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The Cave Men of Coober Pedy

(Reprint from News: March 8, 2002)

March 7, 2002

 

After four more hours of driving, I pulled into Coober Pedy late that afternoon.  While Woomera is a bit strange, Coober Pedy is downright bizarre.  If you've seen the Mad Max movies, then you've seen Coober Pedy, because that's where they were filmed.  Coober Pedy (pronounced "peedy," not "peddy") is the driest town in the driest state on the driest continent in the world.  The average rainfall here is a scant five inches, but that's just an average because during some years absolutely no rain falls.

 

There's only one reason why 3,000 people would willingly choose to live in this God-forsaken place:  opals.  In fact, about 90 percent of the world's opals are mined in and around Coober Pedy.  Opal mining draws people in from all over the world and at last count, over 40 nationalities were represented here.  Those few folks lucky enough to strike it big retire early, while the vast majority barely scrape by.  The town is filled with interesting and colorful characters who speak strange languages, some of whom wander about trying to sell opals to any gullible-looking tourist (like me, apparently).  The streets are hot and dusty with mongrel dogs running about and Aborigines sit all day in what little shade is available, sometimes smiling, sometimes cursing, and sometimes throwing empty beer bottles against the walls.

 

Before coming to Australia, I'd read in my guidebook that a lot of folks in Coober Pedy lived underground because of the oppressive heat, and that you can even stay in an underground motel room here.  I had images of holes in the ground with ladders leading down to comfortable, dark caverns.  However, it's not like that at all.  Most people here live in caves burrowed out of the sides of the hills, so the term "underground" is a bit deceiving.  Still, it's a fascinating way to live -- and very practical, since the house-caves stay at an even 70-75 degrees year round, during the summer heat and the winter cold.

 

The poshest motel in town is the Desert Cave, but even there, many of the rooms are above ground.  The Desert Cave and the other cave-type motel, the Coober Pedy Experience, were both beyond my limited budget, so I stayed at a little place called "The Mud Hut," which is a lot nicer than its name would indicate.  It's a wonderful above-ground motel made out of 12"-thick adobe walls, very well insulated and very comfortable -- and very unique.  And the staff is great.

 

With its dusty streets, walled motel compounds, barbed-wire fences, and an occasional Aborigine stumbling about, Coober Pedy has a real Wild West flair to it and, like Key West, it's a place I think everyone should visit once in their life.  Coober Pedy is unlike any place I've ever been.  It's captivating, stimulating, unique -- and I'd never, ever want to live there.

 

2-2654_CP_From_Above.jpg (44442 bytes)    2-2649_Hutchison_St_Coober_Pedy.jpg (38746 bytes)    2-2681_Digging_for_Opals.jpg (28053 bytes)

Above left:  Beautiful downtown Coober Pedy, population 3,000.

Above center:  Hutchison Street, the main street in Coober Pedy.

Above right:  Digging for opals near town.

 

2-2707_Opal_Fields.jpg (40365 bytes)    2-2651_New_House_in_CP.jpg (56713 bytes)    2-2667_Golf_Course.jpg (35677 bytes)

Above left:  Typical scene on the outskirts of town.  There are miles and miles of these piles.

Above center:  Here's a typical 2-bedroom house in Coober Pedy.  Talk about a low-maintenance yard!

Above right:  The Coober Pedy golf course.  Remember to replace your divots.

 

2-2662_Catacomb_Church.jpg (64821 bytes)    2-2663_Inside_Church.jpg (37582 bytes)    2-2699_Dog_Fence.jpg (31691 bytes)

Above left:  The Catacomb church.

Above center:  The church is a nice, cool place to spend a Sunday morning, even if you're an atheist.

Above right:  The "Dog Fence" runs completely across Australia.  Over 3,000 miles long, it's the longest man-made barrier in the world.  The fence keeps dingoes (on the left side) away from sheep (on the right side).  The entire fence is patrolled every two weeks by scores of local volunteers.

 

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Above left:  Underground Books, a great bookstore in Coober Pedy.

Above center:  I spent three nights here at the Mud Hut Motel, a nice adobe motel with walls that are 12 inches thick.  Despite its name, I'd recommend this place to anyone visiting Coober Pedy.

Above right:  Several years ago, a Coober Pedy resident wanted his children to be able to play in a tree -- so he built one out of iron.  I hope they got tetanus shots first.

 

2-2568_Steel_Telephone_Poles.jpg (25044 bytes)   Left:  Many telephone poles in the Outback are made out of iron and concrete, not wood.

 

 

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