Coober Pedy Travel Guide
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Published by TOP4 Team
The town the opals come from must rate as one of the most bizarre tourist attraction anywhere. From the air, there’s a devastated landscape, and only the regular gridwork frame of all the pockmarks indicates that the disaster is man-made. On closer inspection, the Swiss cheese-like holes in the ground turn out to be mining shafts, mostly abandoned.
“Desert” means that in the summer the daytime temperature can reach 45°C (113°F) to 50°C (122°F). That’s in the shade, which is extremely limited. In winter the nights become unpleasantly cold. Yet several thousand people, fortune-hunters of 48 nationalities, make their home in this far corner of the Outback.
The name Coober Pedy comes from an Aboriginal phrase meaning “white fellow’s hole in the ground”. And indeed many settlers have survived here by burrowing hobbit-like into the side of a low hill. Thus insulated, the temperatures within are constant and comfortable, regardless of the excesses outside. Among the dugouts, there are residences of some luxury, complete with electricity and wall-to-wall carpets. Also underground are an Anglican church and a Roman Catholic chapel, a bank and a luxurious air-conditioned motel.
Regular tours by bus or plane bring the curious crowds to Coober Pedy, about 850 km (530 miles) north-west of Adelaide. The tours visit the local opal fields, where most of the world’s opals are produced, followed by demonstrations of opal cutting and polishing. Having learned the intricacies, you can then buy finished stones and jewellery on the spot. Or try noodling in the mullock heaps: all you need is a rake or a strainer to sift through the rubble alongside a mineshaft, and if you’re lucky you may even find an overlooked opal. A word of warning: since thousands of shafts are scattered over the desert in this area, great care must be taken not to fall into a hole, or get in the way of any machines or explosives. Amateur fortune-seekers require a permit (which is obtainable from the Mines Department in Adelaide) for serious fossicking.
If you can’t make a fortune mining or selling opals in Coober Pedy you can dream about running a petrol station. The next fuel stop is 151 km (94 miles) in one direction, 252 km (156 miles) in the other. The town has seven stations, all on the main street. More unexpectedly, there is a car wash, although you’d never know it from the layer of desert covering local cars. Most of them look older than their drivers and even dustier.
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