My final-destination in Australia was the Opal mining town of Coober Pedy. This small hamlet of only about 1,600 hard scrabble folks might as well be on Mars (Mars the Red Planet was filmed here). Surrounded my hundreds of kilometers of dry red desert and a day’s drive from the nearest neighboring town, Coober Pedy is as isolated a place as you can imagine.
With day time temps. Reaching 140 degrees in the summer, night time temps. dropping to freezing, and only 5 inches of rain a year, little wonder why there are no trees, plants or grass to be seen. In fact, 80% of the residents live underground and the locals play their golf on an entire course of sand and clay.
My first glimpse of what was to come, was as I stepped off the plane onto the roll up stairs and was immediately blasted by the oppressive heat and engulfed in a swarm of flies. As I looked around all I could see was a small cinder block building and a couple of smaller support structures. Turns out the cinderblock building (smaller than the cinderblock house I grew up in) turned out to be the airport terminal.
I left most of my gear in a locker in Adelaide so I only had my small day pack that I carry on so I immediately crossed the terminal in 5 quick steps and headed out the front door to find a taxi. Surprise!!! Coober Pedy has no taxi service. Fortunately, there is a one car transfer service with a phone number posted on the front door of the terminal.
I reached a very nice lady who said Pete could be there in 30 minutes. Pete came rambling up in a beat-up SUV in 20 minutes. As he pulled up beside me motioning me to get in I’m sure my shock was obvious. Pete had long gray hair, a gray beard to his belly, ear rings, a face spider webbed with deep lines like old dried cracked plaster, wearing week old clothes. As he skidded to a stop a dozen flies flew out the passenger window and began buzzing about my head. The interior of his SUV was covered in a red layer of desert dust. Dash, seats, floor dust everywhere. All I could think about was how was I ever going to get that red crap out of my nice black sport coat.
I asked Pete how much to go to my underground motel (have I mentioned that most everyone in town lives underground in dugouts?). Twenty bucks and off we went with red dust and flies circulating in and out of the SUV as we bumped along down the uneven track.
Pete proudly informed me that it was his birthday and that he was 64. I would have guessed his age at 164 but who’s counting. Pete also gave me his version of the history of Coober Pedy on the drive into town. According to Pete Coober Pedy which he says is Aborigine for “White Man Living in Hole” was founded when the first Opal was found in 1915 by the teenage son of a gold prospector whose party was lost and looking for water.
The discovery of that first opal turned out to be the beginning of the most significant opal field in the world. When Australian soldiers returned from the Trenches of World War I looking to get rich some made their way to the Opal Fields. Upon arrival, they faced a very harsh environment of a barren land devoid of trees for building materials, extreme heat, the world’s most venomous snakes and swarms of insects.
Since they had just spent their last several years living in underground dugouts and in ten foot deep trenches the solution was obvious. They would tunnel into the hillsides and dig their own homes as the dug for opals. I’ve included several photos of what the original dug outs looked like as well as photos of a dugout from the 1960s and my underground cave hotel room.
During my short time in Coober Pedy I visited two underground mines/museums, one underground church, an underground café for breakfast, and the weird underground dug out of one the weirdest sites in Coober Pedy – Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest & Dugout.
I’ve included photos from both mine/museum tours, the church and my hotel. I’ve also included photos from above ground that I took during my first afternoon of wandering around as well as my predawn climb to the top of the hill for photos of the sunrise. You might notice a bunch of round vent/chimney looking things sticking out of the ground.
These are actually vents for the various dugouts and provide fresh air and ventilation. The dugouts require no heating or cooling and maintain a comfortable temp. of between 21 and 25 cel. You may also see one of the many signs warning the unwary to watch where they are stepping to avoid a serious fall down a vent from an abandoned mine or dugout.
But I want to spend a little time talking about Crocodile Harry who stands out as the most bizarre of all the eclectic residents past and present of this remote outpost. Crocodile Harry claims to have been a Latvian baron who had fought for the Germans and been in hiding since World War II. Before taking up residence in Coober Pedy Harry was a crocodile hunter.
Harry, it seems, had two hobbies which he pursued with an insane passion – primitive art and bedding women! His entire dugout is covered with graffiti, sculptures and wall paintings of naked women and photographs of many of his female guests baring their breast for the camera. But his most interesting artifact is his large collection of women’s bras and panties.
The story goes that many a female backpacker would find a nice warm spot in Harry’s bed and then repay him with their trophies. Later it is said that he would require all female visitors to pay for their tour of his Lair with their bra. BTW Harry passed away in 2006 but the current owner has left everything as it was the day he died. Photos of this weird place are also included.
One final note about my get away from Mad Max’s Thunderdome (Actually was filmed here). Turns out the same ride to the airport cost $50 instead of the $20 into town. Same distance just different circumstances. Pete knows you have a plane to catch and no other way to reach the airport. And upon arrival at the airport at 10am the standard two hours before my flight, I found it locked up tight. Pete informed me that someone would be along in an hour or so to let me inside. So, I spent my last hour in Coober Pedy sitting on a rock outside the locked up airport entertaining a swarm of flies.
All in all, just a damn weird place but interesting to see and experience at least once in a lifetime.