I’d been shown pictures of the landscape and the underground living, I was blown away, it was unlike anything I’d seen before and immediately felt like something worth experiencing and sharing. I’ve always loved deserted spaces and the eeriness they can provoke, I wanted a break from portraiture and to share a story from Australia. Coober Pedy is named by the local Aboriginal people as ‘white man’s hole’, a desert town that stands alone under the scorching sun. It is famous for its technicolour gemstones, underground dugouts and abandoned movie sets. To me, that’s a recipe for an adventure.
I researched from the pictures I saw and worked it out from there. I noted little tours, land forms in the area and the brief Coober Pedy history but to get a real inside scoop of the place, I knew we’d need to get there and chat to the locals; an op shop would be a perfect place for an informative chat and maybe some hot gossip of who’s who in town. I travelled with my great friend Ashe. We sung ‘Kiss by a Rose’ one too many times on our nine hour journey from Adelaide. Packed with a friendship that spanned twenty years and an array of costumes to evoke a Pricilla Queen of the Desert tribute (our plan B in case I didn’t find the desert Disneyland I’d hoped for). She’s a writer and I’m a photographer, we laugh a lot together.
We arrived there at night via a dusty road not so much lined but with street lamps randomly placed; we were a little spooked. We dined at an overpriced yet charming Greek restaurant, then stumbled in the dark until we were greeted by a bearded angle. We swapped names, got handed blankets and were guided down the stairs to our underground bunk beds. We nervously giggled until we fell asleep. In the morning the town sparkled, but even in the light of day, I couldn’t make much sense of things.
We met a guy known as Crazy Joe, who lived in a place dug into the side of a hill. His front yard was full of spectacular structures that he’d made out of scrap metal and anything else he could find. He also showed us his museum of empty bottles and rocks which had a wooden sculpture of a naked man that he’d made. Suddenly realising we might be offended by the sculpted man parts, he quickly detached the wooden penis, locking it in a box that was connected by a metal chain… Then sliding a G-string printed with love hearts over the crotch!
We met a guy known as Crazy Joe, who lived in a place dug into the side of a hill.
Here’s a hot tip if you make it out to Coober Pedy – take a tour through Fay’s underground home. For $5.00 you’ll learn about how she chipped out this whole underground palace with the help of her girlfriend Sue. It took them ten years with picks and shovels to create bedrooms with walk in wardrobes, a wine cellar, a billiards room and, yes, their very own swimming pool. It’s a tour de force!
The local residents were either eager to talk to us about themselves and show us around where they lived, or some wouldn’t make eye contact at all. It was a mixed response. We were respectful and genuinely interested, which seemed to work in our favour. Orchestrating a vegetarian meal caused quite a stir. Our best mate was Martin, two days shy of retiring and heading west but for then the manager of the Radeka Downunder, the motel we stayed at. Ashe works on project called Hello It’s Me, a collection of interviews on people worth celebrating, so we got chatting one afternoon. We learnt about his thoughts on who would play him in a movie (Dick Van Dyke), his first kiss from his cousin whom he liked but “we better not go there” and his last meal, Bangers and Mash. Martin embodied the towns charm and was very hospitable even in the final hours of his employment there.
Go explore outback ‘Straya, you will not be disappointed.