Trip tips: Coober Pedy

Gemma Pitcher
Coober Pedy golf club

Bunkers, opals, larrikin locals and one big ol' lake in the desert — we dish the (red) dirt on SA's Coober Pedy.

Where?

Coober Pedy is an opal mining town about 850 kilometres (ten hours' drive) north of Adelaide on the Stuart Highway. It's a tiny outpost surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of red desert, sandstone rock formations and massive cattle stations. Flying in, look down and you'll see the shafts dug by opal miners, which with piles of dirt next to them, look for all the world like the holes that crabs make on the beach. It's quite surprising that only three to five people a year stumble into a mine shaft and die.

Coming in to land, you might wonder that a town with nearly three thousand inhabitants has so few houses. Look closely, though, and you'll see chimneys sticking up from what looks like piles of red earth. The residents of Coober Pedy — for the most part a motley bunch of larrikins, opal miners, entrepreneurs and 'outback characters' — mostly beat the searing desert heat by living in underground bunkers. Apparently a standard three-bedroom cave home with lounge, kitchen, and bathroom can be blasted out of the rock in the hillside for a similar price to a boring old surface house. Don't be fooled by the rundown look of the place — some of the motley cave dwellers you'll meet will have millions of dollars of opal stashed away in their underground safes.

Why?

It's sleepy, dusty and remote, so Coober Pedy is not everyone's cup of tea, but if you've got an interest in opal mining, or want to try your hand at finding a gemstone of your own, the self proclaimed 'opal capital of Australia' might just be the place for you. At the moment, however, the main reason to pay Coober Pedy a visit is to use it as a jumping off point for viewing the waters of Lake Eyre, which has filled up impressively with water this year and become a magnet both for grey nomads and migrant waterbirds. The lake is about three hours drive from Coober Pedy town, and the best way to see it is from the tiny township of William Creek (population three) on the so-called Oodnadatta Track , on the western shore of the lake and set on Anna Creek Station, at 30,113 square kilometres the world's largest cattle ranch. Pilot Trevor Wright of local flying company Wrights Air will take you on a scenic flight over the lake for from $220 per adult and $198 per child. If you're not self driving, you can get there on a tour run by Arid Zone Tours.

William Creek is two hours' drive from Coober Pedy, and transfer via bus costs $150 return with Arid Zone Tours, run by cave-dwelling local character Merv Richards. Scenic flights with Wrights Air start from $220 per adult and $198 per child. Once in William Creek, the William Creek Hotel, one of Australia's best-known outback pubs, will help you out with camping, accommodation, petrol and of course beer. Make sure you step into the bar to admire the fine collection of random objects pinned to the walls and ceiling.

What?

While you're in town, grab a set of golf clubs and try your hand at a round on the Coober Pedy Opal Fields golf course. It's devoid of a single blade of grass, so you'll also need to hire a square of artificial green to carry around with you to tee off on. The golf club's main claim to fame (apart from its rather unusual playing surface) is that it is the only club in the world that is affiliated to the prestigious St Andrew's in Scotland. An exchange of tongue-in-cheek letters between the clubs, and the rights to an opal mine being used as a bribe, resulted in Coober Pedy's members being allowed to play on one of St Andrews' minor greens during the month of January only. Green fees and club hire are $10

Opal mining is the raison d'être of the town, so it would be a shame to leave without taking a tour of an actual opal mine to see what all the fuss is about. The Old Timers Mine is, as its name suggests, the oldest of the lot, with shafts dating back to 1916. It remained undiscovered until the owners of a dugout house decided to extend one of the bedrooms and broke through to the labyrinth of tunnels beyond. These days the mine is a museum, with displays of opals, old mining equipment, and a recreation of a dugout from 1968, when the mine was rediscovered. One couple liked it so much, they even got married down here, and their wedding photos are on display.

When?

Coober Pedy is unbearably hot in summer, so hot that the golfers play at night using luminous balls and glowsticks on their flags. So the best time to visit is during the winter months from May to September. If you want to see Lake Eyre with water in it, be quick — the water is due to start receding in August.

Be sure to check out our photo gallery of Coober Pedy by clicking here:

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