn't promise to last longer than a mile. Puzzled, we left him there alone, unable to understand why he refused all offers and followed the tourist bus to W.C. into the sunset.

But we couldn't help but wonder about the strange truck. At 10 PM a light was approaching very slowly. "That must be him," I shouted "looks like a motorbike, with one single beam", Neil disagreed. Even stranger, we hardly heard the vehicle coming. No brakes we heard, when the truck came to a slow stop with a stalled engine.

The driver climbed from the remains of his cabin, got rid of his overall and changed into some less dirty rags. Then skinny tall man washed quickly in a bucket and headed for the bar. After he had eaten, our curiosity was immense. So Neil made an attempt.

"What have you got on your trailer?" he asked after some exhausted replies about the tyres.

" A noodling machine"

"What - for Opals?"

But now the miners eyes suddenly filled with light and he was wide awake.

"It's not OPALS it comes in chunks of OPAL." He corrected Neil and lectured us at once, with vivd expertise on potch and so on.

The night was so very cold that I even dared to drink Neil's Bundi Rum. Sleeping on the roofrack because I was too lazy to move all my stuff and camp in the vehicle, the cold made me get up well before dawn. To warm my feet, I went for a stroll to where I presumed the nightmare truck would be parked. Before I came completely to my senses, I had grasped the camera, forgetting the meter, thinking now or never. The details I discovered now were even weirder:

The towbar was 'secured' by a multigrip, a screwdriver kept the cabin together and the rest is for you to admire. Mind you, he was driving this around.

The trucks cabin was hanging back, there was no windscreen and the diesel tank was fastened with wire.

 

 

What caused my flat tyre or the whole story.

A couple of days later we heard the true story, as told by Richard, an engineer from Woomera and the publican in Marree who knows all and everyone.

 

In early October 1999 John the Pom from Coober Pedy looked through the small adds to find a noodling machine. Eventually he found one for sale, bought it on the phone and asked a friend to drive him to the seller in his ute. The equipment was sitting near Winton, Queensland. The friend dropped him off three days later.

For $1000 he bought the noodler and the bulldozer. Luckily their was another real bargain, a truck and trailer for another $2000, which he bought on the spot.

As the truck was in a sad state, he lost its rear axle between Boulia and Birdsville. But, explained John, as he had eventually taken a spare with him, he soon was on the road again. No other events are known till he arrived in Birdsville.

The truck and trailer team

In Winton, the truck had got a provisional registration for ten days. Maybe the person in charge had hoped he'd driven the thing out of Queensland by then. When John the Pom arrived in Birdsville, his registration had run out. The Birdsville cop supplied another seven days, considering this ample time for the 900 kms left.

It took him another week to get to Marree. The tyres had hardly any rubber left on the plies, so John the Pom stopped at every farm to ask if he could pick some spares from their rubbish dump. Outback farmers tend to keep all the tyres that will make it for another two miles, so those in the dump were most likely only good for a mile. At one stage he knocked on the door of a farm, where the family were just celebrating a wedding. It proved to be a hard job for the good folks to drag him away from the buffet again, so starved was the man. Considering that the train was held together mostly by wire, it's a small miracle he finally made it to Marree over the corrugations. Driving south, he had already lost bits and pieces of his conveyor and an electrical motor, which some travellers had picked up for him and left it with the publican in Marree. A conveyor piece had stuck in my tyre... thanks to the friendly traveller not too many had suffered the same fate.

John the Pom now spent three days in the Marree main street, fixing his truck. Everybody had to drive around his long limbs sticking out in the road. Thus the local policeman had ample time to admire the vehicle with no registration and no windscreen. Noticing that John the Pom had at least picked up his blown tyres instead of throwing them beside the road, the friendly cop charged him only for the missing registration and drove him to the town's rubbish dump to dispose of the old tyres. Two hours later, when it was already getting dark, the cop wondered what had become of John the Pom. There he was, searching the rubbish dump for 'new spares'! Back in town, he had the nerve to ask for a free meal and a bed in the pub after the kitchen was closed. The publican quickly found out his customer had no money on him. Since he didn't think he had a fat chance ever to see his pay, he made John the Pom withdraw $200 from the EFTPOS. Another day later, John the Pom had bought a new provisional license a left Marree for good.

It was two days after that when we first saw him on the hilltop near William Creek. None of the publicans could tell me whether he finally made it the last 175 kms to William Creek. But I know the two engineers from Woomera picked up pieces again, considering the tyres of those to follow.

The conveyor hanging on the right side, note the spare trailer tyre atached to the container

f you, reader, now some more pieces of the story, please tell me. When it is complete, it will be on the walls of the Hawker and Marree pubs for all to enjoy.

 

Enjoy!

by Annette Flottwell

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