We were very excited when we rolled into Coober Pedy. It had been on our list of things to do for ages, and after delays in Darwin and Alice Springs, we were finally here!
When the town came into view, it was very much what we expected – dry and dusty, with buildings built into the sides of the Stuart Ranges. As we cruised through town, we understood why Coober Pedy is the Opal Capital of the World. There were opal shops everywhere, as well as old blower wrecks and noodling mounds. Nearly everything was opal related.
We had a look around, ate lunch at John’s Pizza Bar, filled up on some cheap diesel (cheaper than Alice Springs) and headed back to the Oodnadatta Track.
In 1915, Jim Hutchinson, his son William, and two other blokes went to Coober Pedy to look for gold. While the men were out looking for water, William found an opal. Eight days later, the first opal claim was pegged. In 1920, the site was renamed from the Stuart Range Opal Field to Coober Pedy, an anglicised version of the aboriginal words ‘kupa piti’, which means ‘white man in hole’.
After the Great Depression in the 1930s and 1940s, opal prices went down and mining came close to stopping until 1946 when an Aboriginal woman named Tottie Bryant found opal at the Eight Mile Field. This rejuvenated the opal industry and Coober Pedy developed into a modern mining town.
- Australia supplies about 95% of the world’s commercial opal and 70% of that comes from Coober Pedy.
- Most of the opal that’s found is called potch – dull opal – but the other 10% is beautifully coloured and is qualified as precious.
- The population of Coober Pedy stands at around 3,500 people, with about 60% being European.
- The soldiers who returned from WW1 introduced the idea of living in a dugout – an underground home. Underground home temperatures remain at a steady 24ish °C throughout the year, whereas the outside temperatures can exceed 40°C during summer. About 50% of the population live underground, and in case you’re wondering, a new underground house with five rooms can be constructed for around $25,000.
Points of Interest
The Big Winch
Sitting at the top of the hill that overlooks the town, The Big Winch is old and rundown. While Juz went over to check it out, Dave was hijacked by a clingy man from Hong Kong who did his best to sell us some opals from his own private mine shaft but ended up scaring us away instead.
This was a fascinating stop with heaps of historical information about the area. The museum was fitted into an old opal mine, and while they offer guided tours, we saw ourselves around.
There was a great section with prehistoric bones of animals that lived in an ancient inland sea and there were also opals for sale. We learnt about triplet, doublet, and solid opals but walked away empty handed because everything was very expensive.
Saint Peter & Paul’s Catholic Church
The first underground catholic church in Coober Pedy. When we walked in, we found that it had the same chlorine smell as all the other underground places we visited that day, but unlike other churches with high ceilings and cavernous halls, the St Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church is a little claustrophobic. We didn’t spend much time in there.
If you want to try and find some opals yourself, there is a public noodling area to the north of town that consists of dry, dusty mounds of dirt. We knew we would have no luck finding opals because we have no idea what to look for so we decided it was time for lunch.
The term ‘noodling’ evolved from ‘noduling’, looking for nodules of opal in the rock.
John’s Pizza Bar
We chose this place for lunch because of the awesome prices, but the food is also awesome and the venue is licensed. We enjoyed cheap wine and beer with our cheap steak sandwich and yiros, which were the perfect size to satisfy our midday hunger.
About 30 km north of Coober Pedy is a string of low hills that have ‘broken away’ from the Stuart Ranges. The main feature is the Castle, or ‘Salt and Pepper’, two outcrops – one is solid white while the other is a sandy, yellow colour. This landmark has featured in films such as Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome.
The Painted Desert
On the road between Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta is a turnoff for the Painted Desert. This beautiful and desolate landscape of white, yellow, red and purple soil sits right in the middle of nowhere. The road in and out was in good condition without too many corrugations so the diversion is well worth it.
Once we were done with Coober Pedy, we headed back to the Oodnadatta Track via William Creek. The road was good, and it would have been a smooth ride if we didn’t have to watch out for silly bush chooks that went out of their way to run in front of the Troopy. Lucky for them our brakes work, otherwise they wouldn’t have lived to see another day.