Welcome to the Australian Outback. Whether you want to mine for opals, sleep underground, or reenact “Mad Max” there are plenty of things to do in Coober Pedy
You probably already know about this tiny town in South Australia even if you haven’t actually heard of it.
It’s mainly known for its association with the popular movie series “Mad Max,” which features a post-apocalyptic world set in the Australian outback. The first film in the series, “Mad Max,” was released in 1979 and was filmed in various locations around Victoria and New South Wales. However, the sequel, “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” which was released in 1981, was mostly filmed in and around Coober Pedy.
The town is boiling hot, sending most of its residents to live underground, lest they turn into toast or be painted permanently orange by swirling desert dust.
Things To Do in Coober Pedy, South Australia
Here are the best things to get up to on a visit to Coober Pedy. If you just have enough time to stop in, do it! But try to spend at least one night in the area to get the full effect.
It’s no fun if you can’t sleep underground like a local!
This post is a part of my Outback Road Trip series.
Coober Pedy Opal Mine & Musuem
OPEN 8.30-5.30PM DAILY
14 HUTCHISON ST,
COOBER PEDY, SA
It all started way back in the early 1900s, when some clever clogs stumbled upon a shiny, sparkly stone in the barren outback of South Australia. They soon discovered that this stone was no ordinary rock – it was an opal.
Word quickly spread, and before you could say “crikey”, people from all over the world were flocking to this remote corner of the continent, hoping to strike it rich. But there was a catch: the opals were buried deep beneath the ground, hidden away in a maze of tunnels and caverns.
So what did these plucky prospectors do? Did they give up and head back to civilization? No way, mate! They grabbed their picks and shovels and got to work, carving out a subterranean city of their own.
They dug so many holes that the town was named Coober Pedy, which literally means “white man’s hole” in the local Aboriginal language.
There, in the dim glow of lanterns, miners hacked away at the rock, hoping to strike it lucky and uncover a glittering seam of opals. Some were lucky, and others weren’t – but they all had the thrill of the chase to keep them going.
I thought this was pretty funny.
These days, there is a museum inside one of the older opal mines. The tour starts with a 20-minute movie (I’m a sucker for a museum movie) and from there the guide takes you through some model underground houses and mines. I enjoyed it. My dad is a big fan of “Gold Rush” on Discovery Channel and this reminded me of that.
You can’t buy tickets online, just in person at the museum. There is also a free museum on site to check out. If you self-drive, it’s worth a stop. If you’re on a tour, it’s likely you’ll also stop here. We did.
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Shopping in Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy is THE place to buy anything opal.
Here’s why I was so excited to be there:
I am named after my dad’s mom, Maxine. On my older sister’s wedding day, my aunt gave her a beautiful opal ring that belonged to my late namesake. I was so jealous! But, it was a beautiful moment and I understood how special it was to have a gift from your grandmother in Heaven when you are a bride.
Yet ever since then, I wanted something opal of my very own. So, I splashed out on an opal necklace in Coober Pedy. It was my first “big girl” jewelry purchase and will probably be my last, honestly. But it’s beautiful and brings me such pride to wear it. I also bought a wombat magnet with bits of opal flecks on it. It’s my most prized possession.
But perhaps the best part of shopping in Coober Pedy is the friendly and welcoming locals. You’ll meet people from all over the world who have come to this remote town in search of adventure and beauty. And whether you’re looking for opals, art, or just a friendly chat, you’ll find it all in Coober Pedy.
Coober Pedy Art Installations
One of the most fun things to do in Coober Pedy is to check out all the post-apocalyptic art. I’ve never been to Burning Man, nor do I want to, really, but I imagine if it stayed a city year-long, it would look like Coober Pedy.
It really does feel like the apocalypse happened here. This is interesting because it does have a connection with the British nuclear testing program of the 1950s and 1960s, conducted 200 miles away at Maralinga. Into the 1980s, anxieties lingered in Coober Pedy about the possibility that contaminated equipment — including bulldozers and trucks — had been brought to the town from the testing sites. Even the town’s community hall was feared to be radioactive as a result of the nuclear fallout.
Luckily, this wasn’t true.
Maybe I will gain superpowers from touching this truck, IDK.
It looks like Mars on Earth. I’m surprised they only filmed “Mad Max” here because this slice of Australian desert is so other-worldly that it’s a prime candidate for Tatooine, as well. I can’t believe George Lucas never made it down here for a location scouting trip.
Someone should be fired.
If any aspiring filmmakers are reading this, make your movie in Coober Pedy. It has the distinct advantage of looking just like a movie set or amusement park.
This was one of the best welcome signs I’d ever seen. Luckily my tour guide was filled with (and led by!) awesome young women. We bonded quickly and everyone was just as keen as me to do a desert-chic photo shoot. When you’re in town, you should definitely take the time to do the same.
There is even a Coober Pedy Hollywood Sign that sits up on the highest hill to welcome visitors to the town. You can drive up pretty close to it to get great photos, but my group didn’t. Please enjoy this amazing-quality photo from the bus window.
Underground Houses in Coober Pedy
Why in the world would anyone want to live underground? Isn’t it kind of creepy now there? Well, let me tell you, it’s not just because it’s super cool (although it is). In the scorching hot Australian Outback, it can get up to 50 degrees Celsius on the surface – but underground, it’s a comfy and cozy 23 degrees all year round!
So the clever folks of Coober Pedy figured out that if they dug themselves a nice, deep hole in the ground, they could escape the sweltering heat and stay nice and cool. These underground homes are like a whole other world down there.
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They’ve got everything you need – bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and even living rooms with TV sets and comfy couches. But instead of windows, there are skylights that let in the warm, golden light of the Aussie sun. And instead of air conditioning, they’ve got good old-fashioned ventilation shafts that keep the air fresh and cool. I was really surprised by just how pleasant in felt in the homes. I visited in November, which is coming into the summer season.
But the best part? These houses are like natural works of art. The walls are made of the same colorful sandstone that the opals come from, so they’re all different shades of red, orange, and yellow. Some people even carve intricate designs into the walls.
As an American, I never thought I could live without air conditioning. But, living in an underground cave apparently also does the trick. The homes feel cozy, not creepy. Who would have thought living in a cave could be so chic?
Underground Church in Coober Pedy
The church is carved right into the sandstone, deep beneath the ground. It was built in the 1990s by a group of Serbian miners who were living and working in Coober Pedy at the time. They wanted a place to worship and celebrate their heritage, but they didn’t have a lot of resources or building materials to work with.
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So they got creative.
They found a big underground cavern, and they started carving. The minders chipped away at the sandstone, creating a beautiful, domed ceiling and walls that were smooth and white like marble. The team even created little alcoves and niches where they could place religious icons and candles.
But the best part? This church isn’t just for the Serbian community – it’s open to anyone who wants to come and worship. In fact, it’s become a bit of a tourist attraction, with people from all over the world coming to see this unique underground church.
My mom is a children’s pastor and I’ve read the Bible cover to cover multiple times over the years. There is a lot of really wild stuff in there which doesn’t get talked about enough. My favorite passage is 2 Kings 2:23-24 for reasons you are soon to discover. So when I was exploring the underground church in Coober Pedy and saw a Bible open on the pulpit, I decided to treat my new friends to the New International Version of my favorite Bible story.
Elisha Is Jeered
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them, and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys
Really powerful stuff. I try to live my life by this passage. I hope all my tourmates treasure the memory.
Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage
This is a one-stop shop. Upfront at Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage, you can purchase locally-made art, home decor, and other souvenirs from local aboriginal artists. I bought two pained boomerangs here and adore them. Out the back is a kangaroo orphanage.
This little gem of a place is owned and run by Josephine, a local Aboriginal woman who is passionate about preserving her culture and heritage. She has created a gallery that showcases the artwork of local artists, including beautiful paintings, carvings, and jewelry.
But that’s not all – Josephine is also the caretaker of a kangaroo orphanage, where she takes in baby kangaroos who have been orphaned or injured. She nurses them back to health and raises them until they are strong enough to be released back into the wild.
And if you’re lucky enough to visit Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage, you might just get a chance to meet some of these adorable little joeys up close and personal. You can pet them, feed them, and even take selfies with them – just be prepared for some nibbling and hopping around!
But the best part about Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage is the chance to learn about Aboriginal culture and history. Josephine is a wealth of knowledge, and she loves sharing stories about her people and their traditions. She offers tours of her gallery and the orphanage, and you’ll come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of this ancient and beautiful culture.
You can even volunteer here if you want to help take care of the animals.
Coober Pedy Weather
Coober Pedy is hot as heck. The town is right in the heart of the Australian outback, and its climate is influenced by its remote location, as well as its proximity to the arid regions of central Australia.
In general, Coober Pedy experiences hot and dry summers, with temperatures regularly exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day. Nights can be relatively cool, with temperatures dropping to around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). In contrast, winters are mild and dry, with daytime temperatures ranging from around 15 to 25 degrees Celsius (59 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit), and nighttime temperatures dropping to around 5 to 10 degrees Celsius (41 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit).
Rainfall in Coober Pedy is sparse, with most of the annual precipitation occurring during the summer months between December and March. The town receives an average of around 160mm (6.3 inches) of rainfall per year, and some years it may not rain at all.
That’s why everyone lives underground.
As mentioned, the name “Coober Pedy” comes from the local Aboriginal word “kupa-piti,” which means “white man’s hole.” It was originally known as the Stuart Range Opal Field, but was eventually changed to the more endearing moniker. The town was named after the opal mines that were dug by European settlers in the early 1900s. Opal is the main mineral resource in the region, and Coober Pedy has been a major opal mining center for over a century.
The town’s underground houses, known as “dugouts,” were first built in the early 1900s to escape the harsh desert conditions. The underground houses offer a cooler and more comfortable living environment, and many of the town’s residents still live in them today.
During World War I, Coober Pedy was used as a training ground for soldiers heading to the Middle East. The town’s remoteness and harsh desert conditions made it an ideal location for military training. In the 1920s and 1930s, Coober Pedy experienced a period of economic growth as opal mining became increasingly profitable. The town’s population grew, and it became a hub for the opal trade in Australia.
During World War II, Coober Pedy was once again used as a training ground, this time for Australian soldiers. The town also played a role in the war effort as a source of opal, which was used to make precision instruments for the military.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Coober Pedy experienced a period of decline as the opal market fluctuated and the town struggled to attract new residents. However, in the 1970s, the town’s association with the “Mad Max” movie series brought renewed interest and tourism to the area.
Of course, the Coober Pedy locals live underground, so when you are there, you should stay underground, too! My tour group stayed in an old bunkhouse/hostel. It was a long hallway carved into a side of a hill that went deeper and deeper the farther you went back. There were lots of nooks carved into the wall, filled with bunk beds.
You had to walk outside of the cave to get any cell service (obviously), but there was spotty WIFI inside. The toilets and showers were in a small building out the front. At night, you had to enter a code to renter after using the facilities.
I was going to sleep out the back by myself to get away from some tourmates who snored, but a new friend shared my cubby with me because she was too creeped out to sleep alone.
Fair alone. It was a bit weird. Very cold, too.
How to Get There
No matter how you get there, you should go.
The easiest way to get to Coober Pedy is by flying. Regional airlines such as Rex and QantasLink operate regular flights from Adelaide, which is the nearest major city, to Coober Pedy Airport. The flight takes around 2 hours, and there are usually several flights per week.
If you prefer to drive, Coober Pedy is located on the Stuart Highway, which runs from Adelaide to Darwin. The distance between Adelaide and Coober Pedy is around 850 km (528 miles), and the drive takes around 9-10 hours. It’s important to note that the Stuart Highway is a remote and isolated road, so it’s essential to plan your journey carefully and carry plenty of supplies.
Several bus companies operate services to Coober Pedy from Adelaide, Alice Springs, and other nearby towns. The journey can take anywhere from 8-15 hours, depending on the departure point. You can also take a tour bus, which is what I did. Coober Pedy was just one of many stops on our adventure from Adelaide up to Alice Springs.
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