500 Miles of Music to lift spirits of rural communities doing it tough

Organisers of a travelling country music festival across the Flinders Ranges and Outback are hoping the event will help lift the spirits of locals struggling with the impacts of drought.

The inaugural 500 Miles of Music in July will make its way across four outback locations, Wombat Flat near Eudunda, Quorn, Blinman and William Creek, entertaining locals and visitors as well as travellers on their way to the Big Red Bash, the world’s most remote music festival in Birdsville, the following week.

Award-winning country artists Adam Harvey, Brad Butcher, Aleyce Simmonds, Michaela Jenke and Matt James will perform at each of the 500 Miles events.

The idea for a travelling music festival exclusive to the Far North was born from established foley artist John Simpson who lives in Quorn, where he has managed to maintain an extensive career in the film industry, working on titles such as Mad Max: Fury Road, The Water Diviner, and Les Misérables.

John says he was inspired to bring a big event to his hometown and surrounding outback places as they often miss out on hosting musical or cultural events.

“We kind of miss out in the middle and I just wanted to have something special for Quorn …I guess you always push your own barrel, but it’s a nice place and there are plenty of accommodation and camping spots,” he says.

“We hope to make this happen every year. The Big Red Bash is QLD’s biggest remote music festival, and I really want to this one (500 Miles) to become SA’s big outback music festival, and not just concentrate on one town but many towns so everybody has a bite.”

The future of 500 Miles of Music has been secured through a $19,000 grant by the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal’s Tackling Tough Times Together program. John and his team have also worked hard to secure the support of major sponsors, OZ Minerals, Nitschke Chaff and Freight and Wrights Air.

500 Miles of Music will travel from Wombat Flat to, Quorn, Blinman and William Creek Hotel in the Flinders Ranges. Photo: SATC.

With farmers across the state reporting some of the driest conditions in recent memory, John says an event like 500 Miles of Music could help take their minds off the tough times. He says the event also offers locals an experience on their doorstep rather than requiring them to travel long distances.

“Everyone can have a fun time out and it doesn’t cost a lot of money. A lot of the towns like William Creek for instance, which is surrounded by cattle country, they don’t have anything like this to go to normally. It’s the same with Blinman and all the people around there,” John says.

“If we can keep these people laughing and having a good time, that’s what’s important.”

John worked alongside friends Mike Roberts who runs The Barn at Wombat Flat, one of the venues for the festival, and Rob Baumann to pull the event together. 500 Miles of Music will raise money for cancer charity Mummy’s Wish with 15% of the profits going towards the cause.


John Simpson inside his remote foley recording studio.

Aside from his main gig as foley artist under Quorn-based business Feet’n’Frames, John also runs a sound equipment business Outback PA Hire which will provide the set up for 500 Miles.

John has lived in the Flinders Ranges town for about 15 years and works from his sound-proofed shed studio on his 300-acre outback property. It’s from this isolated yet serene location that John is able to record and create sounds without interference of traffic and other noises he would find in cities.

He has an extensive list of film credits to his name including recently released Australian romantic comedy Top End WeddingWorld War Z, The Great Gatsby, The Hobbit and Diana. John is currently working on I Am Woman, a film about 1970s musician and activist Helen Reddy.

“Because of the internet it doesn’t really matter where I go for my job, but I do like the quietness, it means I can record outside without buses driving past my back door,” John says.

“I’ve lived in cities and worked out of Sydney for many years and it’s just not nice when you go for a break outside and you’re surrounded by smog. It’s much nicer to head out the door and into the country.”

500 Miles of Music will launch at The Barn at Wombat Flat on July 6 (sold out) before heading to the Quorn Oval on July 7. It will then hit the North Blinman Hotel on July 8 before the finale at the William Creek Hotel from July 10–11. Click here to purchase tickets.

Feature image: Oodnadatta Track, Flinders Ranges and Outback, SATC.

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Living colours inspire Wilmington fashion designer

From hues of toffee, brown and gold that add a softness to the harsh dry of the Flinders Ranges to the brilliant blues of the Spencer Gulf, designer Nikki Atkinson creates with inspiration from her ‘backyard’.

From the family property in the Flinders Ranges and nearby Wilmington to Port Augusta, where she has opened a boutique selling her own Liv Sienne designs and fashion from other Australian designers, Nikki says it is easy to see beauty in even the harshest conditions.

“My inspiration comes currently from the drought conditions and the colours, I draw so much from the environment around me,” she says.

Nikki first launched into design and production after studying at Marleston TAFE, going on to co-own the successful Betrothed bridal boutique in Adelaide at just 26-years-old.

One of Nikki Atkinson’s Liv Sienne bridal creations.

After eight years, love lured Nikki back to the country, when she married husband Dallas and moved to Wilmington in the Mid North. She continued made-to-measure couture and design from home for a number of years with her young children often playing at her feet while she sewed.

As a farmer’s wife and mother of three, Nikki says her passion for the fashion and design industry was bubbling away under the surface and in 2013 she decided to launch her Liv Sienne label and eventually a store in nearby Port Augusta.

It has not been easy, but Nikki has been determined to make it work and share her passion for design and creating, forever fortunate for what her ‘home’ brings to her work.

Liv Sienne designer and creator Nikki Atkinson at home on her family’s Flinders Ranges property.

“The farm is my zen place – to go home at night and see the wildlife and hear the kookaburras really is very special, although I don’t slow down nearly enough to appreciate it at times,” she says.

“Life is busy, but I really needed some of me back. Designing and fashion is ‘me’ and so we make it work.

“When we’re shearing or crutching on the property, I have meals to prep before the kids go off to school, and it’s crazy and it’s busy but we make it work.”

As a woolgrower and also a farmer’s daughter who grew up on a grain, cattle and sheep farm at Buckleboo on Eyre Peninsula, wool and natural fibres have been an obvious choice for Nikki, who is fiercely supportive of Australian-made products.

“I’m very passionate about wool – it’s such an easy fibre to work with,” she says. “It is amazing, it’s pliable, you can do anything with it. It’s a long way from the scratchy, itchy fibre people associated with wool before we really discovered the beauty and versatility of fine wool.

One of Nikki Atkinson’s Liv Sienne designs, photographed in the Flinders Ranges by Meridee Groves Photography.

“I probably shouldn’t be so emotionally attached to Australian-made – it is more expensive to create and produce in Australia – but if we don’t, we lose the skills of being able to use a sewing machine, thread a needle and pattern making, and I’m passionate about keeping those skills.”

Nikki’s return to the fashion industry has been well-supported, her designs popping up at country race meets, weddings, formals and even as far as New York where she was asked to design the “perfect dress” for DeVoe magazine’s Full Figured Fashion Week.

Having concentrated the last 12 months on developing the Liv Sienne brand and storefront in Port Augusta, Nikki is now ready to launch back into her real passion for design.

“This is going to be a big year, I’m really excited for what lies ahead,” she adds.

Feature image by Meridee Groves Photography.

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Sailing in the desert as rivers rise

For enthusiastic boaties, a lake with no water is a little like a pub with no beer, but members of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club are accustomed to the dry spells. Sometimes, it can be two years between outings, but there’s nothing like a heavy north Queensland flood to put some wind in your dusty sails.

In the outback town of Marree, where the yacht club has its headquarters, the ice cold tinnies are being cracked open – and the larger floating tinnies are being cranked into action – to toast the swelling rivers in South Australia’s thirsty desert.

Club commodore, Bob Backway, says the volume of water bringing relief to the channel country could eclipse 1991 levels.

Commodore Bob Backway, left, with Australian business icon Rear Admiral Dick Smith at the 2013 regatta at Lake Hope. Photo by Doreen Backway.

“If we get to 2m, it means that we can sail on Lake Eyre itself rather than just where the Warburton River flows in, and if the basin completely fills, you can go out sailing for a week and will need a compass to find your way back,” he says.

Established in 2000, the yacht club deemed Marree the ideal central meeting spot for 250 Australian and international members with a taste for adventure.

“Marree is the like hub of the outback, because it’s at the junction of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks and not far from the Strzelecki Track,” Bob explains.

The clubhouse is located in a heavily renovated shed at “the Lake Eyre end of town”.

The Lake Eyre Yacht Club house. Photo by Bob Backway.

“We lifted it up and made it two-storey so that there was storage underneath for boats, and then we added a launching ramp so that it looked like a yacht club and felt like home,” Bob says. “There’s no water lapping at the bottom, but we do have photos with water all around it from when it rained and rained in 2010; it looked like the tide had come in!”

Marree Hotel manager, Joe Calvert, says the yacht club has become a town attraction.

“Their regattas really bring business to the town for sure, and we appreciate anything that gives people a reason to stay or look around a bit longer,” he says.

The club’s next regatta for both power and paddle boats will run on the Warburton River from April 16–19.

The regattas lead to an increase visitors in the town of Marree. Photo by Bob Backway.

“Normally we camp in the one spot, but this is a bit more adventurous as we’ll be sleeping under the stars at Clifton Hills and Cowarie stations – it’s more like bushwalking on a boat,” Bob says.

The concept seems almost as improbable as sailing in the desert, but anything is possible in the outback.

“It’s completely different to sailing anywhere else; for starters, you don’t have to queue for the landing ramp, but you’re sailing in wilderness and that’s why it is so beautiful,” Bob says.

“It opens up a whole new dimension to the desert, and I think the experience ends up affecting people’s philosophy on life a bit; they wind down and start to see things differently. It’s a very special place.”

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Andamooka locals: we need a pool to escape the sweltering heat!

About 600km north of Adelaide in the South Australian outback, locals in the remote town of Andamooka have spent the past year fundraising for a new public pool.

It gets hot in the old opal mining town, really hot.

So hot that the local publican, John Smirnios, reckons he sets bags of ice on his bar fridges to keep them from overheating in the peak of summer.

“The last couple of weeks here have been over 40C every day,” says John, owner of Andamooka’s Tuckabox Hotel.

“The poor kids sit under the air-conditioning with nothing to do. It’s too hot for the playground or skate park. If we had a pool it would be very nice.”

John is a member of the Andamooka Progress and Opal Miners Association and is driving efforts to raise $100,000 to build a new public swimming pool for the town.

About $20,000 has been raised over the past 12 months or so through a number of community events, raffles and auctions. John has a donation tin sitting on his front bar while miners have also donated opals to the cause.

The new swimming pool is proposed to be built near the Andamooka camp ground.

Andamooka once had a swimming pool at the local school but it closed down due to cost issues. A small splash pad was made for children, but John says a proper swimming pool would be good for tourism and would provide a public place to escape the heat. He would also like to see an information centre established in the town to benefit tourists and short-stay visitors.

“The nearest pool is at Roxby Downs which is a 60km round trip,” John says.

There is a good chance that Andamooka, which lies 40km east of the Olympic Dam copper mine and Roxby Downs, is one of the hottest places on earth during summer heatwaves.

So far this month Andamooka has endured 13 days of 40C-plus weather, while tomorrow (January 23) could see the record broken for its hottest day since records began in 1969, although this 47.8C record was matched over a week ago on January 15. Tomorrow’s temperature is forecast to reach 47C.

Tuckabox Hotel owner John Smirnios. Photo by Travis Hague.

Andamooka has no local council to provide basic infrastructure and services, instead falling under the Outback Communities Authority. The town relies on the dedication of the Andamooka Progress and Opal Miners Association to carry out community projects and improvements.

The association’s vice chair Ian Thompson says the new swimming pool is one of the association’s major projects, alongside plans for a new community centre, kitchen and men’s shed facilities.

He commends the efforts of locals who put in their time generously to raise money and see projects through.

The association is made up of volunteers and a small number of paid members. It has delivered many community infrastructure projects over the years, including the upgrade of the local caravan and camping site, and playground.

It also implements a successful Work for the Dole scheme which has lead to many improvements including the refurbishment of Andamooka’s historic mining cottages.

“We have a population of about 500 … we do not have one public servant in this town apart from at the school,” Ian says. “That’s a good indication of a community looking after itself.”

Header image: Tuckabox Hotel owner John Smirnios with Andamooka children who would like to see a new swimming pool established in the town. Photo by Travis Hague.

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From sheep station to outback luxury

The diversification of Rawnsley Park Station in the Flinders Ranges from an outback sheep grazing property to a tourist hotspot is still paying off for its owners Julie and Tony Smith.

The pair are this year celebrating 50 years of tourism at the station and tipping their hats to half-a-century of showcasing the South Australian outback to thousands of visitors.

The award-winning eco-tourism site in the Far North town of Hawker overlooks the southern side of Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre of mountain ranges.

Settled as part of Arkaba Station in 1851, the property was used for grazing until 1968 when the first shearer’s quarters come tourist accommodation cabin was built.

The eco villas are located in secluded spots overlooking stunning scenery.

Rawnsley’s current owner Tony Smith was 10 years old when his father and mother, Clem and Alison Smith, made the move to branch out into tourism as a sideline to their farm operations.

They also introduced sheep shearing demonstrations enjoyed by tourists staying at the nearby Wilpena Pound Resort.

Rawnsley Park Station today attracts about 25,000 visitors a year who stay in a range of accommodation offerings including luxury eco-villas, a 1950s homestead, holiday units and a caravan park.

Tony says tourism makes up about 90% of his business, and sheep grazing 10% as about 1200 Merino-Dohne sheep are still run on the station.

He says while autumn and spring are still peak periods, visitor numbers are starting to flatten out more evenly throughout the year.

“If you look back 30-40 years ago we had these really defined peaks of autumn and spring whereas now it’s starting to flatten out a bit and we are getting amore year-round visitation,” Tony says.

“It’s great for the business, it’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last 30 years.”

Over the past 15 years Tony and Julie have invested in Rawnsley Park Station by increasing accommodation offerings to cater for more kinds of tourists.

“If you go back to the ‘70s and ‘80s most of the visitors (to the Flinders Ranges) would have been campers and nature lovers who pretty much roughed it,” Tony says.

“It was probably the Prairie Hotel that changed it, they were the ones who started to provide really good quality dining experience that got people’s attention.”

Four eco villas were built in 2006, with another four added in 2009. The energy-neutral villas are located in secluded spots offering views of Wilpena Pound and surrounding ranges.

In 2010 the Smiths opened up the 1950s-built homestead to visitors, who enjoy stunning views of the Chace Range and Wilpena Pound.

The Rawnsley Park Station homestead.

At the foot of the Rawnsley Buff are self-contained units, of which the Smiths have recently added six more, built by Yorke Peninsula-based Country Living Homes.

A caravan park is also on site, featuring cabins, a bunkhouse, powered camping sites, camp facilities, and a souvenir and supplies shop.

Rawnsley visitors can dine in the authentic Woolshed Restaurant dishing up meals cooked from local produce, including the station’s own lamb.

Visitors can also embark on guided walks through the Flinders Ranges, 4WD tours, helicopter and scenic flights and mountain biking adventures.

Is there a better way to appreciate the South Australian outback than with a glass of bubbles at sunset?

While the 4WD tours and some of the bushwalking are led by Tony, separate tourism operators run the other experiences, ensuring a shared approach to success. Sheep shearing demonstrations are also run during the school holidays.

As Rawnsley Park Station continues its 50th year of tourism, a special anniversary book has been published.

Pastoralism to Tourism: A History of Rawnsley Park Station, authored by former senior journalist at The Advertiser, Kym Tilbrook, who is friend of the Smiths and runs the station’s multi-day walks.

Tony remembers the days of growing up on the station, his childhood playground one of SA’s greatest natural beauties.

“Growing up here was carefree, but like a lot of country kids we didn’t really get to the city too often,” he says.

“We had a party line for telephones with four subscribers on the one set of wires, we had a dirt road to Hawker where we went maybe once a week for sport on a Saturday.

“The rest of the time we spent on the farm and made the most of it.”

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Rural women at the forefront of resilient and sustainable farming

Veterinarian and third generation beef pastoralist Ellen Litchfield is heading to desert country in Africa to research leading ways to farm cattle with little rainfall.

She’s also traveling to South America and the United States to explore the ways the world’s leading red meat producers tackle climate change as South Australia faces further climate challenges in coming decades.

“Our farming is completely reliant on rain, it really dictates our production values,” Dr Litchfield, who lives on Wilpoorinna Station south of Marree, says.

“I’m 100% sure climate change is happening but drought has always been one of the biggest problems facing our state, we need to be leaders in adapting, using new technologies and techniques.”

Dr Litchfield is among a growing number of SA women undergoing world-leading research in the agriculture industry to ensure local farmers are at the forefront in sustainably feeding the world.

Dr Ellen Litchfield and her father, Gordon Litchfield.

Others include Dr Penny Roberts, site leader at the new $3.7 million Clare Research Centre with its focus on growing the best legume crops including lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and field peas.

And then there’s the women leading research at industry organisations, like Susie Green at the Apple and Pear Growers Association of SA and Caroline Rhodes at Grain Producers SA.

Dr Litchfield recently won a 2019 Nuffield scholarship supported by Westpac to research how red meat producers in arid and semi-arid regions around the world can better farm with less water and feed.

She is already well versed in farming in desert country, having grown up on Wilpoorina Station – returning 18 months ago after studying in Adelaide then Wagga Wagga to gain her veterinarian qualification.

She then travelled and worked around Australia and the world.

Dr Litchfield is now home with her fiancée Blake Ward to help her parents Gordon and Lyn Litchfield run the station.

It is part of the vast, family owned and run Litchfield Pastoral Company that takes in three stations with a combined 600,000ha.

Dr Ellen Litchfield runs Wilpoorina Station with her family south of Marree.

“I just love the lifestyle working here, I like the feeling you are working toward something bigger, we are trying to maintain this natural ecosystem as well as to be able to feed people well into the future,” Dr Litchfield says.

“Food security is a big issue facing our society.”

Her uncle Peter and aunt Janine Litchfield are at Mundowndna and Ellen’s brother Adam and his wife Kate Litchfield are at Mt Lyndhurst.

There can be up to 5000 cattle and 10,000 Dorper sheep organically farmed across the properties, but Dr Litchfield says this fluctuates dramatically depending on rainfall.

“We had high rainfall in 2010 with about 400mm, a few years after that numbers of stock will be up but then when it gets drier numbers fall,” she says.

At the moment, the stations are holding up under the nation’s drought conditions but “we’ve had about 36mm this year, most of the rain we had last year in January” with Dr Litchfield keen to pursue best practice.

There’s still some dry feed but stock is being sold and “if there’s no rain before summer it will be a bit tough”. It helps that the family has chosen resilient stock.

Dorper sheep originated in South Africa and were bred for heat tolerance and, while cattle are mainly Angus, there are also dark, red Senepols “that have slick hair with good heat tolerance”.

“They are using them more in the Caribbean with dairy dropping off because of rising temperatures, crossing Freesians with Senepols,” Dr Litchfield says.

Dr Penny Roberts from the Clare Research Centre. Photo by Gabrielle Hall.

At Clare Research Centre, site leader Dr Penny Roberts who has a PhD in pasture cropping, says analysis is underway on different legume varieties along with trial growing sites around the state.

“We’re looking at what legume crops to grow where, and also how best to grow them, from pre-sowing and all the way through to harvest,” she says, adding that research was supported by Grains Research and Development Corporation funding.

The PIRSA centre also studies best species and varieties for pulse farmers to grow in specific regions with Dr Roberts saying there’s been a quantum change in the way these crops are grown in SA.

SA farmers traditionally planted pulses in rotations to provide nutrients and weed breaks for the cereal phase, with wheat and barley being the dominant crops.

“Now in some areas pulses are becoming the largest proportion of the cropping system,” Dr Roberts, who recently returned from a 13-day research tour in Canada, says.

“The aim of our research is to improve the production and profitability.”

Industry in focus: Agribusiness

Throughout the month of October, the state’s agribusiness industry will be under the magnifying glass as part of I Choose SA.

South Australian farmers, producers, agricultural researchers and biosecurity workers are the lifeblood of our country communities and are big players in the state’s overall economic welfare. Read more stories here.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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Community group revitalises famous opal town

A Coober Pedy community group is on a mission to boost tourism in the famous outback opal town by overhauling its marketing materials and revitalising one of the town’s major events.

The Coober Pedy Retail, Business and Tourism Association (CPRBTA) has updated and revised the town’s main tourism website with a new look, logo and slogan ‘Get Outback, Get Underground!’

The volunteer group also pushed for a revitalisation of the town’s major event, the Coober Pedy Opal Festival, which was a “resounding success” with dates shifted from the usual Easter weekend to June.

The festival’s duration was also extended to three days and coincided with other events in the town.

This year’s Coober Pedy Opal Festival attracted about 2000 people, up from its usual 1000. A street parade was a highlight of the event.

Coober Pedy, which mines 70% of the world’s opals, also recently welcomed its own version of the Hollywood sign, made from 3m-high corrugated iron letters crafted by Wayne Borrett.

The improvements to the town’s existing branding came about through a Strategic Marketing Plan funded by a $46,000 grant from the Federal Government’s Building Better Regions Fund (BBRF).

Motel owner Deb Clee, who is also CPRBTA treasurer, says the new website, which has also been adopted by the district council as the premier tourism site, is receiving up to 3500 page views a week.

She says website hits were not recorded previously with the old site but she estimated they only reached 1000 per week.

The new logo and slogan reflect’s Coober Pedy’s famous sunsets and opals.

By the end of 2018, Coober Pedy is expected to be celebrating an addition to the Big Winch Scenic Lookout precinct – a 360-degree drop down cinema screening the town’s history and opal mining.

The CPRBTA was more recently awarded $21,500 from round two of the BBRF towards costs of upgrading and installing ‘Welcome to Coober Pedy’ signage at the town entrances.

The rebranding of the town comes as underground Comfort Inn Coober Pedy Experience Motel reports its most successful July in almost a decade.

Deb says the last time business was this good was in 2010, when Lake Eyre was flooded.

“Everybody in town is saying the same thing … it could have something to do with the luring closure of Uluru to climbers in 2020,” she says.

Inside the Soft Rock Café at the Comfort Inn Coober Pedy Experience Motel.

Coober Pedy has a population of more than 1700 people.

In four years to 2016, about 103,000 international and domestic overnight visitors came to Coober Pedy, according to Tourism Research Australia’s latest Local Government Area profile.

Together, the two groups poured about $31m into the local economy.

While Coober Pedy is mainly fuelled on the tourism industry and opal mining, Deb says the town is sometimes seen as a stopover destination.

However, things are changing, she says.

Photo by Kezia Manning.

“It used to be a stopover town, but we are changing that,” says Deb, whose family has lived in Coober Pedy since 1985.

“We’re seeing the (overnight) stays are getting longer and all these advantages that we’re creating in the town are giving people a reason to stay longer.”

Deb says business confidence in Coober Pedy is at a high but the CPRBTA still wants visitors to extend their stay and “experience everything we have to offer”.

“We have history tours, noodling areas, underground churches, underground mine museum, The Breakaways, and the Dingo fence – the world’s longest fence,” she says.

“There is so much to do.”

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Volunteers the true stars of Coober Pedy Drive-In

Coober Pedy is the eccentric outback town renowned for its opals and underground dugouts, but roll around every Saturday night and scenes of Hollywood will flicker before your eyes.

The renowned mining settlement – where 70% of the world’s opals are mined – is home to one of the country’s last remaining drive-in theatres, operated by a dedicated band of volunteers who keep the facility running.

There was once a real risk of explosives being let off at the drive-in by hooligan miners, but although the threat has ceased, a notice is still flashed on screen warning of such offences.

Mining blokes would jump in their utes, loaded with gelignite and other mining tools, and head to the drive-in to catch a flick after a day’s work.

Locals say it wasn’t unusual for sticks of dynamite to be thrown at the screen if the film on offer wasn’t to their liking.

A warning sign still flashes on the screen at the drive-in warning viewers to keep their mining explosives at bay. Back in the day it was a real threat, now it’s more a novelty.

Although things don’t go off with quite a bang these days, the romance of the Coober Pedy Drive-In is still very much alive.

It’s now run by the Outback Open Air Cinema Committee, a small group of volunteers who give their time to operating and up-keeping the equipment.

Committee chairperson and projectionist Matt Key says the Coober Pedy Drive-In screens films every Saturday night and often AFL matches on a Friday.

The sessions attract about 30-40 cars, he says, with 70% of patrons locals townspeople, while the rest are tourists.

“The drive-in is the main regular activity for the town,” Matt says.

“It’s the only cinema where people can bring their animals. People come on gophers with cats on their lap, and others will bring their dogs.

“If there are dogs in the movie as well, it often sets of a raucous.”

The Coober Pedy Drive-In might be one of the longest running outdoor cinemas in SA, but it hasn’t been without its downtimes.

Its history is a colourful tale of unwavering community spirit, with the facility built by the Progress and Miners Association by 1965 with money raised from donations and the raffle of a Holden ute.

Volunteers install the drive-in screen in 1964. Photo: Bill McDougall, cooberpedydrivein.org.au/

The films generated a high source of revenue for the town, with eight films shown every week from the likes of Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music.

But as the 1980s rolled in, the rise of television took over and with that came the decline of many drive-ins across Australia.

By 1984, the Coober Pedy Drive-In had closed except for the odd special screening – most notably the charming classic Crocodile Dundee which hit the silver screen in 1986.

By the mid-90s, the Coober Pedy Drive-In was a mostly abandoned site, until a private group reopened it on a commercial basis and the facility was wound back to life.

But in 2000 the lease ran out, and volunteers again had to step up, taking over the operations and keeping the town in touch with films that would go on to form generations of culture.

In 2013, the drive-in suffered its biggest challenge – the takeover of the digital age, meaning the old equipment was made mostly redundant.

Dozens of cars gather at the Coober Pedy drive-in to watch a movie under the stars.

Coober Pedy locals refused to let the curtains close on the outdoor cinema, and so they set out to raise more than $120,000 to undertake a full digital upgrade.

“We held community raffles, karaoke nights, school fundraisers, community markets and took donations, it was something the whole town got behind,” Matt says.

“The State Government chipped in $40,000 and the Coober Pedy Council gave $20,000.

“We’re a small town and we aren’t a well-off community by any stretch, but we pulled it off.”

The drive-in is still managed by the Outback Open Air Cinema Committee, who collect money from the gate, operate equipment, run the canteen and chase grants to ensure the drive-in can stay.

“It’s because of the locals that the drive-in still exists,” Matt says.

“The whole town is behind the drive-in … everyone looks out for each other.

“We are one of two drive-ins in the state and one of 12 in Australia. To have it out here in the country, in the middle of nowhere is pretty special.”

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Outback opal hunters put Coober Pedy on the world stage

Larrikin hobby miners Justin Lang and Daniel Becker are 30m below ground in an abandoned mine shaft and if it weren’t for their head torches they’d be in total darkness.

The two mates are 870km from their homes in the small Adelaide Hills town of Hahndorf, Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement, but are under the spell of the opal, the queen of gemstones.

They say their playground – the deep, narrow and dusty mine shafts in Coober Pedy – is no place for those fearful of spiders, scorpions or centipedes.

Nor is it a place for those lacking the patience required to withstand ‘opal fever’, something Justin and Daniel say they have been infected with beyond return.

“When you find something, it’s pure excitement, there are screams, swear words, all sorts,” says Daniel.

“But then there’s the big question of ‘is there more?’ and you just keep digging.

“You hope you hit the jackpot, which can be a little jackpot but also a lifechanging jackpot worth a million dollars.”

Justin Lang, left, and Daniel Becker appear on TV series ‘Outback Opal Hunters’.

This year, the highs and lows of Justin and Daniel’s opal mining hobby have made it onto TV screens worldwide.

In 2017 they spent nine months filming for a Discovery Channel TV series, Outback Opal Hunters, which has not only been broadcast around Australia but also across Europe, South Africa and Asia.

The pair say plans are also afoot for it to show on 7mate in several months’ time.

The show, which is currently filming season two, follows mining crews around Australian mining towns in the pursuit of finding a fortune.

Justin and Daniel – who were labelled ‘The Rookies’ on the show – had a goal of finding $100,000 worth of opal – and they did it.

Since appearing on the series, the pair have received much media attention, including stints on national television, including the ABC’s News Breakfast and Channel 9’s The Today Show.

They’ve also used the show to promote Coober Pedy, a place they believe is “underrated” and “not always embraced”.

“We want more people to come to Coober Pedy because it’s such a unique place, anyone can have a crack at opal mining and potentially find a million dollars,” Daniel says.

“You need to do your research and safety is always first, but anyone can do it and that’s uniquely South Australian.

“Cooper Pedy is the biggest opal field and has produced the largest quantity of opal in the world.”

The Hahndorf hobby miners’ careers differ greatly to their underground adventures.

Daniel owns the Aboriginal Art Gallery in Hahndorf’s main street while next door is Justin’s German Village Shop where he handcrafts cuckoo clocks and grandfather clocks.

The pair met about seven years ago as they live next door to each other and quickly bonded over a shared curiosity in fossicking for gold in the Adelaide Hills.

Before long they tried their luck with finding gemstones in Australia’s opal capital, travelling regularly to Coober Pedy in hope of spotting that flicker of colour among the dull sandstone.

They say they’d often be mining for a whole week and find nothing, then boom! Opal.

“When it appears, it’s amazing. It’s this beautiful, colourful stone sitting in the boring sandstone and you know you’re onto something,” says Justin, whose great-grandfather was an opal miner in the APY Lands community of Mintabie.

Justin spent the first year of his life in Coober Pedy as his family had lived there since the 1980s and owned the town’s caravan park before moving to Adelaide.

“I’m not a spiritual person at all, but I feel spiritually connected to that place in a really weird way,” he says.

“Hahndorf is the polar opposite to Coober Pedy, they’re almost 1000km apart but I love both of them.”

Daniel, left, and Justin spent nine months filming the TV series in Coober Pedy and snippets in their hometown of Hahndorf.

Daniel, on the other hand, is originally from Germany, moving to Australia in the late ‘90s to finish studies in anthropology.

During their trips to Coober Pedy, Justin and Daniel became good friends with John Dunstan, a veteran miner of over 50 years who in 2003 discovered the Rainbow Virgin Opal valued at more than $1m.

One day John told the pair that the Discovery Channel was snooping around town.

“Johnny said, ‘no one in Coober Pedy wants to be on camera but do you boys want to do it?’” Daniel says.

“We looked at each other and thought, ‘that sounds interesting’.”

The adventures on Outback Opal Hunters are fair dinkum, the pair say.

“Some people say it’s staged and it’s not real, but that’s ridiculous,” Daniel says.

“When we pull out real opal out of the wall, that’s what it is, it’s happening for real.”

Justin says opal mining – and even noodling (sifting through disposed dirt) – is anyone’s chance at finding a million bucks.

“It’s one big adventure,” he says.

“It’s one of the last places for a free man to try his luck at finding a million dollars.”

The next series of Outback Opal Hunters is expected to air in 2019.

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World’s largest outdoor art gallery on the cards for outback SA

Marree woman Jo Bonner is overseeing what she hopes will become the world’s largest outdoor art gallery in a bid to boost tourism in outback South Australia.

Two artists are already on board the Artback Rail Trail which aims to eventually see various outdoor public artworks installed in small SA towns along the old Ghan railway.

Jo, 63, is vice president of the Marree Progress Association, which has secured a $20,000 grant, from Regional Arts Australia through Country Arts SA’s Step Out Grant, to support the first two participating artists, Raylene Klinger and Susan Michael.

The women have already begun work on their projects and will showcase their creations in Marree from July 7-13, coinciding with the town’s popular camel racing event, the Camel Cup.

While the exact nature of the artworks is yet-to-be revealed, one of them will involve an old red Ghan carriage in Marree, with its surface prepared by Work for the Dole participants.

An abandoned train station in Marree.

Jo says she is aiming for at least two artworks – which could range from sculptures to murals – to be unveiled each year.

She says she hopes the trail will eventually connect small towns along the old Ghan rail route, including Lyndhurst, Farina, Marree and Oodnadatta.

“At this stage we’re hoping it could run from Port Augusta to the Northern Territory border, which could make it the largest outdoor gallery in the world,” Jo says.

“The artworks could be on walls, buildings … outback towns have many old stone ruins that would be perfect so there’s a lot we can do.”

Jo says she encourages tourists and locals to participate in the artworks or watch as they develop.

She says she was inspired to bring the Artback Rail Trail to life because it could help boost tourism in the outback and rejuvenate interest and business livelihood in small country towns.

The Marree Australian Camel Cup is one of the biggest events on the town’s calendar and a main fundraiser for the Marree Progress Association. The first two Artback works will be launched the day before the races.

“We have all that rail history and the outback attractions like Farina and Lake Eyre, but we’re still not quite getting that tourism and getting people in,” Jo says.

“If we can increase the time tourists spend here it’s going to increase tourism in the town, leading to substantial growth, more employment opportunities and maybe even encourage people to consider what it’s like to live here.

“Even if the visitors don’t stay over night but buy a cup of coffee … every little bit counts and it’s keeping the services alive.”

Jo says she was inspired to create an outback arts trail after learning of a long, public railway trail in Canada and seeing the success of the Silo Art Trail in Victoria.

“With the Silo Art Trail, all those little towns were dying until they created artworks on the silos and now the towns are booming,” she says.

“People go there to watch the artists in the cherry pickers painting the silos.”

Jo moved to Marree three years ago from Adelaide with her husband.

Together they own the Drovers Run Caravan Park, while Jo is also a relief teacher at Marree Aboriginal School.

“I really knew nothing about Marree before I moved here, but I’d always had a liking for the outback and was always fascinated by the colours of the landscape,” she says.

In February 2018 Jo’s commitment to her community helped secure her as a finalist for the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award.

AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award winner Alex Thomas, left, with finalists Jo Bonner and Lauren Thiel.

She says the acknowledgement had helped spread the word about the Artback Rail Trail and shed light on country communities in the Far North.

“We really have to market these outback places because it’s important for the people who live here.

“It’s not just about the art.”

An exhibition of works by local and SA artists will unfold in the Marree Hall in July.

Artists will also present workshops, including night photography and landscape painting, in the evenings at Drovers Run Caravan Park.

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