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  The Chatter Box : Travel
Coober Pedy by susithwaites on 29 April 2003 3:09am
Another of my scribblings. Hope you like it.

By Susanne Thwaites

Fred Flinstone, eat your heart out - I’ve just spent the weekend in a 4 star hole in the ground! Sounds like something out of Hollywood, doesn’t it, and I guess it partially is. Let’s face it, enough movies have been filmed here. The home of Mad Max and Priscilla, Coober Pedy is South Australia’s Queen of the Desert, and unlike any city or town you’re likely to see anywhere. Don’t look for the typical main street, with flower beds, trees and buildings taking pride of place, for you won’t find anything like that here. What’s so different about Coober Pedy? Well, it’s a town built in a quarry and a good portion of the town is underground!.

Located roughly half way between Adelaide and Alice Springs, our arrival here was the completion of a 2 hour flight to nowhere soaring over a red emptiness. Ancient watercourses, many dried up, snaked across an equally ancient land till we started our descent towards non-descript mounds, many pale to white rising from the surrounding countryside. Landing here was like landing on the moon - a surreal landscape unlike anything imagined even in my most bizarre dreams. This place is so different that it has to be real.

Life in Coober Pedy is like imitating the life of a Meerkat or a Prairie Dog, or to put it in Aussie terms, that of a wombat!. The hills in town are riddled with mine shafts now converted into dwellings. Originally when Opals were first found in Coober Pedy, the miners and their families lived inside the mines and life was very rough and ready. But there is method to this terrestrial madness. With temperatures constantly reaching the mid to high 40s in summer, and dropping to near freezing during the long winter nights, the dugouts provide a constant temperature of 22 – 26C. Nowadays life in Coober Pedy isn’t as basic as it sounds. All the dugouts in town have access to electricity provided by the powerplant on the towns outskirts near Boot Hill, the local cemetery. Water is also readily available but at a cost. The supply of water is nearly endless, but it comes from bores tapping into the inland basin, 40 metres down and 23 kms out of town. Being three times saltier than the sea, the cost of the water is in the treatment. To put it in perspective it costs 8c each time a toilet is flushed in Coober Pedy!

The best way to learn about and experience Coober Pedy is a visit to Umoona Opal Mine and Museum. This was originally a working mine, and includes two theatrettes where the visitor will learn about opals, how they are formed, how they were originally discovered, and the aboriginal legends about opals. After seeing the short films, a tour will then take you through the mine, showing how the opals were originally mined, from sink shafts and the back-breaking removal of all the rubble by hand and winches, to the methods currently used today. The old saying that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ rings true here with some amazing inventions - one basically being a giant vacuum cleaner used for removing the rubble from the mines. This machine alone is responsible for the large hills scattered around the countryside.

After learning about the mining side of Coober Pedy, you get to see and hear about how these old mines have now become the modern homes of today. Our guide Sandy, explained how none of life’s luxuries are left out, comfortable furniture, all mod cons, surprising clear TV reception even underground and no air-conditioning or heating required. Tales of fantastic finds during the conversion or extensions of these dugouts abound. One concerns a resident who wanted to install a wardrobe in her house. During tunneling one metre into the walls a small fortune in opals was found. The same is seen at the Experience Motel. Whilst tunneling their new extension they have found literally thousand of dollars worth of opals. Some of these only inches from where the original miners tunnelled. It’s almost as if they weren’t to be found until now. Also, in the roof of their Sunday School are priceless gems, these from shells bearing out the aboriginal legends that the opals were created from shells on the shores of the great inland sea milleniums ago. As the stories go, the shells saw a highflying eagle who spotted them on the beach, and to escape being eaten they retreated beneath the sands. These opals in the roof are very much a living legend.

So, what was it like staying in one of these dwellings for the night? Different – very different! I found the absolute quiet hard to take after being used to city noises, and after a surprisingly refreshing sleep I woke totally disorientated not knowing what time it was. With no windows in the room I stayed in and no clock either I was lost to say the least. The other aspect I personally found unsettling was the total absence of light. When you switch the lights off there is nothing, just complete and utter darkness. I must admit that I slept with the bathroom light on and the door open just a smidge. The Desert Cave Hotel, our home in Coober Pedy was great, having quite a few cave rooms, plus those above ground with windows for the more claustrophobic traveller.

Accommodation in Coober Pedy is not limited to just the one hotel. All tastes are catered to from Radekas Dugout (Backpackers Underground) to the Desert Cave Hotel where we stayed. In-between are such places as the Experience Motel – ‘Underground Chintz’, the Mud Hut Inn – a delightful find (one of the few places we saw that caters to families with fully self contained units), and the Opal Inn which caters for all travellers, having a caravan park with some on-site vans, budget rooms and basic motel rooms.

As is to be expected in a place like Coober Pedy, the town abounds with Characters, locals with as much colour in their lives as the elusive opals that originally drew many of them to this area. – Sandy, our guide through Umoona Mine and Museum and the working mine we visited is a real gem, and is one of the most gutsy ladies I’ve ever met. Brought up on the Opal fields of Australia, and with an unusual love of Explosions (her early childhood years were spent helping her dad make explosives for his mining venture, and her fifth birthday present was the chance to send some rubbish sky-high!) she now calls Coober Pedy home. Dave Burge, our guide for the weekend makes Crocodile Dundee pale into insignificance. Dave runs ‘Back of Beyond Tours’ which predominantly travel out to Lake Eyre. Strangely enough he reckons that the lake has more going for it when empty. As he says with water in it it’s just like any other lake, only bigger. Dry it has a beauty and lure unseen anywhere else. Combined with a chance to see an amazing array of native wildlife, Dave’s Tours are gaining in popularity with those wanting a chance to truly experience the Outback.

The third character we were privileged to meet was Martin from Martin’s Stargazing Tours. As you can imagine, being so far from large cities the night skies out in the desert are simply stunning, unfolding whole new galaxies previously unseen, or so it seems. Evidently they’ve been there all along, just hidden from view. Now, I’ve been to star-gazing evenings before, but nothing like this. We were picked up from the Desert Cave Hotel and taken out to the Municipal Tip, or so the signs we passed led us to believe. Once out of the bus with the headlights off, a whole new world unfolded before us. The descriptions flew from Martins mouth, aligning the night sky into meaningful terms. Instead of just pointing out star groupings and quoting their names we were told how to find our way by the night skies, ie. How to find North from the Southern Cross Constellation, and learning about new stars names. The one we all latched onto was ‘Zubenelgenubi’, a tongue-twister from the Libra Constellation. An intriguing name and increasing hard to pronounce after a couple of glasses of red!!

After a night of stars and opals swirling through our minds, the next morning we were privileged to go into a working mine. Armed with hard hats and picks we went forth to make our fortune. The outcome: - eight dirty, dusty, dishevelled women emerged from the bowels of the earth with smiles on our faces, memories in our minds, emotion in our hearts and rubble in our bra’s. The lesson here – don’t go opal mining in a low cut top!

So, after a weekend in Coober Pedy what do I now think of this place? I don’t think it will ever become a holiday destination in itself, but as most people who visit Coober Pedy do so on their way to Alice Springs, do yourself a favor and stop. It’s too intriguing a town for just one night on the way through. Stay a while, have a look around, meet the locals and soak up some of Australia’s pioneering spirit. There’s plenty to do, play a round of golf, have a look at the Underground Pottery – it’s a great place for souvenirs and has the best photography I saw in the area, and finally imitate Fred Flinstone and see what prehistoric life with modern refinements is really like. In the heart of fossilized Australia, you never know, you may find the remnants of Dino!

Re: Coober Pedy by macpac70 on 29 April 2003 7:38am
Wow, wot a great report Susi, u now have me itching to get there and explore the place. How far do you live from the place ?? it sounds like you'd make a great guide for my visit lol.
Keep up the good work.
Re: Coober Pedy by susithwaites on 29 April 2003 1:40pm
Hi Graham,

I actually live about 2 hours south of Melbourne. I'd love to show you this part of the world if you get down this way. Coober Pedy was one of the 'perks' of my job. The pay and conditions in travel are lousy long hours) but the perks are great.

Another of my scribblings can be found in this site - The Perils of Being the Rotund Wanderer.


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