I remember rolling into the Australian outback mining town of Coober Pedy as a backpacker and feeling part-overwhelmed, part-awed by its outright oddness. The sun was setting, and the sky bruised, casting an eerie, purple glow over its desolate yet beguiling landscape. There’s no other town on Earth quite like this one. You could go as far to say that it almost feels not of this Earth. There’s even an abandoned movie prop spaceship leftover from the film Pitch Black that was shot nearby.
Adding to Coober Pedy’s otherworldliness, an area to its outer reaches, known as Moon Plain, is famed for its floor of sparkling gypsum and marine fossils that were dumped by ancient icebergs. One hundred and fifty million years ago, this area sat beneath an ocean. When the waters receded the exposed land cracked, and the openings filled with sandy silica minerals from the former seabed that alchemised into colourful jewels resulting in what is now the opal capital of the world. Where it was once submerged by seawaters, many of the 3,500 residents now live beneath its land.
‘Coober Pedy’ comes from Aborigine words kupa, meaning ‘white man’, and piti, which means ‘hole’. Forget the hobbits of Middle-earth, the hearty folks of Coober Pedy—where daytime temperatures can exceed 50 degrees and plummet to zero come nightfall—have carved out a subterranean society replete with museums, bars, theatres, hotels and churches. There’s even a private underground swimming pool, and a campsite in an abandoned mine. Superstitious local tribes were said to be startled by the early settlers’ penchant for underground dwelling, even if the shady sandstone enclaves did offer much welcome shelter from the relentless heat.
You may not have been to Coober Pedy, positioned 840km north of Adelaide, but chances are you’ve seen it (even though you’ve probably not seen the film Pitch Black!). The rusty landscape has served as the backdrop for movies such as Red Planet, Mad Max III and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, as well as for an episode of the reality TV series, Amazing Race. The town is unofficially nicknamed the ‘Hollywood of the Outback’.
Filmmaking aside, what makes this region so alluring for would-be millionaire miners is that the quantity of opals cannot be calculated through exploratory drilling with high-spec equipment, rather one simply has to get digging. Technically, anyone can apply for a permit to reserve a chunk of land to explore (though in practice it’s a lot more complicated than that). The mining boom began back in 1915 when a teenage boy discovered a shiny gem, and many of the early pioneers were soldiers returning from the trenches of the first world war, glad to be able to put their excavation skills to use. Their underground bunkers became known as ‘dugouts’.
The land remains littered with mounds of sandstone and peppered with holes from previous digs and several signs warn visitors to beware of unmarked drops. Another sign at the Cobber Pedy Drive-in Theatre requests that patrons don’t bring in their explosives.
Such quirky inconveniences—and potentially lethal hazards—are simply part of life.
Coober Pedy accounts for approximately 70% of the world’s opal production, while the majority of its population work in the mining industry.
Around 150,000 tourists pass through the Visitor Information Centre annually—the town is a popular stopover for those heading to Uluru.
Other nearby attractions include Lake Eyre, a sprawling, salted pan that shimmers like glass in the desert. There’s also the opportunity to join the local postmen on their twice-weekly mail runs to some of the world’s most remote ranches such as Anna Creek that covers an area the size of Belgium.
On the fringes of Coober Pedy, a 5,310km fence, the world’s longest continuous construction, shields the country’s southern sheep from the north’s dingoes.
Nearby, in 1964, British driver Donald Campbell set the world land speed record reaching 649km/h.
Coober Pedy hosts the world’s hottest golf course (with tongue-in-cheek signs that warns players to keep off the grass—even though there isn’t any). If you can’t stand the heat, glow-in-the-dark balls are available for night rounds.
The hub also hosts yearly events such as the Coober Pedy OZ Mineral Races, Queen of the Desert Festival, and the Opal Festival.
The town’s water supply is piped in from a bore 25km to the northeast.
This isolated opal mining town may not scream sophistication but it’s cosmopolitan enough to rival many a European city, home to around 50 different nationalities.