I wrote this in 2008, after visiting Andamooka, a remote opal-mining town in South Australia. It is about the way the big mining boom was changing the character of the kookiest place I’ve visited, anywhere in the world. The story was set to be published, but then the financial markets collapsed and the nearby BHP Billiton Olympic Dam mine expansion didn’t happen as soon as expected. Now, SA Premier Mike Rann has sworn he’ll stay in the job until its controversial environmental impacts statement is approved and the deeds are signed – probably by November. So it’s time to re-visit Andamooka:
I drive and drive. North for hours in the South Australian desert, then right at Woomera and keep going; right again at Roxby Downs and on through the red glare. Finally, I arrive at Andamooka: Mars on earth. And here, real estate is booming.
By the historic miners’ huts, the barbecue sizzles. It’s Sunday lunchtime, the sky is blue, as always, and the Andamooka Progress and Opal Miners’ Association (APOMA) is holding its annual membership drive. The secretary apologises as she asks for $5 to cover my meal, as a non-member.
Ted Jones, the town’s oldest resident, is over at the picnic tables. The 93-year-old has a crinkly mouth like a turtle and broad strong hands. “I can still work a bloody pick and shovel and handle sixty-pound rocks,” he says, proudly. He’s been building a retaining wall in his backyard, with the help of his son-in-law. “You’d never find another place like Andamooka. That’s what I always tell people.”
He’s right. Homes jumble in among the tailings from the mines – mounds of dug earth like giant white anthills in the red sand. Coober Pedy, hundreds of kilometres north-west, is Australia’s famous, eccentric opal mining town, but from my table at the barbecue, I get the feeling that Andamooka matches it. About 800 people live here, in corrugated iron sheds, ramshackle weatherboards, rusting caravans and old buses. Car wrecks and corroded trucks fill vacant blocks.
“We were in the habit of doing what we wanted to do and then arguing the point about it afterwards,” says Ted, explaining the haphazard layout. “That’s the way we’ve always lived here and that’s why we don’t want it to change.”
The town has no council and no rates. No sewerage system. Neither water pipes nor street lights. The last police officer left a year ago and has only just been replaced. Only two roads are sealed – the way in and out, and the route to the nurses’ clinic. APOMA volunteers manage services as best they can on an annual budget of about $80,000, partly funded by the South Australian government.
The roads are still unnamed, but not for much longer. It’s a sign of the times: bureaucrats down south are forcing the recalcitrant locals to name their hundred or more streets and dead ends. Until now, although everyone’s address read ‘Government Road’, Andamooka has surely been among the least governed communities in the country.
In 1930, two boundary riders, Sam Brookes and Ray Sheppard, found opal at Treloar’s Hill, on Andamooka Station, a pastoral lease south of Lake Eyre. They tried to keep it quiet, but word slipped out and fortune seekers struck in.
It was a mining settlement, not a town; there were few rules. Newcomers pegged their claim and lived on it. They lived rough. “Several people got shot. Everybody had a revolver, and a rifle,” says Ted, a smile wrinkling from the right side of his mouth. “We only had the warden, we didn’t have any police.” Some men excavated their own “dugout” houses in the low hills to keep cooler in the blazing summers. There were no sealed roads north of Port Augusta, 300 kilometres away, so after every heavy rain the miners were marooned. Despite the distance, by the ’60s the opal boom was on and Andamooka was roaring.
I take my plate up for seconds. Bev Burge, with thin red hair, pink lips and pushed-up tracksuit sleeves, busies herself serving the food. Burgers, onion, gristly steaks and fat sausages are laid out on one trestle table; bread, coleslaw and potato salad on the other. Bev moved here in 1971. “When I first came up, [I saw] everyone had their washing out and it was dry in an hour. We were in Melbourne and it wouldn’t dry for days. And that tempted me.”
Bev ran Opal Air, the airline that flew daily during the boom years. She mined for over three decades and now she runs the bingo. Later, she tells me about the town’s old characters like Aggie Biro, whose car only drove in reverse: “Everyone just stayed clear if Aggie was on the road.” And Gelignite Jack, who walked along the creek bed at night, drunk, sparking and throwing explosive: “The first time it happened it went off right near my bedroom.”
She tells me about the old drive-in, which had open-air speakers: “The whole town could hear all the movies. Every night you’d hear trains and shooting and cowboys and Indians fighting all through the town.” Then she tells me about the gunfight in the Tuckabox, a local bar: “The Serbs were at one end and the Croats the other, and they had guns and they had the tables tipped up and they were shootin’ at each other.” She sighs and laughs. “We really loved those years.”
Locals say the population got as high as 4500, a mash of European immigrants escaping war and state tyranny. Opal miners and buyers found big money and lost it again with legendary excess. No one, of course, paid tax. “The whole lifestyle was gambling,” Bev says. “It was one big gamble.”
In the late ’70s, traces of the rainbow gem slowed and so did the town. In 1980, the year television arrived, Opal Air stopped coming. “All those years they kept saying the town’d finish one day. But it never did,” says Bev.
Judging by the barbecue though, I wonder if the end is nigh. APOMA had catered for 200, but after two hours the two-dozen comers have dwindled to single figures and a cold breeze has wrested control from the retreating sun. Bev has left her post and a stray dog barks at the remaining sausages.
Association president Peter Allen, clad in khaki and sitting alone on the low wall near the dugout huts, offers two explanations. First, is a scheduling clash: every Sunday afternoon, the Opal Hotel runs a popular poker tournament. That’s where Bev went and about 30 others with her – no surprise really, in this town. Second, is BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine.
In the mid-’80s, while opal rarely surfaced in Andamooka, Western Mining Corporation began trucking copper, uranium, gold and silver from an enormous ore-body not far to the west. With the South Australian government, the company fabricated the Roxby Downs township – a suburb-island in the burnt sand – to service the mine. Many Andamookians also found jobs there and commuted. It was good for the old town.
Olympic Dam expanded in 2000 and, now owned by BHP Billiton, is set to expand again – at its peak, the open cut could be the size of the Adelaide CBD and parklands. They’ll need a lot of workers. Even now, before the expansion, Roxby Downs real estate is scarce and steep.
Miners are once again moving to Andamooka in spades. But with 12-hour shifts and continuous production, the big mine doesn’t schedule for community spirit. The old timers complain to me that they don’t see the new townsfolk: if they’re not at work, they’re at home in bed.
Allen, a charismatic ten-pound Pom and ex-crocodile farmer, is wrestling with change. He wagers that the population will burst to 2000 within two years. Shacks worth $20,000 four years ago can fetch $200,000. A 62-apartment eco-village is under development. In two days, new owners will take over the Opal Hotel and will begin construction to double its capacity by mid next year.
Fresh water is in short supply. The tip, on a hill just out of town, has no fence and the rubbish pile is spreading. Ever more sewerage seeps into the natural watercourse. Allen is riled: “What we’ve been saying to government is, ‘If you want to have your two-bobs’ now with building rules and all the bullshit – all right. But give us some infrastructure.’”
The big mine is bringing jobs and money to Andamooka. It’s bringing progress, order and rules. More people will come and, eventually, the infrastructure, but then the old opal miners will leave. Many already have, striking high prices for their land.
“Even with the big influx of people from more civilised environments, I would like to think they will be incorporated into the community,” Allen says then breaks into a knowing smile. “And relax.”
Few holidaymakers stay in Andamooka and the locals are still generous. Someone offers me a free bed for a few nights in an old bus. It’s that sort of town. APOMA lets passers-by camp on its grounds for $2 per night. I leave the barbecue and walk on the abandoned opal fields towards the great white cross on the horizon, where, my new host says, a drunk man died years ago. He had fought with friends, fled their car and set out for home across the fields. In the dark, he plunged down a shaft.
Allen and a handful of flannel-clad drinkers linger all afternoon, arguing over town politics. The leftover meat and salads are stowed in the bottle shop fridge. At sundown, the stayers adjourn to the Opal Hotel. Tonight, before the pub changes hands, the long-time owner will shout the drinks.