Heading into remote areas in the Outback is always risky. Nowhere more so than around Coober Pedy. We were starkly reminded of this fact as we entered the Kanku Breakaways Conservation Reserve some 30 kilometres north of the town.
It is desolate country. Corrugated gravel roads churn up a cloud of red bulldust so fine that it finds its way into every nook and cranny inside and out. As far as we could see was a dry desert of dust. Nary a sign of any kind of life or greenery. We had no idea what to expect, having headed out on speck as it was a recommended site to visit.
Starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with the nothingness, I said to TRH (The Retired Husband) It’s just an empty, flat desert as far as the eye can see and beyond. Not a sign of anything anywhere. How long are we going to keep going? Just what is it that we are looking for? We turned back.
Later in the day as we were browsing in an underground bookshop TRH found a map on the wall. By then we had heard from many people that The Breakaways are a must see. Take a bottle of champagne and a cheese platter, head out at 4pm to watch the sunset, said Frank at Faye’s dugout. The map showed two alternate routes, the shortest being 12km to a lookout. We decided to try again, but not at sunset.
There was no worry about being alone. Although long stretches of road were empty, there were plenty of others trekking out, including many tourist buses laden with people eager to watch what they had been promised would be a stunning sunset.
In the words of Rena, author of White Man in a Hole, The road curved slightly and as we neared the hills Julia and I uttered cries of astonishment. The colours were sensational – white, mauve, orange, rust, brown, in varied shades and haunting compositions. Bizarre formations had been shaped by milleniums of winds.
We too gasped in amazement as we came to the lookout. The road had unnoticeably curved and risen to a height overlooking The Breakaways. As we neared the top, the vista that opened before our eyes was truly spectacular. It was so cold and windy, we could not stay outside for too long. But we were very glad we had decided to try again. There were staff setting up tables with drinks for the sunset viewing crowds, futilely struggling to keep white table cloths in place. They would be in for a very cold sunset.
The reserve got the name “The Breakaways” because the mesas and low hills appear from a distance as if “broken away” from the higher ground of the escarpment. The site is significant for the Antakirinja MatuntjaraYankunytjatjara People, whose name for the area is Umoona, meaning “long life”, referring to a particular species of tree found in the area. .
Millenia ago huge parts of central Australia were underwater. A truly unique landscape was created, filled with fossils and precious stones. Depending on the time of day and season, the chiarascuro of light playing in the shadows creates different patterns and colours.
Because it is such a unique landscape, it has attrracted various movie makers to the area for filming. Amongst these are Pitch Black, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The filming of Mad Max used many of the Coober Pedy locals as extras.
The spot certainly left its mark on Hollywood hunk Vin Diesel, who for his role in Pitch Black wore contacts so thick he called them hubcaps. The intense heat caused an eyewear malfunction that virtually glued the hubcaps into his eye sockets and an optometrist had to be flown in from Adelaide so filming could continue.
Red Planet, Pitch Black also left its mark on the town, with several props still around, including the spacecraft left outside a hostel (in case of backpacking Martians). It’s a compulsory cliché if you’re visiting to take a sticky beak into an underground home – Tina Turner certainly did while filming MM3. A pair of her undies are nailed to the roof among a sea of other fans’ knickers in Crocodile Harry’s infamous subterranean abode.
Having been awestruck by The Breakaways from above, we decided to take the long route back to Coober Pedy following the Dingo Fence. It was erected during the 1880s to protect sheep flocks from being ravaged by the native wild dogs. Finished in 18815, it is one of the longest structures in the world. It stretches 5,614 kilometres. It was a long dusty trail, with wired fencing stretching away to the horizon.
The debate about the merit of the dog fence has once again been raised. Ecologist, Prof. Colin Bradshaw, believes dingoes should be allowed to roam free.
His argument is largely based on the growing understanding scientists have of the complex environmental role of apex predators, such as dingoes, which are at the top of their food chain.
“I look at the dingo as the last of the carnivore guild in Australia. It’s the last major carnivore we have,” Professor Bradshaw said.
“As an ecologist, no matter what system I’ve looked at on the planet, a system that is healthy and resilient to change is one that has a very healthy predator population.”
Unlike the scenery in this video, when we drove through there was no greenery. Just lots of dusty dryness.
© Raili Tanska