Coober Pedy, Australia’s Opal Capital
One of Australia’s quirkiest towns, Coober Pedy has made quite a name for itself world-wide as Australia’s Opal Capital. A must-visit experience, this unusual desert town is one of the Australian Outback’s best surprises.
Many travellers think Coober Pedy is nothing more than a dusty town in the midst of Outback Australia. But there really is so much to see and do in this unique underground opal mining town.
Come on the journey as we explore Coober Pedy.
Why should you visit Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy is one of the most unusual and unique places in Australia … perhaps the world.
The landscape is stark and moon-scape like. It is baron with few trees and almost no grass. Small mounds of mine tailings surround the town leaving a cover of fine white dust on everything.
It is one of the hottest and most inhospitable climates in Australia. Summer temperatures regularly reach 47 degrees Celsius and up to 70% of the town’s 3500 residents live underground to escape the oppressive heat.
Despite this, the surrounding desert landscapes are strikingly beautiful. The vivid desert colours will give you a ‘wow’ moment as spring flowers grow wild and contrast against the clear blue sky.
It is nothing like you expect! Which is part of the intrigue of this unique desert town.
What to see and do in Coober Pedy
After many years of travelling between Alice Springs and Adelaide, overnighting in Coober Pedy, we decided to stay a few days and explore this desert town. So, we checked into an underground hotel and started exploring!
Life can be a little different in Coober Pedy but there really is plenty to see and do.
Take a tour of the underground houses, lunch in one of the underground cafes, visit an underground church or stay in an underground hotel. For something really different, stay the night in Australia’s only underground camping grounds.
Big Winch Scenic Lookout
The Scenic Lookout is the best place in town to watch the sunset across the desert and one of the most prominent landmarks in town. Built in the 1970’s to celebrate the Opal Capital of the World the 8 metre high Big Winch overlooks the town. There is an opal shop next to the big winch with opalised fossils of shells set into the wall.
Old Timers Mine
The Old Timers Mine is an original opal mine dating back to 1916. The miners had back-filled the shafts and never returned to the mine. The mine lay hidden for over 50 years before it was re-discovered in 1968 when an underground home extension broke through and revealed the wealthy mine. The opal seams can still to be seen.
Umoona Opal Mine and Museum
One of the top attractions is Umoona Opal Mine and Museum. Take a guided tour and learn about Coober Pedy’s history and life underground. Walk through the maze of underground tunnels and explore an underground home. There’s always the opportunity to purchase some opal jewellery for that once in a lifetime memory.
See the Underground Houses
Several residents have opened their dugout homes to the public for tours.
Due to the harsh climate, the miners quickly discovered the advantages of living underground. Underground rooms maintain an even temperature ranging from 23ºC to 25ºC day and night, throughout the year.
Most dugouts have been excavated into the hillsides. It is not unusual for a mining family to buy an adjoining property and tunnel between to link the two dwellings, or more. Some mansion style dugouts spread up to 450 square metres underground.
Of course, it is always possible to strike opal when excavating your new home extension!
A visit to the Coober Pedy cemetery ‘Boot Hill’ is always an insight into life as a miner and their quirky sense of humour. There are many interesting tombstones dating from the early 1970’s including a 18 gallon beer keg for Mr Karl Bratz, “Have a drink on me!”
The Underground Churches
Saint Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church was the first underground church in Coober Pedy.
In the early days the church was used by all denominations and was built with the help of everyone in the community. Today Coober Pedy also has an underground Anglican and a Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catacomb Church.
Play a round of Golf
With a storm brewing in the background and not a blade of grass to be seen, the Coober Pedy Golf Club has been open since 1976.
In the blistering heat, the majority of the golfing takes place at night using glow balls. Many a golfer have found opal whilst playing a round.
This 18-hole, 72 par grass-less golf course appears in various list of the top 10 most unusual golf courses in the world. Golfers use a piece of artificial grass to tee off and the putting greens are sand which is oiled down and raked smooth.
Head out to the Club on a Friday evening 6pm for tee off in a social 3 – 4 hole ambrose.
Go to the Drive-in movies
Explosives are not allowed to be brought in to this theatre!
Once in every town, but today they are few and far between. Coober Pedy has a Drive-in movie theatre runs movies each Saturday night so check out what’s on and take that trip down memory lane!
… and it’s the old fashioned drive-in where you hook the speaker onto your car window! Hands up those of you who remember Drive-ins like that!
Take a tour to the Breakaways
We booked a half day tour to the Breakaways with Noble Tours which gave us plenty of time to explore Coober Pedy earlier in the day.
During the tour, Aaron our tour guide (and Noble Tours owner) gave us an overview of life in Coober Pedy. He shared an interesting commentary and anecdotes about the underground dugouts, mining, the lifestyle and characters of Coober Pedy.
It was a fabulous offroad experience and one I’d recommend. The road through the Moon plain or the Dog Fence unfortunately wasn’t open due to recent rain so go again next time we pass through! It is extraordinary country and the colours are breathtaking!
Kanku – Breakaways Conservation Park is a registered aboriginal heritage site 32km north of Coober Pedy. It consists of colourful low hills which have broken away from the Stuart Range, hence their name ‘The Breakaways.’
A visit to the Breakaways highlights the vast open spaces, leaving evidence of the ancient inland sea. The Breakaways has been used in a number of films and advertisements, including Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Ground Zero.
As the sun passes the desert colours, create vivid photogenic scenes.
The Dog Fence
The 70km round trip back to Coober Pedy takes you east along the hills to the dog fence. This 2m high wire barrier stretches for over 5,300km across three States. The Dog Fence was built to protect the sheep country in the south from the native wild dog, the Dingo.
The Moon Plain
The desert-like moonscape along the fence, with its fossilised shells, grey, soft clay dirt and cracks that appear to be bottomless, has been nicknamed the ‘moon plain’. It too has been the scene for numerous movies.
Permits are required and can be purchased at the Visitors Information Centre.
A Working Mine
The final stop on our tour took us to look at one of the older working mines. Very impressive! Large entrances had been cut into the side of the hillside large enough for vehicles to move in and out of the mine.
Want to try your luck noodling?
Noodling is permitted in an open fossicking area called the ‘Jewell Box’ at the eastern edge of town. Get yourself a pick and shovel (rent one in town), and dig amongst the piles of debris from the mines.
If you’re lucky, you might find a precious piece of Australian opal – many tourists have!
When to visit Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy has a typical desert climate. It’s hot and dry in the summer, and not-so-hot and dry in the winter.
Avoid visiting Coober Pedy between November – March.
The best time of the year to visit is from April – October, when the weather is mild. Summer is intolerably hot and there is no shade. Temperatures can range up to 46 degrees with January recorded as the hottest month of the year.
Winter temperatures range from 18°C during the day, and drop below 6°C at night. Like most of the Australian outback, the winter days are perfect, with clear blue skies. July is the coldest month in Coober Pedy.
Average annual rainfall at Coober Pedy is very low, all year round.
Accommodation in Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy is also famous for its underground hotels.
Consider this – no sound, no light, no heat and no humidity. You will sleep deep and totally relax.
Over the years, we’ve stayed in most of the underground accommodations and recommend you plan to stay underground for the ultimate Coober Pedy experience. If you’re not that keen about sleeping underground, there’s plenty of above ground options, too.
- Desert Dwellers Underground B&B
- Radeka Downunder Underground Motel
- Desert Cave Hotel
- The Lookout Cave Underground Motel
If you’re towing a caravan, the Opal Inn may be the place for you.
For more accommodation in Coober Pedy check our our link here.
Where to eat in Coober Pedy
For coffee and a bite to eat.
- The Crystal Cave – an underground cafe for breakfast, lunch and refreshments.
- Johns Pizza Bar and Restaurant is a licensed café, al-fresco restaurant.
- Outback Bar and Grill – for roasts, pastas, burgers, lasagna, schnitzels.
- Road Kill Steakhouse – Coober Pedy’s newest steakhouse – char grilled and smoked.
- Umbertos – fine dining, Coober Pedy style.
Getting to Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy is a long way from everywhere!
- By Car: Follow the Stuart Highway
- from Adelaide to Coober Pedy – approximately 8-10 hours or
- from Alice Springs to Coober Pedy – approximately 6 – 8 hours
- By Bus: Greyhound coaches travel through Coober Pedy daily
- By Train: The Ghan stops at Manguri, (40 km west) offering day tours into the town.
If you want to do some 4WD tracks, these are great alternatives:
- Oodnadatta Track – Take the track to William Creek (165 km) crossing the world’s largest cattle station, Anna Creek or travel from Coober Pedy to Oodnadatta via Mt. Barry. (195 km). 4WD only trafficable in dry weather conditions.
- The Painted Desert and the Arckaringa Hills – Take the track to Oodnadatta for the first 143 km, and then turn left towards Arckaringa and Cadney homestead on the Stuart Highway.
Pin this for your trip to Coober Pedy
About Coober Pedy
Opal was discovered in Coober Pedy by a fourteen year old boy, Willie Hutchison in 1915.
Although the first opal claim was staked soon after, it wasn’t until after WWII that a wave of Europeans left their war-torn countries to seek their fortune opal mining in Australia. By the 1970s, the opal rush in Coober Pedy was in full swing.
The name “Coober Pedy” comes from the Aboriginal words ‘kupa piti’, meaning ‘white man’s hole’.
Over the years, miners have dug over 1,500,000 shafts. Many remain open today. Coober Pedy can be dangerous for visitors when walking around.
Australia produces approximately 95% of the world’s precious opal with the town of Coober Pedy producing the largest volume.
Coober Pedy – The History
How Opals are formed
Approximately 150 million years ago, an inland ocean covered the Coober Pedy region. As the sea water receded, climatic changes caused the lowering of the underground water tables. Silica solutions were deposited in cavities, faults and fractures in the ground and now, millions of years later, these silica solutions have become opalised.
Please take care and note the following safety warnings.
- It is illegal to go on a pegged claim without the miner’s permission.
- Beware of machinery in operation.
- Do not go onto the opal fields at night.
- Watch where you walk. Do not walk backwards, especially when taking photos.
What else to see and do nearby?
- 15 Unique Places to visit in Australia
- Adelaide to Alice Springs – the ultimate Road Trip
- Uluru – Australia’s most famous Rock