Coober Pedy: Outback, opals & a didgiridoo

October 15, 2013 in Australia, Oceania, Travelogue

Underground Church

Coober Pedy reminds us a bit of Matmata, Tunisia.

The underground homes carved deep into the arid, barren landscape are similar; the only thing missing are the berber ladies grilling flat bread and a smattering of camels. Instead, there are dusky aboriginals, didgeridoos and red kangaroos.

Coober Pedy, according to Explore Australia means, “White fella’s holes;” an apt description for a mining town in which settlers dug cave homes to escape the scorching summer heat (often 45C) and cold desert nights. There are restaurants, hotels, stores, museums, and even churches, in addition to homes underground; carved out by the same diggers the opal miners use to expand their underground efforts.

Coober Pedy

This is a town built on the back of the opal trade.

About 80% of the world’s opal is mined in this section of Australia. The landscape is littered with mounds of dirt hauled out of deep shafts bored into the earth in the hope of drawing up the precious stones. Every shop is full of the earth’s offerings, including snail and clam shells that filled with the magic material: silica, a hundred million years ago or so. If the pressure was even, precious opals are the result. If uneven, then it’s potch, identical to it’s beautiful sibling in composition; Cinderella vs. the ugly step sisters.

  • Television didn’t arrive in Coober Pedy until the 1980’s.
  • The local aboriginals still speak their original language and many don’t speak much English at all.
  • Less than 130 mm of rain falls in a year here.
  • The local drive in theater still shows old reel to reel films and you tune your radio in for the sound.
  • There’s a space ship that appears to have crash landed next to the museum downtown.
  • The water spigot on the main street is coin operated. Every drop is precious.

It’s a quiet place: dry, dusty, fly ridden, a landscape reminiscent of a book we read once:  Holes. I think there’s a movie as well.

We spent quite a while with Terry this afternoon. He and his wife run a kangaroo rescue, taking in animals whose mothers were killed on the highway or in aboriginal hunts for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. His gallery is filled with local art and didgeridoos. He spent quite a while instructing the kids in the particular “loose lipped” buzz required to produce the low drone associated with the flat darkness of an Outback night. Like absolute crazy people, we added one to our musical entourage.

Have I mentioned that there are flies?

I can’t even describe it. People warned us about the flies, we believed them, but we surely did not understand.

Rick, who owns Riba Campground, where we’re shacked up below ground for a couple of nights swallowed one while we were talking this morning. He hacked, gagged and eventually spat it’s wet-dead-self out onto the iron red ground.

“I just tell people to think of them as flying raisins!” he joked, “Makes ‘em go down a bit easier when ya swallow one.” Ick.


The sun is beginning to dip towards the horizon.

  • Tony is working.
  • The boys have done a little school.
  • Adeline helped her mother reorganize their over-packed van.
  • Joash and Elijah are stalking Hannah a bit. They asked her this morning if she would please, “Make her big sound,” for them; by which they meant play her violin in the cavernous space underground. They’re hoping hard that she’ll do it soon.
  • Ezra is off hunting for opals with a trio of German guys he picked up in the kitchen area.
  • I’m contemplating dinner: pork chops, fried potatoes, frozen corn (that’s melted a bit in the heat) and perhaps some tinned fruit. The cookies I tried to make on the grill top last night were a bit of a fail; not that the kids complained.

We’re almost a week in and we’re beginning to find our groove on our Outback camping adventure.Crash site