Have you ever wondered where opals come from and how an opal is mined? The South Australian Outback town of Coober Pedy is surely one of the country’s most unusual destinations on the planet. Known as the ‘Opal Capital of the World’, there are much more than ‘gems’ to discover in this curious, quirky and unforgettable desert destination.
About 850 kilometers north of Adelaide, the town is also known for its down-to-earth locals, strange and sometimes surprisingly luxurious underground homes known as ‘dugouts’, harsh summers (hence the need for the dugouts) and hauntingly beautiful moonlike landscapes.
Although Coober Pedy has a tiny population of several thousand, it has a distinctively strong multicultural flavour with more than 40 nationalities. A popular tourist spot, there is plenty to experience in this town that makes it much more than a stopover between the well-worn Uluru and Adelaide trail.
Be warned, the heat in Coober Pedy is unbearable during the Australian summer months (from about December to March), so it’s best to plan your trip to coincide with the cooler seasons.
The town began life after opal was discovered there by a teenage boy in 1915. Today, the exquisite and precious gemstone remains at the heart of Coober Pedy’s identity and it supplies the world with most of its high quality opals. It’s hard to get your head around, but the lustrous gemstones formed after ocean waters receded from the town about 150 million years ago, leaving deposits of sandy silica minerals which became hard over time.
There are plenty of ways to immerse yourself in the opal experience. Shoppers can pick up a gift from the town’s many opal shops, while the more adventurous types can try their luck at fossicking – or ‘noodling’ – for bits of opals missed by the miners. Drop into Tom’s Working Opal Mine, the historic Old Timers Mine or the Umoona Opal Mine & Museum. You can also view opals in their natural state with a mines tour. You don’t have to look far to be reminded you’re in the Opal Capital. Even the surrounding landscape is filled with shafts and mounds of debris from mining shafts.
Australians have a thing for understatement and this applies to Coober Pedy’s use of the word ‘dugouts’ for their distinctive subterranean homes. Created from former mine shafts, the dugouts (like real estate anywhere) range from basic one-bedroom places to high-end abodes. Some of the more opulent dugouts even feature gyms, swimming pools and wine cellars. These caves dug into hillsides help maintain the locals’ sanity levels by keeping cool during the scorching summer months and snug during the winter. Rooms are ventilated through narrow vertical shafts and residents have access to all the modern conveniences. It all seems to work because about half of the town’s population live below ground.
The underground theme continues throughout the town. You’ll find atmospheric underground hotels, churches, bars, shops, galleries and of course, accommodation. Must dos include Faye’s Underground Home, the Underground Art Gallery and Saint Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church, possibly the world’s first underground place of worship.
No visit to Coober Pedy would be complete without going further afield to the amazing arid landscapes in the region. Topping the list are the Breakaways, the Moon Plain and the Painted Desert, originally the site of an ancient inland sea. The Breakaways is a brilliant coloured series of rocky outcrops and a draw-card for geologists and nature lovers. The Moon Plain has achieved some level of celebrity status. Its stretch of unique rocky plains has provided the backdrop for many films such as the cult classics ‘Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome’ and ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’. More than 80 million years old, the Painted Desert is a spectacle of colour, featuring formations and mountains made from colourful sands, pebbles and rocks.
Depending on your time and budget, there are different ways to get to Coober Pedy. For a unique train experience, get a taste of The Ghan, which stops at Coober Pedy on the way from Adelaide to Alice Springs. The Ghan is regarded as one of the greatest train journeys in the world. There are also regional flights from Adelaide several times a week. By road, you can either hire a car or sit back and enjoy the bus trip from Adelaide or make the drive yourself. However, overseas visitors and those not familiar with long-distance driving on Australian roads should be fully prepared with ample provisions and reliable mobile phone devices.
About The Author: This article was shared by travel enthusiast, Jessica Spencer
Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons