After mucking around on the salt flats of Lake Eyre South, we travelled back east for a bit on the Oodnadatta Track and then took the southern route on Borefield Road down to Andamooka. Andamooka is an opal mining town we discovered on Instagram a few months earlier via @andamookayachtclub, a cafe, art and community hub. Their posts make the town look fascinating; we were lured in by the promising combination of otherworldly landscapes, decent coffee and pretty pretty opals.
Andamooka is like a less menacing version of Tatooine. It is a small desert town at the dead end of a highway, backed into the top corner of ephemeral salt lake, Lake Torrens, and surrounded by a false mountain range of dunes and piles of excavated opal dirt called ‘mullock humps’. Houses and other buildings are arranged haphazardly, evolving out of reluctant necessity rather than dedicated town planning. It is the direct opposite of its closest neighbour Roxby Downs, the creepy Pleasantville town built by BHP for the Olympic Dam workers.
We drove through the opal fields to get a closer look at the claims, some of which are available for public ‘noodling’ (looking for opals) while others are ‘pegged’ and aggressively signposted as such. Because there are big piles everywhere, as you might expect, there are also big holes. Public safety isn’t paramount in this frontier town, there aren’t many street lights or street signs, and no one is required to fill the holes – you just don’t walk around at night. You stay home and obsessively polish your opals. This straight-forward, survivalist thinking was refreshing for us as residents of Victoria, the Nanny State.
Andamooka was pretty deserted, aside from the oasis of AYC there wasn’t anyone around (except for the Sand People in our peripheral vision). Finding an opal turned out to be difficult too, as all of the stores looked like they had closed down years ago. Even the giant opal bus, which at one point had other bits of bus glued to it in anticipation of housing ALL of the opals, was derelict.
Luckily, one random had put their entire opal collection on display in a dusty street. Initially we thought this may have been like the window food in Japan, fake but there to give you the gist. What looked like an unexceptional child’s school project – bits of opal stuck to a big card with faded pricing stickers in wobbly writing – was the real opal collection of a 92-year-old man, who came out of his shack to tell us his life story. He’d been noodling in Andamooka for thirty years, and these opals were the result -far superior to Coober Pedy opals don’t you know. The opals were priced between $5 and $500, so we settled on a $20 one about the size of a toddler’s fingernail, in case they were all just glass.
Later that afternoon we made it to Woomera, a town built to support the British Navy in the 50s, as they tested rockets and nuclear weapons in the desert. It was a ghost town of a different kind – empty like all the others, but as if everyone had stepped out for some tea and crumpets in 1962 and never returned. We looked at the defunct rockets and rocket paraphernalia propped in the local ‘Missile Park’, brightly coloured and deceptively simple like playground equipment. A trip to the information centre revealed an old bowling alley and memorabilia that gave some insight into Navy society, including an explanation of ranking – who could sit with who and where, and on what day they wore pink (always Wednesday, people).
Woomera was used as the European Launcher Development Organisation’s launch facility for the first Europa rocket, and later became Australia’s very own Cape Kennedy, launching the first Australian satellite into space. Woomera was also involved in the moon landing, housing Americans and their monitoring equipment till the 70s, but, without ‘the Dish’ it doesn’t get much recognition for this.
That evening we had the privilege of staying at Spud’s Roadhouse, which is a legendary joint on the corner of the Port Lincoln and Stuart Highways. I’m sure whatever you’re imagining now is pretty accurate. It has lots of different numbers plates on the walls, a pool table and a deep-fried menu. They also had beer, so we were pretty happy campers.
Highs: Learning the word ‘noodling’
Lows: Driving about 450 kms with no window, sometimes with a blanket, whipping the side of the car, when the dust or rain got too much