“Now remember you’re going to see nothing but red dust from here on,” the boy said to me as we headed north from Adelaide, up the Stuart Highway in our Land Rover Defender. “Its dry up here, real dry, and the bare red earth will stretch for miles and miles from now on.”
Arriving into a green and leafy world of Coober Pedy the next morning therefore came as a bit of a surprise. We’d spent the night at a popular free roadside camp known as Lake Hart, just north of Port Augusta, and so arrived fresh-faced into Coober, and the start of the real outback, only to find they’d just received the biggest rainfall in years. Perhaps “leafy” is a bit of an exaggerated description, but certainly there were tufts of grass and plants springing here, there and everywhere out the desert floor, and the poor boy, supposedly an “experienced outbacker” was forced to swallow his words!
Being my first time in the red centre, I knew little of what to expect from the bizarrely named and fabled destinations we had planned as part of our Central Australia road trip. All I knew of Coober Pedy, for example, was its fame as the global opal capital of the world and an underground town. Yes, that right, an underground town. As such, I imagined a whole little village operating under the earth, with shops, cafes and houses being joined by little underground tunnels and cars driving along a network of underground streets.
Perhaps I was being a little unrealistic however, as this is not what people mean when they say the world of Coober Pedy is based underground. The majority of the town – roads, fuel stations, supermarkets etc. – operate above ground level, it is just houses and other smaller service that are basically constructed within dugouts, either into the side of hills or underground. So there is an underground bookshop, museum, art gallery and best of all, where we stayed, $10 underground camping!
Sorry if I’ve shattered any fantastical imaginings that you too may have been holding, but do not let this deter you from the belief that Coober Pedy is indeed the strangest and most otherworldly of towns. It certainly is! For a start it’s basically a tiny town in the desert, miles away from anywhere in any direction. It’s a place where people notoriously go “to hide” (which they can literally do in an underground home) and once you get there you fully understand why. Not many people would want to go looking for anyone in a place so hot in the summer you fear your skin might boil off (we’re talking 47°) and so cold in the winter that things freeze off. (It makes sense to live underground in these conditions) Plus there are like 2 gazillion flies which harass you from dawn till dusk, landing on every part of your body and continuously buzzing round you in an endless game you quickly tire of, but they never do. My number 1 tip if you’re going to Coober Pedy? Buy a fly head net – you will thank me for your sanity!
If I’m painting a rather dire picture of the world of Coober Pedy then I apologise, for alongside, or perhaps because of, all these bizarre characteristics, it really is a fantastic place you have to experience. Being there made me think about what sort of civilisations we may construct if we live on the moon – miles from anywhere with crazy climates and ecosystems that survive on little water. The landscape is simply stunning (I never realised how many different types of colours there can be in a desert) with purples, golds, reds and greens all entwining in an endless series of sand waves and cliffs that extend to the horizon on all sides. Nowhere is this more apparent than at ‘The Breakaways’, which is the most spectacular of spots to watch the sunset. Only about a 20-minute drive from town, if you ever make it to Coober, you have to visit it.
On the way out to ‘The Breakaways’ you will pass slag heap after slag heap of disused ground, dug up as part of the opal mining process and simply abandoned in towering pinnacles that line the road and extend off into the distance as far as you can see. It’s the weirdest of sights and one that exemplified my sense that whatever blows into this town tends to just gets left where it lands. Sort of like a disused building sight, but one which houses people. This is the town time forgot and nothing moves much here, not even the wind. In our high-speed world of connectivity and consumerism, its delightfully refreshing to come across places like this, particularly in developed countries; places that are off the grid, in most senses. There’s something about the eternal freedom follower in me that cant help but be drawn to the world of Coober Pedy and places like it, cant help but love them and their madness!