Coober Pedy marks its centenary this year – and it’s as unusual as ever. Tamara Hinson looks at the weird and wonderful things that make the remote South Australian town so distinct.
Back in 1915, a 14-year-old boy found a gemstone in the remote South Australian Outback. From this discovery, Coober Pedy was born – a remote, fiercely hot place of a few thousand inhabitants today, sustained by its supply of opal and curious visitors.
Here are a few of the things that make a visit to the town such a quirky experience.
Dig for opal
Most of the world’s opal comes from this tiny Outback town, but there are no big mining companies, because opal can’t be quantified through exploratory drilling – the only way to find it is to get digging. Budding miners simply turn up, obtain a land permit, peg a chunk of land and dig.
Visitors who can’t afford to hire expensive tunnelling machinery can try their hand at noodling – the name given to the practice of digging through the piles of excavated earth that dot the landscape.
Some still strike it lucky, although there are many, many fewer miners than there were: one local told me that a neighbour had found a large chunk hours after he started excavating his new dugout. “Before long, he’d excavated 22 rooms and found more than enough to cover the cost of his new home,” he said.
On a budget? Pitch a tent, underground
Coober Pedy (meaning “white fella’s hole in the ground”) was named by Aborigines baffled by the early settlers’ preference for subterranean living – something avoided by superstitious Aborigines but embraced by miners, who liked the cooler, sheltered conditions.
Serendipitously, many of the early settlers were former soldiers who’d recently returned from the trenches of World War I and were experts in the art of excavation.
Most residents still live underground. Some dugouts are huge – I was shown around the home of handyman Rod Wells, whose dugout has an indoor pool, and an underground beauty parlour used by his beautician wife.
There’s even an underground campsite where visitors can turn up and pitch their tent in an abandoned mine.
Alternatively, the Desert Cave Hotel where I stayed, had the darkest, quietest blackness I’ve ever known. High ceilings allay feelings of claustrophobia and the temperature hovers around 23C.
Go to the nearest away game of Aussie rules football – an 800-kilometre round trip
The town’s football team, the Coober Pedy Saints, joined to the local league and until recently their rivals tested their determination by insisting they came to them.
“We’d make the round trip to play our rivals at Roxby Downs 12 times every year and spend $15,000 on transport,” says Ben Buller, the team’s captain. “We’ll rarely spend the night, but occasionally we’ll pack our swags and some tinnies, and camp on a cattle station.”
Play golf at night – oh, and on no grass
There’s a golf course in Coober Pedy but because it’s usually too hot to play, most games are played at night with glow-in-the-dark balls. Signs warn players to keep off the grass, which isn’t hard, because there isn’t any.
It’s also unique for another reason – it’s the only course where members have reciprocal rights with the Saint Andrews golf course in Scotland.
Fly over the lowest point in Australia
This is an extreme part of the world and nearby Lake Eyre is no different. It is the lowest natural point in Australia, and visitors to Coober Pedy can sign up for a flight over it.
On the very rare occasions it’s full, wildlife flocks to its edges, but most of the time it’s a giant white salt pan. It covers more than 5,600 square kilometres, and the highly reflective salt crystals transform the landscape into a startlingly bright, white desert that stretches as far as the eye can see.
It’s also significant for another reason, as the place where British racing driver Donald Campbell set the world land speed record of 403.1 miles (648.7 kilometres) per hour in 1964.
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Do the post run … over 400 kilometres
Visitors can join the local postmen on their twice-weekly mail run to some of Australia’s most remote ranches, including Anna Creek, which is the size of Belgium.
It’s a great way to get to know the people who live and work in this part of the Outback. At Mount Barry cattle station, which covers a huge area, I met Jackie Williams, the wife of the owner, and discovered she’s an Essex girl – she met her husband on holiday.
Swatting away flies with manicured nails, she told me that she loved life in the Outback but admitted that the visits to her Adelaide hairdresser were a real hassle.
Other highlights included a stop-off at Oodnadatta (population 100). In the tiny museum, faded photos recall life before the nearby section of the Ghan railway closed in 1981 (note that Coober Pedy is still connected – see below).
Visitors can also learn about the Afghan cameleers, who the Ghan was named after, and who were once the backbone of Australia’s economy. Horse-drawn wagons proved woefully inadequate and these cameleers and their 'ships of the desert' allowed early exploration of Australia’s interior.
One tiny town, many nationalities
Coober Pedy’s population may be tiny – about 1,800 residents – but it’s surprisingly diverse, with about 50 nationalities. The receptionist at my hotel was Sri Lankan, the waitress was Filipina and at the Greek-owned opal museum, women from Argentina and Ireland were on the tills. A British resident told me that an Eskimo had only recently left town.
Services for residents include a fire station, which is manned by volunteers, and a police station, staffed by 15 police officers. There’s a tiny lock-up to accommodate criminals not quite worthy of a trip to the nearest prison, 650 kilometres away in Port Augusta.
See the world’s longest fence
The 5,310-kilometre dingo fence can be found just outside Coober Pedy. Built to protect sheep in the south from dingoes in the north, it is the world’s longest continuous construction and stretches from Queensland’s east coast to the cliffs of the Nullarbor Plain.
The dingo problem costs the government millions of dollars every year. One Coober Pedy cattle hand told me that one year, he returned to his cattle station for mustering season, only to discover that a section of the dingo fence that passed through his land had come down. In the space of a few months, dingoes had taken almost 1,000 sheep.
It’s the Hollywood of the Outback
It may be remote but there’s the distinct glitter of stardust alongside the opal gems in Coober Pedy, which is referred to as the Hollywood of the Outback. Film crews have been lured by the area’s uncanny resemblance to other planets.
Pitch Black, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Red Planet and Until the End of the World were all shot there, as were scenes from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
One of the most popular filming locations is the moon plain, on the outskirts of Coober Pedy. The ground sparkles with gypsum and is littered with marine fossils, dragged here by icebergs scraping their way across Australia millions of years ago.
Visit your local Flight Centre or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Coober Pedy.
This article was written by Tamara Hinson from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.