Category Archives: Coober Pedy

— Coober Pedy —

100 Things To Do Before You Die #050 Go Underground At Coober Pedy

WRITTEN BY ADMIN • MARCH 28, 2011

  • Where is it? 846km north of Adelaide, SA

    Some people will do anything to escape the heat. After opals were discovered here in 1915, the Coober Pedy community got innovative and built their town underground. Now you can stay in underground B&Bs, visit underground museums and have an underground beer here. The best time of the year to visit is between April and October, when the weather is mild and the nights are cold. You take your chances rocking up in summer, when it can reach 45ºC and dust storms can blow in from nowhere.
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    — Coober Pedy —

    100 Best Towns In Australia #69 Coober Pedy, SA

    WRITTEN BY ADMIN • MARCH 25, 2009

    The Opal Capital of the World has a varying population from around 2000 to 4000, with 45 different nationalities. Far removed from the rest of mainstream Australia, the wealth brought in during the mining boom has allowed residents to build luxurious underground dwellings complete with swimming pools and entertainment rooms, and four out of five residents live underground.

    The stark landscape surrounding Coober Pedy, including the 40km or so in every direction that’s dotted with shafts and mullock heaps from opal workings, as well as the moonlike Breakaways and not-too-distant Stuart Ranges, has formed the backdrop for films like Mad Max III, Priscilla, Pitch Black and Red Planet. And the cultural mishmash in town means only one thing: great food. There are a ton of different dining experiences to tickle your tastebuds, and to work off those extra pounds you can have a swing of an iron on Coober Pedy’s grassless golf course. Or, if you’re not so skilled with a golf club, check out the underground catacomb Anglican Church, The Big Winch Lookout and the Old Timers Mine to get a real understanding of just how different the locals here live.

    Where? // 846km (10hrs) northwest of Adelaide, 690km (8hrs) south of Alice Springs.

    Did you know? // Golf is played during the night at Coober Pedy, with a glowing ball to avoid the heat in the day.

     

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    — Coober Pedy —

    042 Land a spaceship in the main street

    WRITTEN BY ADMIN • MARCH 18, 2008

    No wonder the interstellar crew were freaked out – they found themselves crashed and stranded in Coober Pedy. Continue reading

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    — Coober Pedy —

    100 Things To Do You’ve Never Heard Of #016 Be the first to paint the hills

    WRITTEN BY ADMIN • MARCH 24, 2007

    The painted hills in the rugged Breakaways in SA is a recently discovered phenomenen in the SA outback. Continue reading

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    — Coober Pedy —

    100 Things To Do You’ve Never Heard Of #039 Flying Tour of Anicent Australian Art

    WRITTEN BY ADMIN • MARCH 24, 2007

    Flying tour to Aboriginal art centres in the Outback Continue reading

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    — Coober Pedy —

    100 Things To Do You’ve Never Heard Of #028 Be a postman for a day

    WRITTEN BY ADMIN • MARCH 24, 2007

    Peter Rowe has one of the world’s biggest mail runs, and you are welcome along for the ride. Continue reading

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    — Coober Pedy —

    100 Things To Do Before You Die #038 – Noodle for opals at Coober Pedy

    WRITTEN BY ADMIN • APRIL 1, 2006

    Checklist: Hardhat, torch, handpick, kneepads. With more than 90 percent of the world’s opal mined from 70 different fields around northern SA’s Coober Pedy, you’re bound to find something, aren’t you? Perhaps it can pay for your trip.

    The friendly people of Coober Pedy will teach you how to noodle (fossick), allow you down their mines and happily sell you an opal if you don’t manage to find one. No licences are required these days, thank goodness.

    In between your mining excursions, you might want to take a look at the remarkable desert country near Coober Pedy – aptly named Moon Plain. It looks much like the lunar surface, dotted with mine shafts and mullock heaps from eight decades of digging.

    “Hot, hard and usually unrewarding but the locals wouldn’t swap our computercoolie.com lives for their burrows and freedom, not for quids.”
    – John Borthwick

    Moon Plain has been used as the set of many movies, including Mad Max and Red Planet. It’s most famous for its unique style of underground living. This includes visitor lodgings and the world’s first underground church (now Catholic, but originally, in true pioneering fashion, multi-denominational).

    And even if you don’t play, at least check out the golf course– not a blade of grass to be seen. You’ll never, ever go to another place like it. Unless later in life you’re lucky enough to make it to the moon.

    Did you know?
    Coober Pedy was named Kupa Piti by local Aboriginals, which means “white man in a hole.” Over the past 90 years a unique community of hardened adventurers, drifters and fortune hunters from 45 nations has sprung up around it.

    How to get there
    Rex operates regular flights between Adelaide, Coober Pedy and Alice Springs.

    Greyhound has buses between Adelaide, Coober Pedy and Alice Springs.

    If you decide to travel by car, along the Stuart Highway the distance from Adelaide is 846km, from Alice Springs 685km and from Darwin 2,170km.

    Coober Pedy can also be accessed by rail via the Ghan route from Adelaide to Alice Springs. You will have to arrange transportation from Manguri Station, 47km from Coober Pedy, prior to departure from Adelaide or Alice Springs.

    Best time to go
    Temperatures in the Outback can exceed 50 degrees Celsius and winds can create huge dust storms. Optimal seasonal conditions are between May and October.

    Further information
    Useful websites:

    www.opalcapitaloftheworld.com.au
    Official website of the District Council of Coober Pedy and the Coober Pedy Retail Business & Tourism Association

    ** This is our original 100 Things to Do Before You Die. First published in 1996. There is an updated 100 Things To Do In Australia Before you die, published in 2011.

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    — Coober Pedy —

    Blast This House

    WRITTEN BY ADMIN • NOVEMBER 21, 2005

    A Detours & Diversions piece on opal mining and houses in Coober Pedy, SA.
    Opal mining in Coober Pedy, SA


    “And on Sunday, the whole family – the dad, the mum and the five-year-old kids – will all sit around making bombs.”

    Now, before any ASIO agents start getting excited, it should be pointed out that this is, apparently, entirely normal practice in Coober Pedy, in the dead centre of South Australia. Well, as normal as anything can be in this bizarre desert town, anyway.

    Round these parts, people don’t buy houses. They don’t even build their own houses. In summer it gets so hot and unbearable that the way forward is to buy some land, piece together a crude explosive device from ingredients found in the supermarket, and blast away so much rock that eventually a cave is created. Roughly 70 percent of the town’s population lives underground, and many of that 70 percent created their own places from nothing. It goes without saying that it takes a peculiar type of person to live in Coober Pedy: the sort of person who’s rough and ready, can do what needs to be done themselves and, more specifically, has a desire to mine opals.

    Coober Pedy is routinely called the world’s opal capital – and for good reason. In fact, the town simply wouldn’t exist were it not for the unparalleled amount of opal that can be found in the surrounding desert.

    Our tour leader is blithely reeling off facts. We’re still in shock from the sheer volume of mod cons contained within the underground show home we’re currently in – especially for something that looks like it’s straight off the set of The Flintstones. That the size and height of the rooms are largely determined by whether any opal seams are found seems strange, but to the locals it’s pure logic. Why would anyone waste perfectly good gelignite blasting away at the ceiling just so people can stand up straight?

    More astonishing is that the home is directly above a mine. It may make for a short commute, but surely that’s taking things a bit far. Apparently it’s structurally fine – the odd explosion below makes little or no difference.

    Along with the tour around the home and mine, we’re also treated to a film about the history of opal mining in the region. If it hadn’t been for a teenage boy named William Hutchison disobeying orders from his dad on a gold hunting expedition, those first opals would never have been found. The people who manufacture bomb ingredients should really make him their patron saint.

    A tour of the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum (http://www.umoonaopalmine.com.au/ or [08] 8672 5288) costs $6 for adults and $3 for kids. If that sounds too cheap, don’t worry: you’ll be assertively encouraged at the end to buy as many opals as you can carry. If you fancy sampling the underground experience, rooms at the Desert Cave International Hotel (http://www.desertcave.com.au/ or 1800 088 521) will set you back from $192 a night.

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    — Coober Pedy —

    Coober Pedy – Holey Ground

    WRITTEN BY ADMIN • JUNE 30, 2005

    They bury blokes under beer kegs in Coober Pedy, where there’s ample opals underground and plenty of 4WD flunkies from the cities above. By John Borthwick

    “Hoy! You can hop back on the plane now!”

    It’s a promising sign when the official re-boarding call is a basic “rattle-yer-dags” shout. You know you are on your way from Almost Nowhere to somewhere even less pretentious.In this case, from Olympic Dam to Coober Pedy in the South Australian Outback.

    “Is a coober sort of an Aussie goober?” asks an American who arcing his hand and forearm like a windscreen wiper, trying to discourage a fly. A single fly.

    Coober? Comes from the Arabana word, for an uninitiated bloke answers the digger (literally) ahead of him on the boarding queue. Pedy or means hole in the rock. In other words: “white fellers hole in the ground”. Pretty much sums the place up, too. Names nothing to do with goobers, gollies or slagging. We’ve got plenty of slag, but.”

    While the American wrestles with cross-cultural synonyms for sputum, the plane cranks itself into the endless blue sky and scoots northwest. Below us the old, old dot painting of Gondwana unfolds, ochre on ochre, mile upon mile, its ridges and swales lined to the horizon like the swells of a desert sea. An hour later, Coober Pedy or “Coobpeedie” – as the phlegmatic digger says it – appears below the wing. There’s slag everywhere.The desert is littered with mullock heaps flung up from hundreds of burrows. Welcome to Troglodylia. Or the finals of the gopher Olympics.

    At 845 road kilometres north of Adelaide, Coober Pedy was once infamous. From 1915, when 14-year-old Bill Hutchinson first discovered opal, until 1987, when the Stuart Highway was sealed all the way to Alice Springs, it was known as an outpost not only beyond the bitumen but also beyond clean underdacks and redemption. Today, however, instead of flush or busted miners locked into savage three-day poker games, I find legal TAB-style betting at the local pub. Instead of ancient Balkan ethnic tensions still simmering malevolently in the antipodean desert, Coober Pedy is now home to people from some 45 different nationalities, all living pretty much in multiculty harmony. They’re even worshipping together in catacomb chapels, complete with faux vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. Behold, the Outback Redeemed, the House-trained Mulga.

    “Population’s 3500 residents, but theres actually twice as many out in the scrub -but not the kinda people that want be on the electoral roll, if you know what I mean,” I’m told by a man who declines both to give his name and be photographed. For him, life here and the afterlife are, in a sense, the pits – one seamless, subterranean continuum. After gophering all day down a mine or working in an underground tourist hotel, and occasionally repenting in an underground church, a Coober Pedy-ite (“Don’t call us Coober Pedyphiles”) can come home to a dwelling that’s a roomy crypt burrowed into the hillside and equipped with most civilising mod cons. Living here must be a bit like the hobbits’ Shire, with drinking, gambling, kangaroos and pizza thrown in.

    Following this troglodyte existence it’s just a short journey sideways, so to speak, to a terminal bunker in the town cemetery. Here, one resident of the local Boot Hill boasts a very Coober Pedy epitaph: his headstone is a metal 18-gallon beer keg which reads: “Have a drink on me.” The downside of such hangover heroics is also evident in the little cemetery: too many dead young men. Miner Lloyd Hetzel, who’s showing me around the town, points out other graves, many belonging to good young men – Aboriginal and white – who, as he puts it, “went straight from school to the dole office to the bottle shop.” And too soon to here.

    Gone are the days when rattletrap vehicles struggled across hundreds of miles of savage corrugations to reach this isolated settlement. With effortless blacktop kilometres under their perfectly adjusted fanbelts, a Panzer division of tourist vehicles rolls up to the town’s motels each evening. Bursting with fearsome but redundant four-wheel drive capacity, they seem equipped for solo crossings of the Gobi Desert in order to drive up a sealed highway.

    While Hutchinson Street, Coober Pedy’s main drag, has enough opal shops to rival Sydney’s Rocks, in the craterscape that surrounds the town the main game is still mining. Producing over 80 percent of the world’s opal, the region bills itself not unreasonably as the Opal Capital of the World. “You’ve got to be gambler to be a miner,” Lloyd calls as his winch drops me 25 metres down a dark, circular shaft that’s barely wider than my shoulders. Uh-oh. Goodbye, blue sky. Hullo claustrophobia. At the bottom of the shaft, however, I step into a spacious cavern that he calls “the ballroom” – complete with electric lights, sofa, a toaster and kettle, even a tape deck. It should be playing Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

    Digging for opal has cost Lloyd dearly. Dominating his shaft is a complex rig of conveyor belts and winch buckets that hauls the rubble to the surface. The piece de resistance is a large tunneling machine that he designed and built himself. “The machine cost me $40,000 and my marriage. But I’ve still got the machine” he quips.

    He picks at a wall of soft white clay and soon strikes a vein that flashes with the telltale hint of opal. “Here, have that,” he says, generously handing me two pieces which, when polished, might be worth several hundred dollars. “But don’t say where it came from, especially in the pub. There’s always a few ratters around.” Ratters are rotters too lazy to find their own opal; they sniff out the scuttlebutt on where there’s been a recent strike, then pick it clean while the miner is away.

    “My last mine was so big that I could burn around inside it on a front-end loader,” brags the owner of an equally large opal showroom on Hutchinson Street. Like many others here, he realised that the secret to anything was to move up the food chain – from opal mining to opal marketing. Later I hear an ex-cattle cocky put it even more directly: “Bugger cattle. Farming tourists is the most profitable job around here.”

    More than 100,000 travellers a year roll, or fly, into town but, for all its new-found pizzerias, backpacker lodges and internet cafes, Coober Pedy is still a tear-away town. Forget any sense of the PC. A scrawl on a wall advises: “Fertilize the bush – ‘doze in a greenie.” Several times I hear about a migrant miner whose name was so long and linguistically challenging that he was simply known as “Arthur Alphabet.” Tired of the joke, he changed his surname to something Anglo, like Smith or Jones. He remained known, of course, as Arthur Alphabet.

    If contemporary Coober Pedy sometimes seems more in-back than Outback, the surrounding Stuart Range desert scenery, with its spinifex and gibber plain vastness, still shimmers like a dot painting gone to a Mad Max movie. In fact, the landscape has inspired plenty of art, including scenes for Mad Max III and Priscilla Queen Of The Desert.

    “There are no crocs in there — the sharks got ’em all,” jokes John Stillwell, who used to run the Outback Mail service from Coober Pedy to William Creek. He’s pointing to a narrow blue lake that lies between two desert ridges. It may lack both crocodiles and sharks, but Lake Cadibarrawirracanna (Lake Cadi for short) instead must have the most long-winded name of any waterway in Australia, if not the world. Then again, most superlatives out here verge on the bizarre. Australia’s smallest town, William Creek, sits in the middle of the world’s largest cattle property, Anna Creek station. From the corrugated iron house-of-cards known as the William Creek Hotel, the town’s six citizens gaze out at the 30,113 sq km of Anna Creek station.

    Coober Pedy lies 150 unsealed kilometres to the west, but the folk of William Creek are far from hard-up for company. “Up to 200 cars a day come through here in tourist season,” says Peter Moore, the hotel’s former publican. The interior of the pub bears testimony to their presence. Every surface in the bar is collaged with business cards, beer coasters, decals, old IDs and expired drivers’ licences stuck there by visitors from around the world. In the gaps between, the walls have been autographed by a thousand marker pens. The ceiling of this Outback Sistine is plastered with bank notes from almost every nation, while its rafters are festooned with a wondrous pageant of flags, caps and T-shirts, and even a dusty bra shed by some Brunnhilde of spectacular dimensions.

    We sink a few beers and munch on steak sandwiches. En route from Coober Pedy we’ve crossed the Dog Fence, the 5300 km dingo barricade that’s over twice the length of the Great Wall of China. Out here they just call it the “big back fence.”

    Toorak tractors and Balmain bulldozers keep rolling up to the pub. “This is one of the ‘big wank’ tracks for the 4WD set,” Moore observes dryly, noting that backpackers regularly trundle through here, doing the 620 km Oodnadatta Track from Maree to Marla in 20-year-old station wagons.

    William Creek was named in 1858 by explorer John McDouall Stuart, the first European to cross Australia from south to north. It’s relentlessly hot out here, with the temperature sometimes soaring to 50°C. When the pub first opened its doors in 1887 it was to service the thirsts of the heat-addled crews building the original Central Australia Railway. There was no rush to make things official; not until 1927 did anyone get around to licensing the place.

    “The best way to see the desert is from the air,” insists Peter Moore. As we taxi down William Creek’s main street in his Piper Cherokee, he points to the flat landscape all around, calling it “the world’s biggest airstrip.” It’s a short flight to Lake Eyre North, a sun-scalded expanse of salt that stretches from horizon to horizon, and is so flat that the late Donald Campbell set the world land speed record here in 1964. “We used to find old rockets from the Woomera testing range sticking out of the ground,” says Peter over the headphones.

    Leaving the endless salt pan, we bank south to overfly the artesian “mound springs” at the former Central Australia Railway stop of Strangways Springs. The ruins of an Overland Telegraph station are all that remain of the old settlement, where most visitors today are feral camels and donkeys. All that lies beyond here is, by definition, the Back O’ Beyond – spinifex, saltbush, dehydration and a sun that blasts like a nuclear furnace.

    We land again in front of the pub, churning up dust. Compared to the endless desert we’ve just flown over, William Creek, with its cold beer, caravan park, scrub racetrack, bits of rocket junk arrayed outside the pub and even a solar-powered public telephone, suddenly seems like a metropolis.

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