COOBER PEDY is the most enduring symbol of the harshness of Australia’s Outback and the determination of those who live there. It’s a place where the terrain and temperatures are so extreme that homes – and even churches – have been built underground, yet it has managed to attract thousands of opal prospectors. In a virtually waterless desert 380km from Woomera, 845km from Adelaide, and considerably further from anywhere else, the most remarkable thing about the town – whose name stems from an Aboriginal phrase meaning “white man’s burrow” – is that it exists at all. Opal was discovered by William Hutchison on a gold-prospecting expedition to the Stuart Range in February 1915, and the town itself dates from the end of World War I, when returning servicemen headed for the fields to try their luck, using their trench-digging skills to construct underground dwellings.
In summer Coober Pedy is seriously depopulated, but, if you can handle the intense heat, it’s a good time to look for bargain opal purchases – though not to scratch around for them yourself: gem hunting is better reserved for the “cooler” winter months. At the start of the year, spectacular dust storms often enclose the town in an abrasive orange twilight for hours. Coober Pedy has a bit of a reputation as a rowdy township. This is not really surprising considering the extreme climate, alcohol problems, access to explosives and open mine shafts to fall down.
The local scenery might be familiar to you if you’re a film fan, as it was used to great effect in Mad Max 3, among other films. There’s not much to it, just an arid plain disturbed by conical pink mullock (slag) heaps, and dotted with clusters of trucks and home-made contraptions, and warning signs alerting you to treacherously invisible, unfenced 30m shafts. Be very careful where you tread: even if you have transport, the safest way to explore is to take a tour, follow a map, then return on your own.