Coober Pedy, according to the Explore Australia road atlas, is taken from the local Aboriginal language and means, “white man’s hole in the ground.” An amusing and apt name for a town that is as active below ground as it is above. Located on the Stuart Highway (A-87) about halfway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, Coober Pedy is an Outback mining town that has a wild west feel to it.
What would cause settlers to put down roots in a waterless, shadeless piece of desert hundreds of kilometers from any sign of civilization? Opals. About 80% of the world’s opals are mined in Coober Pedy. The cream colored, dusty moonscape around the town is pock marked with bore holes and piles of crushed rock, marking the mining claims of optimistic fortune hunters. Opal is formed when layers of silica sand, laid down thousands of years ago, are pressed at a steady rate over the millennia. Coober Pedy used to be beneath an inland sea that deposited the layers of sand along with the remains of mollusks and other marine animals that are now fossilized, sometimes even embedded in opal!
At first glance, Coober Pedy doesn’t seem to have much to offer the traveler, beyond a much needed gasoline and water stop on the long Stuart Highway. If you stay a little longer, and dig a little deeper, you’ll find one of the most fascinating towns in the Outback! Wondering what there is to do? Here are a few suggestions:
Riba’s Campground advertises itself as the only place in the world to camp underground. It really is a “must do” if you overnight in Coober Pedy. It’s a novelty to set up your tent underground, in a space dug out in search of opal. No tent? No problem, Rick also rents a few underground bunk rooms that are almost as much fun. His is also the only campground in town that offers free showers; water is at a premium in the desert! The best part of camping below ground? The temperature is consistently cool and there are no flies! Be sure to check in early enough to join Rick on the daily 7 p.m. tour of his opal mine and learn to find a fault line with dowsing rods!
Visit a Kangaroo Rescue
Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage is the only kangaroo rescue within about a thousand kilometers in any direction. Ever wonder what happens to the joeys when their mothers are killed on the road? They are brought here where Josephine and her husband lovingly care for them until they are ready to be released into the wild or placed in zoos. The most amazing part of this family run operation is that they offer free learning sessions in conjunction with their feeding times and the owners will explain the ins and outs of kangaroo life and development as well as what’s involved in rescue and rehabilitation. You’ll have the opportunity to ask all of the questions you like and, if you feel so inclined, to donate to the care of these beautiful creatures. Be sure you pick up the flier they’ve produced on how to properly rescue a joey from inside the pouch of a dead mother kangaroo.
Take the time to wander through their excellent Aboriginal art gallery and have a look at the opals, both polished and rough cut that are on display. If you ask, Terry will give you a quick didgiridoo lesson and you’re welcome to try your chops on the range of locally made instruments available.
Shop for Opals
This seems like a no-brainer for anyone “in the know” about Coober Pedy. Take some time to comparison shop around town as there is no shortage of opal shop storefronts. Ask questions and learn about the variations in color, cut and processing as the quality and value varies widely. NAME has a, free, small opal museum attached to their shop that is worth wandering through if you’re interested in more of the history of opal mining in Australia. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot the enormous crashed space ship outside the shop, yes, really.
Visit an Underground Church
There are several. By all accounts the Serbian Orthodox Church is the “best” but each one is interesting and unique. Many of the residents of Coober Pedy still live in underground houses, for their cooler temperatures, relief from flies, and general economy. The churches will give you an idea of what the underground constructions look and feel like. If you’re brave, sing or play an instrument down there and listen to the difference!
Tour an Opal Mine
The Old Timer’s Mine is well advertised as a place to take a tour of the process of opal mining. There are other ways to get a window into mine life. Riba’s Campground has a tour that is included in the cost of camping, and is guided by the man who dug the hole and has hands on experience. Opals aren’t the only thing coming out of those holes in the ground that has market value. Coober Pedy also produces the minerals that end up in the high-end mineral makeups that have become popular in recent years. Don’t come to Coober Pedy without touring a mine, they’re the life-blood and purpose for the town!