Australia's Coober Pedy: Post-apocalyptic utopia recalls 'Mad Max'
In the local aboriginal dialect, Coober Pedy, the name given to the opal mining town that emerges out of nowhere on the Stuart Highway, the long desert road between secular Adelaide and mystical Ayers Rock in South Australia—means “White Man in a Hole.”
Aboriginal art is always painted from above where the spirit of things can be captured. While this namesake could be a euphemism for something a little more sinister, on the ground, this is exactly what Coober Pedy is, and from the air, this is exactly what Coober Pedy looks like—a series of white anthill-like mounds littering an otherwise characterless landscape. It’s like a vision from the “Mad Max” movies (“Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” was filmed here) with ‘white men,’ and women, working, living and surviving industrially inside those holes. Migrating to this far-away place to spend a life underground digging for what the silica minerals in an ocean 150 million years ago left behind: precious cosmic-looking opal gemstones, is a journey the non-aboriginal populace come here from all over the world to do.
When Coober Pedy was founded after the first opal discovery in 1915, it was with the zeal and the promise of the gold rush of the American Wild West. Immigrants after WWII came from Europe in larger numbers looking for a post-apocalyptic utopia. They all got rich and built the community that has remained relatively unchanged since (though the current town infrastructure was dug out of the desert rock in 1960); a population of approximately forty-five nationalities that hovers around 3,500 people. The official census doesn’t count a fluctuating margin of several hundred drifters that arrive for Opal Season, which kicks off at Easter and ends in November, or those who come to Coober Pedy to evade society, the law or other undesired attentions, or who live here but don’t speak English and prefer not to be counted as official residents.
Eccentric aristocrats have blown through. A Latvian baron in hiding since 1945, known locally as Crocodile Harry, ended his colorful journey in Coober Pedy, leaving the many photographs of his wrestling wild crocodiles in a loin cloth, along with his collection of wilderness tools, bones, primitive art and visitor mementos, in his underground nest. Now turned gallery and open to the public, this is one of the local tourist attractions.
Nationalities with as diverse a cultural and linguistic heritage as Chinese, Greek, Serbian and Australian aboriginal share the town, speaking their own languages, eating their own foods, and practicing their own faiths and cultures. What unites them is their hard-working lifestyle and their hunt for fortune, which for many of them, is a dream that really does comes true. One local couple recently found the largest black opal ever discovered, and many others contribute to the $15 million local annual opal trade. With seventy opal mines supplying the international market with gem quality opals, Coober Pedy is the opal capital of the world.
Daily life in this isolated outpost is extreme. Aside from the gruelling man-made work of mining, the natural climate is inhospitable to humans. In high summer, daytime heat exceeds 108F and in winter, desert night temperatures plummet to below freezing. To save on costs of heating and cooling, locals live in underground dwellings called dugouts. These are two to three bedroom homes with living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms that remain a steady 77F but let in no light. Most of the important infrastructure is underground—Orthodox Serbian and Greek churches, hotels, bars, businesses, the local casino and historic museum.
A dusty golf course and a sandy rugby field are embraced by the locals who enjoy sporty pastimes in the open air, and a shooting range comes to life at night when the temperatures are lower. The Greek, Asian, Italian and Eastern European dishes found in local restaurants are as authentic and excellent as if eating out in their best metropolis eateries, or as a guest in a local loved one’s home in these world capitals so far away. Here in the desert, they survive on imports. Inside the IGA supermarket, an oasis opens up with some of the freshest produce and best organic food sections in South Australia. Good green smoothies provide amnesia against the extreme isolation, dust storms, drought and greenless expanses that lay beyond. Above ground, the local tree is constructed of iron scraps and stands over plains that stretch forever in all directions towards cattle stations and sacred aboriginal grounds.
The utopian sublime of the earlier settlers, characterized by outward exploration into the promising sweep of new opal territory, has perhaps shaded into a more dystopian sublime, where psychological territory, including best survival skills in a new urban futurism, replaces plundering fresh geographic territory. Coober Pedians are tough and private, and might outlast any global catastrophe, and the human populations that they’ve fled from, or miss.
As for the effect of the latest “Mad Max” film, a town resident comments with signature casualness, “It was screened at the local drive-in theater last night but I was out enjoying the Painted Desert. I will get to see it on DVD whenever it is released”.
Caia Hagel is a print and television journalist, co-director of UN’s #youthtalks and co-founder of GuerillaPop+MediaLab. Her book, +Girl Positive+, co-written with Tatiana Fraser, will be published by Random House next year.
Tim Georgeson is a photographer and filmmaker.