Coober Pedy the Opal Capital of the World

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150 million years ago, Coober Pedy, the Opal Capital of the World, was just an inland sea. So, it’s hard to believe that today it is a town that is home to 45 different nationalities. Especially because a very warm place in the middle of nowhere! Actually, going to Coober Pedy aroused different feelings in me. On one hand, Coober Pedy is known as an incredibly hot and dusty town, something that really did not sound appealing. Plus, I’m not really interested in mines, even if they are opal mines. But the underground apartments that are in Coober Pedy triggered a desire in me to want to see them. And somehow, I was looking forward to our visit and was happy that we would be there soon.

A Typical Sign in Coober Pedy
A Typical Sign in Coober Pedy

The Opal Town Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy is located in South Australia (SA), about 850 km north of Adelaide, and 2183 km south of Darwin in the Northern Territory (NT). Coober Pedy is known as the opal capital of the world. Originally, we had planned to drive to Coober Pedy from Adelaide, but because of COVID, this did not work out. After spending our lockdown in New South Wales, our new route brought us via Queensland through the outback and into the NT. So, we drove from the north, through the Red Centre, to Coober Pedy. Completely opposite to our original plan!

In terms of climate, Coober Pedy is 22-25° degrees all year round. The best time to travel is between March and November, where you can expect warm days and cool nights. But from December to February, the weather really warms up. We arrived in mid-November and had a scorching heat that was almost unbearable!

“There used to be 46 nationalities, unfortunately, the Eskimo found it too hot and left” is a quote you will definitely hear in Coober Pedy. While James liked the weather, the sweat just poured from me, and all I wanted to was to do the same as the Eskimo.

It is not for nothing that many residents live in so-called dugouts, which are characteristic of the opal town. Dugouts are underground houses where you can escape the heat in the summer, and the cold in the winter. The hotels and many of the shops are laid out underground, and a must for many travelers. Definitely one of the highlights of Coober Pedy.

A dugout bedroom - Old Timers Mine
A dugout bedroom – Old Timers Mine

The Next Strike

To live in Coober Pedy, you have to be a very unique breed.

When the first opals were discovered in 1915, the miners living there came up with the name of the town. “Kupa Piti” comes from the local Aboriginal language and translates as “white man in a hole”. How fitting I thought as my eye gazed out over the landscape.

Everywhere you look you can see holes in the ground. And next to them are heaped-up mounds. These heaps are called “mullock”.

Opal shaft landscape
Opal shaft landscape

Mullocks are worthless for the miners, even if you can find trace amounts of opal in them. The holes are the shafts that and lead under the ground. These are the workplace for the people who come here hoping for the big find. Patience and hard work have earned some a fortune, but most only find small opals that barely pay the bills.

To live the dream of big money, many in Coober Pedy get by with very little. You can rent 50m² of land in the opal fields and park your caravan there. Then the hard work begins. Centimeter by centimeter, you strike the mine with your ax in the hopes of striking it rich. Digging for opal is like gambling in Las Vegas. It is always the next throw of the dice, or the next strike until you are a millionaire!

Highlights in Coober Pedy

There are a few things in Coober Pedy that you really must-see. You can do this relatively quickly and travel on after a day. Or, like us, brave the heat and stay for four days.

One reason for our relatively long stay was that we wanted to play the very unique golf course. Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Club is a grass-free golf course that has existed since 1976. The greens are black, and the fairways are white. That you pay your green fee at Opalios, an opal shop in town somehow did not surprise us. 

Keep off Grass at Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Club
Keep off Grass at Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Club

Below are our other highlights in Coober Pedy.

Coober Pedy Sign

If you are in Coober Pedy, you can’t help but see the 3-meter high letters that spell out the city name. This is 13 meters long and is a popular photo spot.

Coober Pedy Sign
Coober Pedy Sign

And who doesn’t know this popular photo motif?! The city’s welcome sign is so impressive. And huge! We had a lot of fun taking pictures here. But don’t forget to stop for a minute and enjoy the scenery around it!

Coober Pedy Welcome Sign
Coober Pedy Welcome Sign

Old Timers Mine

The Old Timers Mine houses an opal shop, a museum full of old photos and objects found in Coober Pedy, and a former opal mine. It has been a family business since 1916, and you can see that it was made with love.

Old Timers Mine
Old Timers Mine

Camping at The Old Timers Mine

We met Nicko, the owner, and asked if we could stay overnight in our camper in their large parking lot. The Old Timers Mine was once offered as a free campground but had to close after a Big4 Holiday Park opened in town. Unfortunately, that happens in many parts of Australia. The Big4 Holiday Park chain makes camping for those like us who do not like large parks with water slides etc. difficult. Also, not everyone has the budget to stay in such a park. That was also the case in Coober Pedy. We didn’t want to stay in a place that was overpriced and not suitable for us. Instead, we wanted to invest the money in the town itself. We wanted to book tours, go out for dinner, and to support the local shops. And that’s exactly what Nicko makes possible for campers like us.

Supporting Local Businesses
Supporting Local Businesses
Ice Cream in Coober Pedy - always a good idea
Ice Cream in Coober Pedy – always a good idea

Nicko’s parking lot is not your typical campsite; there is no water or electricity. But it is free of charge, and he even leaves the very clean toilets open overnight.

Nicko allowed us to stay, and we ended up staying three nights and enjoyed our time in Coober Pedy very much. Thank you, Nicko! We wish there were more people like you who aim to keep tourists in town and give them a good time. This way everyone benefits!

Our campground in Coober Pedy
Our campground in Coober Pedy

The Old Timers Mine Shop and Tour

We were so thrilled about this tour! Since we saved the money for a campsite, we had the budget to explore Coober Pedy. And what would be a better way to learn about Coober Pedy than taking an opal mine tour!

The shop is located at the entrance of the mine and we were thrilled about the sparkling selection of opals. From the shop, you can also go directly into the mine. The entrance fee when we were there was AUD 15.00 per person (child AUD 5.00) and is worth every penny! You get a helmet, and the tour is self-guided, which means that you can explore the opal tunnel for as long as you want. We saw the underground house from the ’60s is on display.

A typical Dugout in Coober Pedy
A typical Dugout in Coober Pedy

And also the shaft that served as the entrance to the mine at the time. You can also see stripes of opal in the rocks, and if you followed them, they sometimes lead to a great find.

The tour was a unique experience and so much fun! At the end of the tour, you can see various objects from the different eras in a lovingly laid-out museum. In front of the shop there is kind of a sandbox, only filled with stones instead of sand. Here, children can try their luck and search for opal stones.

The Old Timers Mine Tour
The Old Timers Mine Tour

The Old Timers Mine is a clear “thumbs up” and a definitive recommendation. Be sure to stop by when you visit Coober Pedy!

The Old Timers Mine

2190 Crowders Gully Road

Coober Pedy, 5723, SA

Phone: (08) 8672 5555

Email: nicko@oldtimersmine.com.au

The Old Timers Mine

James exploring at the Old Timers Tour
James exploring at the Old Timers Tour

The Big Winch

The Big Winch is an 8-meter high structure overlooking the town. Built by Klaus Wirries in the 1970s, it offers a 360° view of Coober Pedy.

The Big Winch
The Big Winch
View from The Big Winch
View from The Big Winch

It was destroyed by fire in 1986 but was rebuilt. Many people come here at sunset because it is the perfect place for a sundowner!

The Steel Tree, which is also located here, was built by Bob Amorosi for his children. At the time, there were no trees in Coober Pedy. However, Mr. Amorosi wanted his children to have a tree where they could play and climb. According to his son, however, the attempts to climb the tree were very dangerous, and nobody managed to get to the top of the Steel Tree.

Read about the history of the Big Winch here:

THE BIG WINCH

The Steel Tree at The Big Winch
The Steel Tree at The Big Winch

Umoona Opal Mine and Museum

The Umoona Opal Mine and Museum is a tour where you will learn how opal is shaped and mined. The museum is free of charge, and you can admire the many pictures on the wall. Tours take place daily.

Opal Museum
Opal Museum
Opal Museum in Coober Pedy
Opal Museum in Coober Pedy

Pitch Black Spaceship

Anyone who has seen the movie Pitch Black, starring Van Diesel, will certainly remember the spaceship.

As we walked along the main road in Coober Pedy, we couldn’t believe our eyes! There is a spaceship in the middle of town! But it’s not just any spaceship. No, it is the one that was used in the movie Pitch Black. That was a big surprise for us because we weren’t expecting to find a spaceship in the middle of town!

Curiosities in Coober Pedy
Curiosities in Coober Pedy
Spaceship
Spaceship

Underground Life

The uniqueness of Coober Pedy is that everything, such as churches, shops, and hotels, is found underground. We visited an underground bookstore, a café, and several underground churches. If we didn’t live in our campervan Putu, we would certainly have spent a night in an underground hotel. The way the locals live in Coober Pedy really impressed us. Although we can’t really imagine living underground ourselves!

Underground Church
Underground Church
Bookstore in Coober Pedy
Bookstore in Coober Pedy

Kangaroo Orphanage

In Coober Pedy, it is possible to visit the Kangaroo Orphanage and hold a kangaroo in your arms. The orphanage rescues and raises baby kangaroos. Make sure to visit the Kangaroo Orphanage to learn more about their work. But call in advance, because the Orphanage is by appointment only.

JOSEPHINE’S GALLERY & KANGAROO ORPHANAGE

Go Noodling

Noodling can be done at many places in Coober Pedy. Noodling, also known as fossicking, is the sifting of small pieces of precious opal that are accidentally discarded by miners. Next to the mine shafts are the mullocks. These are uninteresting for the opal miners, as the small finds there do not bring in the big money. We visited a noodling place and were amazed by how well equipped some visitors were. The little treasures are definitely a nice souvenir, and it is fun to feel like an opal miner for a day.

Coober Pedy Spaceship

We heard that there is another spaceship in town. But not one from a movie, but rather one that was built as a house. This spaceship was supposed to serve as a home, complete with a pool and a spa. However, the owner did not find enough opal and could not finish the project. The spaceship is now for sale. Maybe that would be something for you?

Spaceship house for sale
Spaceship house for sale

Day Trips

One of the absolute highlights of our visit to Coober Pedy was the Breakaways! Located 32 km north of town is the Breakaways Conversation Park, which you should definitely visit! The name “Breakaways” comes from the colorful, low hills that have “broken away” from the Stuart Range.

Dirt Roads at The Breakaways
Dirt Roads at The Breakaways

We drove over rough gravel roads to this Aboriginal heritage site. On the way there, we saw a Sand Goanna, and we stopped for photos. Apart from us, there is no other car far and wide, so we took our time taking pictures.

A Sand Goana at The Breakaways
A Sand Goana at The Breakaways

Once a huge inland sea, the Breakaways now offer viewpoints, from where one can only guess how huge this endless expanse of lunar landscape truly is!

Moon Plain at The Breakaways
Moon Plain at The Breakaways

Papa Kutjara

At the viewpoint in front of us, we see the small Papa Kutjara hills lying to the east. These hills have been used in many blockbuster movies, and they continue to inspire photographers and tourists likewise. Especially at sunset, when the hills are bathed in a spectacular light and are a colorful contrast to the seemingly endless dry land. The hills are also known as “Castle” or “Salt and Pepper”. In Aboriginal culture, however, the hills are known as “sitting dogs”, a brown and a white dog. Unfortunately, we are here before sunset and do not see Papa Kutjara in the golden light. But even without a sunset, Papa Kutjara is more than breathtaking. We wondered what this must have looked like over 115 million years ago.

Salt and Pepper
Salt and Pepper
Breathtaking views of The Breakaways
Breathtaking views of The Breakaways

We continue and are properly shaken in Putu, our campervan. The circular road through The Breakaways is 70 km long and loops back to the main road. The area here is also called “Moon Plain” because of its appearance. After seeing Papa Kutjara, we really want to see the rest!

Moon Plain Streets
Moon Plain Streets

The Dingo Fence

Another highlight is the two-meter-high dingo chain-link fence. You’re probably wondering what is so special about it. After all, it is “only” a fence that was once supposed to protect sheep from dingoes and foxes. The Dingo Fence stretches along three states! And, at 5614 km, the dingo fence is the longest man-made structure in the world! Construction began in 1880 and was completed in 1885. Many volunteers today help to keep the fence intact. The dingo fence stretches from Queensland, over New South Wales, and all the way down to South Australia. We saw a part of the fence while we were in Porcupine Gorge in Queensland. And of course, we are thrilled that we now saw another part of the fence in the Breakaways. Let’s see where else we can add another dingo fence picture to our collection!

The Dingo Fence
The Dingo Fence

Types of Opal

There are 4 types of opals:

Grey/white/milky opal – found in Coober Pedy, Mintabie, Andamooka, and White Cliffs (as the lowest level of precious opal)

Crystal Opal – found in the South Australia Opal Fields (quality and value increases when range, brightness, and the size of the play of colors inside the stone are improved)

Black Opal – predominantly found in Lightning Ridge, New South Wales (the darker the opal, the more valuable)

Boulder Opal – found in Inland Queensland Fields

Opal finds in Coober Pedy
Opal finds in Coober Pedy

Movies made in and around Coober Pedy

The landscape in Coober Pedy, like its people, is extremely unique. This is the perfect reason for Hollywood and Co. to use this backdrop in movies. We had heard that movies like “Mad Max” had been filmed here. However, we were not aware of how many movies were actually filmed in Coober Pedy! For the movie lovers out there, here is a list:

Dingo, released 1983

Fire in the Stone, released 1984

Where the Green Ants Dream, released 1984

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, released 1985

Burke & Wills, released 1985

Ground Zero, released 1987

Salute of the Jugger (The Blood of Heroes – US-Title), released 1989

Until the End of the World, released 1991

Stark, released 1993

Priscilla Queen of the Desert, released 1994

Siam Sunset, released 1999

The Drovers Boy, (Ted Egan song became a movie that was never released)

Pitch Black, released 2000

Red Planet, released 2000

The Amazing Race Season 2, released 2002

Kangaroo Jack, released 2003

Opal Fever, released 2005

The Old Man and the Inland Sea, released 2005

Opal Dream, released 2006

Top Gear Australia Season 2 Ep 7, released 2009

Dirty Jobs Down Under: Road to Coober Pedy, released 2012

Coober Pedy Unearthed, released2012

Desert Highways, released 2012

The Osiris Child, released in 2017

Arrowhead, released 2016

South Australian Outback Adventure, released 2017

Deadly Down Under, released 2018

Outback Opal Hunters 1 and 2, released in 2018 and 2019

Moonrock for Monday, released 2019

Mortal Kombat, released 2021

Unique Coober Pedy

From our arrival to our departure, we loved our time in Coober Pedy! I never thought that we would extend our planned two-day stay to four days. Never have we seen so many car cemeteries. And a spaceship on the side of the road. The city consists of numerous opal shops. Everyone who lives here tries their luck at finding opals and striking it rich. Many come and go, but only the toughest persevere in this dry and dusty city. And the Coober Pedy golf course is definitely unique and has found its place on our Ultimate Golf Course Bucket List

It was very interesting to see and experience everything the town has to offer, and I’m very glad I didn’t persuade James to drive through quickly. Because then I would have missed a piece of real Australia!

Good possibility that you fall in if you don't watch out
Good possibility that you fall in if you don’t watch out
Putu at the Welcome to Coober Pedy Sign
Putu at the Welcome to Coober Pedy Sign

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