Once a magnet for fortune hunters, these days Coober Pedy is more of a hideaway for hobbits. The desert town in South Australia is actually quite mesmerising. Here are 12 reasons why you should visit Coober Pedy.
1-Coober Pedy is full of interesting people
Wherever you go you’ll easily strike up a conversation. Most of the town’s folk are pretty friendly and the people who live there are interesting Outback characters. Many have come here from far-flung parts of the world and have lived in Coober Pedy for decades.
Seek out the old timers who have fascinating tales about their wonderful discoveries. Stories about digging out enough opal in 20 minutes to buy two houses in Melbourne are pretty common.
Talking about homes, some of the underground homes in Coober Pedy are surprisingly luxurious. Think indoor swimming pools, custom-designed closets. polished timber floors and rooms decorated with oil paintings. Some homes have gyms, media rooms and wine cellars.
2-You’ll find out all about opals
Opal was discovered in 1915 and in the 1960’s hundreds of Europeans came to Coober Pedy hoping to dig up a fortune. They purchase mining rights to small parcels of land. A tour of Coober Pedy’s opal fields reveals mounds of debris from prospecting shafts.
If you see a well-dressed foreigner wandering around, he’s likely to be an opal buyer from overseas. 70% of the world’s opal comes from Coober Pedy and dealers from places like Hong Kong send the stones to China to be cut, polished and set.
3-You’ll get the chance see a real underground home
Most of the town’s residents live underground as it sizzles in summer (around 50˚C) and it’s freezing in winter. Over 40 years ago, Faye Naylor came up with the idea of building an underground house.
She chipped away at the rock for three years with rough hand tools. Others continued her work and these days you can visit Faye Naylor’s Underground Home, which has a wine cellar and a swimming pool.
4-You can play golf
Do you dream of playing a round of golf in St Andrew’s? Well, the 18-hole Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Course has reciprocal rights for members to play nine holes at Scotland’s St. Andrews’ Balgove in January.
5-The Opal Festival
The annual Opal Festival is a real hoot. Coober Pedy is a multicultural mixing pot of over 45 nationalities. This is the best time of the year to meet everyone in one spot (imagine Croatians, Serbians, Bosnians and Greeks relaxing over a friendly beer while cooking lamb on the spit).
6-You’ll get to crawl through an opal mine
The Old Timers Mine was discovered in 1916. No one knows why the original miners backfilled the shafts so the opal was hidden until 1968, when a surprised resident discovered the mine while renovating their home.
The dimly lit tunnels are atmospheric and the life-sized mannequins are a little spooky, although the poses do give you a good idea of what went on in the mining heyday. You’ll get the idea opal mining was pretty tough but most miners kept going for the thrill of finding that next big stash.
7-You might get lucky
Any opal miner will tell you it’s addictive. Join the Down ‘n Dirty Opal digging tour. Armed with hard hats, torches and handpicks you’ll get to hack away at the walls of the Opal Quest Mine. Who knows what you might find? Apparently, a lucky visitor found themselves an opal worth $50,000.
8-You’ll walk in the footsteps of the dinosaurs
Umoona Opal Mine & Museum has much more than opals. 120 million years ago, Australia was part of Gondwana. Coober Pedy was right at the bottom of a polar ocean, near the Antarctic, brimming with marine reptiles and bizarre animals such as the Umoonasaurus (a plesiosaur similar to the Lochness Monster).
9-It looks like the moon
Not far from Coober Pedy, the Moon Plains is a landscape of brown ochre and yellow dirt. According to conspiracy theorists, this was where the Apollo moon landing was faked. Not long after the Apollo landing was in the news, the Adelaide Advertiser published a photograph of the lunar landscape next to one of Coober Pedy’s Moon Plains. Most people couldn’t tell the two apart.
10-You could pretend you’re in a Star Wars sequel
The lunar landscape has captured the imagination of apocalyptic filmmakers who have left props strewn around the area. There’s a giant alien spaceship parked in front of the Opal Cave underground complex and other props from movies like Red Planet and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
11-Sleeping underground is restful
The Desert Cave Hotel is the place to stay. It has everything you need including an underground café and opal shops.
12-The sunsets are awesome
Stand at the lookout on top of the Opal Cave and watch the flaming sunset. It’s a crimson sky that glows like a giant opal.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of South Australian Tourism Commission
Discover South Australia
You can fly, drive or get to Coober Pedy by train (The Ghan Railway runs from Adelaide to Alice Springs and the train stops at Manguri Station, 47km from Coober Pedy)
When to go
The climate is cooler between April and October.