How do I describe the town of Coober Peddy? Imagine you took a trip back in time to the year1974. Your time machine is actually a spaceship model used for the movie Star Wars, and you've landed on a planet that looks like equal parts desert and moon. That is the closest thing I can equate Coober Peddy to.
Okay, so maybe I can do a little better than that, but seriously, Coober Peddy is one of the weirdest towns I have ever set foot in. Not only is half the town underground, but the random collection of things and signs there make it feel like someone emptied out their closet in the middle of the outback and coincidentally it turned into a town of three thousand.
We arrived in this novelty town just in time for dinner. Maggie had arranged for us to stay at the underground hostel, near the middle of town. She had stayed there on her first trip through the outback and Matthew and I thought it sounded like a cool experience. Though it was indeed a cool experience, we deemed it a little overpriced for the value. Nevertheless, it was pretty cool to say we slept underground.
The Underground Town
So what do I mean by underground? Well, Coober Peddy made its existence by being an opal mining town. To this day it is still considered the Opal Capital of the World! Because of this trait, there are hundreds and hundreds of holes all throughout the town. These holes are where miners previously dug up the ground to mine the opals. So what should a desert town do with a bunch of empty holes? Make businesses out of them, of course! That's where we stayed. In an old mine that had been converted to a backpackers hostel. We had to walk down three flights of dimly lit stairs to get to our room and the walls were solid stone. It was cool to have regulated temperature but also a bit creepy to be so far underground in the dark. When we made the booking, Matthew and I voted to spend an extra $5 for us to have a “private room.” We didn't know what that meant until we got there. Most of the rooms were not really rooms but bunk beds hidden in the crevices of the walls, just behind the main walk way. Our extra five dollars had bought us ¾ of a dry wall in front of the beds so we had some sort of privacy. I think it was money well spent.
The next morning we all had our own agendas. Maggie woke up at 6am to get some design work done while she had use of free wi-fi and Matthew was up an hour later, diving into a James Bond book he had bought a few days earlier in Adelaide. Since Maggie had been there before and Matthew wasn't feeling particularly touristy, I made my own plans to explore the sites of the town and meet back up with Maggie and Matthew afterwards.
Walking the town was a great way to see and experience all of the idiosyncrasies it had to offer. From our hostel I walked across the street and found an underground exhibit that Maggie had recommended. I walked down two flights of stairs in what felt and looked like another old mining tunnel. I read through some of the history of the town, snapped some pictures and then made my exit back onto the main street.
The great thing about Coober Peddy is that the town is small enough that everything is within walking distance and easily accessible in a two-hour period. Because this is the opal capital of the world, I think it is safe to estimate that 80% of the shops were selling opals. I walked in two or three different shops before finding the price and size of opal that I was willing to spend money on. I had been collecting opal jewelry since I was about fifteen so I deemed this an acceptable thing to be frivolous on.
After making my purchases I continued walking down the street and simply took pictures of all the things I thought were interesting or weird. One of my favorite sites was the Opal Beatles hanging out. I snapped a few pictures and kept walking.
Underground Art Gallery
Next, I wandered off the sidewalk and found an underground art gallery. Well, I think I found it. I walked up to the front of what looked like an abandoned storage shed and saw a sign that said “closed.” I'm not sure, but I think the gallery was underneath that storage shed.
I took several pictures of the signs around town. I'm not certain but I would bet money that nearly every sign there was installed in the early 70's and never touched again. The classic yet somewhat junky-cool style was fun for me to admire.
Pitch Black Spaceship
Perhaps one of the greatest findings on my walk was the remains of an old spaceship. Literally, I stumbled upon an old spaceship in the middle of two parking lots. It was unmarked and unkempt which made the whole thing that much more hysterical to me. I later found out it was a prop from the movie, Pitch Black. Apparently the movie was filmed in this town and the video company didn't see a need for the prop so they simply left it behind.
Umoona Opal Museum
Around that time Matthew met up with me at the Umoona Opal Museum. It was the only thing he had wanted to see so we toured this one together. The museum was really very interesting in that it told the story of how the town came to be. In short, a fourteen year old boy wandered off from camp in the early 1900's and in his search for water he stumbled upon an opal. A few years later the town erupted as an opal mining town and was instantly filled with all sorts of men and women looking for work in the mines. The rush slowed with the economy and didn't pick up again until the early 1960's when lots of Europeans moved in to get in on the mining business.
Even before these events, the territory was occupied by aboriginal people who knew the opals existed but hadn't realized their economic power. To take the history back even further, the story is that 120 million years ago, Australia was believed to be near the south pole. Most of the continent was covered with water and therefore full of sealife. When Al Gore, I mean, global warming and lots of other environmental factors hit the planet, the sea dried up and the middle of Australia became the hot, dry, desert it is known as today. The cool part, is that all those dead sea animal bones became fossilized under years and years of ocean floor dust. These fossilized bones are what create the opals that millions of people spend tons of money on so they can wear them on their neck, ears, wrists and fingers. It's kind of weird when you realize what the stone is, but truly, opals are one of the five precious gems in the world and that makes them pretty valuable.
At a jewelry shop, matthew and I learned about the different types of opals. There were white opals, boulder opals and black opals, the most valuable. In jewelers terms you could buy a singlet, a doublet or a triplet. This had to do with what the opal was attached to in terms of backing and such.
After the opal museum Matthew walked back to the hostel and I made a quick stop in the underground church for a few pictures. I don't know why but things underground were more interesting and unique than things above ground.
When I joined Matthew and Maggie back at the hostel it was past check-out time and they had been kicked off the free wi-fi. Luckily the car was loaded and they were ready to pull out. Because I had studied lots of blogs and travel books regarding Coober Peddy, I knew there were two more things we needed to see before leaving. They were both out of walking distance and because Maggie hadn't seen them yet, I didn't feel bad for making everyone stop and see them.
Underground Golf Course
The first point of interest was on the edge of town and it was worth every bit of gas it took to drive the 2 kilometers out to it. The Coober Peddy golf course. Why was this golf course so interesting you may ask? Well, it was a grassless golf course. That's right. Not one blade of grass. We all laughed and laughed at this as we took pictures and tried to figure out what kind of clubs would work on rocky terrain.
Crocodile Harry's Museum
The other point of interest was a few more kilometers up the road. I wasn't entirely sure what it was but a blogger on Pinterest made it sound cool so we had to do it. The place was Crocodile Harry's museum. It was a dwelling inside an old mine that was decorated floor to ceiling in all sorts of arbitrary memorabilia. The three of us took lots of pictures outside but because we are cheap we didn't want to pay the five dollars to enter in the actual museum. And because I am a bit scandalous, I made small talk with the owner and acted a bit oblivious while I snapped a few pictures of the inside of the museum. I know it was dishonest but I'm on a backpacker salary!
All in all, Coober Peddy was a fascinating stop. It's been added to my list of intriguing small towns and I want to write more about it when I have the time. If you ever happen to be in the middle of nowhere Australia with 2-3 hours to kill, I'd recommend walking around this desert, space town.