In the middle of South Australia lies Coober Pedy. Several hundred, almost a thousand kilometres from the nearest metropolis. This is the definition of “in the middle of nowhere”. The landscape is made up of a rust-red desert. Powdery sand is swept up by the wind, drifting over the landscape where annoying flies are just waiting to blight someone’s existence. The name Coober Pedy is derived from one of the Aboriginal languages and means white man’s holes in the earth. It is an apt description. For the town is no more than a main street with large pits on its sides. The temperature is so high that the population had to seek shelter under the ground. Homes, churches and shops have been built underground, which gives some relief during the hottest days of the year. The walls and roofs made from sandstone ensure that the temperature never rises above 25 degrees Celsius. You will certainly encounter the mining town of Coober Pedy if travelling between Darwin and Adelaide. It is one of the larger towns along the monotonous Stuart Highway that runs through the country’s centre.
Coober Pedy is a city of eccentrics. The moonlike landscape is scarred, punctured like a Swiss cheese. Rust stained car-wrecks in every other garden. The area is barren and the ground infertile. Rain is rare and the sun is constantly present. It may seem strange that someone would like to set their foot here, let alone make it their permanent home. But there is a significant reason. Opals. Coober Pedy is often called the opal capital of the world. For over a hundred years now, opals have been excavated from the area’s soil. All visible holes in the ground are from excavations where people look for these precious gemstones. So, it’s a case of watching where you put your feet.
With its 3,500 inhabitants with 45 different nationalities, Coober Pedy is a small but multicultural town. The population is closely connected and welcoming. But the town has long been struggling with problems like alcoholism. Today, tourism is an important source of income for the people of Coober Pedy. Tourists are attracted by the peculiar landscape and the different atmosphere. A visit here is like nothing else. The town is truly unique. As a tourist, you can search through large piles of soil in hopes of finding something of value. But don’t make the mistake of going out and start digging on your own. Territories are taken seriously here. There are also art galleries, a gigantic drive-in cinema and fantastic opportunities to admire the starry skies far from disturbing city lights.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
Arid Areas Tours (aridareastours.com) offers day trips ranging from two hours up to three days. The trips take you through Coober Pedy, to the opal mines and the nearby desert. The organizers promise an experience where everything is performed according to their customers’ pace. They stop when you want to take photos and make sure that you are satisfied. They also offer private tours for those who want to experience Coober Pedy in solitude or with their own group.
At Josephine’s Gallery & Kangaroo Orphanage (weekendnotes.com/josephines-gallery-kangaroo-orphanage), the love for art and animals are combined. Josephine sells Aboriginal art and other souvenirs in her small shop. In addition, she takes care of kangaroo joeys who have been abandoned or lost their parents. As a visitor, you can meet the small animals and Josephine will happily tell you about their background.
Catacomb Church is the name of the city’s church, located underground (catacombchurch.com.au/). The church was built in the 1970s and as many other churches it has a regular Sunday mass for anyone who wants to attend. The church has retained its original walls made of stone. The sun light comes in through two holes in the ceiling that opens to the skies, filling the church with a natural light. Thanks to it being underground, it is always cool and comfortable in the church.
If you like to go to the movies there is a nice alternative in the town. Coober Pedy Drive-In (cooberpedydrivein.org.au) is a classic. Since the 1960s, the city has had its own drive-in that still is going strong. Park your car and order refreshments at the bar while the movie appears on a gigantic white outdoor canvas.
To gain insight into how it might be living underground, you can visit Faye’s Underground Home (cooberpedy.sa.gov.au/page.aspx?u=181&c=399) at Old Water Tank Road. It is open to visitors for an entrance fee of five dollars. The property was excavated by hand in the 1960s and it is fully equipped with bed, kitchen and even a swimming pool.
Umoona Opal Mine & Museum (umoonaopalmine.com.au) is a modern and interactive museum in the middle of the city. In the early 1900s, opal was found where the premises now stand and as a visitor you can go on a guided tour of the mine.
Parks and National Parks
Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park (parks.sa.gov.au/find-a-park/Browse_by_region/flinders-ranges-outback/kanku-breakaways-conservation-park) is located three miles north of Coober Pedy and is an incredibly beautiful nature experience, coming in all shades of red. The area got its name thanks to the mountain’s history of breaking away from the mountain Stuart Range. The two vantage points of Castle and Salt and Pepper provide nice views of the reserve. The peculiar landscape has been used as a filming location for several films and commercials. To visit Kanku-Breakaways, you must have permission before coming here. Contact the Visitor Information Centre at Hutchison Street in Coober Pedy. The permission costs only a few dollars and is well worth the effort.
As the name implies, the Barbecue Inn Underground (barbecueinn.com.au) is located underground. The restaurant serves good food at a slightly higher price. Another restaurant also worth a visit is John’s Pizza Bar & Restaurant. Don’t be fooled by its name, the food is of top quality and the pizzas too. They use fresh ingredients and the pizza’s topping is always of superb quality. You can also have a drink here, order coffee or spend an hour at a computer as they have an Internet café. The restaurant is located on Hutchison Street in the centre of Coober Pedy.
Umberto’s Restaurant, (desertcave.com.au/dining) located in the Desert Cave hotel is another option. They cook everything from simple home-cooking inspired meals to á la carte. Prices vary depending on what you choose to eat but everything is in the middle price range.
Good to know
Coober Pedy is small but very popular amongst visitors and tourists thanks to its location between Adelaide and Alice Springs. Many places belong to indigenous peoples and are of great cultural importance to them, so it is important to show respect. After the area was taken over by Europeans in the early 1900s, Coober Pedy was largely stripped of its assets and the Aboriginals who lived there were pushed away. Today, the situation is different, but the rough treatment the indigenous had to endure is hard to forget. Coober Pedy is a different place and it is not suitable for everyone. Unity means a lot to the inhabitants and in order to blend in, one should show respect.
There is a Visitor Information Centre on Hutchison Street where you can get help with reservations, tips and sights.
There are no car rentals in Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is located 845 km from Adelaide and 688 km from Alice Springs (wotif.com/Car-Hire). You can make a stop in the town on the journey to and from Alice Springs with Greyhounds (greyhound.com.au/tours-and-experiences/south-australia/coober-pedy). It is also possible to fly between Adelaide and Coober Pedy with Regional Express a few times a week (wotif.com/Flights).
In town you will find some hotels and hostels where you can stay for the night. There is also a good selection of possibilities for camping and caravan parking (hotelscombined.com/Place/Coober_Pedy.htm).
The Underground Motel (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/The_Underground_Motel.htm) is underground and offers non-smoking rooms for solo travellers, couples or families. All rooms include breakfast. The hotel is located on the edge of the town and the area is peaceful and quiet. They also have an underground parking. The hotel has no extra facilities such as a gym or swimming pool, but the hotel itself is worth a visit. Desert Cave Hotel (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Desert_Cave_Hotel.htm) is another hotel built underground in Coober Pedy. The Desert Cave Hotel offers excavated rooms, underground shops, a bar and a museum in the same building. There is also a restaurant. It is not a must to stay underground, they also have regular rooms. The hotel is a bit nicer and has a popular swimming pool.
Radeka Down Under (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Radeka_Downunder_Underground_Motel.htm) is the only real hostel located in Coober Pedy. The hostel has Wi-Fi and a shared kitchen. The rooms offered are single, double and dorm rooms for up to eight people. Radeka Down Under has no air conditioning because the room is underground. The temperature is thus pleasant all year round.
Even camping and caravan parking can be created in an underground environment. In Coober Pedy you will find the world’s first underground campground, Riba’s Underground Camping. Riba opened in 1997 and as the interest has increased since, the company has expanded. This campsite which also offers parking, is just five minutes from the town centre. Choose between camping, sleeping in your own car, or sleeping in a single or double room. There are hot showers to enjoy and you can also wash, cook and watch TV. In addition, Riba offers evening tours in the opal mines for a small fee.
BIG4 Stuart Range Outback Resort (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/BIG4_Stuart_Range_Outback_Resort.htm) is a resort run by a couple who left Greece for the Australian Desert in the 1970s. Here you will find tent places and beds for those who prefer this. They organize day trips and serve pizza.
A Saturday in Coober Pedy
07:30 – A morning underground
You wake up early thanks to the clean, fresh air you get to experience in the underground at The Underground Motel. Enjoy a hearty breakfast at the hotel and then get ready for an excursion to the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park at lunchtime. Pack lots of water, sunscreen and a fully charged camera.
11:00 – Extra-terrestrial nature reserve
After a short drive north, you arrive at the nature reserve. Despite that you are missing both sunrise and sunset, you feel that the scenery is amazing and almost extra-terrestrial. The camera is out, and you are ready to document the hilly country that comes in all types of red shades in contrast to the flat roads you have travelled on for so long.
15:00 – Late lunch, finally
You forgot to bring lunch on the excursion and around three you are starving and in immediate need of food. You leave The Breakaways Reserve and go directly to John’s Pizza Bar and Restaurant to enjoy one of the talked-about pizzas. You are not disappointed and leave completely satisfied.
16:00 – Saying hello to the little ones
You would like to get the most out of the day and head straight to Josephine’s Gallery & Kangaroo Orphanage. You experience both art and animals. After admiring the local art and maybe buying a painting or two to bring home, you get familiarized with the little kangaroos that get to grow up thanks to the animal lover Josephine.
19:00 – Back under the surface
The clock is ticking. Again, it’s time for something to eat and you’ve decided to book a table at the Barbecue Inn Underground. You order whatever you feel like. If unsure, ask the staff what they recommend, and their answer will probably be either a juicy steak, skewers or some souvlaki along with a cool beer. And why not.
20:00 – Open-air movie
After you have eaten and feel satisfied, check if any movie is scheduled to show on the drive-in-cinema. If so, just park your car and relax. If you have had alcohol, it is also possible to show up without a vehicle. If you need snacks and drinks, you can buy this on site. Enjoy the film screening in the middle of the desert under impressive starry skies.