Road Trip: Along the Outback - Episode 1

June 25, 2024
By Patrick Cros

Coober Pedy, the lost opal town

Heading towards the endless expanse of the bush. After an overnight stop in Glendambo (592 km north of Adelaide), Coober Pedy, the opal capital of the world, is an unexpected town of the Outback, with a fascinating underground touch.

Text and Photos by Sebastien Cros & Patrick Cros / Goway

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The houses and roads of Adelaide now seem far away... As the kilometers pass along the Stuart Highway, the bush has gradually taken on all its dimensions, immense and wild. The distant murmur of towns and villages has definitively faded to give way to a silence that sometimes seems absolute. The sky has become increasingly clear, transforming the night into a myriad of stars bathing the outback in an otherworldly light.

Stopovers of the Outback

An overnight stop in Glendambo already has a flavor of the true Australia, with surroundings untouched since thousands oy years. But it is 250 kilometers further, the next day, that this feeling of reaches an even higher level in Coober Pedy. Lost in the immensity of the bush, the opal capital of the world has retained all the charm of the pioneers and miners who conquered the continent. Founded in 1915, when the first opal was discovered by a fourteen-year-old boy, the town quickly became an El Dorado for the famous stone seekers. The harsh life and extreme temperatures have led the inhabitants to build their homes underground and inside the rocky hills to protect themselves from the scorching heat by day or cold by night.

A pioneer soul

You find all the strength and imagination of the pioneers in the eyes of these men who meet in the pubs in the evening or return to their semi-underground homes at dusk, their clothes still dusty after a day of digging the earth and rocks. You can imagine the gleam of opals with their bluish and reddish hues still shining in their eyes.

In the streets, a few Aboriginal people wander, a testament to a millennia-old presence that gave the town its name, "Coober Pedy" meaning "white man's hole" in the Aboriginal language.

An Underground Experience

It is in hotels’ rooms carved into the rock, with nice ochre walls, that travelers can spend the night. The temperature there is always naturally mild, protected from the cold or heat by thick colored walls.

Stories abound about the inhabitants whose isolation, passion for precious stones, and hard work have forged their characters. Like the man who organized a party for his own burial with a bar as his tombstone, or another who spent years digging tunnels in hopes of discovering the largest opal ever found.

Among the anecdotes of Coober Pedy is that of "Faye's Underground Home," which tells the story of three women who dug a house into the rock in the 1960s. Faye Nayler, a local barmaid, spent ten years creating this troglodyte dwelling with the help of her two friends. Today, this unique home is open to the public and offers a fascinating glimpse into underground life. Another legendary figure of Coober Pedy is Crocodile Harry. Born in Latvia as Arvid Blumenthal, he arrived in Australia after World War II and became a crocodile hunter before settling in the town to search for opals. Harry built a cave-like house filled with sculptures, graffiti, and eccentric artifacts, which has become a popular tourist attraction. It is said that his adventurous life inspired the character of Crocodile Dundee.

A journey through time

The Umoona Opal Mine & Museum is also noteworthy, designed as a tribute to one of the oldest and most famous opal mines in Coober Pedy. The museum offers a dive into the geological history of the region and showcases examples of opals discovered locally, including a dinosaur display where the fossilized bones have been opalized!

Visiting Coober Pedy includes exploring sites like the underground church and opal shops or doing mine tours. Visitors could also venture out of town to the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park, approximately 25 km north of Coober Pedy, which offers stunning views of spectacular colored hills, flat-topped mesas formed millions of years ago, and gibber-covered plains (locally referred to as "moon plain"). Sunset here is a must. It was one of the movie sets for the famous Mad Max. One of the drives out to the park follows the dingo fence, which runs 5600 km from the Great Australian Bight up to Queensland.

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