When visiting Coober Pedy in South Australia’s north, I did a tour of the town and The Breakaways with Noble Tours. Here are all the details and what I thought. (Spoiler: it was pretty good!)
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Note: I was not sponsored on this tour, I paid full price for my ticket and my opinions are completely independent.
Why do a tour in Coober Pedy
I have to admit I’m not a huge tour person. I prefer to research and explore on my own. But sometimes, a tour makes more sense, whether it’s financial, more time efficient, I want the commentary, or even that they go places I can’t easily get to. Here in Coober Pedy there are even some more considerations.
- The Roads – to go out to The Breakaways and the Dingo Fence means driving on a long section of dirt road. If you do not have a 4WD car, you may like to reconsider doing this drive. It would likely have been okay driving in a 2WD too, but I’m not sure it’s worth the risk, especially with cars with low clearance.
- Safety – Coober Pedy is one of those places that you would be crazy to go off and explore on your own outside the town. The Opal fields are LITTERED with mining holes (the estimate is around 2 million holes). The last death in the town due to a mining accident was a seasoned miner who walked over a pile of dirt – not knowing that it was sitting on a piece of corrugated iron covering a hole. If seasoned miners can get it wrong, tourists shouldn’t even consider risking it. With a tour, visitors can be taken to safe areas and still see some of the mining operations without the danger.
- Local Knowledge – Coober Pedy is a town that unless you talk to the locals you won’t learn a whole lot. Opal mining is secretive at best. There appears to be a distinct lack of respect for the “rules” and it’s interesting to hear some of the crazy stories of the inventive ways to get around them.
I had Nobles Tours Australia recommended to me by someone who had done it in the past, and after thinking about the considerations above, I decided to give it a go.
Coober Pedy Town & Breakaways Tour
The tour is offered every day and begins at 1pm. This means that by the time it arrives at The Breakaways the shadows are lengthening and the colours are so much more vibrant. I took the tour in winter, and this certainly was the case, but I’m not sure how it would go towards the beginning and end of the tourist season (April to October) when sunset is later
We were staying slightly out of town and received a phone call the day before asking if we could meet the tour at the Visitor Centre. They would have come to pick us up if I had not agreed, but it would have been an earlier pick up and later drop off. We were quite happy to drive the five minutes into town as we were planning on having dinner in there after the tour anyway.
We were picked up within five minutes of the 1pm time we were given. The tour is done in a kind of 4WD truck/bus. It can hold 19 passengers, and today it was entirely full. We were given the front two seats with Aaron, our guide (and company owner), which was fantastic for both views and chatting when he wasn’t doing commentary.
After a few more stops at the accommodation in town, we were soon at our first attraction, the Umoona Opal Mine & Museum. While Umoona is generally free for the public to browse though, on this tour we had the added commentary of Aaron, and we also had the opportunity to go to areas underneath the floor of the museum and shop. One level down is the underground home.
This underground house is interesting because it is partly the old style, starting as a mine then dug by hand to create the rooms. The old rooms have rough walls and ceilings tend to be lower. The newer parts of the house were dug with a mining machine, so walls are much straighter. They are not necessarily smooth though, because the mining machines leave distinctive grooves, sometimes straight, sometimes circular depending on which direction the machine was digging.
After the house we descended another level to the mine. Here we learned all about opal mining in Coober Pedy, saw some of the opal still in the walls and experienced what it was like down in the mines. Learning all this at the beginning of the tour pervaded a good basis for the rest of it.
As we left we took a tour through the town, learning about some of the businesses, attractions and local characters. Aaron recommended the best places to eat and talked about some of the opal shops (although he was careful not to exactly recommend them as such, just mentioned those were the ones he knew the owners. He actually recommended visiting a few different ones if you are buying opal to compare them for yourself!)
Next stop was the impressive Serbian underground church. It’s a beautiful church, and an impressive engineering feat. Officially called the Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet, it contains some lovely stained glass windows and some great carvings done right out of the rock at the side of the church, including one of Saint Elijah himself.
From there is was time to make our way out to the Moon Plain, the Dingo Fence and The Breakaways, around 30km out of town. The Moon Plain was the first stop. Thousands of years ago glaciers in this area dropped millions of ironstones, which are now scattered over a flat, desolate plain. This is a popular movie set location because it looks more like the surface of the Moon or Mars than anywhere on Earth. In fact, this is where the conspiracy theorists claim the moon landing footage was filmed!
We stopped next at the Dingo Fence. Okay, I admit, it’s not all that impressive to look at, but this is the longest fence in the world, running for 5614km across Australia to help keep the dingoes out of the sheep grazing part of the country. I was surprised at how tall is was when I stood along side it – about as tall as me – as when driving along it appear to be the same height as a normal fence.
(Note, if you are driving around in this area, much of it is sacred to the indigenous landowners, so please stay in your car except at the designated spots to stop and don’t wander off the set areas. If we treat the land right we will still be able to access it. If we don’t, tourists could be denied access)
Finally it was on to The Breakaways. These multicoloured hills seem to glow in the late afternoon light. We firstly drove through them, stopping briefly at some of the more impressive formations before making our way to the lookout to enjoy the views with a glass of bubbly. (Before Covid there was also a cheese platter included, so hopefully that will make an appearance again in the future)
On the way back into town we got to take a look through one of the opal mining areas that is off limits to tourists because it is too dangerous. We got to see Aaron’s own claim where he likes to come out “noodling” occasionally. His claim is actually an old one, previously mined by one of the town’s legends, John Dunstone, who used a 35T excavator to dig huge caves out of the side of a hill. It’s an impressive site!
We arrived back into town just after the sun went down, only a few minutes later than advertised.
My Final Thoughts
Overall I thought this tour was great value for money. It’s a five hour tour for only $75 which is cheap compared to other offerings I have seen elsewhere. This really felt like the tour you just have to do if you only have one day in the town. Sure it didn’t cover everything, but it gave a great overview of all the things that people come here to see – opal mining, underground houses and the stunning outback landscape. If you have a few days, do it on your first day and pick up some hints and tips about other places to see and things to do in Coober Pedy.
Aaron is great, incredibly generous with personal anecdotes and experiences. He has that “country” way about his story telling that fits right into this environment. He talked about some upcoming projects he is working on, and I think there will be some fun times ahead in Coober Pedy!
To find out more about the tour and to book, visit the Noble Tours Australia website here.
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Josie Kelsh is South Australian, born and bred. She has lived in the state for almost her whole life, just one short stint away as a teenager with her family. Travelling all over the world has shown her exactly how amazing South Australia is to live and travel in and she uses her passion to show it to you the way a local sees it.