Waking up bright and early, mostly due not to a good night’s sleep but to extreme heat and sunshine streaming into my campervan, I happily set off from Woomera to my next port of call, the town of Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy caught my attention ages ago, when I mentioned to a travel agent I wanted to go exploring in the “outback.” That’s as far as my plan had been thought out, being recently new to Australia at the time. Well, as it turns out, the outback is pretty big place. Pretty much all of Australia that isn’t near the coast, could be considered “the outback”. Ok, seems I still had more planning to do. Naming places of interest, this travel agent mentioned Coober Pedy, an opal mining town where people lived and worked underground. This immediately had my mind working overtime.
Jewel mines! Prospecting! Underground homes in the desert! It was quirky, it was Australian, and I knew I had to go. How many Americans could say they’d been to such a strange and distant place?
This town did not disappoint. I had made it, the heat even hotter, the flies even (buzzier?), but it was worth the visit. Despite being in the tourism off-season, there was still enough to keep me occupied for the afternoon. Basically, the town’s forebearers, displaying excellent smarts, arrived in this desolate, dusty, and remote place to work the opal mines and find their fortunes, and quickly realized it was (in my words) too hot for that shit. Noting the ground was soft and pliable, the settlers began digging and realized they could easily dig out subterranean houses, where the cool earth would keep their dwellings at a temperate climate all year long, even when it was 120 plus outside. This was applied to churches, homes, post offices, etc. In fact, the world’s first, and only, underground Post Office can be found here, if you are so inclined.
After a day of opal-mine visiting, underground house touring, and opal window shopping, I consulted my trusty Lonely Planet to locate a good spot for dinner. Which, I needn’t have bothered with, because basically everything in town was closed for the off-season except a pizza place, which was where I had been planning on going anyway.
The pizza was delicious, possibly made tastier by the restaurant’s amazing air conditioning. On the way out, I happened to notice a wall of fame by the door. Dozens of signed photos hung on the walls, from famous sorts who had visited the pizza joint and Coober. Intrigued, I had a closer look, and realized this town was more popular than I had thought. Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, and pretty much every other show on the Discovery Channel, had beaten me here, as had many others whose photos hung at rakish angles up and down the wall. Turns out, while Coober Pedy may be remote and quirky, it’s a fairly popular stopover town for those travelling up into the Northern Territory from South Australia.
I hope Mike Rowe enjoyed it as much as I did. I may have enjoyed it just that little bit more if my framed photo was also hanging on the wall, but perhaps I’m just being persnickety.
The next morning, I set off for Ayers Rock, or Uluru, as it should be known, in Kata Tjuta National Park- perhaps the only place in the world where one turns off the highway onto the exit, and still has a few hundred kilometres to go before the destination is reached. Somehow I don’t think that would be too popular on the DC beltway, but, that’s Australia for you.