Coober Pedy, at Dawn

Headlights like beacons in the leaden wet.

The engine’s both idling and roaring in the passive/aggressive way I associate with a Greyhound bus. Closing in, and the sight of it is evocative.

For me an interstate bus often prompts cinematic images of youthful dreams but also broken hearts. Making my way into the Coober Pedy morning I wonder about the passengers and their reasons for travel.

Above the windshield the destination says Alice Springs.

Minutes earlier I clicked the door of my Mud Hut motel room, eased onto St Nicholas Street and then veered north. Hutchinson Street is the main thoroughfare. I’m keen to explore.

It’s raining, and the day is lightening quickly. I’m almost a thousand kilometres nearer to the equator so the sun dashes up and down the sky more urgently, and with less languid theatre. Long, slanting solar routines belong in the sentimental south.

A sign directs worshippers towards the Underground Catholic Church of St Peter and St Paul. Its subterranean neighbours are an opal buyer and a backpackers’ hostel. I guess religious visitors pray for glistening gems to come to them before diving into a musty bunk.

John’s Pizza Bar then appears under the showering sky. My daybreak run is also initial research for Wednesday evening’s dinner. The building’s a low, forgettable rectangle and scurrying past I decide to seek a more distinctive local experience.

Above the red and blue Ampol servo a nightclub called Red Sands occupies the second story. I suspect the swingin’ hotspot’s no more, but I’m happy to be astonished. Playing cricket at Wudinna a frequent joke while fielding was, ‘What time’s the Minnipa disco start?’ The reply: What time can you get there?

With water already pooling by the pavement The Desert Cave materializes in the west. Above ground, it’s self-pleased and swaggering. I speculate if tourists are seduced into submission by its machismo. But the optimistic architectural view is that it’s illustrative of continuing faith in the community, a symbol declaring this town will endure, and we challenge you to discover why.

Lurching along by the kangaroo orphanage, the rain beats a pulsing tattoo on the tin roofs. Puddles and mud now smear the good earth. The desert isn’t as thirsty as I would’ve thought and like a surly child the ground almost seems to refuse the water.

Suddenly, a drive-in theatre! The huge steely screen hangs over the lunar landscape. Initially noting the absence of the iconic speaker poles I remember that cars now tune their radio to a low-powered FM signal. Shutting for a decade from the mid-80s, funds were then raised to digitise. An utter triumph, it’s the state’s only surviving example, and runs every Saturday from 8.30 until summer pushes everyone and their nostalgia back underground. I’d love to see Jaws there.

Turning back up the main road I pass a garage with its iron doors flung up. A couple of cars have already nosed into their respective bays. I hear a radio. Overhead lights press out into the lifting murk. There’s a mound of discarded tyres, and gluggy smells of oil and diesel cling thick.

Trotting homeward, a ute slides by me, its window down. I catch a glimpse of a goatee and lime-green vest as a miner teases me, ‘If you’ve got that much energy, then come and dig a hole!’


The following morning near the Opal Inn Salon Bar the same ute slows and the same miner hollers, ‘If you grab a shovel you won’t have to bother running!’

I laugh and encourage him. ‘Check with me again tomorrow!’