Coober Pedy might just be one of the wildest places in Australia.
A small remote town, found in the middle of desert like conditions in the middle of South Australia, people come to Coober Pedy for a reason. Some are searching for wealth, hoping to strike it big in the opal mines. Others are looking to get lost, looking for a place where they will be left alone.
The name Coober Pedy was taken from the Aboriginal words Kupa Piti, which meant “whitefellow burrow” – the natives description of the opal miners dwellings. It’s a place where temperatures regularly sit above 40°C in the summer time, so most of the town lives in underground dugouts to escape the heat. A place where you can stay in an underground hotel room or an underground campsite and experience the unique life that happens underground.
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How to get to Coober Pedy
Located about 850 kilometres north-west of Adelaide, it’s a long 9 hour road trip along the Stuart Highway if you’re planning to drive from Adelaide. The road is easy to drive, although it is quite boring if Coober Pedy is your sole destination.
However, Coober Pedy also has it’s own airport, so you are able to fly in on a short two hour flight. Rex Airlines offers daily flights between Adelaide and Coober Pedy, making it easier than ever to access this crazy remote town in the desert. You can also fly here from regional airports around South Australia including Port Augusta.
Unique things to do in Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy is truly a place unlike any other. Most of the towns population spend a lot of their lives underground, escaping the heat in their dugout homes or mining for opals in the fields. While at first it might seem like a small desert town, there is so much to explore here.
Make sure you allow yourself a few days to really explore everything Coober Pedy has to offer.
Here are some of the highlights that you will only experience in Coober Pedy
1. Take a photo with the iconic Coober Pedy sign
It wouldn’t be a visit to Coober Pedy without a photo with this iconic sign. The sign can be found just before the entrance to town when you’re driving north from Port Augusta along the Stuart Highway.
2. See the views from the Breakaways
Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park, also known as The Breakaways, offers some insane landscapes that are unlike anywhere else in the world. So insane in fact that it will make you feel like you’ve landed on Mars.
There are a couple of different lookouts to check out, but for the best views follow at the small sign that says Angkata down the dirt road, and then walk to the edge from the car park. That’s where you’ll find the landscape in the image above. It was absolutely insane. For the best colours we visited about an hour before the sunset, when there were not yet many shadows, and the colours were changing as the golden hour set in.
The Breakaways is part of the traditional land of the Antakirinja Matuntjara Yankunytjatjara people and is an important part of Coober Pedy. Make sure you stay on the pathways and follow the instructions of any signs you come across so you don’t disturb the natural environment.
3. Take a self-guided tour of the Old Timers Mine
The Old Timers Mine is a can’t miss while you’re in Coober Pedy, so much so in fact that just about every local we spoke to asked us if we had visited yet or told us that we needed to.
This epic mine is an original hand dug mine, dating back to 1916. For some reason it was filled in and abandoned until it was re-discovered in 1968 when an underground house extension broke through the walls into the mine and found a whole heap of beautiful opal!
You can take a self-guided tour of the underground mine, which also shows you the dug out house that has been preserved and a museum about the history of the mine and opal mining in Coober Pedy. Admission for the self-guided tour costs just $12.50 per person.
While you’re at the Old Timers Mine make sure you check out their Opal Shop, which has some of the most beautiful opal jewellery we came across in Coober Pedy. The guys there offer you so much information about opals, what to look for in stones and your jewellery and the difference between the ones that are relatively cheap in price and the ones that are thousands of dollars!
They even offer a free campground if you’re looking to stay in town for a few days. The campground is right next to the mine, and is a great option for free camps in the area.
Address: Crowders Gully Road, Coober Pedy || Ph: (08) 8672 5555
Opening hours: Open daily from 8:30am to 5:30pm.
4. Try your hand at noodling or fossicking
This is what so many people have come to Coober Pedy for, got sucked in by and perhaps have never left. Noodling is when you try your hand at digging through the mounds of sand, rock and dirt that have been discarded from the opal mines looking for missed pieces of opal. Fossicking is when you wander around trying to spot something with your eyes.
A family friend took us out for a night of noodling during our visit, and it was such a great experience. We were kitted out with head torches – to lookout for big open mine shafts and make sure we didn’t fall in, and small purple UV torches – to help us spot any shiny opal pieces in the opal field.
We went out just after dark and spent about an hour and a half searching for opal pieces and anything pretty and shiny! We had such a great night, it was such a crazy experience but one we would highly recommend to anyone visiting Coober Pedy.
There are heaps of public noodling areas around Coober Pedy where you can try your luck at searching for opals. We found lots of little pieces that had opal in them which was so exciting and even got one of them polished to see how the whole process works. Definitely a great way to spend your time in opal country.
5. Check out the Opal shops
You can’t take more than a couple of steps in Coober Pedy without seeing a new sign for an Opal shop. They are literally everywhere, all offering their own jewellery or sometimes even free stones that you can use to create something yourself.
Shop around before making any purchase and check out a few of the different shops if you’re hoping to pick up a souvenir. Some of the shops definitely offer better quality jewellery and opals than others. Our favourites were the Old Timers Mine Opal Shop and Opal World in Desert Cave Hotel.
6. Stay in an underground hotel
Most of the town of Coober Pedy is actually underground, with everything from houses to hotels and even churches being built under the ground. Due to the extreme heat in the summer months, with temperatures regularly hitting and staying above 40°C and sometimes even 50°C throughout the summer months, it’s so much cooler living underground.
Many of the hotels in the area offer underground rooms, that are definitely an experience unlike anything else. Apparently you have the very best sleep in an underground room, since it’s so dark, cool and quiet down there, you can really get into a deep sleep.
Check out all the different underground hotel options in Coober Pedy
If you’re coming with a tent or swag, you can also check out Riba’s underground campground, which allows you to set up your camping gear in an underground camp site. Seriously, there is nowhere else in the world where this would be possible!
7. Visit Josephine’s Gallery & Kangaroo Orphanage
A very interesting combination, but this gallery and kangaroo orphanage is a can’t miss in Coober Pedy. The art gallery is full of local Aboriginal artwork, all in beautiful colours and patterns that are just beautiful. They have canvas art in all different sizes, as well as boomerangs and didgeridoos that have been carefully painted as well.
Out the back of the gallery is a small kangaroo orphanage, where the owners take in injured wildlife, giving them the care they need to heal and rehabilitate. Many of the animals come from road accidents, often the babies are found in the pouch of their mother who has been killed on the road.
It’s a hard task caring for these animals. The kangaroo orphanage looks after an area of land that is roughly the size of Germany, and the closest vet is over 500 kilometres away in Port Augusta. In South Australia you are not allowed to re-release kangaroos back into the wild. So the ultimate goal for most of these animals is to be released into a local wildlife sanctuary, however some of the kangaroos with more permanent injuries will stay at the kangaroo orphanage for their whole lives.
Get a chance to meet the kangaroos at their feeding times at 12pm and 5:30pm each day. One of the owners of the orphanage will give you a bit of the history of the kangaroos, as well as sharing an insight into the daily life at the orphanage. Entry is by donation only, as the orphanage is totally self-funded.
Address: 131 Hutchinson Street, Coober Pedy || Ph: 0428 356 669
8. Visit Umoona Opal Mine & Museum
One of the most interesting museum displays we came across during our visit, Umoona offers a unique point of difference through it’s fossil display, that even includes the dinosaur skeleton remains that have been found in the area.
Open to the public free of charge, the museum takes you through some of the Aboriginal history of the area, fossilised sea shells from the great inland sea that is thought to be under much of Australia, dinosaur remains, as well as a history of opal mining in the area.
They also offer guided tours of their opal mine, as well as a genuine dugout home, opal cutting and polishing displays and an opal jewellery store with lots of beautiful pieces on display. It’s also really nice and cool at Umoona, so it’s a great place to escape the heat while you learn more about Coober Pedy’s fascinating history.
Address: 14 Hutchinson Street, Coober Pedy || Ph: (08) 8672 5288
9. Catch a movie at the drive-in cinemas
On Saturday nights you can catch a movie at Coober Pedy’s large outdoor drive in theatre. It’s a great setting to for a drive-in movies, with not a lot of light or noise coming from anywhere else in the town.
There is only one movie each week, and their movie schedule is posted in advance on their website – cooberpedydrivein.org.au. Tickets cost $20 per car, or there is also the option to walk in for $10 an adult if you want to bring a chair and just watch the movie outdoors. Gates open half an hour before the movie time starts, but check the website before you go as times changes throughout the year depending on the sunset.
Volunteers also run an epic sausage sizzle before and during the movies. They had absolutely everything from sausages, hamburgers and grilled veggies, to tea, coffee and hot chocolate making facilities, all kinds of sauces, vegetarian options and more. It’s a serve yourself system when you give a donation for your meal, and the food is fantastic. Definitely worth skipping dinner for that one.
Address: Umoona Road, Coober Pedy || Ph: 0430 201 820
10. Watch the sun set at the Big Winch
Coober Pedy’s very own big thing, the Big Winch stands tall on a hill in the town and offers some of the best views across Coober Pedy’s main streets and all the way out to the opal fields.
It was built in the 1970’s to celebrate that Coober Pedy was the Opal Capital of the World, and then rebuilt in 1986 after it was destroyed by a fire.
Visit at sunset to see the sun sinking below the opal fields and the whole town glimmering a beautiful golden colour. Since much of the town is made from orange desert dirt, the colours from up here are just stunning.
Address: Italian Club Road, Coober Pedy
11. Visit the moon plains
Just down the road from the Breakaways is the Moon Plains, a bizarre place that truly makes you feel like you have been left the planet Earth and landed on the Moon, or maybe even Mars. The soil on the Moon Plain is soft, feeling like it sinks a little right under your feet, and definitely doesn’t feel like ground from the Earth.
Many movies have been filmed out on the Moon Plains, including huge productions such as Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Pitch Black and The Red Planet.
The Moon Plains also seem to glitter and sparkle in the sunlight, with little pieces of gypsum crystals and gemstones being found all along the surface out here. To respect the local Aboriginal community, please don’t take anything from the Moon Plains, just photos!
12. See the dog fence
The iconic dingo fence is famous in Australia for being the longest fence in the world and also for crossing across three states, from Queensland, through New South Wales and down to South Australia. Stretching over 5,300 kilometres across Australia, the fence was originally built to prevent dingoes entering sheep grazing country in the south and killing live stock.
The dog fence generally runs through some pretty remote countryside, so this is an easily accessible place where you can see this historic Australian attraction. Found in the Moon Plain area of the Breakaways Conservation Park, the dog fence is only about 35 kilometres out of Coober Pedy.
13. Have a beer at the underground bar
With almost everything in Coober Pedy being underground, of course they have an underground bar as well! Located in the Desert Cave Hotel, you will find an underground shopping arcade with a souvenir shop and Opal World, their premier opal store, as well as an underground bar and restaurant.
If you haven’t done anything else underground in Coober Pedy yet, this is a great place to get that cool underground feel.
14. Check out the crashed space ship
A space ship right in the middle of the main street is not something you come across in most towns. But Coober Pedy is not most towns, is it?!
The space ship is a prop from the movie Pitch Black that was filmed in Coober Pedy about twenty years ago, and blends into the desert landscape in such a great way that you might think it actually belongs there.
The spaceship can be found out the front of the Opal Cave on the main street of town.
15. Have dinner at the RSL on Sunday
This local RSL is definitely not like the ones you might be used to at home. It’s build in a shipping container, with the bar inside and the restaurant eating area outside. And on Sundays they have a BBQ menu, offering delicious home cooked meals that make you feel like you’re part of the community.
Everything is laid back and casual here. It’s the kind of place where dinner is served on paper plates, the menu is written on a whiteboard next to the kitchen – with options being wiped off the board as they are sold out, and they won’t turn you away if you arrive in thongs. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in the lives of the locals and enjoy the best meal you’ll have during your stay.
Coober Pedy is such a unique place, it’s definitely a can’t miss on any Outback South Australian road trip. If you’re making the journey through the middle of Australia make sure you take the time to stop in Coober Pedy for a few days, experience life and underground and who knows, you might even find your very own opal.