The underground town of Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy hotel foyer (Photo: Steve de Vroom)

It doesn’t look too significant from the air, that’s because much of the life in the South Australian town of Coober Pedy occurs underground.

Coober Pedy wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the opal.  The opal is a gem, or to give its correct title, the opal is a mineraloid gel, so named because opals can have a fair amount of water content and consists of small silica spheres arranged in a regular pattern.  Opals don’t look too exciting in their natural state, but polish them up and they are extraordinarily beautiful. They range in colour from clear through white, gray, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, magenta, rose, pink, slate, olive, brown, and black, and 97% of them are found in Australia.

The good townsfolk of Coober Pedy call it the “opal capital of the world”, and with good reason as they do dig a lot of gems out of the ground around the town.  The opals are mined by digging shafts.  Coober Pedy is very hot and dry, so some residents began expanding the unused shafts to turn them into dwellings, which, because they were underground, were well insulated and comfortable.  That trend caught on, and now many people in Coober Pedy live underground.

The town’s name is a derivation of the aboriginal words `kupa-piti’, which roughly translates as `white man in a hole’, and is a pretty accurate description of the town.  Its 846 kilometres north of Adelaide, South Australia’s capital, on the Stuart Highway, the main highway linking Adelaide with Darwin.

Many of the tourist activities in the town revolve around the opal, and visitors can explore some of the opal mines, watch opal polishing and cutting and, of course, purchase the finished products.  Visitors can also stay in underground accommodation and pray in underground churches.

Nearby attractions include: The Breakaways, flat topped mesas and stoney gibber desert that is about 70 million years old.  The region is rich in Aboriginal and European history and is home to an array of native fauna and flora, which have successfully adapted to one of the world’s harshest environments.

Coober Pedy shop & gallery (Photo: Steve de Vroom)

Just outside of Coober Pedy is the Moon Plain, a vast expanse of rocky plains unlike anywhere else. The lunar like landscape has been the set for many movies including Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Pitch Black and The Red Planet among others.

Coober Pedy had no trees, so an enterprising local welded one out of metal, and placed it on top of the nearest hill.  The local golf course – mostly played at night with glowing balls, to avoid daytime temperatures.  It is completely free of grass, and golfers take a small piece of “turf” around to use for teeing off. As a result of correspondence between the two clubs, the Coober Pedy golf club is the only club in the world to enjoy reciprocal rights at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews.

Most people visit Coober Pedy whilst on their way to or from the Northern Territory, and it is best to have a car.  As for other methods of transport, there is an airport near the town with regular flights to Adelaide.  There is also a daily coach service to Adelaide, and the passenger train The Ghan stops near the town.

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