They roll into Coober Pedy around midnight, having disembarked from the Indian Pacific at Port Augusta early that afternoon. The kindly driver of the road train in which they have gotten a lift makes a diversion to drop them as close as he can to the town’s sole hostel where they have decided to splash out on staying the night.
There is a reason for this exception. They want to sample staying in the housing for which the town is renowned, which is to say, a dugout, a series of chambers and connecting passages excavated into one of the shale facings that characterize the landscape of the town, the name of which means ‘white man’s hole in the ground’ in Yankunytjatjara, the local aboriginal language. Dugouts are so called not only because they have been dug out of the rock, but also because they were originally opal mining claims from which all the opal had been mined so that they were, in effect, all dug out. Now, as at the time of their visit, about ninety percent of the world’s opal comes from Australia and above ninety percent of that comes from Coober Pedy.
If not for opals, no one would live in the middle of this grim, stony desert, where average daytime temperatures fall between ninety and a hundred and five degrees fahrenheit for five months a year, and where highs regularly get up above a hundred and ten. Inside a dugout house though, the ambient temperature hovers in the neighborhood of an ideal seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit. It appears, however, that they will not be enjoying a subterranean idyll as there is a ‘No Vacancies’ sign on the hostel door, the small window in which gives no light. They suspect that the dire Mad Max 3, Beyond Thunderdome is to blame as it contains a scene in a dugout house that has turned Coober Pedy into a prime destination on the Aussie tourist trail.
It looks as if they will have to put up the Wild One’s tent, not a promising prospect since the streets, if they can be called that, have no kerbs and, from what little traffic they have seen, it looks as if people drive wherever they are headed by the shortest route they can find, presumably without regard for unexpected tents, over the dusty, rocky ground into which it will be nigh on impossible to drive tent pegs.
As they ponder their predicament, there comes weaving past them a man singing in Spanish, as far as he can make out, something to do with a wild ass who wanders in the mountains. Quickly he tries to cobble together a question in Spanish before the singer wanders off, “Perdon señor, sabe donde dos jovenes con poco dinero pueden pasar la noche en este pueblo?”
“I do for sure,” the man replies, in booze-slurred, Spanish-accented English, “You can stay at my house.”
Their impromptu host’s home is a small dugout so they will be able to achieve their touristic aim without even having to pay to do so. He even gives them a quick tour. The plan of the place is simple: a longer, broader entry passage of several yards, opening out into a central living-dining room and kitchen with shorter, narrower passages leading diagonally off the back of this to two small bedrooms and a small bathroom in between. In short, a ‘Y’ that, on other continents in former ages, might have been carved into the earth as a fertility sanctuary, within which the bodies or bones of the dead were lain in the hope that the Earth would be encouraged thereby to bring forth new life, whether from the soil or within the miraculous bodies of women and female animals, whose mysterious anatomy such temple-tombs were constructed to emulate.
The decoration on the dugout’s walls makes it instantly plain where its owner is from and why he is in Coober Pedy. There is a trutruca, or Chilean posthorn, a broken charango, or miniature ten stringed guitar partly made out of the shell of an armadillo and a lute shaped, three string violin. Mainly though, there are posters from the overthrown Allende government, which he recognizes from childhood visits to the apartments of friends of his father and stepmother by their vivid two and three color printing style and simplified figures combining Soviet propaganda art with Picasso.
The miner himself is maybe twice their age and has a walrus moustache with smallish, smiling eyes that give him something of a resemblance to his potential political predecessor, Pancho Villa. It would be interesting to find out what persecution befell him to bring him here but he soon tells them what they have already inferred, namely that it has been a long night’s drinking and he has to get up early tomorrow to work his claim. As at Australia’s other dozen or so opal fields, mining in Coober Pedy is still done by prospectors working on their own or in small junkets, as opposed to being controlled by huge companies like most mining in Australia, or any other country, for that matter.
The following morning the three of them drive in the Chilean’s beat-up Holden ute to a local greasy spoon for breakfast as there is nothing to eat or drink in the house other than beer. When they walk in, everyone in the place looks up and acknowledges the Exile with a ‘G’day’, or at least a nod, while he returns their morning greetings with a generalized, “Eh, muchachos!”. Although the waitresses are taking orders in English, it sounds at the dozen or so booths as if mainly Slavic languages are being spoken.
When he asks the Chilean about this, the man responds by directing his gaze and subtly pointing toward the different tables, giving a roll call of the European dictatorships of the day: Rumanians run from Ceaucescu, Bulgarians run from Zhivkov, Albanians run from Hoxha— worst of the bunch, Ukrainians run from Brezhnev, Croatians run from Tito and owner of this place run from Papadopolous in Greece in the Seventies, like me, run from the bastard, Pinochet...but I reckon you know this already.”
“Why did they come after you, the junta?” he asks the Exile.
“Why they come after anyone?” the man replies, “Because I don’t keep my mouth shut and do like I’m told. Because I don’t know my place as a working man.”
“But what did you say, what did you do that put you in danger?” he presses.
“I was a miner, like here, but not for myself, for the state in El Norte Grande.”
“You must’ve been an unusual miner for them to target you?” he pushes harder.
“I was the union organizer,” the Chilean admits grinning, “And I like making up funny songs about the junta to sing to the charango in bars, or maybe in the streets.”
“That’d do it,” he nods as their scrambled eggs, toast and baked beans are served.
“Well, I hope you weren’t harmed before you got away,” the Wild One adds.
“Soldiers beat me up couple times but I never get tortured, if that’s what you mean.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” she confirms, “You were very fortunate...very lucky.”
“Plenty people I know tortured or disappeared. Some just girls like you. But I run away like a coward and leave the girls to make the struggle against Pinochet.”
“Running away from being tortured or murdered by the government isn’t cowardly,” she assures him, “It’s sensible and what most people would do if they knew it was coming.”
“You know how I come to live in Australia? From Easter Island. You know Easter Island, with the big statues that have the long faces?”
“Sure, everyone knows Easter Island,” he prompts, “How did you end up there?”
“My friends get me on the supply ship from Valparaiso that goes there few times a year.”
“Perfect example of the downfall of a proto-fascistic society, Easter Island,” he expounds to the former union organizer.
“Eventually the agricultural proletariat probably rebelled. The last statues were left where they lay unfinished, you know. There’s evidence people were butchered, cooked and eaten, presumably the ones who had previously been in charge.”
“Returning to relevant reality,” she interjects, “How in hell did you get off of Easter island?
“I become friends with an Aussie couple visiting on a yacht. They take me with them. Help me win the asylum. Long time ago already. I’m an Australian citizen now.”
“But how did you wind up in Coober Pedy of all places?” he wonders.
“I work for the big companies first, precious metals in West Australia, base metals in Northern Territory. But I want to work for myself, not a boss so I change to opals after couple of years. I go to Lightning Ridge at first to mine the black opal because you can win more money with it. But it’s a very small place and they got hardly any foreign miners. Except for the Aborigines people, no one there wants to know a crazy mestizo with funny English. So, I move here, where there are plenty of other immigrants. I have a big, bad surprise though when I find out most other exiles come from Marxist countries.”
“C’mon those aren’t truly Marxist countries,” he seeks to reassure the Exile as much as himself, “They’re just fascist dictatorships by another name, ones that substitute words like proletariat, class struggle and revolution for ones like patria, sangre and movimiento; where the higher-ups in the party are the same types as senior military officers and oligarchs under Pinochet because the people serve the state in every sense but the state in no sense serves the people.”
“What do you say we pay the bill and be on our way?” the Wild One sighs, rolling her eyes.
On the way over to the Exile’s claim, they stop at the sole supermarket in town to get groceries. Lunch is easy: white bread rolls (It’s the Outback in 1986 so they are the only kind.), mustard, pickles and tomatoes (Extremely expensive, like all fresh produce in the Outback), olives in a can and cheese. On the other hand, the peculiar internationalism of the town means that exotic stuff like feta and turos is available but he goes for cheap, strong cheddar.
For dinner, he proposes tacos to the Exile who double checks he comprehends that Chile is thousands of miles from Mexico, but having clarified that this is understood, and that his young guest would just like to serve something that will go nicely with beer, tacos are agreed upon. Since the block of cheddar and bag of tomatoes are enough to cover two meals, only green peppers, lettuce (more exorbitant than tomatoes) and onions (not so bad, being durable and easily transported) and a couple of cans of kidney beans (next best choice to unobtainable pintos) need to be added to their shopping basket.
The Exile assures him that, despite there being no food in the house, there are plenty of spices from a girlfriend who left a couple of years back. The food is their treat but at the register, the Exile pays separately for two additional items not likely to be found at any other supermarket in the developed world, namely a packet of a dozen blasting caps and a couple of forty four pound sacks of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The latter, so the Exile tells them, is mixed with kerosene or gasoline to produce the homemade explosives that make prospecting for opals possible. The blasting caps are still the old fashioned kind, detonated with a T-handled plunger, same as Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in Loony Toons.
Unlike his home, access to the Exile’s current claim is via a hole in the ground, as opposed to a hole in a wall. Next to it, a wheelbarrow sized portable generator is chained to an eyeletted spike cemented into the hard ground. The Exile starts the generator up and removes a heavy padlock from the trap door grate, whereupon they descend a short shaft via a steel ladder welded to the door frame. The above means of access and egress holds the same great appeal for him as the supernumerous manholes of New York, into which he always wished to descend as a boy when he was overwhelmed with curiosity about the steaming sewer pipes and giant copper cable installations running every which way beneath the streets of the City.
That there are so many such holes all around Coober Pedy greatly appeals to him as he imagines being able to scurry along underground between them to pop up from different ones, like a prairie dog or a mole. Then again, it reminds him of Jericho or Catal Huyuk, the world’s first cities, which date back to late Neolithic times, prior to the invention of ‘the street’, where the inhabitants walked around town atop timber beamed, baked mud roofscapes, dropping in on friends, or into workshops and eateries, such as they were nine millenia ago.
The interior of the Exile’s claim, however, looks less like a home and more like an ancient Egyptian mastaba tomb, one that was never finished off in a layer of nice, white plaster and brightly painted with rows of colorful images of the Gods in procession and the delights of the living, super-terranean world which the mummified occupant had had to leave behind. Instead there are only yellowish shale walls, striated by the marks of the pneumatic drill and pick axe. Since the shaft is in the ceiling, the Exile must have heaved all the rubble out bucket by bucket, either on his back or by some system of pulleys. O hideous labor! The most recent mullock, the white, crusty rock in which the seams of opal are found, remains on the floor, raked up in tall conical heaps like improvised stalacmites.
Charmingly, the Chilean pronounces this specialist term ‘Moloch’, like the name of the archdemon from Paradise Lost who counsels Satan to regroup the fallen angels in order to continue waging war against God and the heavenly host, even though he knows it is the ultimate lost cause. The Exile says that they cannot be of much help with his mining but, if they wish, they should feel free to ‘noodle’ through the ‘moloch’ looking for any stray scraps of opal he may have missed, which they are welcome to keep, if they manage to find anything. He brings them a black light under which the opal will stand out, a rake, a spade and three legged stool so that they can take turns sitting to shine the light and shovelling mulloch.
The Wild One is excited, convinced they are bound to discover overlooked stones and add hundreds of dollars to their travelling stake. Come what may, they are going to spend the day down here so why disillusion her? And maybe she is right; within an hour, she finds a shimmering little chip among the shovelfuls he keeps scattering before her. As they are on the twenty-ninth parallel south, he begins repeatedly humming “My Darling Clementine” as he works, taking liberties with the lyrics to refer to their host as the ‘Miner Twenty-Niner’ and to her as Clementine.
Doing the active part of the job is not bad in the coolness underground but on the way over, they saw pairs and trios of Aborigines noodling through mulloch piles on the surface beneath the brutal sun. Despite their tens of thousands of years of adaptation to the desert climate, it is incredible to him that they can manage this without succumbing to heat stress. Even out of the fatal sun, there is the mental challenge of the dreadful monotony of such work, combined with the constant visual vigilance. In the course of the day, they find a few more chips, which the Wild One brings over to the Exile, picking away at the rock face at the other end of the long chamber, who tells her that she must have the magic touch because noodlers often work for days without finding a thing.
When they go back to work, he warns her not to get her hopes up as nobody makes good money from the precious stone business, except the dealers and retailers at the end of the supply chain, who put a huge mark up on everything and keep a tight lid on prices paid within the trade so that the public never finds out about their obscene profit margin. He knows; two of his great uncles worked in the Diamond District in New York for decades. His grandmother’s younger brother, known on 47th Street as Little Mackie, was well known for buying stones from sellers who couldn’t provide proper provenance for a fraction of what he could resell for, not to mention for always dressing in pale pinstriped suits.
Mackie’s older brother, Big Jackie, who wore dark pinstripes, was the most successful shylock on the floor of the Jeweller’s Exchange throughout the Sixties. He travelled widely as a young man in the Twenties and retained a soft spot for prospectors who would occasionally turn up on the Street from out West or even South America and would buy stones from them at above market prices nobody in their right mind would pay. He could afford to; he charged one-percent per hour, compounded hourly.
By the end of the day, the Wild One has seven little bits of opal, roughly one an hour, allowing for lunchtime. The Exile has also done well, having added a couple of nice chunks to his finds for the week. Hence, the three of them drive over to one of the handful of polishers in town to get their discoveries buffed up and ready for sale. All the workers at the polishing benches are South Asian...most unusual for the Outback at that time.
To judge from picture cards and statuettes of Hindu deities dotted about, it is an Indian enterprise, as opposed to a Pakistani or Bengladeshi one. The boss greets the Exile expansively and serves them all tea while they wait for the Exile’s finds to be cut and polished. When the Wild One steps up to the counter, the combination of her being so English, young, blonde, cute, chipper, braless and proud of her palmful of raw opal slivers, which will amount to the opaline equivalent of seed pearls once polished, is a cause for general mirth and a temporary cessation of all work, with the owner joking with her that she is sure to leave Coober Pedy a rich woman.
Within the hour, they have moved on to a dealer. As at the polishers, everyone is male but this time East Asian, probably from Singapore and Hong-Kong since China is still effectively a closed shop. The Exile explains that this is not a single business like the polishing place; each of the men at the different tables is an independent trader who is merely sharing premises with the others. Although the clutch of opals their host has to offer are all of sufficient size and quality to be mounted into pendants, rings or earrings, the offers he gets for the lot are all in the same range of only a few hundred dollars. But there is nothing to be done; miners are many and buyers few.
When the Wild One tips her miniscule opals out of the dainty velvet sack given her at the polishers and onto the felt mat on the table of one of the dealers, he looks incredulously back and forth between her smiling face and the minute stones before sputtering, “Ten dollah!”
“Each?” she queries.
“No, all!” he scoffs. Taking in her crestfallen look he adds, “Better you keep, like baby tooth for souvenir you come visit Coober Pedy.”
Seeing that this has not quite done the trick and being a shrewd man of commerce, the dealer picks up an opal the size and shape of a split peanut, places it on the mat and, with tweezers, arranges her smaller stones around it and recommends, “Look, you make nice ring with you little ones all round bigger one. Instead I pay you ten dollar, you pay me twenty?”
Before she can say no, much to his own surprise, he blurts out to the dealer, “Yes, very nice!” opens his money belt and lays the note on the table.
I am amazed to learn from him at this point that she has these opals still. When he brought up their stay in Coober Pedy to her in connection with our present conversations about his journey, she told him that she had made a present of them to her mother, a jewellery fanatic, who’d had them set in a ring. When her mother died several years ago, this ring had passed back to her. Since she is still not really the jewellery wearing type, she is planning to pass it on to her own daughter someday. Apparently, the girl, now roughly the age her mother was when he met her, is her physiognomic doppelganger, so not much of a ring wearer either. But what else is to be done? What starts out as a souvenir in your twenties winds up as an heirloom by your fifties and you’re stuck with it.
James Bloom grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, which he left at the age of twenty-two in order to escape the inexorable fate of pursuing a career befitting his station. Following this, he worked his way around the world as a beekeeper, an extra in a karate film, a microfiche assistant, a water baliff and, repeatedly, a waiter. Eventually he settled into a career teaching literature, history and philosophy, along with being a college admissions advisor. His memoir In Search of the Blue Duck, which he was planning on writing for a third of a century, is published this month by Dogberry Books.