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|News from Downunder 2004 - Part 2
Adelaide and South Australia
We flew across from Perth to Adelaide with Qantas - the flight was slightly disappointing after the last International Qantas flight. It was an older style 737-400 aircraft with less space in the seats, lacked in choice of entertainment and did not include free drinks with the meal. There were also $3 charges for the baggage trolleys at both ends in the Qantas terminals, something I have never seen before in an airport - overall perhaps some early signs of an airline in financial difficulties. The flight landed ahead of schedule due to strong tail winds and we found that there had been an unusual 1 hour 30 minute time shift between Western and South Australia.
We left in bright sunshine and arrived in low cloud, rain and low temperatures which was not the best introduction to South Australia and the impression was not improved by our taxi ride to the holiday park where we were staying for an couple of days to give us a chance to explore Adelaide before we picked up out camper van. The Adelaide branch of the camper van company was in Marion, just a convenient short walk from the Marion Big4 Holiday Park. The whole area we travelled through was uninspiring with continuous heavy traffic on top of which we suspect that we may have been put on an inflated tariff by the taxi driver as the charges were much higher than we had expected from information from the holiday park. On arrival, the staff at the Marion Big4 Holiday Park were very friendly and helpful and took all our heavy kit across by car and provided lots of useful information. Our ensuite cabin was roomy and reasonably well equipped. We were able to rent our linen.
We went out immediately into the rain and walked 15 minutes to the Marion Westfield Mall to get enough provisions for supper - it was huge, bigger than any I have been in even in the USA and we quickly bought the essentials for the afternoon and evening and even a small coffee plunger. The Mall closed at 1730 but the large Woolworths Foodhall stayed open much later. Once we had walked back, dried out and settled with some nibbles and a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate our eventual arrival things looked up considerably.
We spent much of the following day in Adelaide, the rain had stopped and the skies were mostly blue but temperatures were unseasonably low at 18 degrees. We caught the bus into town which took a while as we were 12 km out but was very economical at $6.40 for an unlimited day ticket. Downtown Adelaide is like Perth and Fremantle in having central area buses which run a frequent series of round trip routes.
We walked round the central area and shopping precincts for a couple of hours including some time in a Vodafone store whilst Pete tried to sort out a tariff which would allow use of the Internet on the PC via the mobile phone
As a short aside it is worth speaking of the about the mobile telephone situation in Australia. In most countries it is cost effective to buy and install a SIM from a local provider rather than roaming from the UK if you are staying for any length of time. We have used Vodafone in other countries and it seemed the best option from our investigations but even so most of the lower cost data options are either not available in Australia or not available to non Australian nationals who have difficulty in satisfying the credit conditions for 'unlimited monthly' (ie 'postpay') bundles and have to use a 'prepay' SIM which currently has restricted data access. The situation was very different to New Zealand where we bought prepay card for $30 with any need for proof of identity, passport etc., and had full access to all facilities including data, international roaming and GPRS. We can use our NZ SIM to access GPRS in the UK and Australia at a cost little more than for occasional use with a SIM from the local providers. Dial-up Internet access is also much more difficult in Australia with quite high hourly costs whilst we are used to free access in the UK (other than telephone connection charges) and when we had invested in we discovered that the numbers used in Australia do not seem to qualify for the special deals on evening calls or extra hours so we still do not have a very economic solution.
During the afternoon we visited the Art Gallery and South Australian Museum. Both were free and very interesting and gave us a better insight into Australia. In particular we found the Museum's extensive series of galleries on two floors covering Australian Aboriginal Cultures. They had a huge range of artefacts as well as film and pictures and explanations of the culture, art, weapons, hunting and fishing techniques. Eventually we tore ourselves away and looked quickly round some of the other galleries covering Polynesian cultures before we left. We were somewhat footsore by then so we took a tour round on one of the free buses to scout out for activities on our return in 5 weeks time before we took the bus back to our cabin via the Marion shopping precinct.
It was then time to pick up our camper from Wicked Campers - if you want to know why they are called Wicked Campers have a look at their web site. We were pleased to find ours had a comparatively restrained colour scheme and we did not have the one with the naked ladies on the side. The van turned out to be a diesel Kia which is well set up inside to turn into an enormous sleeping area with ample storage underneath. The bedding kit which came with it was barely adequate with pillows, sheets and blankets, so we went and bought an $18 duvet and a towel to get by. We subsequently found the water system leaked into the back so we also had to buy a $2 bowl but overall quite satisfactory. As an aside diesel is quite a lot more expensive than petrol in Australia but, of course, that is more than made up for by lower consumption and our engine seems to be quite lively for a diesel. We do 9 kilometres per litre.
Having stocked up with the above essentials and some food we set off towards the Barossa Valley which it may be no surprise to our readers to find it is a wine area, perhaps the best known in Australia. We took a scenic route up the coast past Adelaide and stopped to look at the piers at Brighton and Henley, it was unfortunately far too cold and windy for Pete's first swim.
Our slow progress up the coast meant we arrived at the Fighter Jets Museum at Parafield later than we had hoped but we still had nearly an hour to look round. The collection is quite small but the aircraft are an interesting mix and included several types we had not seen close to including a Sabre and a P38 Lightning which was undergoing extensive restoration. Several of the aircraft are in a condition that they could be restored to a flying condition. We were free to move amongst the aircraft and climb up to look into the cockpits although not get in. The museum is clearly run by a very active group of enthusiasts and we spent some time talking to the manager. We have a free entry pass and hope to complete the visit when we pass back through Adelaide on our way back home.
It was then a direct run in the heavy evening traffic North to the Barossa valley where we stayed at The Barossa Valley Tourist Park at Nuriootpa (one of the Top Tourist Park chain that has reciprocal membership with our Kiwi Holiday Park Membership.) We spent some time setting up the van for the first night and cooking the large piece of fish (Ray) we had bought en route. The van turned out to be quite practical as far as sleeping went although we missed the cooker in the back especially as the camp site kitchen was far more basic than we are used to in New Zealand. In the morning we spent some time speaking to a gentleman who turned out to be the chairman of the committee running the camp site - the ground was given to the local people and it is now run by a 'trust' for the council and the profits have all been ploughed back to the community facilities including the magnificent recreation facilities which the camp site is alongside. We also gained insight into the border restrictions which attempt to stop the spread of fruit fly.
We then extended our research into Australian wines in the Barossa, one of the earlier areas of vineyards in Australia with a strong German bias as it was set up by German Lutherans escaping persecution in the 1850s. We started with a visit to Wolf Blass, one of Australia's biggest and best known wine producers both in Australia and in the UK. Even with our preparation we were staggered at the size of the plant when we reached it, huge fermenting and storage tank farms stretching into the distance - we were later told they extended for a kilometre. We arrived just after their new facilities for tasting and exhibition areas opened. They surround a bronze depicting the Eagle Hawk now so famous from their Label. This whole enterprise has grown from Wolf's tiny winery still alongside which he started in 1966 after first spending a couple of years as an iterate winemaker following emigrating from Germany.
We were provided with an excellently tutored tasting and Jarrad Scott who started it took considerable trouble to find out our tastes and experience before starting. We had the advantage of arriving early and well before any of the tours and had the chance to try a wide range of wines in a tasting that lasted two hours - it would be impossible to go into details of every wine, or even remember them if we had not been provided with detailed notes on every wine we tried in a neat folder. Basically we had the opportunity to try examples of many popular varietals in three of their 'ready to drink now' ranges - Yellow Label, President's Selection (export and cellar door only) and Gold Label (trade and Cellar Door only) against each other and understand the philosophy underlying the branding. Interestingly they have now have a Gold range almost entirely for the restaurant trade which has their individual vineyard wines at comparatively favourable prices, a shrewd way of making best use of the wines made in small quantities. We had chosen the middle range with the Blackhawk and Red Label lower down and Grey and Black Labels above.
Overall we were very impressed with the standard of all their wines especially considering the huge production quantities. Those that stood out included a 2004 Gold Label Riesling from the Clare and Eden Valleys, a 2003 Gold label Pinot Noir from Adelaide Hills and the 2002 Gold Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon - we purchased the two reds. The President's selection (export range) wines were consistently less good than the Gold Label Restaurant range and more expensive - the Yellow Label would be a preferable choice in the UK whilst the Eaglehawk Cabernet Sauvignon we have stocked up with in Woolworths at $6 offers exceptional drink now value.
It was now almost time for lunch so we went to Yalumba which we thought had a restaurant - that did not turn out to be the case however we had another fascinating and excellently tutored tasting. Unusually in the Barossa Yalumba was set up up by an Englishman, Sam Smith in 1849 making it Australia's oldest family owned vineyard. Smith started with a few acres and then left to follow the Victoria Goldrush where he made a fortune and returned to invest it in more land and a winery. By the turn of the century the family had built Yalumba into one of Australia's most successful wine companies. Yalumba now also own a number of smaller but discrete companies and wineries and many will recognise Oxford Landing and Angus Brut as well or better than Yalumba in the UK. We also tried examples of wines from their Hill Smith Estate (Sauvignon Blanc 2004) and the Pewsey Vale Vineyard (Riesling 2004) both in the Eden Valley. Under the Yalumba label we tried wines from 5 ranges, starting with 'Yalumba D' OK but overpriced for a Cuvee Close; an unoaked Viognier 2004 from the Y series, a gold medal winning highlight we purchased at $9.10.
We tried too many to cover from the mid range ($15) Yalumba Barossa Range to cover in detail and purchased an exceptional 2000 Eden Valley wild yeast fermented Chardonnay which was lightly oaked (half had 6 months in oak sur lee.) and a Bush Vine Grenache from 70 year old bush vines, some of the oldest Grenache vines in the world. It had an intense varietal character with berry flavours and a touch of spice very drinkable now as we found when we opened the bottle but will continue to improve. We bought a Yalumba Mawson's (after Sir Douglas Mawson) Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz Merlot 2000, again exceptional at $14.95 and turned out to be one of the best we have purchased so far in Australia.. We were also privileged to taste several of their 'Rare and Privileged' limited releases in 'The Menzies' and 'The Signature' labels - both were for laying down and too expensive to contemplate drinking immediately.
We (actually only Pete) had now tasted 26 wines in two sessions each two hours long so lunch was absolutely essential to avoid his taste becoming blunted and we followed a recommendation to try the South Australia Company Store - It was a good choice and Pauline's special of the day, Kangaroo came so rare the blood was running out yet melted in the mouth.
We decided to continue round the wine trail with an emphasis on looking at interesting wineries rather than tasting so our next stop was at Chateau Barrosa set up by Hermann Thrum who had founded Yaldara, another winery we will visit next. He had a fascinating background. He started in his family vineyards then at 19 escaped the Russian revolution by swimming the Arax into Prussia where he invented a new soap from linseed and sunflower oils before helping build the Trans-Persian railway and then established a winery and vineyards near Tehran for a German shipper. He reached Australia as a prisoner of war but quickly put his skills to work making champagne in old beer bottles. Being a Lutheran he got introductions into Barossa and by 1947 had bough an old Mill and set up and in 1948 Yaldara (aboriginal for Sparkling) crushed its first grapes. Hermann at 88 retired and sold Yaldara to concentrate on his pride and joy Chateau Barrosa (and we have spelt it right - look on the picture!). We walked the extensive and beautiful grounds and admired the 25,000 roses so far planted round the Chateau and associated motel and hospitality centre - it is believed to be the biggest rose collection in the Southern Hemisphere. We looked in but refrained from sampling any of the liquors he has made famous.
It was logical to also look in nearby at Yaldara, which has an equally imposing chateau surrounded by landscaped gardens and natural lakes set in 340 acres. We were too late to take one of the guided tours of the Chateau and Cellars but did try a couple of examples of their wines and a port they were proud of but which we found too sweet and caramelised to ever be confused with a real port. The grounds were however magnificent and made the visit worthwhile.
We returned to Nuriootpa and to the same camp site and pitch and watched a pair of plovers dive bombing the local children on the cricket oval we overlooked. In the morning all became clear - they had a couple of chicks hatched the previous day from nesting hollows in the outfield. The local plovers have a very distinctive bright yellow beak and front of the head and we had to enquire what they were.
Our first stop the following day was at Kapunda, a historic Copper mining town. On the way in we saw a gigantic statue in the distance which turned out to be to an 8m bronze figure, Map Kernow (son of Cornwall); a tribute to the Cornish Miners who arrived in large numbers to work the newly discovered copper deposits. There were a number of information boards on Kapunda's mining history alongside the statue and they interested us enough to investigate further when we saw a sigh to the Historic Kapunda Mine. Kapunda Mine was the first successful metal mine in Australia and together with Burra, which we were on our way to visit, largely contributed to the Colonies recovery from economic disaster in the early 1840s. In 1842 a Francis Dutton discovered green copper ore whilst search for stray sheep and he and his neighbour Captain Bagot purchased a section quickly round the area in 1843. Within a short time there were Cornish miners at work, underground mining started and a small mining town quickly developed. Horse drawn whims were soon replaced by Cornish steam engines to pump water and smelting furnaces were set up. By 1851 the population had reached 2000 to rapidly decline as the Victoria Gold rush decimated the population and the mine closed in 1855 then reopened and reached its peak in 1857. Total production was 14000 tons from 64000 tons of dressed ore, a very high 20%.
We walked round the mine trail, a 1.5 km walk past many structures and artefacts all well documented with illustrated display boards - a fascinating introduction to copper mining in Australia. It was clear that Cornish techniques, miners and equipment dominated the mining industry and much of what we saw struck chords with what we have seen in the UK. Kapunda is mid way between the Barossa and Clare wine growing region which was en route to Burra so there was no way we could avoid more vineyards although our enthusiasm had been slightly dampened by the 30 or so wines we had tried in the Barossa. The Clare valley is however a very different area to the Barossa, a series of small boutique wineries whose reputation has been largely built on the Riesling grape.
As a compromise we stopped at a winery for lunch namely Neagle's Rock, a new winery set up in 1997 by Jane Wilson and Steve Wiblin who had 30 years experience in wine marketing. They affectionately called the original block they purchased 'Misery' as it was so run down but now everything has been transformed, they have a production of 7500 cases and one of the highest reputations and success in wine competitions in the Clare valley. Even more important at the time to us was that they have an excellent winery restaurant and we both had some impeccably prepared and cooked venison medallions with scallops. The jus from the rare venison permeated the scallops giving a very different taste. It was Pauline's day to sample and she enjoyed sweeter style Riesling called Sweet Dorothy (after the mother) very reminiscent of a Rhine Scheurebe followed by a good Cab Sauvignon 2002 (***** in Winestate magazine). Pauline tasted a few others including the Reserve One Black Dog Cabinet Shiraz and an unusual Sangiovese before we departed. All the labels have pictures illustrating the names of the wines. A winery and restaurant combination we will return to.
The rest of the day and the following morning were spent in Burra, 50 kms further on, continuing our education into Australian Copper Mining. We stayed at the Burra Caravan and Camping Site which was very economical for unpowered sites and had good clean amenities although we are finding that few of the Australian sites have half way reasonably equipped kitchens - one is lucky to find a few hot plate type barbeques and a single sink for washing up. We spent some time chatting to the gentleman in the next pitch who recommended we changed itinerary enough to visit the Flinders Ranges, which contains a large National Park with magnificent scenery. He was so enthusiastic that we visited that he gave us a map!
Burra turned out to be a fascinating place and we did not manage to see everything we would have liked to even in the best part of 24 hours. Burra was the first surveyed mining town in Australia and by 1851 the largest inland town and bigger than Adelaide. The famous 'Monster Mine' was the largest mine in the Southern hemisphere for nearly 10 years. Much remains in the mining townships and the mines now collectively known as Burra - many of the buildings were on the list of State Heritage Items and the whole area has now been given heritage area status. The historic buildings, mines and other structures and artefacts are looked after by the Australian National Trust (ANT) and the local council. One gains access to many of the sites with a key hired at the information office and there are also four Museum areas where one needs to buy access from the ANT. Overall this can be quite expensive (circa $50 for two) but we had reciprocal membership from our New Zealand Historic Places membership which reduced the total cost to $10 for both of us and for as long as we needed the key.
There was an enormous amount to see - the key accessed areas included the old Unicorn Brewery where one could still go down into huge underground cellars, the police lock-up, the Redruth jail, the miners dugouts, the Bon Accord Mine Complex, the Site of Hampton town and the Smelting works. Of those the miner's dugout are a must to visit - the miners could not afford the charges for accommodation from the company and 1800 people out of a population of 4,400 lived in dugouts cut into the banks of the Burra creek until they were devastated by a flood. Some even had verandas and wallpapered walls.
The ANT administer 4 Museum sites and these are open in a sequence during each day so we did not have time to visit every one but we did spend a couple of hours in the Burra Mine Museum which gives access to much of the main mining site - the remainder requires a key and we covered the previous evening. Firstly a little more about mining at Burra. Just like Kapunda, the area was discovered by a shepherd and a battle quickly developed for ownership of the land between two groups, the 'Nobs' and the 'Snobs' - the Nobs were capitalists including the owners of the Kapunda mine and the Snobs were mainly shopkeepers and merchants who formed the SA Mining Association. In the end the areas with proven deposits were divided equally and lots drawn and the Nobs drew the Southern half naming their mine the Princess Royal which proved to not have workable deposits whilst the Snobs named theirs the Burra Mine which developed into one of the greatest copper mines in the world producing 5% of the total world production up to 1860 using almost entirely Cornish miners.
The mining shafts and levels reached a depth of 183 metres and huge Cornish pumps quicklyreplaced the horse drawn Whims. The pumps were brought on a specially built giant Jinker drawn by 72 bullocks - and took 2 months for each round trip from Port Adelaide - it is still on display in the town. The reconstructed pumping house which held the 80 inch pump is the centrepiece of the ANT museum. By 1867 the rich veins, which had some of the highest concentrations in the world, had been largely worked out and an early attempt was made at open cast mining which did not prove economic but by the time it closed over 50,000 tons of copper had been extracted worth $300 million at today's prices. The mine was reworked between 1971 and 1981 by modern open cast mining and the huge lake now present is the result of the open cut mining down to 100 metres. This extracted another 20,000 tons of copper.
Initially the rich ore was sent to Wales for smelting but smelting works were rapidly set up on site with up to 24 blast furnaces in operation for initial smelting with addition furnaces for refining the copper. The remains of the smelting works is also accessible via the key. The above is only a sample of the most interesting of the things we saw and one could easily spend a couple of days exploring all the various sites, we only made it into one of the four ANT properties although we completed most of the 11 km heritage trail and visited most of the 8 key sites.
We dragged ourselves away at 1300 to head for the Flinders Ranges having had so many different people recommend it. We stopped briefly at Peterborough which is a town based very much round the railway - even the information office was in a 1900s sleeper carriage with a couple of compartments restored. We did not have time to investigate 'Steamtown' museum focusing particularly on Peterborough's narrow gauge railway heritage. Peterborough is one place where the three gauges in use in different sections and times came together. The legendary Ghan which ran from Adelaide to Darwin was narrow gauge. It is once more running with the 2979 km journey taking 47 hours with trains more than 1 km in length.
We stayed at the Rawnsley Park Station camp site just out side the Flinders National park with superb views of the ranges from an elevated site. The camp site was much better equipped than most with a camp kitchen with gas rings and barbeque plates, sinks and fridge with freezer. There was a well stocked shop where we bought a paraffin light and a bottle of wine local to the area namely Blesing's Garden Southern Flinders Ranges 2004 Chardonnay, quite pleasant but at a premium price because of the area rather than the quality. We sat cooking by the light of our new lamp on our own gas ring looking at the magnificent view and the various local birds including flocks of Galah, the noisy grey and pink parakeets.
We were looking up at the rim of the Wilpena Pound, perhaps the best known feature of the Flinders. It is a wide natural bowl formed by the uplifting and weathering over time of the ground when the ranges were formed leaving a remnant valley surrounded by much higher mountains which have now eroded. The rim is perhaps 800m high and contains an area 15 x 10 kms. It is called the Pound because it forms a natural enclosure which was to be exploited for containing stock. We considered the walk up to the various viewpoints but a four hour walk in high temperatures put us off. Instead we went into Wilpena where there are a series of walks from the Visitor centre - we chose one to the old homestead in the Pound itself via the only 'pass'. It was marked as 5.8 km and a 2 hour return walk with an extension possible to a couple of viewpoints out over the Wilpena Pound. It was a pleasant nearly flat walk into the Hills Homestead which has been rebuilt but is not open to enter.
We watched flocks of Galah take off round us and had our first really close look at a couple of Kangaroos, one a juvenile 'Joey' but well out of the pouch - the leaps when they left looked so effortless and elegant. The Wilpena Pound formed a natural barrier and the stock only needed to be restrained at the narrow entry, the boards stated that at one point there were 120,000 sheep in the Pound and not surprisingly the ground was rapidly exhausted and many farmers lost most of their stock and had to leave. It has now largely regenerated. We continued past the homestead and had a moderate climb up to the viewing platforms, the second of which afforded a panorama of the whole pound - it did not seem too bad a climb on solid rock despite the heat but when we looked down we realised we may have gained an extra 150 or more metres but well worth it.
We were extremely glad of the advice to visit the Flinders Ranges but we only gained a quick sampler of what it had to offer. Unfortunately we were short of time and after our two hour walk it was time to make some distance down to Port Augusta ready for an early start in the morning for Coober Pedy (536 kms across the outback with just a couple of fuelling points on the road.) The scenery even from the main roads is spectacular with high ranges seen across red barren fields studded with bushes and small trees. We stopped at the Big4 Holiday Park which seemed reasonably well equipped and did a quick food stocking up in town. Port Augusta is known as the crossroad of Australia as the main routes E-W and N-S meet here.
We left at 0700 in the morning for our first sight of the true Outback on the way to Coober Pedy. We quickly left all signs of civilization other than a strip of tarmac stretching straight into the distance. The scrubby trees gave way to low bushes a few tens of centimetres high on a bright orange rocky soil. We saw the occasional mob of Kangaroos and a flock of Emus. Kites soared in slow graceful circles. We passed huge salt lakes, some stretching almost as far as the eye could see.
The road was pretty empty but we saw the occasional 'Road Train'; lorries with several large trailers in tow and we saw the marshalling yards marked for them outside town. Every 40 kms or so we passed a huge microwave link tower and on occasion the road ran alongside a pipeline or power lines running from the South to the North. We noticed that the tarmac repairs are very selective with sometimes a gap at the white line to save painting and sometimes just the wheel tracks were redone. Road signs marked the regions of mobile coverage and Kangaroo risk. We stopped at Pimba after 180 kms at the turn off to Woomera - it has little more than a Roadhouse with fuel at an extortionate price but we filled up anyway. Next stops were photo stops including one at Lake Hart, another huge salt lake. It seems to be acceptable to freedom camp on any of the pull offs although even long drops are few and far between so one needs to be self sufficient.
As we continued North with the speedometer glued to 110 kph pounding over the cattle grids separating one station from the next the conditions became even more arid, the trees became rarer and the silver scrubs shorter with even more golden red gravel showing. The scale was brought home by signs like 'Next emergency phone 113 kms' and 'Caravan Park - 500 km'. Glendambo hove into sight an hour after Pimba and gave an excuse for a brief halt to stretch ones legs. Glendambo claims a population of 30 people, 22,500 sheep, 2,000,000 flies and features 2 petrol stations, one motel, a camp ground, a house, a wind pump and ICE-CREAMS, what more can one ask? Only another 253 kms now to Coober Pedy according to the signs and at 1030 the day is starting to warm up - soon time for the air-conditioner. As we continued the road changed from a black to a shining silver strip and the ground became even more arid - we were approaching one of the driest areas in Australia with a rainfall of less than 5 inches a year. The surrounding landscape is used for lunar films.
Opals were first discovered at Coober Pedy in 1915 by accident when some Gold miners looking for water one evening came across pieces of surface Opal. Within days the first claim was pegged. In 1917 the Trans Continental Railway was completed and laid off construction workers followed by soldiers returning from the war swelled the numbers of miners. The soldiers introduced the unique method of living underground in dugouts to counter the intense heat - now most of the houses, shops and restaurants being underground where a steady temperature of 23-25 degrees is maintained. The name Coober Pedy comes from the Aboriginal phrase 'kupa piti' which translates as 'white man in a hole'. Heat was not the only problem, Coober Pedy has always had a water problem initially solved by storage tanks and deep bore holes. Now even the available bore water is too brackish and has to be treated by a reverse osmosis desalination plant making water very expensive.
Production plummeted along with Opal prices in the Great Depression and only built up when new fields were discovered after the war, then rapidly built up in the 60s and 70s. Now 95% of world Opal production comes from Australia with the majority from the 70 fields round Coober Pedy. The days of hand mining are over but it is still mostly small scale prospecting using a Caldwell type drill making 1 metre holes to about 30 metres depth. Tunnelling machines then extend the shafts and truck mounted blowers acting like giant vacuum cleaners bring the mullock to the surface. The Opal fields are pitted with thousands of abandoned holes and conical piles of mullock.
We decided as we approached that the camper would be difficult in temperatures rising already to over 30 degrees so we chose a cabin with air conditioning at the Big4 Caravan Park - it came with kitchen and all other facilities so seemed good value at $61.20 taking into account our discount. We walked round town but it was like a mausoleum - virtually every business was closed and we quickly realised it was the day of the Melbourne Cup which is a national institution. We looked round one of the Opal Museums and Aboriginal Interpretation Centre associated with Umoona Mine and Showrooms. The boards gave an excellent background and understanding of the history and techniques used in Opal Mining and the Aboriginal involvement and culture. What surprised us most was how recently it had started to grow and how basic the equipment had been in the 60s and 70s and even now. Umoona, like several other mines run guided tours but timing was difficult, especially on Melbourne Cup Day. We instead investigated the underground bookshop which showed the sizes of the rooms and how easily they seemed to have been cut out of the soft yet stable rock which is a form of sandstone or mudstone depending on the depth. In the evening we had an excellent meal in the Old Miner's Dugout Cafe, an underground restaurant recommended by the camp site manager - we enjoyed the reasonably priced meal with Pete having his first Kangaroo steak.
The next morning we first attended to some logistics and took our camera cards into the local Fuji shop where the contents were saved onto a CD, $15 for two 256 cards seemed a prudent investment as a backup in case the laptop falls over, we will send them on to Di to look at and copy the bits she is interested in. It looks as if all Fuji processing shops in Australia can copy cards to CD as they can in NZ. We then had to make a choice of which mine to visit and we chose the Old Timer's mine where it is an un-timed self guided tour with an emphasis on early mining, our real interest, rather than the guided tour at Umoono which has an Aboriginal emphasis.
The Old Timers Mine is part of an original Opal Mine dating back to 1916, little more than a year after the original discovery of the Opal Field at Coober Pedy. The Old Time Miners had filled in the shafts, hiding the mine below which was accidentally discovered when an extension to an underground home broke through into the mine revealing not only the workings but much precious Opal still there to be seen today. Who knows why it was filled in - did the old miners intend to return to work the obvious leads? It gives a fascinating glimpse into the past and has a vast amount of information in boards, cuttings, reprints and old tools and equipment augmented by models and history of some of the leading miners, many of whom became dignitaries in Coober Pedy.
As well as the mine workings to walk, or more often crawl and crouch, round there is also a 1918 dugout, furnished as at that time and a contemporary display home including the room which broke into the old workings. Many Opal leads are still in the walls and floors and have been worked just enough to display them fully - they include examples of Opalized Sea Shells in a roof. The whole is rounded off with a pioneer's gallery of artefacts and information. We spent a couple of hours and could easily have spent longer if we had read all the boards. One document of interest covered the largest and most famous Opals found which mentioned a huge 'Andamooka Opal' of 203 carats which was given to Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 - this is fascinating as Pauline has an Opal ring which it is alleged came from a chip from an Opal given to the Queen - the colours are consistent with a Coober Pedy or Andamooka Opal so we decided to go to try to get to Andamooka to investigate further. We looked briefly at the Opals for sale and bought a small chunk of rock showing how the Opal is found and a small but typical Coober Pedy Opal, both good memories at $10 each. A visit we can completely recommend.
Before leaving we walked up to the viewpoint above town beside the Big Winch and took some panoramic views. It was then a quick fuelling and off towards Pimba where we turned off past Woomera and on to Roxby Downs which had a camp site 30 kms short of Andamooka. On the journey we had our first sightings, in the wild, of the famous Wedge Tailed Eagle, once on carrion beside the road and once flying low overhead. We also stopped to photograph a couple of Emus that strolled across the road just in front of us. We were also privileged to experience a rare occurrence of rain, only a few drops it is true but very unusual at this time of year.
Roxby Downs was a complete contrast to Coober Pedy - it is an impeccably laid out clean new mining town - a green oasis with 4000 inhabitants built to service the Olympic Dam Mine. We stayed at the Myall Grove Caravan Park but found it had no kitchen so we ended up collecting a cooked chicken from Woolworths and drank the excellent bottle of Yalumba Mawson's (after Sir Douglas Mawson the Antarctic explorer who Yalumba sponsored in 1916 ) Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot 2000, again exceptional at $14.95 which turned out to be one of the best we have purchased so far in Australia.
The Olympic Dam Mine is one of the largest in the world annually producing 200,000 tons of copper, 4,300 tons of Uranium, 80,000 oz of Gold and 850,000 oz of Silver, contrast that with the old copper mines we visited at Burra and Kapunda and the gold mines in New Zealand we have written about. We were fortunate to get into the Tourist Information office as they were closing the doors and find there was space on the Mines Visit only held three times a week and that it left at 0900 the following day so we could go without losing the opportunity to visit Andamooka and Woomera later in the day.
The mine trip was very professionally run and interesting, as you would expect from one of the biggest mining concerns in the Southern Hemisphere, Western Mining Corporation (now just WMC). The ore body of 600 million tons is 350 metres below the surface and is currently mined at a rate of 10 millions tons per year although this is planned to triple and open cast mining is being studied. The current copper reserves are the 6th largest in the world, the Uranium the largest and the Gold, a by-product of the final electrolytic purification, still provides the 10th largest world reserve. Staff mostly enter by cage via the Whenan shaft whose head is nearly 100 years old and came from an old gold field. The material is again brought up a shaft but for convenience a road tunnel 4.2 kms long has been driven down to the working levels which have 270 kms of road. There is also an underground railway for conveying ore, fully automated and one of the first of its kind. The entire processing is done above ground on the same site which is unique.
We had a good, if rather glossy, video presentation before we toured the processing plant by bus. One came away with a tremendous impression of scale of everything - the ore is extracted by long hole open stoping followed by a cemented aggregation backfill. Each underground blast in the stope brings down 50,000 to 100,000 tons of ore which is loaded and carried to the railway by 35 ton trucks. The railway carries 300 ton loads to the bottom of the Clark shaft (860 metres below ground) where it is hauled to the surface in 36 ton buckets. Larger firings have been conducted of up too 500,000 tons, the largest in the world, but the larger firings tend to block access to the loaders. The initial crushing and sorting is done 750 metres underground and the waste is used to backfill and cemented aggregate is pumped down from the surface to fill voids and maintain stability.
The tour again brought out the scale of the processing; the most interesting to us being how the gold is initially extracted. The copper is initially refined in a flash furnace and cast into anodes of 360 kg each for electrolytic refining in rows in huge tanks taking 10 days for the initial transfer to high purity anodes. The gold and silver is deposited as slime on the bottom of the tanks and then refined and eventually cast into the highest purity ingots available - 80,000 oz of gold and 850,000 oz of silver per year is quite a useful by product! A fascinating 2 hours and thoroughly recommended but book well ahead - we were just lucky to get in at short notice.
We then moved to the completely different end of mining at Andamooka (population very variable but typically about 500) a further 30 kms on sealed roads. It seemed almost like a ghost town although it is not far off Coober Pedy in production, power had been off the previous day and rain had turned everything to a slippery slime so that could account for it. We later discovered there is a walking heritage trail but we only looked at some old cottages and even then could hardly pick our feet up for the thick layer of mud - rain is rare in the area. We spent time in Duke's Andamooka Opal Store which is also the main post office and discovered a little more, from Margot and her mother Inge, about the Royal Opal which was given to the Queen in 1956 when she visited for the Melbourne Olympic Games. We saw a picture of the resulting necklace with huge single Opal and Earrings. We understand it was cut in Australia. They sent us to a local cutter and polisher Kim (Jim?) who lived in a mustard coloured house 3 doors down and who we hoped would have time to polish Pauline's Opal. Unfortunately he was too busy but gave us a number of useful insights including the dealer in the UK (Aldridge? and Lewin?) which could have imported the off-cuts and he confirmed Pauline's Opal is from Andamooka.
Our next stop was at Woomera where we toured the Heritage Centre with its Museum covering the early days at Woomera. Woomera was set up shortly after WWII as a joint weapons development range by the UK and Australia. It offered a range over 2000 kms long over almost unoccupied and un-surveyed ground. The difficulties in surveying such a huge area and building the access infrastructure is covered in the Museum and the work of Len Beadell is one of the unsung benefits of the project. Many of his books were on sale and we will keep an eye open for them second hand. The Woomera area was also used for most of the UK Atomic weapon tests and also the early work on containment of weapons and materials in the case of accident or warfare - now of great interest for terrorist threats and dirty bombs. The price has been paid in large areas contaminated by Plutonium; the museum talks of 20 lbs loosed into the atmosphere and ploughed into the ground as well as early development of cleaning up techniques. Some old-timers worry that the reduction in their numbers is influenced by radiation, others recall the days when they would have a quick 5 pints after work before an even quicker supper, and then back for the serious drinking of the evening and put the blame for short life expectancy on alcohol.
From somebody interested in the launcher and space side of Woomera it was somewhat depressing. The displays are old with had stencilled text with hardly anything newer than 8 years ago. The hardware is again old, going back to Pete's early times in the space game but almost everything at Woomera seems to have ended up as a dead end - there is example after example of disaster being pulled from the jaws of scientific success by the politicians - programme after programme being cancelled just as the country gained a scientific, technical, military or commercial advantage. The outside displays have a Black Knight which launched Prospero, the UK's first and only launcher/satellite combination. Like the work it pioneered, Woomera itself is an empty shell with a population down from many thousands to 200. I left feeling very sad - so many dreams died here.
It was then the long drive to Port Augusta where we returned to the Big 4 campsite for the night We did our shopping in the local Foodland and dropped into the Tab opposite to see if we could get a cold bottle of wine - we found they had an excellent selection and replenished our stocks including a Yalumba Mawson's Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 1999 and two different Wolf Blass Gold labels which they had obtained because they also serve meals in the restaurant - it will be interesting to try the earlier years to those at the wineries. The Wolf Blass Gold Label Chardonnay 2002 was certainly excellent. In the morning we topped up the phone and changed to the Vodafone Super Cap tariff which provides $500 of standard calls for $79 if used in 30 days - we were glad to confirm it did cover the non-geographic internet calls within the $500 standard calls. We then walked round town and replaced our dead saucepan with a bargain in an Op shop at $1.00 before leaving for Broken Hill.
We had a brief stop at Peterborough where we were disappointed to find most of the heritage sites had been forced to close and sell up because of the cost of public liability insurance. We had hoped to visit the Gold Battery there. It was then a straight run to the border with New South Wales where we were disappointed to find there was no customs post and we drove straight through. However if we had been travelling into South Australia then we would have waited at a barrier near Yunta before being checked and allowed through.
To be continued in part 3 Broken Hill, New South Wales and Sydney
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