Opal was first discovered in Coober Pedy in 1915 and the region is now one of the largest opal mining areas supplying most of the worlds quality opal. It is also renowned for its scorching heat and underground houses which are purpose-built to escape it. Having heard lots about Coober Pedy, it was a definite on our ‘To Do’ list and a highly anticipated stop. We went with an open mind, not really knowing what to expect, and it did not let us down.
Located on the Stuart Highway, between Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and Port Augusta in South Australia, Coober Pedy is not your typical outback town. The town area itself was not as flat as we expected, but it was as dry with virtually not a blade of grass to be seen. That said, they have some of the purest water in Australia with a reverse osmosis water purification system throughout.
The ‘green’ @ the Coober Pedy Golf Club
Coober Pedy has something different to see in almost every direction. It had a quirkiness about it, which is perhaps what made it the ideal location for the 1980 iconic Mad Max movies.
Props from the Mad Max movies are scattered throughout town
The town is so full of charm and alive with characters, with some looking like they were straight off the movie set. We were only there for three days, but they were jam-packed with so much to see and keep us entertained. Below are just a few of the places we saw.
The Main Street of Coober Pedy @ Night
We started off at the Umoona Museum. It was an interesting insight into how Coober Pedy came to be. Like many of the buildings in town, the Museum was an underground structure and also the site of an old mine. It is a great place to see some beautiful opals and get a great understanding of the history of the area. Many of the underground dwellings and shops in Coober Pedy are actually built into the side of sandstone mountains, and into ground level, which helps to maintain the temperatures at a steady 23 degrees all year around.
Lots on display at the Umoona Museum
Josephine’s Gallery & Kangaroo Orphanage
Predominantly an Aboriginal Art Gallery featuring some great works from local artists, Josephine’s is also home to Orphaned Kangaroos. The Artwork was very authentic and there was a great variety on display, but the kids particularly loved the Kangaroos and got to pat and feed them, including a 6 months old Joey named Adelaide.
A must try while in Opal country is Noodling. That is the unusual name they give to the art of finding Opals. There is a dump site in town which has all the fillings and remnants of what the local miners have dug out. It is quite a large site and whilst it is pot luck as to whether or not you find anything it is still a tonne of fun. The kids had a ball climbing mound after mound of rock, looking for the illusive Opal.
Hannah & Henry get the hang of Noodling
Faye’s Underground House
Another must see in Coober Pedy is Faye’s Underground House. An iconic location, this place was amazing, and so was Faye. She and two other ladies dug the whole house out by hand, with some help from the odd stick of gelignite, which apparently they didn’t know too much about. It was quite a modest house and amazing the way in which they dug it all out. We got a personal tour by Missy, who was one of the current caretakers of the house and she provided a fascinating tour.
The kids were amazed and well looked after in Faye’s Underground House
It was intriguing to find out how the home was carved out and see the vent shafts coming down from above. It also had an indoor swimming pool which is amazing in itself. It turns out that while Faye was digging out the house, she came across a massive vein of opal, which has since helped her retirement. We were a bit nervous about all this underground stuff and asked about the stability of the roofs, but they assured us it was quite safe. Apparently if a crack becomes evident, they wedge a matchstick into it. If it stays put, there is nothing to worry about, if it falls out, that part needs to be reinforced. Lucky for us, we could not see any matches lying around, and those in the ceiling seemed well pinned. Surrounding Faye’s house is the mine which was responsible for quite a bit of Opal. The mine is open at certain times of the day and makes for a fascinating tour as you see how the tunnels meander underground and slowly reveal their hidden treasures.
The incredible ‘Owl’s Eyes’ in Faye’s Old Mine
There is a lookout in town which is worth a look. Pardon the pun! But just make sure you go to the right one. Driving around town, we saw some makeshift signs advising of the ‘Lookout’. We approached with caution and noticed more signs, ‘Look Out’ and ‘Scenic Views’. We should have twigged, as they were all hand-painted signs, and pretty rough at that. But, being up for an adventure, we followed them and landed in a crazy looking car park with some bizarre looking structures that resembled termite mounds. Sure enough, there were views of the town, but it turned out to be a private shop of a local opal dealer, but admittedly it was also on the way to the genuine lookout. It was still worth a look and he did have some interesting opals in the shop.
Coober Pedy from the Lookout
The locals are all very friendly and full of great stories about the place and don’t mind you asking about the underground dwellings. Understanding how and why they are built is fascinating with their air shafts for ventilation and terrific temperature control. One local told of how it took about a month to dig out her house at a total cost of $50. Admittedly that was 35 years ago, and she borrowed a digger so the $50 was for the fuel.
A typical underground home in Coober Pedy
The Main Street
Don’t dismiss the main street of town either, it is very colourful, to say the least, and there is quite an assortment of galleries and eating places including some great underground restaurants which all have their own unique and quirky feel about them.
One of the many galleries in the main street
Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest
If you want to see something totally out there, make your way out to Harry’s. Apparently, the town playboy in his day and the house reflects his conquests well! Not for the faint hearted the whole place is covered in memorabilia of the past, including numerous pairs of G-strings. It was an interesting insight and one that took quite a bit of explaining to the kids. There are many other things to see of course and it definitely makes for an entertaining afternoon. For us, however, with the kids in toe, we thought it was a safer bet to head back to Faye’s underground house in time for the personalized tour of her mine, which was directly under the house.
Harry’s House – Full of Caps & Conquests
From Harry’s to the total opposite it can be seen that Religion has played a bit part in the history of Coober Pedy, and although something not best discussed in detail, you can’t go past the stunning architecture behind the underground churches in town. There are many denominations depicting the vast variety of cultures that have moved to the area and left an impression, including the Catholic and Uniting Churches, with the Siberian church being one of the most elaborate with its uniquely carved roof and stained glass features.
Amazing Ceilings & Stained Glass @ the Underground Siberian Church
A short 30 km drive out of Coober Pedy along the Oodnadatta Road is the Breakaways. A fascinating group of magnificent coloured flat-top mountains and hills, aptly named as they appear to have broken away from the higher ground of the escarpment. There is a 5km dirt road from the highway or an alternative route via the Dog Fence Scenic Tourist Drive which takes you past the longest fence in the world spanning over 5000 km and which is instrumental in stopping dingoes going from north to south.
The Breakaways & Dog Fence near Coober Pedy
That just about wrapped up our time in Coober Pedy, although we did it all in three days, more time to slow it down would have been better. There are plenty of places to stay, which we will mention below, and also some great places to eat, including one restaurant that immediately comes to mind. Why? Because it served up Seafood. And you wouldn’t expect to find fresh seafood in the middle of the desert right!!! But on our last night in town, we lashed out and went to a Greek Restaurant and tried their specialty dish. Yep, Fresh Prawns. Don’t know where they got them from, but they were THE BEST!
Coober Pedy holds several major events throughout the year including
The Great Kanku – Breakaways Marathon
A midyear event held in June, the marathon starts at the Breakaways, goes along the Dog Fence and ends up with a major event including food, drinks, community stalls, and presentations. Walk or Run, it is a tonne of fun with spectacular scenery along the way.
Coober Pedy Trade Gem Show
Held in April, the show provides the opportunity for Miners, Retailers, and Wholesales to get together each year and showcase the best the industry has to offer. Open to the public it affords the opportunity to learn more about the Opal industry and perhaps pick up a unique gem.
Where to Stay
There are quite a few places to stay in Coober Pedy ranging from Free Camps to Caravan Parks, some are listed below, but for the full list, download the Free App and find all campsites in the surrounding area.
Family Parks Oasis Tourist Park
Oasis Tourist Park is situated at the north end of the main street opposite the Drive-in, just 250 meters from shops and attractions. They have something for everybody. Just camping in a tent, powered sites some with their own en suite, or…..
Ribas Underground Camping
Riba’s is a camping ground and caravan park with underground single and double rooms to suit any budget. Experience what makes Riba’s the most unique accommodation in the world – the ONLY place in Australia where you can pitch your tent or swag underground.
Hutchison Memorial Rest Area
Technically a rest area, however, permits overnight stays, only 12 Km from Coober Pedy and with no facilities, it is still ideal for a quick stop over.