After turning off from the unsealed Oondadatta Track, we were driving on the sealed Stuart Highway and seeing outposts of civilization, at least what you might consider civilization when you have been traveling in the vast emptiness of the outback. The miles of desert flatness gave way to small hills with mining equipment and underground homes carved inside. We had reached the remarkable small town of Coober Pedy.
Coober Pedy has served as a filming location for Mad Max, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and many others. It’s citizens take pride in the town’s use as a filming location and have even painted a mural to honor this heritage. Carved into the harsh desert landscape, the town truly looks like a place where people have gone to take refuge from a nuclear holocaust or some apocalyptic event.
Coober Pedy owes its existence to the discovery of opal there by white settlers who had been traversing the outback in search of water. A boy was sent to look for water and came back finding not only water, but opal as well. The town grew as fortune seekers from all over the world tried their luck searching for the precious stone. The tempatures in Coober Pedy can soar to well above 110 F in the summertime, so most residents live in underground homes. These homes manage to stay significantly cooler than they would if they were above ground.
Coober Pedy is surprisingly multicultural for a town in the middle of the Outback. It is home to Italian and Greek immigrants (some of whom ran the restaurants we ate at) and also many Pitjantjatjara (Aboriginal) people. This was the first town in Australia where I noticed Aboriginal people and heard them speaking their language. They do not like to be photographed and will often confront you if you do.
Our group visited the Umoona Opal Mine which was also the site of our underground hostel. They had an interesting tour explaining opal mining and also the development of underground homes in Coober Pedy. After that, we were free to wander the town. I explored an underground church and walked up to the Big Winch Lookout to take some photos.
Later that evening, we stopped by Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage. The gallery has several beautiful works of Aboriginal art and digeridoos, which the gallery offers to ship anywhere in the world free of charge (costs built into the price, of course). The Kangaroo Orphanage takes care of kangaroos that may have been injured on the road. Driving in Central Australia at night, drivers often end up colliding with kangaroos attempting to cross the road. Now and then, a joey will be left surviving in the pouch of its dead mother. The hospital attempts to nurse these injured animals back to health and raises money by accepting donations from tourists who want to see the adorable creatures.
Coober Pedy is certainly an interesting and unique stop on the lonely road through Central Australia.