Thirty kilometres north of Coober Pedy, I turn off the Stuart Highway onto a wide red dirt road. A dented sign bolted to a steel pole reads “The Breakaways 9km.” My rented 4WD shudders and rattles as I drive along the corrugated surface. The south-east breeze whips a cloud of fine crimson dust off into the grey saltbush scrub growing along the roadside. On the radio I can hear a country song through a gale of static on the AM band. The sky is a vast indigo dome draped with fuzzy strips of altostratus cloud.
This is mining country. The surrounding landscape is dotted with conical heaps of white mine tailings, like piles of hour-glass sand. For decades, people have bored holes into the flat, ocherous landscape around Coober Pedy in search of one of the world’s most coveted gemstones: the shimmering blue stone known as opal. Lurid signs, depicting unhappy stick figures falling head-first down vertical shafts, warn of the dangers of straying off the road. Each cone of tailings, and there are thousands of them, stands beside a metre-wide shaft drilled straight down for twenty metres. Fall into one of these and I would vanish into a subterranean space never to be seen again.
After nine kilometres I step out of my truck onto the moon. I am surrounded by a lunar landscape of low, flat-topped mesas painted in colours so striking it takes my eyes a few minutes to tune in to them. It is as if I am looking at a colour palette on a whole new set of wavelengths: colours I have never seen before. On the eroded slopes of the hills, deep burgundy reds bleed into butterscotch yellows and burnt orange. Screes of clay, as white as molten steel, cut deep grooves through the colours; the escarpments cast shadows as black as interstellar space.
The Breakaways, so-called because they appear to “break away” from the edge of the nearby Stuart Ranges, are one of those rare places you discover serendipitously, then wonder why they are not world famous and crowded with tourists. But I am alone out here. Exploring the ravines and hummocks, between castellated domes and fissured slopes of broken rock, I feel like an astronaut walking on the moon.
From the summit of one of the mesas I look back down on my truck, so small and insignificant in the landscape that it looks like a lunar lander. I find a cave and lie in the shade watching the cloud-shadows play across the plains. Nothing moves except the wind. Back in my truck I blast off back towards the highway with a disembodied newsreader’s voice on the radio sounding like mission control.
Coober Pedy is the Eldorado of opal. Mining is the town’s raison d’etre and in the six decades since the gems were discovered here, miners from forty-eight different countries have arrived to try and make their fortunes.
The town sits in a shallow valley surrounded by a moonscape of mine tailings, pure white beneath the blue sky of Outback South Australia. Large parts of the town itself resemble some sort of science fiction moon-base, whose inhabitants dwell underground to escape the punishing solar radiation which pours down on the landscape with relentless fury during the summer months. Houses are excavated deep into the soft rock and thousands of ventilation chimneys protrude from like ground like little metal mushrooms.
My motel room is hollowed out of a hillside overlooking the western end of town. The walls and ceiling are scored with marks left by the excavator which dug the twenty-seven rooms making up the Lookout Cave Motel. The rock is the colour of pink Himalayan salt, and so soft and friable that tiny pieces continually flake off. But the temperature inside stays at a constant twenty degrees winter and summer.
At Tom’s Opal Mine, on the edge of town, I don a hard hat and descend a rectangular passageway leading into the bowels of the Earth. Subdued lighting throws eerie shadows into recesses and side tunnels. Occasional shafts bored from the surface admit fresh air and the whispering sound of the wind.
Opal is created when water saturated with silicon dioxide is squeezed into fissures in the rock then baked under pressure until it crystalizes into pale blue stone. The miners bore their shafts to a depth of twenty meters to reach what is known as The Level, where the veins of opal are found. Most mines yield nothing; of all the opal discovered, eighty percent is worthless and called “potch” by the miners. But fortunes have been made in Coober Pedy’s mines and, indeed, most of the world’s supply of opal comes from here.
Later, as I step out of the mine it begins to rain. The wind has risen to a shrieking gale and the air is heavy with the sweet smell of rain you only get in the desert. The rain splatters against the windscreen as I drive towards the sunset which burns red and purple in the west. The tailing heaps seem to glow as if lit from within by an unearthly yellow light. A rainbow arches over the opal Eldorado.
As the sun sets, the rain evaporates, the wind dies down and a bright perigee moon appears on the horizon. I park my truck and walk out into the landscape. I no longer feel as though I am walking on the moon; I am back on the good Earth. Wildflowers carpet the spaces between the tailings heaps with a delicate profusion of Earthly life. I pick up a handful of red soil and let it run through my fingers. The shadows of night fill the valley. The lights of Coober Pedy begin to glow.