Leïla Shahshahani

journaliste indépendante



Australia - January 2001

Driving to the center of Australia, to the "burning" town of White Cliffs, out of time and... underground, is an unforgettable experience. The Australian 2000 Olympic Games didn't make it that far. Less than a thousand kilometers separate Sydney from White Cliffs, in other words nothing for a continent fourteen times the size of France. Still, White Cliffs is a "voyage" back in time, at the end of a long red sand track.

A road sign announces 200 inhabitants (+1 +1, two recent births). When we get there, we find no sign of life, only two buildings facing each other ; one is a general store, the other a pub, standing there right in the middle of the desert. Temperature reaches 47 degres, and you can hear flies. But it is under the ground that one must search, that is where things happen here in White Cliffs. People live in "dug-outs", these underground constructions, more or less sophisticated, which provide a cool and enjoyable temperature all year long. The main activity here is the search for the precious opal, going on along impressive systems of underground galleries.

Far away from the touristy Coober Peddy, White Cliffs is probably today one of Australia's most authentic opal mining town. Visitors are still rare as only a sand track leads to it. When heavy rains occure, the track is becoming unpracticable and White Cliffs become even more isolated. The huge infrastructure projects happening in Sydney in the fever of the Olympic games appear all of a sudden very distant, from White Cliff's point of view. Some locals here do not hesitate to criticize the massive expenses of the olympic town.

To many Australians, White Cliffs is simply... the end of the world. For White Cliffs inhabitants, their town reflects the proud tradition of opal pioneers who arrived here at the end of the 19th century. This was the town's golden age, with a population of 4000 inhabitants in search of quickly built fortunes. Today, however, the precious stone is getting more rare and White Cliffs has now become a very quiet town, with a shop, a pub, an undergroung motel and... 14 solar pannels turned towards the sky. White Cliffs indeed possesses the world's first test-station of this type, set up here in 1979. But once again, what once made White Cliffs a pionner town has become an object of the past. The solar station has been outdated by newer technological advances in terms of solar energy. Bill Finney, The New-Zelander engineer responsible for the maintainance of the station since 1986, decided to stay. He is keeping an eye on these huge mirrors, and dreams of the day when the station will rise again. In the meantime, he's playing games on the central computer.

White Cliffs is out of the normal way, to the point where even the police doesn't live there. The closest police station being at about a hundred kilometers away. The community has its own rules that no one should ignores, according to the locals. As for the town "mayor", Graham, he goes to meetings in Wilcannia - the next town - on board the little plane he pilots.

Today, White Cliffs inhabitant must choose : if opal goes rare, only tourism will ensure the town's survival. In that case, the announced possible building of a proper road should be an advantage. There already exists in White Cliffs a motel as well as a bed and breakfast. Then again, will this mean the loss of White Cliffs' authenticity ?

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