Along the Stuart highway between Adelaide and Alice Springs there is a a small town called Roxby Downs. Twenty years ago it didn’t exist, only springing up to service the Olympic Dam mine. It is immaculate, complete with a school, a golf course, cinema and young families complemented by young men in their twenties and thirties in fluro workshirts pushing strollers. Due to its remoteness only miners and their families live here, meaning that unemployment is virtually nil. Well to do families living well to do lives surrounded by desert and what can only be assumed to be more desert.
Martin and I stop in at the town centre, we’ve recently taken up the practice of asking the locals if they know of anyone interesting we could interview. Within minutes a phone tree sprouts from Kath, the cute receptionist’s telephone. Three or four layers of communication spread through the town as we cold call old ladies with our request. It goes surprisingly well, I put it down to my laid back manner and easy charm. It is settled that we should interview Conrad who lives in a small town twenty kilometres down the road called Andamooka. I call Conrad on the mobile phone and plead my case. He says sure, I will meet you in front of the Andamooka Post Office in twenty minutes.
Andamooka is the polar opposite of Roxby Downs. It is a shanty town, driving through we are surrounded on all sides by small shacks with tarps hung to create patios. There is no uniformity in shack design so they unfold like a patchwork quilt as they slowly slope up the surrounding hills. What Martin and I can’t make much sense of is the sprinkling of more august dwellings spread out through the town.
Andamooka now a community of 592 people that used to be a thriving Opal mining town back in the 80′s. After reaching its peak it is slowly dying as the residents die with it. The same fate that Roxby Downs will face when Olympic Dam eventually closes.
We meet Conrad in front of the post office as planned and follow him in convoy to the small shack that he lives in. It contains all the necessities: an freshly made bed, cereal in tupperware boxes, a small television, tea and coffee and a copy of the bible.
Conrad is a man in his early sixties, simply dressed with neatly combed hair. As a younger man he would have been handsome, now he is distinguished. He speaks quietly and with deliberate choice of words.
Introductions are exchanged, tea is made and Martin and I find ourselves sitting under some shade cloth in a total stranger’s home. Conrad tells us he is an opal miner and offers us a cigarette, I take one and Martin gives me a look that even my mother couldn’t muster. I ask Conrad about how opals are formed. “It must take millions of years for the opal to form underground?” I offer trying to sound smart.
“Millions of year? Well that is certainly some people’s belief” he replies delicately.
There is a pause as I reflect that I am drinking tea with a creationist. Which is fine, it’s just that up until now my experience and knowledge of creationists had been mainly informed by snarky youtube comments.
Martin asks how successful opal miners are and Conrad’s answer goes a long way to explaining the existence of the rather impressive houses sprinkled amongst a town of shacks.
“For every hundred people that come into the industry to have a go 80 will go broke, 15 will make a living and five will become rich.”
Tea is finished, our documentary is explained and it is agreed that Conrad will be interviewed. The interview takes place on a bluff overlooking the town.
“We came from South Africa in 1969, we travelled around Australia for 3 months and we sort of scattered. I ended up in Perth, my brother ended up in Darwin and another brother in Queensland and then we got a letter from my mother. She had read an article about Andamooka in People magazine. She sent us a letter saying I want a year out of your life and try this opal mining thing.”
Conrad stand with his fingers alternately interlocked neatly in front of him or behind his back.
He had not always been an opal miner, twelve years in the army several serving in Papua New Guinea, an economics degree and jobs around the place but “I’ve always come back” Conrad tells us.
By all accounts Opal mining is addictive, many if not all miners dream of the opals they hope to find. They can clearly see the colours that run through them. By all accounts it is not a stable lifestyle.
“I went two years once, I found $80 in two years… and I remember a time when I never found less than $1000 in a day and that went on for ninety days non-stop. I even, it’s dreadful to say I even worked on Sundays”
Conrad was born into a religious family but he put it down to the year 1986 as the most important point in his life.
“I had been successful in the opal mining, I had been successful in my family and there just seemed to be a pointlessness about everything. And its only once I started to seek the spiritual side I became aware there is far more you can get… you can have all the rest, you have the material side, the love and the family side but if the spiritual side is missing you are missing out on 95% of existence.”
I think it is an interesting point but I personally have trouble believing this. Who we are, what we hold to be important and our sense of self and direction is inextricably intertwined with the natural world. To be honest the word spiritual for me has always been equated with tofu, healing crystals and chanting loudly. It is a prejudice I have and I’m not sure if it is warranted. Our family, our friends, our humour and slowly but surely making sense of the universe, that has to account for more than 5% of existence, right?
The tone of the interview sombers as Conrad tells us one of his biggest mistake, his biggest blue.
Up until about a year ago he was suffering from a debilitating condition.
“I was in hospital with blood clots to the lung and I caught what they call superbugs. I’ve still got scars all over my body from where I was basically being eaten alive for seven years … I was like the invisible man covered in plasters.”
“Ugly, truly ugly. My whole face was like one big boil, my whole body was one big boil.”
He is free of disease now, for over a year he has borne only some scars to show anything had ever occurred.
“I withdrew myself back to Andamooka at that time, I felt very much like a leper and that was my fault, withdrawing myself but I’m fortunate that my relationship with my children is restored. I’m trying to restore other relationship I severed at that time.”
The crippling rejection he must of felt is just beyond comprehension. Though in hindsight Conrad feels that the rejection was self imposed. Shame masquerading as rejection.
“I thought I was doing them a kindness by keeping myself away from them but in retrospect I made a big mistake. Most people want the opportunity to to show their friendship and the continuation of their love when you are in difficulties, but I chose to separate myself, keep myself isolated.”
As Conrad talks my brain goes into meltdown, half engrossed into what he is saying the other half failing to come up with my next question.
“I think the danger comes when one tries to withdraw and not have encounters with people any more and that’s where real damage has been done. I think as long as you are open for communication, to the new experience, the new love you’re okay but I can imagine cases where people are so affected by rejection that they don’t experiment and try again.”
immediately promise myself that I will go out and talk to girls. What is most fascinating is how Conrad’s relationship to God changed over those seven years.
“I drew nearer to him, I definitely drew near to him because it was quite frightening, the whole experience. Frightening but at the same time I had peace. It is a hard thing to understand that you can be in the most horrendous situation and yet have a sense of security.”
I grew up in a middle class liberal minded academic family. My father was a University Professor and my mother an artist. Truth be told we more liberal minded about gays then about God. Jesus never had a chance with me. No religious education or instruction as a young child, religion is a technical thing in my family. Some thing to be scrutinised, poked and occasionally mocked. There is no emotion attached to God for us, no sense of relationship or tradition. Almost completely intellectualised.
So when I heard Conrad say that a small pop occurred in my mind. It made a little sense, God being just as real a relationship as you would have with your father, or your dog… or new episodes of Ready Steady Cook. Something tangible you could actually rely upon. Off load your burdens too. Seek compassion from. Perhaps it didn’t matter so much that a man named Noah managed to fill a boat with two specimens of a estimated 8.7 million species.
For a man to be have so much shame that he would cut himself off from all other important relationships, and to live like that for seven years. Well I would be ready to believe that the earth is 6000 years old to still have one friend left.
I'm not sure I will ever believe in God, and while my Facebook status might display my religious outlook as “completely bamboozled” because I am too shy to say out loud that I suspect that there is nothing after, maybe God will be my friend one day, whether he is real or not.
I have never gotten over the fact that God is dog spelled backwards. It just seemed just too perfect a coincidence. For a long time the joke I would make is that God and a dog must be roughly the same intelligence. Hysterical, during our journey Martin and I did agree that I was the funny one. Now that literary quirk is more of a comfort. We all seek and receive compassion and friendship, whether that be from God or a dog, perhaps it doesn’t matter which in the end.
Written by David Ridley