Trip Report 2007 Australia: Short Trip To Coober Pedy

May 20 2007Billings To LAX

5/20/07 Arrived at the Billings Airport 2.5 hours early for an early, stress-free check in and then had lunch with Darlene & grandson Trevin.  After lunch I have about a 1-hour wait until boarding which gives me time to start a trip journal and check e-mails.

United flight 364 from Billings to Denver (a nice 737) was on time and smooth.  This year I opted for “Economy Plus” seating which gives you extra 5” of legroom.  With my longer sized legs it’s well worth the extra $150 for the entire flight to Sydney.  I also booked United for the entire trip to Oz.  Less hassle with changing airlines and…I hope…less chance of lost luggage. And the price was very close to the rock bottom flights.  Flight 183 from Denver to LAX (Airbus 320) was a rough flight and we had to skirt around a thunder boomer.  But all told it was a very tolerable flight and arrived in LAX 10 minutes early.  Got a bit extra exercise by taking a long, unintentional, walk around the various terminals.   I was told that United Airline’s international flights left from the Tom Bradley terminal…not true.  So I ended up hiking back to the terminal I arrived in from Denver.  But the temp was in the 60’s and it was a very nice day for a hike and I really needed some exercise what with being cooped up in planes all day.

So here I am waiting for the 10:25PM flight to Sydney.  Had supper and now I’m into a good book by John Sandford…“Dead Watch”.

The flight to Oz boarded on time and I was pleased with my decision to fly Economy Plus.  The extra legroom was welcome indeed.  And another delight was the flight was only ½ full so I was able to put the arms up on 3 adjoining seats and snooze away a good portion of the trip.  Smooth flight (from what I remember) with tail winds…we even had to slow up a bit as we were approaching Sydney…we were ahead of schedule.

May 22 2007AAM Vehicle

The campervan I had reserved didn't make it back to the depot, so I was given a much larger 4 person unit at the same cost...nice!

The campervan I had reserved didn't make it back to the depot, so I was given a much larger 4 person unit at the same cost...nice!

5/22/07 (5/21 lost when crossing the international dateline) OK…I’m in OZ.  Now I’m off to catch the hop to Adelaide from Sydney.  And it’s another classy and comfortable 737 (the very first time I flew was on a 737 when leaving Minneapolis for San Diego to attend  9 weeks of Navy boot camp…1969).  But of course this version 400 was nothing like the 737 I flew on in 1969.  Sorry…just a bit of Naval history!  Flight left a bit late, but that was best for me as my time slot to pass through customs was tight at best.  Took a cab from the airport to the “Around Australia Motorhomes” office, and even though he was a Pakistani emigrant, the cabbie spoke good English.  Seems Adelaide cab drivers are much like the cabbies in NY and many are new immigrants with limited English language skills.

I was pleasantly surprised with the service I received at AAM and was blessed to receive an upgrade (free of charge) to a larger unit with a 3.5L turbo diesel engine and so much room I didn’t know what to do with it all.  Maybe I could charge a few blokes for rides to Coober Pedy ;-).  Found a WestPac bank and withdrew a good amount of opal buying funds while in Adelaide.  I always feel like I’m wearing a sign that says “ROB ME” when walking down the street carrying several thousand in cash.  But, as they say down under: “nao problims mite”.  Tried to find a location to pick up a cell phone, but ended up getting lost straight away!  So I zigzagged north through Adelaide in an attempt to find the main highway…maybe a GPS next year?

The vehicle handled well in spite of its size and had plenty of power.  I made it as far as Port Pirie and the Port Pirie Beach Caravan Park where Dar and I spent a night on last year’s trek.  Found a great campsite right on the water, organized the van, cooked two large lamb chops (our lamb chops are actually lamb cutlets down here) and asparagus and began counting sheep (I hope not the one I just ate part of) by 8:30.  Comfortable bed and an extra doona (comforter in USA) to keep me warm…what more could I ask for except Darlene my much loved bed partner!

May 23 2007Almost to Coober

A designated landing strip on the Stuart Highway for small plane emergency use...be sure to look up.

A designated landing strip on the Stuart Highway for small plane emergency use...be sure to look up.

5/23/07 Brisk morning temps perfect for showering in the unheated toilet facilities…brrrr…wakes one up very quickly.  Checked out of the park around 9:00AM and searched the town for a mobile phone.  Seems the country is phasing out the old CDMA phones in favor of a more modern NextG system that won’t be available for 2 more weeks.  But all of the CDMA phones have been recalled.  Soooo I was stuck with a digital phone that has very limited outback coverage.  But Coober Pedy does have digital mobile phone service which is the most important thing.

Stopped at an Internet café and sent Dar a message that I was OK and will call as soon as I’m in cell range (and get the phone set up…tonight’s job).  Drove and drove and drove along the Stuart Highway!  The Stuart highway was constructed during the 1980’s and made traveling to Coober Pedy, and beyond to the Northern Territory, accessible for all vehicles.  The road is smooth, wide (by Aussie standards) and very well maintained.  Of course the bitumen doesn’t have to contend with freezing temps or snow plows which can tear up the road, but it is exposed to blazing sun and temps that can reach 130F.  Kudos to the South Australian highway dept for keeping this major route in top shape!

Made it past Glendambo to the Bon Bon rest area with toilet facilities.  Most Aussie rest areas don’t have toilets: just trash bins, room to park, an overhead shelter from the sun and lots of bushes.  Today’s journey left me only about 150K from Coober…could have made it the whole way, but with jet lag and the nocturnal kangaroo road hazards I thought it best to stop for the night.  Maybe 1.5 hours drive left.  Alarm is set for 6:30 and coffee is ready to put on the burner.

 

May 24 2007Coober Pedy and Opals

The outback area near Coober Pedy is composed of Gibbers: small rounded dark stones with a high concentration of iron.  This is sometimes called the gibber plain.  The hardy plants in this area are Salt Bush, Spinefex grass and Mulga trees (acacia).

The outback area near Coober Pedy is composed of Gibbers: small rounded dark stones with a high concentration of iron. This is sometimes called the gibber plain. The hardy plants in this area are Salt Bush, Spinefex grass and Mulga trees (acacia).

5/24/07 After a quick brekkie of cereal and banana I’m on the road by 8:00AM.  Need new photographs for my monthly advertisements in Rock & Gem Magazine, so I stopped just south of Coober for a few photos of the rocky gibbers and Mulga scrub.  Arrived in Coober a bit before lunch and stopped by a miner friend’s dugout. He had e-mailed me about a couple “maybe” parcels…2 were from Lambina and another from Shellpatch.  From everything I’ve heard opal was scarce, but I was able to view several gorgeous small parcels…the kind I like.  I’d rather purchase many small parcels than one or two large ones.  Better variety and better chance of getting healthy opal.  As luck would have it I contacted a miner just as he was cleaning a parcel from Allan’s Rise.  John told me he would ring me up about 5:00pm so I could have a look.  Didn’t hear from him until much later as he’d had the wrong mobile # for me, but we met up later that night after he did a bit of research to find me at the caravan park.  I was very pleased with the parcel he showed me.  Great healthy opal, but the price was dear…then again dark opal is in high demand.  Most parcels from the Allan’s Rise field are found at a shallow depth, which means a low moisture content in the opal and less chance the opal will craze. Sound like I’m rationalizing?  I do like the rough opal from Allan’s Rise!!

May 25 2007Found Some Mintabie Opal!

I love the mining blowers used in the Coober Pedy opalfields.  They are all unique and mostly hand built out of old trucks, generators and fans used as big vacuums to suck the mining debris out of the opal mines and into the big hopper on the right of the truck.  The hopper has a spring loaded hinge on the bottom and as soon as the weight of the opal bearing ore is heavy enough it drops into the cone shaped pile beneath.

I love the mining blowers used in the Coober Pedy opalfields. They are all unique and mostly hand built out of old trucks, generators and fans used as big vacuums to suck the mining debris out of the opal mines and into the big hopper on the right of the truck. The hopper has a spring loaded hinge on the bottom and as soon as the weight of the opal bearing ore is heavy enough it drops into the cone shaped pile beneath.

5/25/07 Got very serious about searching for parcels today and went around to several miners’ residences…some were home and some were out, but I was able to see many parcels.  Some were suitable and priced right, but many weren’t.  I’m glad I made the decision to spend extra time in Coober this year to be more choosey about opal.

Bumped into another miner outside the Opal Inn Motel who had a small but absolutely stunning parcel from Mintabie.  I could tell by the opal this was from the Old Field and was probably mined in the 70’s as that field been exhausted for years.  And the price was right!!  It’s great to be able to find top gem material…that’s the hardest job in opal buying.  Lots of low grade around, but the gem grades are rare.  Maybe 1%-2% of precious opal found in South Australia is top gem material.

Went out to dinner at Tom & Mary’s Greek Taverna (my favorite Coober Pedy restaurant) with a Trevor and had ½ dozen fresh oysters along with the Barramundi fish dinner…!

May 26 2007Opal Air

Local police officer in Coober Pedy investigating the break-in to the Opal Air hangar and the theft of their tow vehicle.

Local police officer in Coober Pedy investigating the break-in to the Opal Air hangar and the theft of their tow vehicle.

5/26/07 Very exciting day today!  Had a trip scheduled with Opal Air to take a flight over the opal-fields in Coober Pedy for aerial shots of new active mining areas…for our website gallery. When I got to the airport (very small airport with only 1 hanger…which was Opal Air’s) the hanger had been broken into and their 4-wheel Quad Runner, used to tow the Cessna 210 in/out of the hanger, had been stolen.  So the police were called and they came out to check for damage and prints (not quite like CSI Miami).  The plane appeared undamaged, but the wing fuel caps had been removed and were just sitting on top of the wings.  So the flight was cancelled for the day and I decided not to rebook just in case something had been put into the gas tanks.

I was called about another parcel from 15 Mile Field.  Went over to have a look and was delighted that it was, again, spectacular material and the price, although a bit on the steep side, was affordable.  This was the kind of material I had been looking for…bright, kicky, and multi-color with a nice dark base.  Yes…I do love opals!!

Next was the big tea and auction at the TAFE that’s run as a fundraiser for local cancer treatment.  Bid and got several items as gifts for friends back home.  And it was certainly for a good cause.  As I was heading back to the campervan I ran into an American father/daughter bicyclist team that were biking the Stuart Highway from Adelaide to Darwin…about 3,000km.  They said they had been fighting strong headwinds all day and had only averaged about 8 MPH.  And they had done 80 miles that day…. that’s a long time in the saddle.  Maybe I’ll use a bike instead of a campervan next year ;-)).

 

May 27 2007Opal Ridge Field And Church

The Opal Factory...one of the many opal shops in Coober Pedy.  I like the VW "bug".

The Opal Factory...one of the many opal shops in Coober Pedy. I like the VW "bug".

5/27/07 Woke at 4:00AM unable to return to sleep and finished reading Jeffrey Deaver’s “The Coffin Dancer”.  This was a fast page-turner, Lincoln Rhyme novel with a very surprising, though barely plausible ending.  Up early showered and walked about town for a few pictures and breakfast at the lovely Desert Inn Motel.  The gift shop here has a splendid collection of opals and opal jewelry.  But the price seemed a bit high even for Coober Pedy standards. After breakfast I walked down Hutchison Street (named after Willie Hutchison who discovered the opal deposit here in 1914) about a mile or so to the Episcopalian Catacombs Church for the 9:30 service.  This church was dug out of the local Bulldog Shale in which opal is found.  Don’t know if they found any opal during construction, but I’d like to think so.

Then rode down to the new Opal Ridge Field, with a miner friend, Sam Seekamp. This field is producing some black opal similar to what’s coming out of nearby Allan’s Rise.  And Allan’s Rise opal is similar to blacks from Lightning Ridge.  The parcel I bought from Allan’s Rise earlier had a grade with black rubs that I absolutely couldn’t tell from rubs from the Lightning Ridge/Grawin area.  Lots of test drilling going on here, but not too many active mines.  The word is that the opal deposits here are very patchy and small (tucker parcels), but a good black parcel can command an incredible price.  I might get a chance to get down into one of the working mines in that field next week.

May 28 200715 Mile Field Opal Parcel

Looking up from the bottom of an open cut at Opal Ridge opal-field at the southern end of the Coober Pedy Precious Stone Field.

Looking up from the bottom of an open cut at Opal Ridge opal-field at the southern end of the Coober Pedy Precious Stone Field.

5/28/07 Looked at a couple of parcels today and was very pleased to find more Lambina opal for sale.  This parcel was a combination of dark base and crystal with some VERY interesting fire patterns…that’s what makes opal fascinating.  And the miner offered me a price I couldn’t refuse.  So with another Lambina parcel under my belt I picked up a parcel of lower grade jelly opal from 15 Mile Diggings.  This was 96 ounces of a mix of potch and color and low/mid-grade BIG chunky pieces.  This would be great material for large carvings as well as beads or just plain big cabochon cutting.  I’ve filled my top gem grade needs as well as low grade, so with mid/semi-gem grades in mind I had a look at 21 ounce parcel of 15 mile Field material in medium sizes that will be graded out into the $400-$600 range.  That’s a hard grade of opal to find.  Much of it is sold to China to be cut into commercial stones (or a bit higher) for the American market.  Again I was pleased to find a parcel I needed at a good price.  Closed the evening out at dinner with Trevor Berry and his Rose at Tom and Mary’s Greek Taverna.  Great meal indeed!

May 29 2007Opal Carving Class At The TAFE

Another unique opal shop along Hutchison Street in Coober Pedy.

Another unique opal shop along Hutchison Street in Coober Pedy.

5/29/07 The wind came up about 11:00PM with a storm coming in from the west.  Since this is the great red center of Australia and very dry it turned into a sandstorm and then a bit of rain…but not much rain.  Severe weather is always dramatic in a campervan and it was rocking with the wind.  In the morning I found the interior of the van covered with a thin layer of red dust and grit.

TAFE

Several students learning cabochon cutting at the TAFE in Coober Pedy.  Unfortunately the opal cutting curriculum at the TAFE has now been closed.

Cleaned up the van, made coffee, had a bit of cereal for breakfast.  Peviously had made plans to take a 3 hour opal carving class from Stuart Jackson…a master cutter/carver at the TAFE in Coober Pedy who’s developed new techniques (and tools) to use in carving.  I plan to pass this knowledge along to students in my cutting classes.  This class is kind of a train the trainer sort of thing.  After a lamb yuro & chips lunch at John’s Pizza, I headed back to the campervan to pack opals for posting off to the USA.  I was then off to the Miners Store for groceries and back to the campervan for supper (or tea as they call it in Australia).  Opal Air called and the pilot, Connor, was planning a flight over the opalfields in the morning and wanted to know if I was interested in splitting the flight costs with another person.  My answer was yes.

May 30 2007Flying Over The Opalfields

Birds eye view of the Coober Pedy Opalfields.  I think this may be 17 Mile Field, but it's just a guess.

Birds eye view of the Coober Pedy Opalfields. I think this may be 17 Mile Field, but it's just a guess.

5/30/07 Up early to have brekkie and wait for a 7:30 phone call from Connor of Opal Air.  He said he’d call to confirm if the weather was cooperating and the flight was a go. The phone call was on time and the flight was on.  Connor picked me up at the Opal Inn Caravan Park and we went out to the Airport.  Once we got there the airport was alive with activity.  I doubt that Coober Pedy had seen this much air traffic in 10 years.  It seemed a men’s group of pilots (and their aircraft) had been stranded in Coober Pedy due to inclement weather the last 2 days.  There were 3 helicopters, 1 WWII vintage RAAF trainer, 1 cool experimental aircraft with an engine on the rear pushing instead of pulling and several Cessna class aircraft of 4-seater design.  Well, there were 4 of us for the flight and the weather was absolutely perfect.  We climbed into the small 6 seater Cessna 210, donned our headsets and buckled our seatbelts.  And we were off into the not so wild blue yonder.  The flight was incredibly smooth…not a bit of wind this morning.  It was fascinating to see the opalfields from the air.  We passed over Hans Peak, Greek Gully, 8 Mile, 14 Mile, 15 Mile, 16 Mile, 17 Mile and onto The Breakaways: a local attraction that’s a lot like our badlands.  I took photo’s about as fast as the camera would go.  Great trip except it was over too soon…thank you opal air!  Would have been great to fly up to Mintabie, but the price tag on that jaunt would be about $450.00.  This short trip was only $100.00 including a little tip for Connor.  Maybe another year I can take a flight up to Mintabie to view a parcel or two and do it via Opal Air.  As we arrived back at the airport the plane club was just preparing to depart, so we were able to watch the group take off while we were standing adjacent to the runway.

EZ

A Rutan VariEZE spotted at the airport in Coober Pedy.  I was able to have a first hand look at this unique home-built kit plane.

Then back to the caravan park, over to the bank for a few extra dollars for the journey back home.  Laundry was a chore that needed tackling today so I spent a couple hours at the worlds most expensive Laundromat ($4.00 to wash each load and $1.00 for 7 minutes of dryer time).  I wiled away the hours with a visit to John and Yoka…opal miners and good friends.  Then over to Tim’s for a receipt for a parcel I bought and forgot to get the receipt…very important.  I also wanted a visit with Anne Johnson.  We stayed with Joe and Anne’s Dugout B&B during our first trip to Oz and they have since become good friends.  After a nice visit, I filled the campervan with water at the water treatment plant. Coober Pedy has several bores (wells) drilled into a deep artesian aquifer.  Unfortunately the water that comes out of these wells is salty.  So it’s run through an expensive reverse osmosis treatment plant.   One benefit of this is that they have wonderful drinking water…tastes like bottled water…but it is expensive.

Headed south on the Stuart Highway at about 2:00PM with plans to make it as far as Glendambo.  But hunger got the best of me and I ended up stopping at the Bon Bon rest area about 50 Kilometers north of Glendambo…where I stayed on my journey north to Coober Pedy.  There were about 10 other campers and caravaners already camped there so there was safety in numbers at this rest area.  Had a dinner of lamb, potatoes and mixed stir-fried vegetables.  My plans are to visit the Yorke Peninsula, as my flight doesn’t depart until 6/5/07.  I haven’t seen that area of South Australia so it seemed like a great place to while away a few extra days.  Seems like I always have this predicament…buy the opals too quickly and have extra time left over at the end of the trip.  But this trip’s planned visit with Dan and Patsy in Mintabie was cancelled as Dan was just leaving for Alice Springs for an extended stay due to dental work.  That would have made my timing about right…if that trip hadn’t of been cancelled.

But opals have been posted home, most of my money’s gone and I’m now on holiday…if only Darlene were along :-( .

 

May 31 2007

Stopped at a rest area on my journey down to Port Pirie for a hike and to stretch my aching back and photograph the beautiful, serene landscape with contrasting red sand.

Stopped at a rest area on my journey down to Port Pirie for a hike and to stretch my aching back and photograph the beautiful, serene landscape with contrasting red sand.

5/31/07 Left the Bon Bon rest area north of Glendambo about 7:30AM.   Stopped in Glendambo for $80.00 worth of diesel and brewed a pot of coffee.  Uneventful trip…didn’t see any ‘roos or emus.  But I guess that’s a good thing as sometimes you see them just as they are leaping in front of your vehicle.  I stopped in Port Augusta for more fuel and stopped at our favorite roadside fruit-stand for veggies and fruit.  Pulled into Port Pirie where I spent the night at the lovely caravan park on the bay.  But I visited the local fish market and picked up some Spencer Gulf Snapper, 1 dozen oysters on the half shell, a whole smoked calamari and 3 big calamari steaks.  Love the Spencer Gulf seafood.  Tomorrow I will be heading down through Port Broughton, Walleroo, Moonta and spend the night at Edithburgh…I think.  Don’t you love the names of Australian towns?

Jun 01 2007Port Pirie To Edithburg

Set up at the immaculate Edithburg Caravan Park.  This was a lovely area, with cool breezes off Gulf St. Vincent.

Set up at the immaculate Edithburg Caravan Park. This was a lovely area, with cool breezes off Gulf St. Vincent.

6/01/07 Had a couple cups of strong coffee at 8:00AM and on the road by 8:30.  Headed south along the Yorke Peninsula from Port Pirie.  Ate a late “Just Right” cereal breakfast, at a cozy gum tree surrounded rest area around 10:00AM near Walleroo.  This country is mostly sheep and croplands in a rolling hill setting. It’s very green this year from plentiful rain that’s been falling recently.  The homes here are quaint brick or stone construction with red tiled roofs.  I expected to see more grape vineyards as we’ve seen along the Yorke Peninsula, but that was not to be.

EdithburgTown

Clean, quaint and quiet…the lovely main street of Edithburgh South Australia.

Beautiful Edithburgh and the scenic seaside Edithburgh Caravan Park was my destination for  tonight.  Ended the evening with a meal of Spencer Gulf Snapper, boiled potatoes and broccoli.

Jun 02 2007Edithburgh To Port Wakefield

Low tide below the cliff shoreline of Port Vincent...an active copper mining town.

Low tide below the cliff shoreline of Port Vincent...an active copper mining town.

6/02/07-6/03/07 When I finally got back on the road I took the scenic coast road, along Gulf St. Vincent from Edithburgh to Port Wakefield.  Stopped in Port Vincent to brew a small pot of coffee and fix a quick brunch.  This is a nice, quaint city with towering high cliffs overlooking the ocean and a long jetty extending out into the sea.  And it appeared that copper mining was the industry in this town with an active mine just south of the city proper.  With a very sore back from the un-ergonomic seats in this campervan, I made Port Wakefield about 1:00PM.  The usually deserted caravan park was indeed busy with a caravan club occupying the good bay-side powered sites.  Spent 2 days here as I was ahead of schedule and my flight wasn’t to leave for 3 days.  And I occupied my time walking about this old lead shipping port city and cleaning the campervan for its return to the depot in Adelaide.

Jun 04 2007Port Wakefield To Glenelg

Looking back from the end of the pier to Jetty Rd in Glenelg.

Looking back from the end of the pier to Jetty Rd in Glenelg.

6/04/07 With a VERY clean campervan, I drove through intermittent rain showers into busy Adelaide.  A contrast from the almost deserted outback roads I’d been travelling.  Missed a couple of turns (as usual), but eventually found the AAM depot.  I would certainly recommend this company to anyone traveling in Oz.  A polite taxi driver took me to the Ensenada Motel on Jetty Road in Glenalg (Adelaide suburb on the south beach).  This is a very nice shopping/dining area of Adelaide.  A delightful lunch and supper was enjoyed at an upscale restaurant near the pier.

Jun 05 2007Leaving Australia

6/05/07 The alarm woke me at 5:00AM and I caught my taxi at 6:00AM.  Always my goal, I arrived with ample time to spare at the Adelaide Airport. I get a bit nervous when I fly, so the extra time before the flight allows me to settle in and relax…instead of rushing through security and to the gate. Security is a bit different here as they allow people to greet passengers at the gates and you don’t have to remove your shoes. This makes a lot of sense…but somehow we’ve gotten the mindset in the USA that to even question our extreme security measures is unpatriotic.  The flight to Sydney (Boeing 737-800) was on time as well as the flight to LAX out of Sydney (Boeing 747-400).  Uneventful flights so far, as I’m writing this portion over the Pacific Ocean just south of Fiji, about 4 hours into the international flight with 5,400 miles yet to go.  And if you’re reading this I made the rest of the trip OK.