Coober Pedy is one of those legendary places that every country has. It’s far from the bright lights and the crowds of the likes of Sydney or Melbourne, yet it is the kind of town that you have still heard of. Miles inland, tucked away in northern South Australia, this hidden gem attracts thousands of adventure seekers to it each year.And for those that are wondering why, the clue was in the word ‘gem.’
Coober Pedy: Opal Capital Of The World
Coober Pedy is a small town situated 846km north of Adelaide in South Australia.
Opals were first discovered in 1915 by prospectors originally looking for gold in the region. Opals were found lying on the ground’s surface by the 14 year old son of Jim Hutchinson of the New Colorado Prospecting Company.
Aboriginal people have roamed this area for thousands of years in a semi-nomadic way, searching for food and water. By 1920, Coober Pedy had been given its name, which is an anglicised version of the aboriginal words “kupa piti.” There are several possible translations of the words, my favourite of which is “white man in a hole.”
Given the idea of trenches from the First World War, returning soldiers came to the opal fields and developed the dugout as a unique method of living underground.
Like all mining industries, Coober Pedy has suffered boom and bust eras over the decades. In the 1960s the town saw an influx of European migrant workers coming to seek their fortune and since then the town has blossomed into a cosmopolitan place of 3,500 inhabitants from over 45 countries.
A New Meaning To A Journey ‘Down Under’
The first thing I did when I arrived in Coober Pedy was to take a tour at Umoona Opal Mine and Museum, which is open to the public and offers free guided tours several times a day. To begin with you are shown an introductory video that explains the history of opal mining in the region, the mining process and how it has developed to the present day. You are also shown the process of polishing an opal in preparation for its sale.
The most interesting bit – frankly, the main reason anyone is here, right? – was to explore the mine itself. I was guided along several of the tunnels, some of which had been hewn by hand by the original miners back in the 1900s. Nowadays the tunnels are mainly created by machine and you can see the swirling pattern of the machinery against the rock walls of the tunnel. When opals are discovered, the machines are put to one side and out come the pickaxes again to chip away at the area.
The Umoona Mine includes an original miner’s dugout; an underground space where the miners in the 1900s would have lived whilst working. It was decorated with replica furniture and the whole experience was pretty basic and bleak. Living standards have come a long way since then and you can also explore a more modern underground house. This has all the trappings of a modern day house: TV, kitchen, bathroom, you name it. The decoration and furnishings were dated and – whilst not to my taste – perfectly liveable.
Life In Coober Pedy
Due the semi-desert climate in Coober Pedy, with average day time temperatures of 20C in winter and 35 – 45C in summer, most of the inhabitants in this town choose to live under the ground itself.
However, it’s not just houses that underground here, even the local churches can be found under the surface. For a small town, Coober Pedy has quite the variety of denominations, hinting at its multicultural past and present. I visited the Serbian Orthodox and the Greek Orthodox churches to gain a sense of how subterranean worship is carried out.
There are several art galleries, opal shops, cafes and mine tours that you can visit underground. However, if you really can’t bear the thought of this, you can always try your hand at golf at the local course. Golf here is usually played at night with glow-in-the-dark balls to avoid the day time heat. There is no grass on the course, so golfers are said to bring their own piece of turf on which to tee off.
Eccentric Cave Dwellers
A unique place like Coober Pedy wouldn’t be complete without a few eccentric local characters. Just out of town you will come across Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest. Harry gained his name through his crocodile trapping past. Some visitors may recognise his intriguing dugout from the underground scenes in ‘Mad Max: Beyond The Thunderdome,‘ which was filmed around Coober Pedy. Inside you will find a fascinating array of memorabilia, electronics, sculptures and ornaments plus huge murals adorning every available piece of wall.
Legend has it that he has the names of 6000 virgins painted on to his wall. Whether you believe this or not, there are certainly the names of hundreds of female visitors from all over the world painted from wall to ceiling. It is an incredibly bizarre kind of ‘museum’ that is certainly worth a visit to capture a taste of what life is like under the surface.
You’d be correct in assuming that the activity in Coober Pedy doesn’t extend much further than the pub. However, there is another activity that you can take part in that allows you to rub shoulders (so to speak) with a different kind of local resident.
Josephine’s Kangaroo Orphanage is a sanctuary for injured and orphaned kangaroos. We fed the adults and cooed over the little baby joey, Ruby, who was about four months old.
There is a beautiful range of local aboriginal art work for sale here, from paintings to jewellery and digeridoos. Even if you don’t have the time to visit the animals, I highly recommend popping in to take a look at the gallery, knowing that money from your purchases go to support local community business.
I thought that the stony, treeless terrain of Coober Pedy and it’s surrounds were eerily beautiful. It’s not hard to see why several movies have been filmed here and interest in the area remains high.
You can’t visit the opal capital of the world and not attempt to score your own fortune. Luckily for us tourists, there is an easy way to forage for opals without having to obtain expensive permits and machinery to mine our own patch of land.
The process of noodling is where you can search through discarded heaps of soil and rock on the surface for pieces of opal missed by the miners. Many locals actually make a living off this and never actually venture underground.
If you fancy turning your hand to noodling, just make sure you take care out there are there are hundreds of unmarked shafts dotted across the lunar landscape leading down into the mines below.
Given its remote location, Coober Pedy is not the sort of place you call into for an impromptu weekend. However, if you are taking a road trip from South Australia to the Northern Territory, then it’s an ideal spot to add to the itinerary to break up the journey.
It is located between Adelaide and Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway.
If the thought of a road trip over such a vast distance doesn’t appeal, consider taking a guided tour. For a solo traveller, I would suggest a group tour is one of the easiest and most sociable ways of seeing this remotely beautiful area of Australia. You can check out what I have to say on the subject of guided tours by clicking here.
Where To Stay
It’s possible that the accommodation will be the highlight of your entire visit to Coober Pedy.
I spent the night in an underground bunkhouse at Umoona mine. Before you get visions of a claustrophobic dark hole, I will reassure you that the bunkhouse was a large, high ceilinged space that didn’t feel pokey at all. There was a large chamber-like room with a corridor down the middle. On each side were smaller partitioned sections of four or six bunkbeds concealed with a privacy curtain.
The air didn’t feel suffocating and the temperature was just right; neither too hot or two cool. If the thought of total darkness sends you into a panic then don’t worry. There is always the glow of the emergency lighting – marking the exits – to comfort you.
If Umoona Mine Underground Dughouse doesn’t sound appealing then there is the option of the Coober Pedy Backpackers. Unfortunately for you (depending on how you look at it), the backpackers is also underground.
After all, no visit to Coober Pedy would be complete without a night Down Under.
– For more information about Coober Pedy, and a source I used to help me gather information for this blog, check out Southern Australia’s website on Coober Pedy.
Have you heard of Coober Pedy? Does the thought of living underground appeal or does it sound like your worst nightmare? Are you intrigued to pay a visit to this infamous part of Australia? Let me know what you think!
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