When approaching Coober Pedy from the north, the landscape gets ever more flat and arid until just a few bushes dot the ocher colored desert. And then – small hills. More and more, some big and some tiny -mounds of debris. The whole area has been turned upside down.
Like a movie set
Coober Pedy is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s probably the craziest place I’ve ever been to – seriously. Coober Pedy is like a town from a, maybe a bit weird, movie – and in fact it has been the location of several movies such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Mad Max. At the end of the movie you’d say, “a place like that doesn’t exist in reality”. Oh, but it does! And it’s very much alive and bustling; above and, especially, below ground.
The reason why Coober Pedy exists is not because it’s located in a particularly beautiful spot of Australia, nor because there’d be lots of water and good soil to grow produce. No; this area is likely one of the most inhospitable of the country. It’s bone dry, in summer temperatures regularly exceed 40°C, and the wind never stops blowing (and the flies never buzzing). The earth is rock hard and almost nothing grows there, but, nevertheless, the ground is why people keep coming to Coober Pedy: It contains Opal.
Never-Ending Opal Rush
One hundred years ago, men looking for gold by chance discovered Opal in the area of Coober Pedy. Since then, hundreds of adventurers have flocked here in search of the precious stones and have turned the ground into Swiss cheese. The Opal rush has been declared dead and over several times but it always sprang back to life when some persistent digger discovered a new vein and today it’s still far from over.
People from all over the world come here to try their luck. The diverse origins of Coober Pedy’s inhabitants is obvious in the town’s supermarket: it’s stocked with specialties from everywhere. Delicious and totally unexpected.
Because of the heat in summer, most people live underground in so-called dugouts where the temperatures remain constant. If you want to experience underground-living yourself, you can do that and spend a few days in one of the underground hotels. I think there’s even an underground campsite.
There’s lots to do in Coober Pedy: Visit museums, underground homes, or go digging for Opal. Maybe you’re lucky and find something (and even decide to stay)! For the less hands-on people there are tons of shops where you can buy opal and opal jewelry.
My favorite activity was just walking through the streets of this strangely fascinating town. People here care obviously more for what’s below than above ground. Coober Pedy definitely wouldn’t win a “tidiest town” award, ever. Thanks to that there’s so much to see here; old rusty cars, buses-turned-blower (a blower is a weird-looking mining machine), sculptures made of old computers, you name it. Oh, and the most amazing thing (at least for a fan of the Riddick movies): The spaceship from Pitch Black!
The Old Timers Mine
To see how underground Coober Pedy looks like, we went to the Old Timers Mine. Started in 1916, it was the first mine in the area. Now visitors can walk around in the original tunnels and see and learn how the miners worked back then. If you thought about giving opal mining a go before visiting the museum, you will probably rethink that afterwards. Although now there are machines, the work remains very hard.
The museum is great and a few times a day there’s a demonstration of a blower. I didn’t really understand how it works, however. The explanation, delivered by a guy with a heavy Australian accent, was kind of blown a way by the strong wind and the loud noise of the blower. Nevertheless, it was fun. Part of the museum are several underground homes which used to be inhabited for many years. The homes seem really comfortable and not at all depressing, as I had imagined them.
Coober Pedy is a must-see if you’re driving the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Port Augusta. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to dig for opal – even if all your senses tell you not to do it.