If part of the reason grey nomads hit the open road is to learn about their country and to experience the very different ways Australians live, then a trip to near-mythical Coober Pedy is an absolute must.
The opal mining capital of the world could scarcely be more remote or more unusual. Located deep in the harsh and dusty South Australian outback – some 850km north of Adelaide and 680km south of Alice Springs – it’s a destination you will never forget.
Since opal was discovered here back in 1915, a small army of adventurers, misfits, renegades and good old-fashioned fortune-seekers have blown and blasted their way through vast swathes of the area’s desolate landscape.
Not content with extracting a living from beneath the earth’s surface, around half of the town’s 3,500 population also choose to make their homes there. Their underground residences known as dugouts remain at a constant temperature of 23-25 degrees, while above-ground residents sometimes bake in near 50 degree temperatures.
With the area producing some 70% of the world’s precious opal, it’s no surprise that most visitors try their hand at ‘noodling’, basically fossicking through heaps of discarded mullock for opal pieces missed by miners. Although it’s not quite as free and easy as it once was (too many people were disappearing down the endless mine shafts) some noodling areas are still open to the public.
Coober Pedy, whose name comes from the Aboriginal term kupa-piti, meaning ‘white man’s hole’, really appeared on the grey nomad map when the Stuart Highway was fully sealed back in 1987. There are several caravan parks near town, the most unusual being Riba’s where you can camp underground, although you might have to leave the rig on the surface!
There is no shortage of entertainment in a place like this which is jam-packed with quirky places, kooky characters and unforgettable scenery.
There are authentic underground homes to explore as well as underground museums, opal shops, art galleries, underground churches and, of course, opal mines. It is truly amazing.
Just 30kms or so out of town is Breakaways Reserve, a collection of colourful low hills which have broken away from the Stuart Range. Gazing from one of the lookouts here, it’s easy to see why the area’s amazing moon-like landscape has attracted so many film-makers.
And back in town, Mad Max himself would be just one of the crowd.
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