Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The character(s) of The Outback

I’d expected The Outback to be full of crusty characters. Most of the people seem to be pretty standard-issue humans. But every now and then, you bump up against someone so thoroughly shaped by the remoteness of this place that you understand how the stereotype got its start.

The opal mining town of Coober Pedy is a likely spot for encountering individualists. Though opal mining apparently doesn’t hold the romantic strike-it-rich lure for the Gameboy generation, some of the older guys retain a rough-and-ready spirit. This is, after all, a place where most people live underground (defense against extreme temps both summer and winter) and there’s a golf course made entirely from desert sand.

Crocodile Harry is one of the old timers. About 3 km past a sign that says “Danger: Do not Enter’’ lies Harry’s “nest,’’ a testament to Harry’s raucous youth of croc hunting in the north of the country and later, woman hunting here near Coober Pedy. His lair was used for the movie Mad Max; it’s decidedly funky, and covered with “love notes’’ from women who have, shall we say visited, and left behind souvenirs in the form of undergarments. Today Harry is a dapper older gentleman in an ascot charging $2 per head for tourist drop-ins; a truely unique dirt roadside attraction.

Dave Westneat is another of the staunch sort. Twenty-eight years ago he stopped in Coober Pedy to visit a buddy; nearly three decades later he’s still digging in the mud in search of the elusive beauty of opals. I found Dave at Tom’s Working Mine Tour, where in between digs he explains the complex art-cum-obsession of opal mining. The guiding work is an antidote to what he calls miners’ AIDS: Acute Income Deficiency Syndrome.

Dave’s advice: “Never take up a mining pick. If you want opals, go to the shop and buy them. It’s a lot cheaper and you’ll get them a lot quicker.’’


Photo: A dirt "green" at the Coober Pedy golf course.

1 comment:

Laura Boyd said...

Gosh, Jane. Here in Oklahoma that is pretty normal. No, actually, I really am jealous of this trip.