Coober Pedy has a reputation for being a hot, dry, dusty, mining town – and it can be all of that – but that’s not all there is to this quirky, interesting, wild west town. There is plenty here to do and see to make the long drive, or a couple of days out of an even longer drive, worthwhile. Here are all the things to do in Coober Pedy.
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- 1 About Coober Pedy
- 2 Getting to Coober Pedy
- 3 Best Things to do in Coober Pedy
- 3.1 Do an Opal Mine Tour
- 3.2 Umoona Opal Mine & Museum
- 3.3 Old Timers Mine & Museum
- 3.4 Tom’s Working Opal Mine
- 3.5 Shop for Opal
- 3.6 Find Your Own Opal
- 3.7 See the Serbian Underground Church
- 3.8 Explore Boot Hill
- 3.9 The Home of Crocodile Harry
- 3.10 Play a Round on the Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Course
- 3.11 Admire the views from the Big Winch Lookout
- 3.12 Catch a movie at Coober Pedy Drive-in
- 3.13 Josephine’s Gallery & Kangaroo Orphanage
- 3.14 Faye’s Underground Home
- 3.15 See the Spaceship from Pitch Black
- 3.16 Another Coober Pedy Space Ship?
- 3.17 Opal Cave Shop & Museum
- 3.18 Visit The Breakaways Conservation Park
- 3.19 Look along the Dingo Fence
- 3.20 Admire the Nothingness of the Moon Plain
- 3.21 Join the Coober Pedy Mail Run
- 3.22 Take a Scenic Flights
- 4 Where to Stay in Coober Pedy
- 5 Where to Eat in Coober Pedy
About Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy is best known as the Opal Capital of the World. Australia produces 95% of the world’s opal, and most of that comes from the mines around Coober Pedy. In 1915 a 14 year old boy was looking for water with his father but instead found opal. From there thousands of people have tried their luck in Coober Pedy, some have made there fortunes, others, not so much!
As the mines were dug out, the miners discovered it was much cooler being underground during the harsh summer temperatures, so the dugout houses began to me made. Some are little more than caves, others veritable mansions! Today a good portion of the town is underground, including houses, hotels, shops, and churches.
Coober Pedy and the surrounding areas has been the film sets for many movies over the years, particularly those set on other planets, on the moon or in alternate realities. Some of the best known include Mad Max, Pitch Black, Red Planet, and this year, Mortal Kombat. It has also been part of the tv show Outback Opal Hunters, and has featured in The Amazing Race.
Coober Pedy sits on the traditional lands of the Arabana people but it is also significant to the Kokatha and Yankuntjatjarra people too. In fact the name comes from the Kokatha words “Kupa Piti”, literally “white man’s hole”, which is fitting!
The weather in summer can get over 50 degrees celcius, so the best time to visit Coober Pedy is in the cooler months. To be honest, it’s probably not even worth trying to visit between November and March as many of the tours and attractions will not be operating.
Getting to Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy really is out in the middle of nowhere. It is about 850km from Adelaide, and is the biggest settlement between Port Augusta and Alice Springs.
Most people will come to Coober Pedy by car, many of them travelling along the Stuart highway to or from the Northern Territory. Caravans and campers are a common site too. While it’s not totally necessary, I would recommend a car during your visit as it will make it easier to get around. It’s a long 9-10 hours drive from Adelaide, and I recommend doing it over two days, stopping in Port Augusta for a night along the way. If you are going to do it in one, take a friend and alternate the driving. Beyond Port Augusta, it is a long a potentially boring drive.
It is possible to fly to Coober Pedy and rent a car once here. Currently Rex flies return to Coober Pedy three times a week, but with the ever-changing nature of air travel right now, it is best to check the Rex website here for up to date details.
Greyhound buses also stop at Coober Pedy on their way from Adelaide to Alice Springs. It will take you 11.5 hours to reach Coober Pedy from Adelaide, and 8 hours from Alice Springs. See the Greyhound website for details.
Best Things to do in Coober Pedy
When I started researching all of the Coober Pedy attractions and activities I was surprised with how many I came across. Here I have complied a huge list to help you decide what to do in Cobber Pedy during your visit.
Do an Opal Mine Tour
This one is a bit of a given – you just have to do an opal mine tour while you are in Coober Pedy. The issue is, which one? Below I will mention a few of them that are attached to other attractions, but the one I did was an evening tour at Riba’s Underground Camping & Caravan Park. This was convenient for me because this was our accommodation in Coober Pedy. The tour was run by the owner, Jason, who gave us a great overview of the mining process and told some great stories about the town and some of the characters who live there. You can see details on their website here.
Umoona Opal Mine & Museum
If you are looking for a mine tour, Umoona is one of the other places you can do it. They offer underground tours twice a day at 2pm and 4pm at quite a reasonable cost. Here you will learn a little about the opal mining process, as well as tour through an underground home. We did this as the first part of our tour with Nobles and it gave up a great overview for the rest of our day.
The mine tour isn’t all that Umoona does though. They have an underground museum that explains not only the history of the town and opal mining, but has some great fossils and other displays too. There is also un underground cinema showing a short film on Coober Pedy opal mining. If you want to purchase some opal, there is a shop here to help you do this too – I liked the $88000 black diamond ring, but it was a little out of my price range!
Old Timers Mine & Museum
This is another similar opal mine and museum in Coober Pedy. I admit we only popped into the Old Timers Mine & Museum for a quick look, we did not do the tour – after all two mine tours were enough! But this could be a better choice for your mine tour if you want to have a more hands on approach. During this tour you get the opportunity to do a little noodling and perhaps find some opal for yourself. You will still learn about the workings of an opal mine and see an underground home here too, and of course there is a shop for opals and souvenirs. Old Timers Mine & Museum is also a good choice if you don’t want to be locked into a certain time. Their tours are self-guided and can be done whenever you are ready.
Tom’s Working Opal Mine
Just one more opal mine for you to visit! Unlike the others, this one is a working opal mine just outside of town rather than ones just for tourism purposes. It has been recently taken over by new owner Paul who is redeveloping the mine area, recently opening a new reception area. Tours can be guided, or it’s possible to do a self-guided tour if you prefer. See their website for the details.
Shop for Opal
Everywhere you go in Coober Pedy there seems to be an opal shop. Almost all the museums have them, some of the hotels, there are dedicated shops, and some others with some interesting combinations – “Waffles & Gems” anyone? The big question is, how do you decide which shop to buy from? We were wondering the same thing, and when we asked our guide, he mentioned a few shops, but then he said those were the shops of people he knew. While they were some suggestions, none of the shops are actually “better” than the others, and the best thing to do is to visit a few to have a look and get a feel for what is available.
Having said that, I want to mention one shop we enjoyed. I did not busy any opal, but we loved looking around John & Yoka’s Opals & Art. John is a local legend, and he just happened to be in the shop when we visited. We spent a good fifteen minutes chatting to him about all sorts of things. We had called in to see his opalised fish fossil, the only one ever found in the world. This is not John’s only unique find, he has recently sold a Belemnite (ancient opalised squid body) to the South Australian Museum, often described as the best opal specimen found in South Australia. Almost as fascinating as the opal are the incredible zebra rocks for sale too – I was almost more tempted to buy one of those.
Find Your Own Opal
The Coober Pedy Opal fields are very dangerous and tourists are not encouraged to go anywhere near them without a guide. Not only are there up to 2 million holes where any unsuspecting person could accidentally fall to their death, the miners are particularly territorial. If you wander into a staked claim, even through error, all sorts of mayhem could ensue.
Knowing this, the town has set aside a small area within its limits for tourists to have a go at finding their own opal. There are also a few of the other tourist attractions that have areas set aside for :noodling”. This method of finding opal involves sifting, by hand, no tools are allowed, through the piles left over from the miners. Its considered to be a “soft” form of mining, just like a soft noodle, hence the name. There are still miners making their fortune using this exactly method though, so you never know what you might find. When you get into town, ask the locals for a safe noodling location and try your luck.
See the Serbian Underground Church
Coober Pedy has a hugely diverse population with people coming from all over the world to mine opal here. One of the things they have brought with them is their churches. There are a number of underground churches in town. The first – and also worth a quick look – is the St Peter & Paul Catholic Church right in the centre of town. The most impressive though is the Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet. It was completed in 1993 and has some beautiful stained glass and rock carvings in the wall.
Explore Boot Hill
There are two cemeteries in Coober Pedy – the First Cemetery (or sometimes called the Old Cemetery), which is, well, the first cemetery, and Boot Hill, which started to be used in the 1970s when the First Cemetery ran out of room. Boot Hill is an interesting place to take a look around. Look out for the grave of Karl Bratz that has a keg for a gravestone. When he realised he was sadly about to leave this world, he organised to have a headstone made out of a keg, including a message to his mates “Have a Drink on Me!”
That’s not the only interesting grave here though, look out for others for a cat, one shaped like a castle, one with dolphins and covered in shells, and the one for Crocodile Harry, deceptively plain for this colourful local character.
The Home of Crocodile Harry
Speaking of Crocodile Harry, if you like eccentric, quirky things – and this is quirky even on the Coober Pedy scale – take a short drive out of town to his home. Crocodile Harry’s Nest & Dugout has been kept just as it was when he died in 2006. Apparently Harry was a crocodile hunter in the Northern Territory before he retired to Coober Pedy, picking up the moniker along the way. Choosing Coober Pedy as a retirement location already says something about his unusual personality because it wouldn’t be the choice of most people.
Of course, we can’t be too sure about many things about Crocodile Harry. Even his real name is disputed – perhaps something like Arvid Blumenthal – and then there were those claims he was a Latvian baron hiding out after WWII. While we may never know the answers to some of his mysteries, we do know he was a veritable playboy and loved everything about women – and this can be seen, amongst the thousands of other bits of memorabilia decorating every inch of his dugout. Some bits have been added by visitors, but most to the “decorations” were added by Harry himself.
You may also recognise this dugout from both Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Pitch Black as it was part of both filming locations.
Play a Round on the Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Course
I am not a golfer, so to me the Coober Pedy Golf Course simply looks like some bits of green carpet and some black circles out in the middle of nowhere with not a blade of grass to be seen. Normally a golf course would not make one of my lists of things to do, but this one has an interesting story.
Apparently a few years back the general manager of St Andrews – yes, the prestigious home of golf in Scotland – was in Coober Pedy filming a documentary. One of the locals suggested that the Coober Pedy golf course would be ideal for reciprocal playing rights with the pristine, expensive, sought-after St Andrews course. The executive replied “If you give me an opal mine, I’ll think about it”. It’s relatively cheap to set up an opal claim, so in no time one was pegged out and gifted, and St Andrews granted Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Course the only reciprocal playing rights it has ever given out. Of course there are some small stipulations – members can only play the old nine-hole Balgrove Course, and only in January! I wonder if anyone has taken them up on the offer?
Admire the views from the Big Winch Lookout
You can’t miss the Big Winch as you make your way through town. It’s on top of one of the small hills and provides a great viewpoint over the centre of town. The Big Winch itself was originally built back in the 1970s to celebrate Coober Pedy being the “opal capital of the world”. The story couldn’t be that simple though in a town like Coober Pedy, so the poor Big Winch has had its challenges. In 1986 it was completely destroyed by a storm and had to be rebuilt.
Today you will find a cafe and bar right net to the Big Winch, perfect for enjoying a sunset drink while admiring the view. There is also a great gift shop here too for souvenirs, and the latest attraction is the 360° Cinema Experience that runs hourly during the day. This circular cinema surrounds viewers from all sides with the sights and sounds of Coober Pedy and the outback. For more details see the website here.
Before you leave The Big Winch, take notice too of the Steel Tree. This was built in a time when there were very few trees in Coober Pedy, and the builder wanted his kids to have a tree to climb.
Catch a movie at Coober Pedy Drive-in
Coober Pedy has one of the few drive-in movie theatres still operating in South Australia. It was originally built during the boom times of the 1960s and is probably the only place in the world where there was a message at the beginning (like we get today for phones at the cinema) asking for explosives not to be brought to the showings! Demand dwindled, and the drive-in was closed in 1984, but was reopened again in 1996, showing one movie a week. So if you happen to be in town on a Saturday night, why not enjoy the nostalgia of the drive-in and take in a movie? The prices are very reasonable ($20 for a car or up to seven people) and you will be supporting the local community.
Josephine’s Gallery & Kangaroo Orphanage
I was really excited to check out the Kangaroo Orphanage in Coober Pedy. We called in early to find the details for a visit to see the kangaroos, and discovered that they happen at 5pm – and unfortunately that was when I would be on our sunset tour. While I didn’t get to see the orphans, I did enjoy looking at the local Aboriginal art displayed here, and learning about the didgeridoos from Terry. Unsurprisingly there is opal for sale here too and a few other souvenirs and local products worth checking out.
If you would like to visit the Kangaroo Orphanage during your visit, I recommend contacting them in advance so you don’t miss out like I did. Find the contact details on their Facebook page here.
Faye’s Underground Home
If you are not visiting an underground home elsewhere (or perhaps even if you are but want to see something different) visit Faye’s Underground Home. Named after Faye Naylor, the home was dug by hand by her and two other female friends over a ten year time frame from 1962. They were mining for opal at the same time as digging out the place where they were living. The house contains all the mod-cons of the time with plenty of space for living and entertaining – there’s even a small indoor pool!
Faye doesn’t live here anymore, but the home has been kept in original condition and the couple who do live here open it up for visitors to see this attractive home. It’s a real testament to the character of these three women who dug this out with determination and persistence and little else.
See the Spaceship from Pitch Black
With so many movies filmed in town, it’s no surprise to see a few of the props still laying around the place. One of the most obvious sits right on the main drag – this space ship from Pitch Black. After the movie was finished, the space ship was moved here and has languished on its mound ever since. It is becoming more and more derelict as time goes on, a big call for something made of scrap metal in the first place. It will only take a few minutes to have a look at it, and it is still an interesting piece of movie memorabilia.
Another Coober Pedy Space Ship?
If you take a drive around town you may discover another “space ship” in the backstreets. This one is not a movie prop though. Apparently it started life as an upmarket outdoor entertaining area for the house below. Unfortunately the full plan never eventuated, and it has since fallen into disrepair. When asking locals what is going on with it now, it seems every person has a different story, so I’m not really sure what the future holds. But still, it’s a quirky sight to behold in Cooper Pedy.
Opal Cave Shop & Museum
Right where the space ship sits is the Desert Cave Museum. This is mostly a shop to sell opals, but there are some interesting displays here too, particularly related to the movies and tv programs filmed in Coober Pedy. Climb up to the top to have views over the own and the space ship before exploring the shop.
Visit The Breakaways Conservation Park
The Breakaways Coober Pedy are located about 30 km to the north of town and are, in my opinion, a must see! They are located out on a dirt road though, and it is recommended that you have a 4WD to get here, particularly if there has been recent rain. Often The Breakaways are recommended as a sunset location, but the best time to go is a little earlier, perhaps an hour before sunset. This means that the sun is still high enough to shine on the hills, bringing out the brilliant colours in the rocks. Once the sun gets too low, sure the sky will probably be pretty, but the hills will lose their magic.
If you need to organise a tour, take a look at my review of the Coober Pedy Town & Breakaways Tour that took us out to enjoy these incredible natural colours.
Look along the Dingo Fence
If you are going out to the Breakaways, stop off to have a close up look at the Dingo Fence too. Okay, it may not be all that impressive to look at, after all, it’s a simple wire fence, but this “dog fence” is the longest in the world. It runs from Southern Queensland right across the country to the coast near the Nullarbor Plain, a total of 5614km. Its purpose is to keep the dingoes to the north of the fence and outside of the part of Australia where sheep are farmed. It’s not perfect, dingoes do occasionally still get through, but on the whole it has done a good job since it was built in the 1880s.
Admire the Nothingness of the Moon Plain
Also out near the dingo fence, this area of gibber desert is incredible in it’s bleakness. There is nothing but small rocks covering the ground as far as the eyer can see. Thousands of years ago glaciers in this area dropped millions of ironstones, which are now scattered over this 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 as it really could be the surface of the moon!
Join the Coober Pedy Mail Run
I found out about this tour while I was in Coober Pedy, but if I had heard about it earlier I would definitely have extended my trip by a day to join in on this unique experience! Spend the day with the local mailman as he does his run. You will visit Oodnadatta, William Creek and five cattle stations along the way. The mail is delivered twice a week, so the tour is only available on Monday and Thursday. Check out the Mail Run Tour website here for more details.
Take a Scenic Flights
Coober Pedy is a long way from anywhere, but it is also one of the easier places to get to that enables visitors to see some of the incredible natural landscape in the north of South Australia. The best way to do that is with a scenic flight. WrightsAir offer a range of flights from Coober Pedy, including one over Lake Eyre and the Painted Hills. I did a similar flight with them from William Creek and cannot tell you enough how much I loved it. So if this is the closest you are going to get, then seriously consider jumping on a flight to take a look. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every cent. Read about the flight I took here.
Where to Stay in Coober Pedy
When I visited Coober Pedy I wanted to have the unique experience of camping in the world’s only underground campground, so I took my tent and stayed at Riba’s Underground Camping and Caravan Park. It was a unique experience for sure, and I recommend it if you also want to give it a try.
For those less adventurous, the best place to stay in Coober Pedy is the Desert Cave Hotel. They have both above and below ground rooms available. For the budget traveller, stay at Radeka Downunder Underground Motel, which also has dorm rooms available.
If you would like to stay in a whole underground house, Di’s Place looks fabulous with all the mod-cons while still experiencing the underground lifestyle. There are three bedrooms, and it sleeps up to nine people.
Looking for more places to stay in Coober Pedy? See my Coober Pedy Accommodation post here.
Where to Eat in Coober Pedy
There were three places recommended to me during our stay in Coober Pedy, but we only had the opportunity to eat at one of them, the Outback Bar and Grill. This bistro style restaurant is attached to the Shell service station and serves a good range of typical pub food. Think good wholesome food. Our meals were generously portioned, and they were able to accommodate my plant-based requirements. Even though there was nothing vegan on their menu, they were happy to adapt something for me.
I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to try John’s Pizza Bar, when I discovered that they have appeared on some of those “best pizza bars in Australia” lists. They don’t just do pizzas, there is a whole range of takeaway food available, including burgers, pasta, seafood and all sorts of hot packs.
We also had Downunder Gallery & Cafe recommended to us by one of the locals who declared it to be his go-to place for breakfast and lunch. I would also consider the Big Winch Cafe – the food there smelled delicious during our visit, and there were a good amount of customers enjoying their meals.
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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.