The Cave Men of Coober Pedy
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.
only one reason why 3,000 people would willingly choose to live in this God-forsaken
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.
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.
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.
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.
left: Beautiful downtown Coober Pedy,
center: Hutchison Street, the main street in Coober Pedy.
right: Digging for opals near town.
left: Typical scene on the
outskirts of town. There are miles and miles of these piles.
center: Here's a typical 2-bedroom house in Coober Pedy. Talk
about a low-maintenance yard!
right: The Coober Pedy golf course. Remember to replace
left: The Catacomb church.
center: The church is a nice, cool place to spend a Sunday morning,
even if you're an atheist.
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
left: Underground Books, a
great bookstore in Coober Pedy.
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.
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.
Many telephone poles in the Outback are made out of iron
and concrete, not wood.
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The Cave Men of Coober Pedy