Around campsites and caravan parks in Coober Pedy the leading question among travellers is: "Where are you heading?". The unspoken understanding is that nobody could possibly have come all this way with Coober Pedy as the end goal. It is at least 6 hours from a major town north or south with nothing but 4wd tracks left or right. The spacecraft situated on the main road with no effort offered at explanation is my first indication that I have landed in a very strange place.
This is a land so arid that it took folks in the know 66 years to work out how to make water consistently come out of a tap. The heat so unforgiving that locals dig houses in to the ground for some reprieve among hills so rich in opals that one bloke made $250,000 AUD digging the hole that he lives in. Needless to say, he extends regularly.
These invisible underground bunkers give the town a sense of being a largely unoccupied wasteland of muted red dirt and pebble strewn vacant lots. It looks like a tough town, down on its luck. It is, in fact, anything but. The opal mining and quirky underground housing make it a tourist mecca for folks such as myself passing through on their way to the big red rock in Central Australia. It is half ghost town, half Hollywood Boulevard hustle.
Inside Coober's underground
I roll in to town wondering if the dangerous ghetto vibe should concern me and head to the WikiCamps recommended camp site behind the Op Shop. This makes perfect sense after a couple of weeks out the back of Bourke, everything doubles as something else. The supermarket/newsagent/post office/pharmacy is a common conglomeration thus not an eyebrow is raised as I head to the local thrift store for a place to sleep.
On arrival I am greeted by the custodian, Gary, he is a kind man who tells me with what appears to be soul destroying regret that he's full and will have to send me down to the creek. I ask if it is safe down there and he looks intently in to my eyes and tells me it is "safe-safe". He gives me some tips on bartering like I'm in Bali and lets me know where to get a good feed at a fair price before telling me to set up camp down at the creek and not give it a second thought, "safe-safe". He repeats his catch cry with that same meaningful eye contact. As though the repetition of the word and intense human connection is required to combat the heavy police presence and barbed wire compounds I've noticed on my way through town.
Coober Pedy's main street and resident spaceship
One of the multiple underground museums tells the tale of European settles arriving to find a 'bleak uninviting spot', little has changed for the outsider. The town is an ironic twist of resistance to visitors and a reliance on their tourist dollar. I head down to take a look at the creek which unsurprisingly contains no water being, I later learn, a dry creek bed that gets by on the odd dribble of rain from time to time. I trust my instincts despite Gary's assurances and book in to one of the local caravan parks who, I am informed on check in, lock their barbed wire topped gates at 10pm and warn me to keep all valuables locked away during my stay. Then they tell me how safe it is and urge me to wander the streets at night. Coober Pedy is a juxtaposition, I still have not been able to ascertain whether I was safe-safe or at risk-risk during my stay.
A walk down the main street is a surreal experience mostly comprised of the repeated thought: "What the hell IS that?". Kitsch displays of various oddities and a web of tunnels that lead to underground bars, hotels and cafes make for one of the most entertaining and baffling wanders down a street I've ever experienced. Abandoned items are used here, nothing goes to waste and the main road is speckled with old buses, cars, and mining equipment turned to good use as window displays. A creative solution given the general lack of windows in an underground bunker. The general consensus appears to be the more bizarre the better.
But wait ... there's more
Coober Pedy is certainly fascinating but I came here for two reasons, none of which were to see the town. Firstly I needed somewhere to sleep on the road to Uluru and there isn't much else around. Secondly, and far more importantly, I came here because of an odd fascination with the Dingo Fence. This is the longest fence in the world at 5,600km, designed to keep the dingoes to its north away from the cattle and sheep to its south, and its northern most point is accessible within the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park about half an hour outside of town. I jumped on a bus for the sunset tour from the Caravan Park and got more excited than I care to admit about seeing some bits of timber and wire.
The dingo fence at Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Area
What I discovered was that within this park are a lesser well known bunch of rocks that should be as famous as the big red one. Emerging from the map-flat landscape are a series of mesas that will take your breath away. As the light changed to sunset the sky lit up the shifting colours of these profoundly beautiful arid hills. After more than two weeks in the Outback I remain astonished by the diversity of colour in a place that on first sight appears to monotonously brown and red.
One of the Breakaways mesas
I came to Coober Pedy for somewhere to rest my weary head, what I got was the surprisingly delightful insanity of this weird little gem and a nature experience that was nothing short of spiritual. If you're traveling through the heart of Australia take some time here, its worth much more than an overnight stop.
Note: All images and words in this article are created by me and copyright. All information within this article was gathered during museum and tours during my stay at Coober Pedy.
Some more pictures from around town: