What it’s really like to drive the Outback

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The BBC’s promotional text for The Tourist promises an Outback world of “quirky and enigmatic characters” and there were plenty of them along my route – most notably in the old mining town of Coober Pedy. Dump piles are everywhere, extreme daytime temperatures – up to 50C. For this reason, 70% of the population lives underground, in hollowed-out houses.

The city’s population of around 2,000 includes nearly 50 nationalities who switched decades ago in hopes of finding priceless opals in the sandstone. Most did not stay but did stay, forging a unique and eccentric desert community. Among them was Dimitrius “Jimmy” Nikoloudis, who arrived “directly from Greece” in the 1960s and worked for decades as a miner. “There is no science in opal mining,” he told me, “just luck or, more likely, lack of it. Just throw a stone and, where it lands, dig a hole.

Luck had seldom been a lady to Nikoloudis, but he seemed a contented soul who had found a place to belong to. After serving as a volunteer ambulance driver, English-Cantonese and sign language interpreter, and president of the Coober Pedy Shooting Club, he now worked as a tour guide.

When you live in an environment that feels like a vision of a hellish future – and indeed the surrounding desert has provided backdrops for movies like Mad Max 3 and Pitch Black – it’s natural to want to humanize it. The hills of Coober Pedy are covered in a surreal veneer of suburban amenities that Nikoloudis drove me around in his van.

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