Coober Pedy is a small opal mining town in the north of South Australia, the first stop on our road trip through the Australian Outback. The name of the town is derived from the Aboriginal words Kupa Piti, which roughly translates to “white man in a hole”. It describes Coober Pedy perfectly, as most residents live underground to get away from the scalding hot sun. This doesn’t mean the town consists only of piles of dirt with houses hidden underneath, like I had expected. The houses are caves drilled out in the sides of the rocky hills and the piles of dirt surround Coober Pedy, as a result from the digging for opal. It actually looks like a normal town. In the desert. 50 years ago. In this blogpost we’ll share with you what to do in Coober Pedy, not just above ground, but underground as well.
Coober Pedy above ground
Coober Pedy looks more or less like an old normal town above ground, except there are almost no trees, rusted truck wrecks decorate the sides of the roads, and the surrounding area looks like the surface of another planet. Filmmakers have made use of this out of space like desert more than once. A movie prop from Pitch Black in the form of a spaceship can still be found on Hutchison Street, across from Winch Street. If I remember correctly, it was in front of a place called Bedrock Underground Accommodation, hidden behind a building.
Other nice photo opportunities are to be found all over Coober Pedy, where old trucks and buses converted into mining equipment are left to rust on the side of the road. Near the Opal Beetles (or Opal Bugs), we found an old blower reminding us of Cars, the movie. Trees are a seldom sight in Coober Pedy, as the soil is rocky and there’s almost no rain. This means holes have to be dug to plant trees and they have to be watered daily. For a view over this one of a kind town, the Big Winch Scenic Lookout is the place to be. On the way over there you’ll pass a house with some weird art in its front and back yard.
Coober Pedy underground
Coober Pedy is definitely one of a kind. You’ll find underground homes, churches, hotels, and art galleries. They even have a golf course without one blade of grass. Golfers bring their own square of grass to put under their golf ball. We paid a short visit to the Catacomb Church, but it was not as spectacular as expected.
Coober Pedy calls itself “the opal capital of the world”, being the largest opal mining area in the world. Just over 100 years ago opal was first found there and is still being found today. We visited the Old Timers Mine to see for ourselves how an opal mine used to work. The museum is situated in an actual opal mine, with pieces of opal still in the walls. Although it’s worth a lot of money, they purposely not mined it, but left it to show visitors how it looks in real life. Quite impressive! The owner of Old Timers Mine was very friendly. He told us the mine was discovered accidentally in 1968 when they were digging out a home. He gave us a map of the museum with a short explanation of every point of the tour that’s worth a stop.
And so we went on our way, map in hand, helmet on our heads. It took us about an hour to complete the self-guided tour through the old opal mine, and there were a couple of occasions we were very glad to be wearing a helmet. We learned about how opal used to be mined and were stunned by the awful working conditions. After the opal mine part of the tour we found ourselves in the underground home they were digging when the mine was discovered. We especially liked the old pictures of mining activities and reading about Coober Pedy and its opal miners all those years ago. After the tour you can buy souvenirs from the shop or do some opal noodling in the sandpit in front of the museum. We read about the free mining machines demonstration, but unfortunately missed it. Demonstrations are daily at 9h30, 13h30, and 15h30.
Just over 30 km north of Coober Pedy are the Breakaways, colourful hills that broke away from the Stuart Range. The Breakaways Conservation Park feels more like an open than a mountainous space though. As far as you can look (which feels like all the way to the end of the world) you see nothing but desert. We left Coober Pedy on Oodnadatta Road, and after a well indicated turn to the left the asphalt road suddenly stops. We found ourselves on a gravel road with ridges that forced us to keep our speed at about 25 km/h.
About 20 minutes of driving in the middle of nowhere at a ridiculously slow pace later we reached the famous Dog (or Dingo) Fence. It was built to keep the dingos away from the sheep and goes on for 5,600 km, crossing three states. No, this is not a typo. Once the fence was even longer than the Great Wall of China, which is almost 9,000 km long. The area on the other side of the fence is called the Moon Plain, as it looks like a lunar landscape. We turned left driving along the fence for a while before we reached an area sparkling in the sunlight. According to an information sign on the side of the road it’s because of the petrified wood (remains of trees turned to stone) and gypsum (a soft sulfate mineral) in the soil.
We passed beautifully coloured mountains, which are supposed to be even more colourful when the sun is rising or setting. We were there in the afternoon, actually a little early, but did see colours like orange, yellow, white, red-brown, and even pink, although they were not as distinct as on the photos we’ve seen. Next easily recognisable feature in the Breakaways Conservation Park are two mountains called The Castle or Salt & Pepper by non-Aboriginals. Both mountains have a different colour because of the different rate of erosion. The Aboriginal name is Two Dogs, their owner Wati being the pointed mountain behind you when you’re going in the same direction as we went.
After The Castle we went left to a scenic area. We parked the car near some fences with a “road closed” sign and climbed the mountain on our right. From the top we had a beautiful 360° view of nothing but desert and there was literally no sound but the wind. We drove up to two other lookout points, one with a kiosk and some information signs. We spent the largest part of the afternoon (slowly) crossing this amazing landscape. On the way back to Coober Pedy via Stuart Highway, you see mining equipment in action on the side of the road.
The Breakaways are definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Coober Pedy. The landscape is simply surreal. You don’t need a 4WD (unless it’s been raining), just make sure to take it slow!
Coober Pedy Drive-In Cinema
Another activity in Coober Pedy taking you back in time is the Coober Pedy Drive-In, active since 1965. The friendly owner of Oasis Tourist Park, where we stayed, made us aware of this great opportunity. We had never been to a drive-in cinema before and we hadn’t seen Spectre yet, so we decided to give it a go. We brought drinks and a snack, paid $20 entrance fee (for the both of us and our campervan), and enjoyed the gorgeous sunset, before we laid back to watch the movie. I was so comfortable in the car with my feet on the dashboard, that I fell asleep before the end of the movie. Other people brought their camping chairs to sit in front of their car, or watched the movie from the seats provided by the Coober Pedy Drive-In. Definitely a great way to watch a movie, we loved it! I can already tell you we went to another drive-in in Brisbane, but more on that later.
Best pizza for miles
While Brecht was sorting out the details with the owner of Oasis Tourist Park, I noticed a piece of paper on the wall advertising one of the best pizzerias in Australia. According to the sheet this pizza place was voted the fifth best of Australia on TripAdvisor. No need to think this over, we had to pay John's Pizza Bar & Restaurant a visit. The place looks average, but the pizza is really good! We ordered a large pizza for the both of us, each choosing the toppings for one half of the pizza. The folder we picked up at the caravan park got us a 10% discount, so we ended up paying $36.90 for a (very!) large pizza, a nice glass of white wine and a beer. We managed to finish the pizza but for one piece, which we took home. By the time we were leaving, the place was packed, and people were lining up for take-out. They serve other dishes as well, but why go to one of the best pizza places in Australia if you’re not in for pizza?
We loved our visit to Coober Pedy and recommend everyone to go check out this unique town. There are a lot of interesting things to do and the views are absolutely amazing, especially at the Breakaways. We had a great time at the Coober Pedy Drive-In and the Old Timers Museum was very interesting as well. Don’t miss out on a delicious pizza at John’s Pizza Bar & Restaurant and make sure to have your camera within reach at all times. Although there are opal jewellery and other opal souvenirs everywhere, we managed to leave without opal in our backpacks. Took lots of beautiful memories and pictures though!