Trip Report 2012 Australia: Steve and Jim…Coober Pedy or Bust

May 06 2012The 40 hour day….from here to Coober Pedy South Australia

5/6-7/12: Left Billings on a UAL A320…older model, but still very serviceable.  Arrived Denver a few minutes early and due to a 3 hour layover was able to have a delightful meal at the always good Pour La France restaurant on the United Concourse.  On time departure on another UAL flight…a 757 which arrived a few minutes early into LAX.  This was a tight connection and a bit scary as LAX is a difficult airport to navigate with many “outdoor only accessible” terminals that require a lot of walking or a street side shuttle bus which is not easily accessed when encumbered with luggage.  Made it in plenty of time to the Qantas check in where there was no waiting line J .  And the waiting room for the LAX to Sydney flight was nearly empty, where my old friend Jim was waiting for me.  Jim and I grew up together in Richfield MN and attended the same junior high and high school together.  We became rock hounds at an early age and were both members of the Richfield Gem & Mineral Club.  Jim comes out to Billings occasionally where we continue our collecting for both Montana agate and Montana sapphires…lifelong friends and rock hounds.    This year he relented to my pestering to make a trip to Oz with me.

We boarded a spanking new A380 Airbus.  Very modern plane, but seemed like leg room was a bit less than on the 747’s I had been used to flying on previous trips to Oz.  I’m 6’2” so legroom is an issue.  Oh well…flight was smooth with just a little turbulence to make sleeping soothing…if that can ever be said of sleeping in an upright position.  Food was plentiful and tasty on the flight and we arrived on time in Sydney.  Smooth transition through customs and connection to Adelaide was on time.  Made a cleanup stop in the men’s room…washed my face and brushed my teeth and when I returned to the carousel where Jim was waiting with our suitcases, he had smartly arranged a ride with a limo driver whose fare didn’t show on the flight.  So we were able to ride in a luxurious Mercedes limo, at a discount, to Around Australia Motorhomes (AAM) where we would pick up our small minivan-camper conversion.  On checking prices for car rentals earlier I’d found that the minivan-camper conversion was as cheap as a car rental.  We wouldn’t sleep in the campervan, but if we wanted to stop and have a quick lunch or brew a pot of coffee, there was a stove and small refrigerator available.  And there was more room for rocks.

We were both tired from our travel, but our first stop before sleeping was Port Pirie.  After navigating the heavy traffic of Adelaide, Port Pirie is about a 3-4 hour trip north on the Stuart Highway and is a beautiful quaint town on Spenser Gulf.  I’d stayed there on many previous trips and truly enjoy Port Pirie…population about 13,000.  Port Pirie is the site of the largest lead smelter in the world.  The ore is mined in Broken Hill Queensland and transported to Port Pirie for smelting.   And PP has an abundance of fresh seafood caught in Spencer Gulf and nearby waters, available at Slattery’s Seafood Market just off of the pier. Unfortunately my favorite place to stay in PP, John Pirie Motor Inn was full so they recommended Bentley’s Cabin Park instead.  With all the amenities one would need-even a kitchen with refrigerator and cooking facilities-this was 4 stars by my standards.  Fell into bed and asleep by 6:30PM.

 

May 09 2012Port Pirie to Coober Pedy…a kangaroo with a sore tail

Blower Working On 6 Mile Diggings In The Coober Pedy Opal Fields

Blower Working On 6 Mile Diggings In The Coober Pedy Opal Fields

5/9/13 (lost 5/8 crossing the dateline): Woke at 5:30 to the raucous sound of Galahs in the trees around the cabins…love Galahs.  They are an almost goofy type of cockatoo with a rose colored breast and grey back and a mobile pink crest.   VERY common birds and considered pests by farmers from the damage they can do to crops. 

Jim and I went to McDonalds for Breakfast that morning and I had a large coffee (long black in Australia…long white has milk) and egg McMuffin and it was AU$10.00.  Food is expensive in Australia, especially this year as the exchange rate between the US$ and AU$ is poor.  The first trip I made to Australia was in 1999 and you could buy an Aussie dollar for US$.60.  This year it was US$1.05 for and Aussie dollar.  That’s one reason for the high cost of Australian opal.  We made it to Wal-Mart to pick up a cheap mobile phone and charger and a couple of CD’s for the long drive to Coober Pedy.

 Got a late start on the road after all our stops and ended up driving part of the way in the dark.  This is not recommended in Australia…lots of kangaroos on the roads at dusk and after dark.  Almost hit a kangaroo after filling with gas at Glendambo.  We later found blood on the side of the campervan, so we indeed did run over his tail…ouch.  After checking into the Mud Hut Motel in Coober we had a late supper at Johns Pizza bar.  John’s Pizza Bar has excellent Greek and Italian food and is my usual lunch stop while in town. 

JimInJohnsPizza2012

Jim patiently waiting for pizza at one of my favorite places in Coober…John’s Pizza Bar…great pizza and great Greek dishes.  I love the gyro (spelled yuro on their menu) sandwiches here.  They have the BEST homemade tzatziki sauce.

Coober Pedy (population 1700) is a small outback town whose livelihood is based largely on opal mining.  Or I should say mining in general.  Several large ore mines, within a radius of 150km, have opened in the last few years.  And exploration is continuing in the area for iron, copper, gold and uranium.  Many of the younger opal miners we’ve bought opal from, in past years, have gone to the large ore mines where dependable wages, exceeding $100,000/per starting salary can be found.  Due to this and Australia’s flourishing economy, has caused a big drop in precious opal production.  And Coober has a unique past time sport…golfing in the desert outback.  At the Coober Pedy Opalfields Golf Club golf is mostly played at night with internally lit balls, to avoid HOT daytime temperatures – it’s completely grassless, and golfers take a small piece of “turf” around to use for teeing off.

May 10 2012In Search of Opal…..

Coober Pedy by air

Coober Pedy by air

5/10/13: Had brekkie (Australian slang for breakfast) at the Mud Hut Motel where we were staying…eggs with toast, rashers of bacon, fried tomato and fresh squeezed orange juice…seems like everything tastes better in Australia.  We ran over to Trevor Berry’s Old Timers Mine for a visit.  Trevor is an old friend who started out in the opal business about the same time we did.  Met Trevor on our first trip to Australia and became good friends with Trevor and his wife Rose.  Darlene and I went mining with Trevor and his partner Brian Sparrow (the old curmudgeon with a heart of gold) and also with another friend of Trevor’s-David Wolfe…who now works with Trevor at the Old Timers Mine.  Trevor knew some miners who had a couple of parcels for sale from Zorba field and I bought both with only a small amount of haggling over the price.  We stopped in to visit another miner who had 5 parcels for sale in my price range.  This was starting to turn into a very good opal buying trip!  Good opal at fair prices.  One of the parcels we looked at was from the newly discovered opal field Donna’s Rush.  This was GREAT opal!!  The tops were spectacular…just what I wanted to find.  Donna’s Rush opalfield was named after John’s daughter Donna who tragically died in a swimming accident in 2009.   The delightful day was topped off with delightful meal with Trevor and Jim at Tom & Mary’s Greek Taverna.  The Barramundi was great and the Greek desert was spectacular.

May 11 2012More Time in Coober…..

5/11/13: Up at 6:30 and another clear bright day in the mid 70’s.  I made my coffee in our large motel room kitchen.  I always carry my own small 4 cup percolator coffee pot as Australian’s don’t use drip coffee pots…mostly it’s instant coffee or espresso type coffee.  And the room had a full kitchen, refrigerator and 2 separate bedrooms so we could split the costs.  Today was laundry and opal packing and shipping day.  Washed 2 loads of laundry and hung them out to dry on clothes lines provided at the motel.  Carefully packed our precious opals and ran them over to the post office to be shipped home to the USA.  Then we had a late breakfast at The Desert Cave Hotels Crystal Café.  A bit expensive…ok…a lot expensive.  But it’s THE place to stay in Coober Pedy…lots of stars and room price about $250/night.  Lunch was taken at the 24 hour gas station Ampol Roadhouse.

Drove out to the 14 Mile Road and toured the 14 Mile opalfield.  Did a bit of noodling (looking for opals on the mine dumps), but didn’t find much.  But we did find some great gypsum specimens.  Jim and I both took lots of pics of the mining areas and old mining equipment that I find fascinating.  Back to Coober for a visit with miner John to check on road conditions to the old working at Lambina.  John thought there were a couple of miners still working there and he knew of one miner who was working at Broken Leg opalfield very close to Lambina.  Jim and I had decided to rent a heavy duty V8 diesel 4wd Toyota Landcruiser ute (similar to a pickup truck) for the long rough ride to the Lambina opalfields.   The Mud Hot Motel rents them to mineral exploration companies prospecting around Coober.  Very manly vehicle!  Supper at Tom and Mary’s and back to the Mud Hut Motel to prepare for tomorrows trip to Lambina.

May 12 2012Coober Pedy to Mintabie…..

New Mintabie Old Field workings...one of the largest open-cut diggings in Mintabie history.

New Mintabie Old Field workings...one of the largest open-cut diggings in Mintabie history.

5/12/12 Left for Lambina at first light…didn’t want to hit another ‘roo.  235km to Marla where we turn onto the Oodnadatta Track for about 10km then onto a single lane trail through the outback for 30km further.  I’d been on this road in 2003, when opal was plentiful in Lambina.  The scenery along the way was astonishingly beautiful…rugged escarpments, bright red outback soil, tall termite mounds and flocks of bright green lorikeets. But today the road was barred and a sign posted stated that for admittance a notice must be posted to the station owner 21 days in advance.

What to do now?  Mintabie wasn’t far away…45 kilometers west of Marla.  So we decided to visit Mintabie where I had some old friends living…Dan and Patsy Tucker. My wife Darlene and I had met Dan and Patsy in 2007 when taking an opal carving class from Stuart Jackson at the TAFE in Coober Pedy.  And you just never know…Dan may know a miner with the odd parcel for sale.  I do like Mintabie opal…very hard and stable.  So we made the drive to Mintabie and stopped in at Dan and Patsy’s camp…and they were both home!  Dan and Patsy are expat Americans who moved to Australia in the late 60’s.  Dan taught school for many years in Alice Springs and fell into opal mining during his summer months off from school.  After retirement they moved to Mintabie on a full time basis and have lived there ever since.  Dan turned 81 in 2012 and is still mining with a partner.  But alas, he didn’t know of any miners with opal currently for sale.  But he did know of a miner, Max Noveli, who was on opal in a HUGE open cut mine at the Old Field.  So we took a drive up to see his mine and it was HUGE!  They must have gone down over 100 feet exposing old tunnel working at the sides of the mine.  This was impressive.  They were working the mine while were there so we stayed clear of the bulldozers…big D9 Caterpillars.  Dan also reported that 3 companies were still mining opal in Mintabie.

Headed back to Coober and turned west on the Clarence MT road to have a look at the new Donna’s Rush Field.  But we just didn’t drive far enough along the road to get to the actual field.  It was starting to get dark and we didn’t want to risk another close encounter with a ‘roo.  But Jim did get some pics of emus with a telephoto lens!  Stopped in at the Old Timers Mine and had a visit with Trevor.  Supper was at the newly reopened Chinese restaurant…just ok…nothing to write home about.  They charged extra for a glass of ice water…yes, I know…I don’t get it either??  But it’s certainly not a typical Aussie custom anymore than it is in the USA.  Back to our lodgings at the Mud Hut Motel where I retired early…still a bit jet lagged…or it could be the long drive to Lambina and Mintabie…or both.

May 13 2012Noodling in Coober…..

Jim Noodling in Coober Pedy

Jim Noodling in Coober Pedy

5/13/12: Breakfast at the Mud Hut Motel again…I ordered the BIG breakfast…fried eggs, fried tomatoes (an Aussie custom), rashers of bacon and sausage and whole meal toast (whole wheat)…great breakfast here.  Jim had spaghetti on toast…another Aussie custom.  He was a bit disappointed though as he thought the spaghetti tasted like Chef Boyardee from the can…guess it’s the Australian way.  But the motel has a REAL chef and serves great food.  The hours are limited and you must mind the time to get a meal.  Its run by a husband and wife team (plus extra hired staff) who are genuinely friendly and always make you feel comfortable and welcome.  I would recommend this place to anyone visiting Coober Pedy.  This motel is a true oasis in Australia’s beautiful red centre.  One of the Australia episodes of Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe showed the crew staying here at the Mud Hut Motel.  In fact, Mike worked in an underground opal mine with miners we knew and bought opal from on this trip.  You might want to see if you can catch it on Discovery Channel.

We cleaned up the campervan and our room in preparation for our departure the next day.  And stopped by John’s place and asked if we could take him and his wife to dinner that night, but as it was Mother’s Day they had previous plans.  Visited with Trevor at The Old Timers Mine and went out to the Black Flag opalfield to do a bit of noodling with John’s brother Greg.  Found a few small chips with color, but nothing exciting or cuttable.  Flies were bad out on the opalfield.  They don’t bite, but are a nuisance.  Stopped at John’s Pizza for lunch and I had a delicious Gyro sandwich with chips (chips are French fries here and our potato chips are called crispies).

We ran over to visit Tim Seekamp and his father Collin.  I believe Collin is in his 70’s and really did well in the 1960’s mining opal with his 2 brothers at Turkey Ridge.  They really hit it big.  The brothers then went up to Queensland and mined gold for a few years and did well here as well.  Colin later moved to the Murray River country north of Adelaide and bought a farm where his 2 sons Sam and Tim grew up.  Sam and Tim, following in their fathers footsteps, moved to Coober a few years ago to try their luck at the prized Olympic opal field.  Probably the worst thing that could happen to them did happened here at their mine…they found a VERY nice parcel of beautiful crystal opal and got a bad case of opal fever.  They tried their hand at opal mining for a few years and eventually both brothers got high paying jobs at the large ore mines in the area.  But Tim still works the occasional opal mine on his time off from his day job.  Tim showed us his latest opal parcel from Turkey Ridge.  The tops were for sale, but his asking price was too high…$6,000.00/ounce.  Nice opal, but not that nice.  I liked the tops in the parcel from Donna’s Rush I bought better.  But Tim’s opal did have beautiful red and blues in a clear crystal base.  It was tempting, but I wouldn’t be able to sell any of it at that price….just admire the stones at home…well, maybe.

Jim and I stopped by another miners place and bought a large mixed grade 50 ounce opal parcel from Vino Field.  This parcel was a mix of potch and color and medium quality large stones…a good buy for our customer base.

May 14 2012Good Bye Coober…..

5/14/12: Left Coober Pedy for our drive back to Adelaide to turn in our campervan and catch our flights home on May 17.  Did make one more stop at Tim Seekamp’s dugout to have another look at that parcel.  Gorgeous stuff!!  On the road again…stopped in Glendambo and Pimba Roadhouse for fuel.  Spent the night at Bentley Cabin Park and had a delightful Barramundi fish dinner…Jim had the kangaroo and emu plate…excellent food at John Pirie Motor Inn.  Jim won at cribbage.

May 15 2012Port Pirie to Port Wakefield and Clare Valley Wine Region Tour

5/15/12:  Brekkie at McDonalds and washed clothes at the Laundromat nearby.  Stopped and picked up smoked fish and fresh food at fruit market on the way down to Port Wakefield.  After checking into the Port Wakefield Caravan Park we toured the nearby Clare Valley wine region.  Had lunch in Auburn and decided to make reservations at the highly recommended Rising Sun Hotel.  Wonderful food!  I would heartily recommend the restaurant in the Rising Sun Hotel in Clare, but reservations are needed!  The cabins at the Port Wakefield Caravan Park weren’t clean (lots of spider webs) and the bed was jammed into a tiny room…very overpriced for the poor accommodations.

May 16 2012Port Wakefield to Adelaide…Staying in Glenelg on Jetty Road…..

Beautiful sunset photo taken from the pier at the end of Jetty Road in Glenelg.

Beautiful sunset photo taken from the pier at the end of Jetty Road in Glenelg.

5/16/12:  Next day was a short drive into Adelaide.  After turning our campervan into AAM we caught a taxi to Glenelg Jetty Road area where we were booked into the Best Western Ensenada Motor Inn and Suites.  I had stayed there on many previous trips as its comfortable and clean and close to both the great shopping and eating locations on Jetty road and the airport for the next day’s early flights home.  Jim was able to get some gorgeous sunset photos of the pier and sailboats coming into Adelaide.  I do love the Glenelg area and the beaches here…great place to walk along the well groomed paths just off the beach and unwind from the busy opal buying trip.