When Conan Fahey spotted a story on the Fritz website about the cheap houses for sale in South Australia, cogs started turning.
“I bought the crappiest house on that list,” he says.
The property is located on one of the richest hills for producing opal in the Andamooka opal fields. In other words, a dry, dusty stretch of desert 600 kilometres north of Adelaide.
“I did a bit of research saw it had been up for sale in 2011 for $79,000. We contacted Raine & Horne Real Estate Roxby Downs, had a chat, and a week later had a look.”
Conan and his wife Karyn loved the property’s view (it overlooks the legendary Tuckabox Hotel), the stonework, rainwater tanks and potential of noodling for discarded opal on the property.
They made an offer ($15,000) and the rest is history. The two-room house and a little semi-dugout called ‘Woomera Hut’ is theirs.
“We removed the inside dust covers and we totally lucked out. It was just how the previous owners had left everything decades ago. No-one had touched the property or the opal on the ground. Everything was little, in order and in its place: two chairs, two beds, two cups, two bowls, old-school Danish furniture and very old books. The couple had used every bush mechanic and off-grid innovation trick in the book to keep their home cool and storm, dust and critter proof.”
The smaller ‘Woomera Hut’ building was a tool shed with a complete mining kit for underground shaft opal mining: a diesel generator, lighting, cables, helmets, jackhammer, winch, buckets, ladders, picks, shovels, gold pans, sifters and hundreds of old tools.
“It was marvellous, like opening a super big surprise time capsule present.”
Previously, a couple had used it as a base camp for mining adventures.
“We have a lot of respect for this couple’s innovation, resourcefulness and off-grid lifestyle.”
The property has a new chapter ahead. Conan and Karyn have turned it into a remote, off-grid bookstore called the Andamooka Observatory Bookshop.
“We love books, reading and love bookshops so it seemed the right thing to do. We love getting blown out by space, science and astronomy and thought let’s incorporate that too.”
It will also sell secondhand and rare books with a focus on Australian and Aboriginal history, gemstones, bush survival, astronomy, art, film, international relations, permaculture, modern popular fiction and non-fiction.
There is no air conditioning and the bookshop is currently powered by a Goal Zero Yeti 400 solar battery.
“We plan to upgrade as our usage increases.”
Conan loves the searing hot outback region. When he’s in Adelaide he can often be found talking about it over a pint at The Wheatsheaf Hotel.
“Our idea is to sell books to raise money to construct an astronomy observatory and viewing platform,” he says.
“We open late at night and early in the morning for sky phenomena and cosmic events. We are using it as a base camp for our ‘opal miner for a day’ and nocturnal tours. Working with old mates, photographers and miners we regularly host, opal mining, astronomy and astrophotography presentations and sessions.”
Conan’s love affair with the area began when his parents caught opal fever.
“I learnt young that Andamooka is a magical place where you always have a chance.”
During the late eighties and early nineties, Conan lived there.
“This was the third time I visited Andamooka and ended up staying on. I love being in the Tuckabox front bar when a local crusty miner or an overseas tourist goes, ‘Have a look what I found.’”
The lucky ones find opals valued from a few hundred bucks to a few hundred thousand. They come in all shapes and forms (crystal, black, jelly ‘blobs’, matrix, painted ladies and opalised fossils including dinosaur bones).
“The best time to visit is night time. In the desert, we live a nocturnal lifestyle. We rest in the day and work/play at night.”
Conan loves the isolation, the silence, and the community’s strong, independent characters.
“The elements, the resident emu family, handshake deals, the Seven Sisters, meteor showers and opal.”
He grins. “It’s one of Australia’s last frontier settlements, it’s like taking a step back in time… like you’ve pressed the wrong button and have ended up on a Mad Max set or on Mars.”
Know anyone turning their home into a business? Let us know in the comments, below.