Who’s like Oz? (part 4)

I finished my walkabout in Australia with a bit of science fiction and a delve into my family history (these two things are not related).

I got the Oz Experience bus from Alice Springs to Coober Pedy, travelling over the vast, dry desert. This was what I wanted to see: something completely alien to my experiences in Europe and in New Zealand. The scale of it boggled the mind, travelling for hours on end with nothing but flat, reddish soil, and sparse, scrubby plants, with a baking sun in cloudless skies.

We’d stop occasionally at points of interest (sometimes stretching the definition of “interest”), or for opportunistic photos of wildlife such as a flock of emus.

Emus! Thankfully there was no sign of a flock of Rod Hulls to join them.

As we approached Coober Pedy we could see pale slag piles on the horizon, glinting like white pyramids. Coober Pedy is a mining town where opals are extracted and it has the feeling of an old frontier town.

Our bus driver said that when the South Australian police turned up to clamp down on drunk driving, some of the locals stole their car, took it out of town, and blew it up with their mining explosives. Living here is clearly better suited to hardier folk who prefer to live by their own rules…

The hostel was one of many places built in underground chambers where the temperature could be kept constant. Water conservation was of prime importance, and showers were on strict timers. It felt like I was visiting a remote outpost on another planet. (Being dressed like Han Solo didn’t hurt either.)

Coober Pedy underground: not a political movement, but a way of life.

This feeling was reinforced by the spaceship prop outside: the ill-fated interstellar transport ‘Hunter Gratzner‘ from the film Pitch Black (2000) which I’d seen in the cinema before I left home. In the film the spaceship crashes on a desert planet, and sure enough the prop is suitably beaten-up. Aside from the wood and metal structure, there were countless little details added, courtesy of old machine and computer parts, that would never have been visible on screen.

The crashed spaceship outside the hostel reinforced the otherworldly feeling.

I went to the local Italian pizza place with a couple of Italian travellers I’d made friends with on the bus. This was a particularly good call because the owner of the restaurant was also Italian and so delighted to have a couple of customers from the old country that he gave us all a discount.

Coober Pedy made me feel like I was visiting a different planet altogether.

Afterwards we went to the local pub where hairstyles and fashion had just about reached 1983. All that was missing was David Bowie bursting in, singing Let’s Dance.

One of the Italians was accosted by an Aboriginal woman who looked like she was aged 110 and clearly smitten with him. She spoke Antakirinja and none of us could understand what she was saying, and only guess the context from the hand-holding and hugging she was lavishing on the guy.

“Looks like love at first sight,” I commented.

He gave me a look like he’d just been given a tattoo with a spelling mistake and the other Italian collapsed in a fit of laughter.

We left as a bar fight was just about to start (it had nothing to do with me, I swear!).

I watched the desert sunset with a thin crescent moon chasing it, from the dusty mound above the hostel. Behind me was the crashed spaceship. This is as close to living in a classic science fiction moment as I’ve ever been.

Quite a few buildings in Adelaide’s centre still had their old balconies and ironwork.

After a few days in small desert towns, Adelaide felt like a bustling metropolis: it had kept much of its old colonial architecture in the city centre, with balconies and metal fittings. I was soon struck by how small it was – particularly after spending so much time in Sydney – but I saw this as a point in its favour. Unlike Sydney’s centre, you could see the sky here!

These things were rickety and creaky and not entirely comfortable to sit in.

I took the rickety old tram to the beach at Glenelg: it was 70 years old and the wooden benches creaked and rocked and tortured my spine. I’m not surprised they were replaced a few years later with more modern versions.

I had another reason to visit Adelaide: my mother lived here for a couple of years in the 1950s, and the liner she travelled on was stuck in the Suez Canal during the build-up to the crisis in 1956. (Her father offered her and her brother a penny each time they spotted a camel; he probably realised his mistake after a day or two sitting motionless in the water in a ship that could only be supplied from the desert.)

I gather from my mother that her father felt like he’d missed out on travelling abroad during the war – he had a reserved occupation designing switches and systems for naval vessels, and remained in the UK – and so he decided to take his family from Lancashire to the other side of the world.

It used to take six weeks to go from the UK to Australia…

Looking at the menus and mementos from the voyage, I was surprised to see he was a Freemason – perhaps that helped him with the move? (And, in 1958, move back and re-establish himself back home?)

The family didn’t enjoy their time in Australia. He was outraged when – as a middle-class Englishman with a good job – his children were greeted with gifts of fresh fruit when they disembarked, on the assumption that they’d been living in deprivation in post-war Britain. My mother didn’t fit in with the local children (although apparently her younger brother did, possibly because he was so young). She had the impression that it was her mother who was the main influence on the decision to take the family back home again.

Naturally, the city had changed completely since then. At that point it was Australia’s third-largest city (these days, it’s the fifth-most-populous). What was doubtless a quiet, new suburb in the 1950s (Camden Park) is now part of the city sprawl between the city centre and Glenelg.

Journey’s end: I’ve been to a Perth on opposite sides of the Earth.

My walkabout, which began in New Zealand, finished in Perth. I couldn’t really focus much on the city – walks around King’s Park and taking in the views from the DNA Tower – I was unhappy that my time in Australia was ending far sooner than I wanted it to, and especially unhappy at parting ways with my girlfriend (we kept in touch and met up again six months later when she returned to the northern hemisphere).

I dipped my toes in the Indian Ocean at Freemantle before heading home.

I got back to the UK after a couple of stops in Hong Kong and Zurich; my luggage went separately. At Heathrow, the unhelpful airport staff sent me scuttling from one terminal to another to retrieve it until I insisted they just phone each other to find out where they’d misplaced it.

I was exhausted. I was broke. I was starting over.

I’d successfully delayed making career decisions for a few years, but still had no idea what I wanted to do. The main difference was that in the intervening couple of years, I’d acquired a bit of self-confidence.

I think my travels had taught me that it doesn’t matter what job you have, as long as you meet interesting people and keep yourself occupied with whatever’s engaging and fun. It’s easy to forget, but life tends to go better when I remember it!

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