Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy – the name is Aboriginal for white mans hole in the ground. It aptly describes the place as about half the population live underground to escape the harsh summer temperature which can soar to over 50 C and also freezing winter nights. But underground it stays at a constant 24 degrees.

You can’t describe the place as attractive. It looks a bit like the end of the world and it’s harsh environment and ‘let’s get lucky’ mining culture has attracted an unusual mix of people from all over the world. To miss it would be your loss and anyway, where else would you buy your opals from? Ninety per cent of the worlds’ opals are mined here, first discovered by 14 year old William Hutchinson in 1914. Today there are hundreds of working mines scattered over miles of barren saltbush plain. Claims are limited to one per person and there are no big mining operators. It’s this that has let Coober Pedy retain it’s outback feel. Anyone can do it with a minimum of equipment so this is why there is this wonderful mix of eccentrics living here.

Surprisingly we started our first day at a Kangaroo orphanage and art gallery. The orphanage is just the back garden of the gallery but we are shown in some detail how baby kangaroos are reared after their mothers have died (usually in road accidents). It’s all paid for by donations. In the art gallery we were lucky to meet Tommy Crow, an Aboriginal artist who was hand painting digeridoos for the gallery and more fortunate that Tommy gave us a little impromptu performance.

We went on to visit 2 of the 5 underground churches, had a coffee in an underground cafe, bought postcards in an underground bookshop and finally did a mine tour. It’s not a working one but is an original mine that’s been made into a tourist attraction. It’s a self guided tour and was excellent, showing exactly how conditions were for the miners (quite claustrophobic). Added onto the mine and part of the tour is the underground house that belonged to the owner of the mine where he and his wife raised their 2 children in the 60’s and 70’s.

The next day after checking out several of the many opal outlets we visited Crocodile Harry’s Dugout. It was situated a few miles out of town but well worth the drive. Crocodile Harry originally spent 13 years hunting crocs before coming to Coober Pedy to mine opals. This place just sums up what Coober Pedy is all about – scrap made into sculptures adorn the entrance and you can walk about the dugout at your own risk which is full of memorabilla from visitors from all over the world. It’s a whacky place and has been the location for many famous films including Mad Max 3 and Ground Zero.

There have been many fortunes made in Coober Pedy and just as many broken dreams but they do say it’s one of the places you’ve got to see before you die. We’re so glad we made the effort.

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