Things to do in Coober Pedy: Australia’s Town Under Ground
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Imagine the scene: You’ve been driving along a highway for four hours with nothing but barren outback to gaze at out the window. The last point of interest was the South Australia state border, some four hours to the north – and the last time you went through a town was 687 kilometres away in Alice Springs.
But soon the telltale signs start popping up; the ones that signify that civilisation is near. These signs promise sleeping facilities – ‘hotel’… ‘motel’… and places to eat – ‘the best restaurant in 1000kms!’. But these signs are different to normal – every service promised is ‘underground’. Confused, and intrigued about the signs saying ‘danger, deep shafts’ you turn off the highway and follow the five-minute detour signs to a mysterious town named ‘Coober Pedy’. Upon reaching the town you see…. Earth mounds. Red sand. A town like it should be part of a sci-fi movie.
Welcome to Coober Pedy. But fear not – there’s so much more to do here than meets the eye.
Coober Pedy ain’t your average town. It isn’t even your average Australian outback town. It gets so hot here in the summer that one day, somebody decided rather than live above ground in 50 degree heat, they were going to live underground in much more pleasant temperatures – about 23 degrees year-round. Soon, the entire town followed suit. And now most of its major buildings are underground.
So why is there a town here, in the most unlikely places? Because of opals. Coober Pedy is one of the world’s biggest producers of the gemstone, and it has attracted miners here for decades. Unsurprisingly, most of the best things to do in Coober Pedy revolve around opals and being underground. Both of which are way more exciting than you think, when the backdrop is this apocalyptic answer-to-the-wild-west type of town.
So if you’re driving down the Stuart Highway, perhaps on a Darwin to Adelaide road trip, don’t miss this gem (get it?) of a town. There isn’t really anywhere else you’re going to stop over between Port Augusta and Alice Springs anyway ;).
Things to do in Coober Pedy
The Big Winch Viewpoint
As with many outback towns, a quirky, artistic community in Coober Pedy has embraced the weirdest and most wonderful with their township landmarks. This means that the Coober Pedian landscape is studded with weird statues and signs with a cutting kind of humour.
The Big Winch Viewpoint is a great example of this, with abstract sculptures and tongue-in-cheek signs. The view looks over the whole township and on a clear day, extends towards the Kanku-Breakaways.
Faye’s Underground Home & Mine
This was a Coober Pedy highlight for me – Faye is one badass woman. Her and two female companions decided to dig out their own home back in the 1960s, a time when it was considered taboo for women to even live in their own home, let alone dig one out – Faye was as hard as nails, and proved she had all the strength of male miners and some. The tour takes you through a perfectly preserved underground kitchen, lounge area and bedrooms. Upstairs is a pool that Faye dug out herself – the only place where it’s sane to be on a 50 degree summer Coober Pedian Day.
Faye didn’t stop at her house. She went on to dig out an entire mine completely on her own. Once the technology was invented, she used it to dig further into the mine, but she dug much of it out by hand. It’s possible to tour the mine as well as part of a combination deal; a guide will take you around the mine and discuss exactly how opals were found back in Faye’s time. It’s fascinating to walk around and know that this is where some of Australia’s most precious gemstones were found – and did I mention one woman dug much of it out by hand?!
Entry to just one attraction costs $10, to visit both it’s $15.
Old Timers Mine
The tunnels of the Old Timers Mine were first used in 1916 and remained there, unknown to townsfolk, for decades. Demonstrating the life and work of miners in the early 20th century, the Old Timers Mine offers self-guided tours, where after seeing the mine and imagining how the miners worked there you can participate in the opal making procedure. There are mining-equipment demos every day and a re-created underground home which now serves as a part-museum.
It costs $13 for adults and $4 for children to enter.
Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Sanctuary
This Coober Pedy attraction is double the fun; it’s an Aboriginal art gallery and an animal sanctuary. The Aboriginal art is varied and beautiful – when I visited Tommy Crow, a famous Aboriginal artist, was there showcasing his work and demonstrating some of the ways he brings his outback scenes to life.
He’s not there all the time – he’s often abroad participating in exhibitions – but there’s always lots of beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces of art to peruse. Uluru, a spiritual place for Indigenous Australians, features in many of the works, as well as native animals like kangaroos and emus. The art is available for purchase, and they ship all over the world.
It’s possible to see the kangaroos being fed a few times a day. I am typically skeptical about animal sanctuaries, but this one is very good – they take in injured kangaroos or orphaned joeys that wouldn’t have otherwise survived in the wild. The owner describes the back story of each kangaroo and you can tell how much he cares for them all. The sanctuary doesn’t just take in kangaroos; we heard stories of emus and other birds being cared for here. There are a few of these sanctuaries dotted around the Australian outback, each with a colossal catchment area.
Kangaroo visiting times are 12 noon and 5:30pm every day. Entry is by donation.
No trip to Coober Pedy would be complete without a visit to one of the many Opal shops now, would it? There’s plenty to choose from within the town; here they will often give you a demonstration of cutting and shining opal and relay the process of turning it into jewellery.
Some of the opal shops in Coober Pedy are Opalios, Opal Beetle and Desert Fire Opal.
Umoona Opal Mine and Museum
This free museum is one of the best things to do in Coober Pedy; the galleries demonstrates the history of the mining town and discuss the landscape of this particular area of the South Australian outback. It might seem like one of the most barren places in the world, but I assure you, there’s much more there than meets the eye! If you’re as fascinated as I am about exactly how people settled in this landscape (and how opals were found in this particular spot!), this museum is a must-do.
Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest
Wacky reaches its pinnacle in Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest, an underground home adorned in graffiti and eccentric memorabilia. Some pars of the decor were placed by guests – many have left messages on the wall or left a personal item somewhere in the home – but most have been there since Harry’s days. The nest has even been the movie setting for Pitch Black and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It costs $5 for adults to enter the nest, $2 for children.
Serbian Orthadox Church
I wasn’t lying when I say they do everything underground in Coober Pedy! This underground church is always open for visitors (even at night!) and is free to enter – actually, it’s likely you’ll be the only one there. The church was made and consecrated in in 1993 by Serbian Australians who were lured to Coober Pedy for the range of career opportunities and buzzing social scene. (Just kidding, they moved there to mine opals).
Desert Cave Hotel
You can stay in the hotel itself, but there’s some gems underneath it. There’s an underground museum with a great exhibits about the making of the Stuart Highway, an underground bar and a games room with the world’s only underground poker machines! I’m such a sucker for anything with the ‘world’s only…’ title.
Things to do around Coober Pedy
The opal fields that surround the town are nothing short of fascinating. You’ll get your first glimpse of them as you approach the town, along with signs telling you to ‘not walk backwards’ and that there are ‘deep shafts’. After driving along the Stuart Highway for so long without any excitement, these mounds of earth become fascinating. And they are pretty cool – it looks like you’ve left planet earth and have arrived on Mars.
Think that the outback is flat and boring? I challenge you to head to the Kanku-Breakaways and say that again. With glistening colours that reflect the sunlight, these geological formations interrupt the flat plain of the outback to create mountains and cliffs, bearing a stark contrast to the desert surroundings. They’re fascinating to watch and hiking trails can take you to a range of vantage points to view the formations.
Q: Where can you go from Mars to the Moon in half an hour? A: Just north of Coober Pedy!
Another somewhat dystopian landscape, Moon Plain was the filming location for ominous scenes in Mad Max Three and Priscilla Queen of the Desert – you can really feel the otherworldly atmosphere when visiting. It’s a great spot to drive past and explore on foot – remember to respect Indigenous culture and leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos.
A circular track, starting just north of Coober Pedy, takes you on a circular self-guided tour of the Breakaways, the Moon Plains and the Dingo Fence. The road is unsealed and is recommended for 4WD or AWD vehicles only, and you’ll need to buy a permit before setting out, which are available at the Tourist Information centre and cost about $9. It takes 1-2 hours to complete the whole circuit.
I didn’t get to do the Oodanatta Track due to bad weather – but it’s meant to be one of the country’s best outback routes and one of a fantastic way to experience South Australia’s outback. It’s really off the beaten path; an amazing adventure for any fans of wildlife (my friend saw wild camels!), wild camping and stargazing. The track is steeped in history; it’s the old route of The Ghan, and it passes by the south of Lake Eyre, Australia’s largest lake when it is full (which is rarely!) and lowest point. It’s located eastwards of Coober Pedy.
Where to Eat and Drink in Coober Pedy
Desert Cave Underground Bar – because you can’t go to Coober Pedy and not have a drink underground, can you?
Opal Inn – and while you’re there, you’ve kind of got to drink somewhere with opal in the name, right?
John’s Pizza Restaurant – reputedly the 5th best pizza restaurant in Australia – and definitely the best pizza in the outback – head here for anything Italian. They’ve got plenty of vegetarian options and gluten-free pizza bases.
Gems and Waffles – if you’re after a huge waffle groaning under toppings, this is your call. There’s coffees and sweet and savoury treats on the menu as well.
Where to stay in Coober Pedy
I’m working on a list of all of the hotels in Coober Pedy, so check back for updates soon! In the meantime, here’s a couple of recommendations…
Radeka Downunder Backpackers – the only hostel in Coober Pedy, this accommodation offers private and dorm rooms at budget prices. Choose from a 20 bed or 4 bed dorm, which are all underground, or opt for a private room either under or above the earth! Check prices and book here.
If you don’t want to stay in a hostel, how about Underground Bed & Breakfast? This accomodation is highly rated on booking.com, offering en-suite (some with spa baths!), rooms and apartments. The B&B features a spa and wellness centre, free wifi, a shuttle bus and a BBQ that can be used by guests. Check prices and book here.
I hope you enjoyed this Coober Pedy Travel Guide and it convinced you to check out some of the weird and whacky parts of this town underground! If you did, please share it or follow me on Facebook.