'Down under’ is a term that's often used in reference to Australia, but it takes on new meaning in the South Australian outback mining town of Coober Pedy. Here are ten top things to do in this unique 'underground' town.
Many Australian outback towns have an unconventional side, but Coober Pedy’s quirkiness is next level.
Located roughly 900 kilometres northwest of Adelaide, the town laid claim to the title of Australia’s opal capital following the discovery of the precious stone back in 1915. Today Coober Pedy continues to produce the bulk of the country’s opals. However, due to fluctuating demand, it relies heavily on tourism — and its famous subterranean lifestyle is one of the biggest draws.
With summer temperatures that reach well into the 40s, the early miners decided the best place to live was in underground ‘dugouts’, where temperatures could be maintained in the mid 20s. That tradition has continued and today much of the population lives in underground homes. Some are open to the public, giving visitors a chance to experience life beneath the dry red dirt. You’ll also find subterrestrial motels, restaurants and even churches.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Coober Pedy.
1. Visit an opal mine and museum
Start your visit to Coober Pedy by exploring the excellent Umoona Opal Mine and Museum in the centre of town. There’s a 20-minute informative documentary to watch titled The Story of Opal, which is presented in an underground theatre. It provides great context for the rest of your time in town. You’ll learn about Aboriginal and European settlement and see illuminated displays of fossils that have been gathered from what was an inland sea some 70 million years ago. Then join a tour and descend deep into the former working opal mine to see how the miners worked and lived. Once you surface, check out the beautiful opals in the souvenir store or enjoy a coffee at the café.
The Old Timers Mine is another great spot to learn more about Coober Pedy’s opal mining heritage. The mine dates back to 1916, while the underground home was built in the 1960s.
2. Do the time-warp at Faye’s Underground Home
Faye Nayler arrived in Coober Pedy in the 1960s and with the help of a couple of friends, spent 10 years digging out her now retro-style underground home. It boasts three bedrooms, a wine cellar, a bar, and even an indoor swimming pool. Faye doesn’t live in the home anymore but is believed to have made a comfortable retirement from her efforts, which attract scores of tourists.
3. Find deep serenity at the Serbian Orthodox Church
A short drive south of town will bring you to the largest underground church in Coober Pedy — the Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Elijah. As you enter the church via a sloping walkway and descend 17 metres below the surface, you’ll experience a truly relaxing sense of calm. The church has the most beautiful stained-glass ceiling window and a back-lit glass iconostasis featuring the floral emblem of South Australia — the Sturt desert pea. There are some unique statues of saints carved in the rock walls. A visit here is a divine experience.
4. Enjoy big views from the Big Winch Lookout
The Big Winch — a huge replica of the simple machinery used to bring opals to the surface — sits proudly on top of a mound in the centre of Coober Pedy. From here, you get an excellent 360-degree view over the town, including underground homes with their flat annex rooftops and air extraction ‘whirly-birds’ poking out of the ground like metal mushrooms.
Even though the surrounding countryside is arid and barren, it has its own serene beauty. Sunset throws an amazing kaleidoscope of colours over the apocalyptic landscape. Try and see at least one from the lookout.
5. Snap shots of a lunar-like landscape
Another great place to watch the day ebb away lies 33 kilometres north of town. The Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park covers 15,000 hectares, and at sunset the striking hills and sandstone tablelands come alive with a spectacular show of rich red and orange hues. Bring your camera; the stark moon-like landscape is a photographer’s delight!
6. Explore Crocodile Harry’s home
Of all Coober Pedy’s oddities (and there are many), Harry’s Underground Nest is completely off the wall! It’s filled with Harry’s sculptures and paintings, and decades of encouraged visitor graffiti. The story goes that the eccentric Avid von Blumenthal (‘Crocodile Harry’) was a baron from Latvia who fought for Germany in WWII. After the war he came to Australia and became a crocodile hunter, before moving to Coober Pedy in 1975 to find his fortune in opal mining.
Harry passed away in 2006, but his bizarre underground home remains just as he left it. It was used as a set for the filming of movies Pitch Black and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Tip: Amongst the clutter, see if you can spot the photo of Harry posing with his crocodile catch. Now that’s a large crocodile. I don’t think they grow that big anymore!
7. Noodle for your fortune
If you have the inclination to do a little opal fossicking — or ‘noodling’ as it is known in Coober Pedy — you’re in luck. Right in the middle of town is a ‘mullock heap’ of discarded excavated earth, which visitors can sift through for small pieces of opal. It’s quite exciting when you turn over a piece of rust-coloured rock and see the palest blue looking back at you like a newborn’s eyes. It’s opal — and it’s yours to keep.
However, if you’re no noodler, don’t despair. Coober Pedy’s main street has plenty of stores selling opals and you’re sure to find that special memento of your visit.
8. Enjoy some desert dining
Coober Pedy may be about as remote as you can get, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a good meal. Start your day at the Downunder Gallery and Café for the best coffee and bacon-and-egg muffins in town. Tucked away in a side street, the cafe is a welcome retreat from the heat. Leave time to check out the art gallery and bookstore beneath you.
When dinner rolls around, head for John’s Pizza Bar. It’s renowned far and wide for its awesome pizzas. Check out the celebrity wall to see the famous faces that have gone before you.
9. Walk with aliens
Peppered with scrap metal, rusting cars, and mounds of dirt with doors tucked into the side, Coober Pedy’s streets have a somewhat alien feel. There’s even a full-sized crashed spacecraft lying by the main street! It’s a prop from the filming of the sci-fi thriller Pitch Black, and it’s hard to explain the eerie feeling as you stand in front of it — imagining that at any minute zombies or aliens could come walking over the mounds…
10. Follow in the footsteps of miners past
And speaking of eerie, when you stumble across a white post with a black boot affixed on top, you’ve found Coober Pedy’s Boot Hill Cemetery. Apparently as opal miners died, they were buried on the hill ‘boots and all’. Look for the grave of one miner by the name of Karl Bratz. It features a 19-gallon beer keg with a sign saying, ‘Have a drink on me’.