Coober Pedy. What a place. There are so many fantastic reasons you need to visit Coober Pedy! First though, a little background. Coober Pedy is located on the Stuart Highway (A87) almost right in the centre of South Australia and is the last town before you reach the Northern Territory (besides some tiny little places like Maria).
Coober Pedy gets its name from the Aboriginal “Kupa Piti” meaning “boys waterhole”, and after the 6ish hour drive here from Port Augusta in the south, into the heart of the South Australian Outback, you can see (and feel) why a waterhole might be pretty important.
The red earth here is hot and dry. The sun is relentless, and the road seems to stretch on without end. However, you do eventually arrive at the outskirts of Coober Pedy. Then it gets cold overnight. especially in the early morning.
Coober Pedy is perhaps best known for opal mining and underground buildings. However, like other remote outback opal mining towns in Australia (eg Lightning Ridge and to a lesser extent, White Cliffs), Coober Pedy has a reputation for the eclectic, eccentric, or maybe somewhat crazy, and is rumoured to be where people go to ‘disappear’. That’s just rumour though. To be fair, it isn’t just remote opal mining towns that get a little bit…interesting…there are plenty of others without opals, like Hutt River.
With a reputation like that though, you almost have to visit, and, it’s on the most direct sealed driving route to Uluru from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, so, you will probably go through it if you are headed to Uluru from anywhere besides Darwin. And let’s be honest, in spite of all the reasons you need to visit Coober Pedy, you probably don’t need to spend more than 1-3 nights here to see it all, so it’s perfect to see on the way to and/or from Uluru.
So, onto it, here are 11 reasons you need to visit Coober Pedy. Many of them, we’ve done, and some are still on our list!
Blower trucks are a unique contraption used in opal mining, and Coober Pedy is credited with their invention. These unusual-looking vehicles vacuum up mining debris into a big drum that spits it out in a pile somewhere near the mine shaft.
You’ll see one of these trucks on the Coober Pedy sign as you arrive at the town.
Explore the area for long enough and you’ll see many more of these trucks around.
Blower trucks create large mounds and contribute to giving Coober Pedy an other-worldly landscape, which contributes to my next reason to visit!
As if the area isn’t already martian enough with red desert, scrubby bush and undulating red hills and valleys, the mines around (and in) the town make you feel like you’re on a completely different planet.
The mounds stretch for kilometres out of town, seemingly in every direction and are easily spotted from in Google Maps Satellite View.
Explore movie scenes
Coober Pedy’s unique landscape has made it the setting for scenes in a number of movies over the years. Perhaps the most well-known (and easiest to find) is the spaceship from the Vin Diesel movie, “Pitch Black“. This spaceship now sits on Hutchison St in the carpark of the Opal Cave Shop. With a shed and signs between the ship and the road, you can easily miss it driving past, but if you are a movie buff, it’s worth stopping for a squiz and a selfie.
And the view from the road, you do have to pull into the carpark to really see it:
Learn about opals
While you are parked at the Opal Cave to see the Pitch Black spaceship, it’s worth a wander into the actual Opal Cave Shop or you could head next door to the Umoona Opal Museum. In either case, it’s a great opportunity to learn about opals and how they are mined.
The Opal Cave is set into the hill, making it an underground store/museum. So that’s kind of cool.
Take an opal mine tour
I did an opal mine tour in Lightning Ridge, many years before visiting Coober Pedy, and it was quite an interesting experience. Unfortunately, our time in Coober Pedy didn’t permit us to do any of the mine tours, so we decided to skip it. If you can make it work though, check out Toms Working Opal Mine or Old Timers Mine and Museum for a dive into the world of outback opal mining.
Visit an underground church
Since you are headed underground, even if you aren’t religious, it’s worth a visit to one of the towns underground churches. The most interesting would be the Underground Serbian Orthodox Church of St Elijah, the Catholic Church of St Peter and St Paul, and the Anglican Catacomb Church. I would suggest going to the Serbian Orthodox Church of St Elijah if you are just seeing one.
If, of course, you can find it down dirt roads between mounds of dirt and other underground buildings.
If you do find it, it is free to enter but a donation is requested to go towards the upkeep of this unique house of worship.
Inside, you’ll find a beautiful, peaceful, cool space. I’m a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, and I often find visiting non-Protestant Christian churches can be disconcerting. This one wasn’t too bad though, perhaps because it is so minimally decorated.
Make sure to keep an eye out for the beautifully carved sculptures cut straight from the stone walls.
Spot eclectic art
Speaking of sculptures, Coober Pedy is home to a number of artists with rather outlandish styles. You’ll spot it in some people’s yards, and all over the town, but perhaps some of the most interesting is on top of the hill between the Big Winch and the Italo Australian Club.
I can’t actually find any mention of who the artist is anywhere, and there was no name on any of the signs either.
Most of the sculptures, including the “Petrify Forest” above are a mish-mash of old computers, steel, pipes and other things that would probably be considered rubbish blended with dirt and what appears to be concrete-sprayed termite mounds.
It’s really quite unique.
See The Smaller Big Winch
We do love our ‘big’ things here in Australia, and it wouldn’t be a truly Australian country town without something big to represent what the area is known for. In Cooper Pedy, that’s the Big Winch.
The only problem is, on November 30, 1986, the original Big Winch was destroyed in questionable circumstances. The Coober Pedy website says by fire, the plaque on the winch says it was destroyed by a cyclone. Perhaps both? In either case, in its place is a smaller but still 8m high Big Winch. The twisted winch handle from the original is kept at the base of the big winch for reference and to commemorate the devastating wines that can happen in the outback.
The Big Winch does also happen to be on one of the higher points in Coober Pedy, so there are great views over the town from the lookout.
Watch an outback sunset
While you are up at the Big Winch, it’s the perfect spot to watch an outback sunset which can be quite spectacular!
Even if you aren’t at the Big Winch, there are a number of other locations in Coober Pedy that are perfect to catch an outback sunset including from the lookout at the top of the hill that the “Lookout Cave Underground Motel” considers to be their roof.
Stay in underground accommodation
It wouldn’t be right to visit Coober Pedy and not stay in underground accommodation. In fact, one could probably argue that this is the number one reason you need to visit Coober Pedy! There are quite a lot of options to choose from including motel style and B&B style accommodation.
Just how far underground is also variable, with many locations having just entrances in the sides of hills with all the rooms completely underground and others having rooms partly underground and partly above ground. In other words, one wall might be outside.
Some of them might be painted, others are raw stone.
Oh, and don’t be surprised (or alarmed) if you hear or feel small bits of stone falling throughout the night, it’s normal. Feeling comfortable/claustrophobic yet? 🙂
Watch a drive-in movie
Coober Pedy just happens to be home to one of the few remaining drive-in cinemas in Australia.
We haven’t actually done this since every visit here has seen us getting up early each morning, but it is one of only a handful of theatres where you can still watch a movie under the stars, in your car. Unlike most of the other drive-in theatres still operating in Australia that are located in more major centres, the stars actually are quite visible above Coober Pedy.
See the Coober Pedy Drive-In Theatre website for movie times.
Play a round of golf
Again, we haven’t done this, golf isn’t our thing, but if you are, the Coober Pedy golf course is unique. Opening in 1976, the course takes players across desert flats with black greens and white fairways.
Check the Coober Pedy Golf Club website for guest pricing.
Explore Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest
Crocodile Harry’s is about 7km’s out of Coober Pedy and in the spirit of full disclosure, we haven’t visited. This is a place that has always been sort of on our list, buuuuuuuut sort of not. So far with limited time, the not has won out for us. However, this place could also be classified as eclectic art.
I don’t even know how to start except to say that Crocodile Harry’s featured in Mad Max and check TripAdvisor for photos.
We still want to visit. Maybe next time.
The Kanku Breakaways
The Breakaways are about 30km’s to the north of Coober Pedy. This is one thing I’ve been very disappointed that we have never been able to see. The reason being that you have to purchase a permit at the Coober Pedy Visitor Information Centre during opening hours. Unfortunately for us, we’ve always arrived into Coober Pedy too late and then been on the road again too early to get a permit. >.<
The next time we are passing through though, the Breakaways are definitely happening.
This Aboriginal heritage site is a series of colourful hills that appear to have broken away from the Stuart Ranges. Throughout the day the light is meant to bring out different colours in the hills and the lookout points give clear views of local icons including the “Castle”, “Salt and Pepper”, and “Panorama Hill”. Some of these locations have featured in Mad Max and other movies.
There is a circuit road you can take back to Coober Pedy which also takes you to the Dog Fence, a 2m high, 5300km long wire fence built to keep dingoes out of South Australian sheep farms.
What do you think?
There you go! There are plenty of reasons you need to visit Coober Pedy, the unique centre of South Australia. Is there something else that should be on the list? Anything else we should see or do next time we visit? Let me know in the comments below. I’d also love to hear what your favourite part of Coober Pedy is.
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