Author DaQuaPart 2

Faith Goes Underground and So Do I

All sense of time and season, (and I daresay reason, for some), is lost when you are in a Dug Out. There is no light of day or dark of night; there is no sweltering desert brow, nor frozen toes at night. Everything remains the same – with an ambient temperature of 24°C day or night.

Some of the original dug outs have been made by hand tools – if you wanted to extend your living space you burrowed further into the hillside.

I come from a family of five generations of miners. My grandfather had a pit pony and a lamp and would mine for coal, as did his father and grandfather before him and before that, my Dad also worked the coal face before being drafted into National Service as a young man. Mining was responsible for my parents meeting in 1957 – My Dad on an annual two-week miners camp holiday at a welsh seaside and my Mum working there. The rest is history. My youngest brother ultimately became a mining and tunnel engineer, working on underground rail networks in London and Birmingham and now in Auckland. We were a family who were used to going underground.

It is said that there are those that go to Coober to ‘go to ground’ – to escape some murky dark past, or reality of the present, or to follow the gleam of the gem; either way they stay hidden. In fact you could be lost forever in one of those shafts.

As I settled in for the night I mused on this, and the myriad of homes burrowed into the hillsides, the countless claims staked, the open shafts, down-drops to either hell or heaven. Surprisingly, it was the best night’s sleep I had had in a long time. I felt like the mole in the hole….. snug and secure. Although the nurse in me wondered whether people should take Vitamin D supplements – spending so much time underground.

Underground, was going to be the theme for the few short waking hours I had in Coober Pedy before hitting that track for the next 542 km drive. My hosts had told me that there were a number, of underground churches in Coober worthy of visiting, as well as the exhibition underneath the Desert Cave Hotel in the centre of town, and a rather unique golf course (the mind boggled). I made it to two of the churches and vowed to save the catholic church for my return drive in a few weeks.

First was the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, the Church of St Elijah the Prophet, open 24 hours a day with piped music to further set the mood. I wasn’t going at night! In Wales, neighbouring properties are referred to as being next door, or next door but one – here – well – the Cathedral was the next hillside but one…. just over the hill in that hill behind my dug out.

Built in 1993. Passage way out – there is something so symbolic about going down into a place held sacred and coming back up into the light of day.

A short drive through dusty streets, with driveways and doorways that disappear into the hillsides, and I found the second church – the Catacomb Church of Coober Pedy, named after the catacombs in Rome that were principally used for burial by Jews from the 1st Century AD and by the 2nd. Century also by Christians. This however, was dug out by dedicated Anglicans in the mid 1970s – to escape the heat and to welcome sinners – who doubtless were roaming the opal fields….

One can’t help but reflect on the years of persecution when churches and faiths were forced underground quite literally – human made subterranean passageways and caverns for religious practice and burials.

My fasting before visiting the churches was unintentional but made me smile and my stomach rumble – countless Catholic Holy Days and fasting days as a child flooded back.  It was time to find the Desert Cave Hotel, for the underground exhibition, and then somewhere for breakfast.

I came across the Desert Cave Hotel in the main shopping street of the town and had to look twice…… here in the middle of this dusty outback opal mining town stood an international standard hotel – with spacious airy reception halls and hanging chandeliers, staircases, and polished stone hallways that gleamed their way underground. Behind the floor to ceiling glass, shops, the like of which you see on cruise ships (those things that have gone sorely out of fashion since Covid-19 took to the seas), sparkled and shone with light and cabinets of fire filled gems for sale. 

It seemed all so incongruous with the town outside the walls, and yet, maybe it reflected the dreams and riches that had, and are still, made today in the Opal fields, and the international tourism that surrounds it – pre-Covid-19. These days you are more likely to bump into someone from Adelaide, Alice or Darwin making a road trip home, than you are some wealthy international tourist.

Breakfast just had to be taken in the Crystal Cave Café before I took my leave of this town where real-life inspiration for artists, writers and movie makers, was in abundance, and with it a ready-made cast of characters. I clearly had a few movies to catch up on – on location.

There was a certain childlike thrill to driving the ute (that still remains nameless), along the quarry like roads, as I took my leave of Coober (with the promise to spend more time on my way back – and maybe even check out the prices of the Desert Cave Hotel….. and gems).

Back on track and the Stuart Highway cut through kilometre, after kilometre of opal fields, claims, open shafts, and active mining operations. It reminded me the days when my Dad, living in Wales, had a haulage truck – Molly the Morris (note to self: I really should name my daughter’s ute). He would drive the winding dusty roads that cling, carved into the side of quarries, to collect the stone or sand, that he would then trek across the north west. I loved to clambour up into the seat next to him; I can still see the jerking of the gear shift, that appeared to have a life, and grating voice of its own, and feel the shaking of the cab, as if roused, snoring from a deep sleep, whenever he started her up. I loved Molly and I am loving this road trip.

Alice to Auburn – the Audacity of Adventure | Day Two (Coober Pedy) | Coober to the Coast | One People One Country One Dreaming | Serendipity or Cosmic Cartographer? | A Seaside Sojourn of Stories | Auburn Awaits