Coober Pedy is one of the most unique towns in Australia. The old, dusty mining town has a very Wild West vibe with so many interesting characters, unique attractions and random sights. It’s well known as the Opal Capital of the World, with more than half of the world’s opals coming from the mines around the region. However, it’s become much more than just a mining town and has carved out a unique identity as home to some weird and wacky sights, as well as incredible outback landscapes and sunsets.
It’s also the only major town between Port Augusta and Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway, making it an important stop for travellers. If you find yourself passing through Coober Pedy, it’s worth spending a few days checking out the sights. Here are 10 unique things to do in Coober Pedy that will give you a good insight into South Australia’s quirkiest town.
About Coober Pedy
The area of Coober Pedy was the Traditional Land of the Western Desert people. This includes the Antakirinja, Kokatha and Yankunytjatjara people, many of whom still live in and around Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta. A decade ago, the native land rights were returned to the Traditional Owners in this area, with the Kanku-Breakaways now being co-managed between the local Aboriginal corporation and state government.
Did you know? The name Coober Pedy actually comes from an Aboriginal phrase Kupa Piti, which translates to “white man in a hole” or “white man’s hole”, referring to the opal mines.
Opals were first discovered in 1915 by a boy, Willie Hutchison, part of a gold-prospecting group. Coober Pedy is now one of Australia’s most famous outback mining towns. It’s located on the Stuart Highway 540km north of Port Augusta in South Australia. It’s known as the Opal Capital of the World, producing around 85% of the world’s supply of the rare gemstone. The opal mines scattered around town only add to the bizarre moonscape that is South Australia’s outback.
Coober Pedy is also well-known for having underground homes or dugouts. The population of the town quickly realised back in the 1940s the advantage of living underground to escape the relentless heat in summer and the cool winter nights. Underground dugouts tend to have stable room temperatures year-round, making them ideal places to live. It’s estimated that 50% of the population still live in dugouts today.
The surrounding landscapes have also been used as Hollywood film sets. The otherworldly outback terrain around Coober Pedy has featured most famously in Mad Max, Pitch Black, Priscilla and Red Planet, with some props still lying around town (check out the spaceship between Umoona Museum and the Opal Cave).
Coober Pedy services
Coober Pedy has a good IGA supermarket with anything that you might need. I was pretty impressed with the variety of things available at good prices, so it’s worth stocking up if you’re heading up to the Northern Territory.
There are a few fuel stations in town at cheaper prices than you’ll find at the roadhouses on the Stuart Highway.
If you’re towing a caravan or travelling in a van and looking to fill up your water tank, there is a coin operated potable water dispenser next to the Tourist Information Centre. It’s $1 for 30L and works really well.
The Tourist Information Centre is open every day and has plenty of information for travelling around South Australia and the Northern Territory. The staff are very friendly and can offer some local advice on the best things to do.
How to get to Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy is a long way from virtually anywhere. Located on the Stuart Highway it’s an important stop for travellers, but it’s certainly not a short drive away. You can reach Coober Pedy from Port Augusta in the south or Northern Territory to the north. Distances are vast with limited services, so you need to be prepared and know where your fuel stops are along the way.
Port Augusta to Coober Pedy: 540km or 6-hour drive
Between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy in South Australia, the only stops are at Spud’s Roadhouse at Pimba and Glendambo Roadhouse. Both offer fuel, food and accommodation. Spud’s Roadhouse request a $5 donation to camp overnight with toilets and showers. I also had good Optus phone reception there. Glendambo have a caravan park next to the pub with powered and unpowered sites, for around $30 per night.
Alice Springs to Coober Pedy: 687km or 7.5-hour drive
The main places to stop between Coober Pedy and the Northern Territory border are Cadney Park Homestead and Marla. Cadney Park has a caravan park with powered and unpowered sites for between $30-40. They also offer fuel and food. Marla Roadhouse has fuel and a pub, plus a caravan park with powered and unpowered sites starting from $10 per person per night. I also had good Optus phone reception at Marla.
Once you cross into the Northern Territory, the first roadhouse is at Kulgera, with fuel, food and accommodation. Then you have Erldunda Roadhouse at the turnoff for Uluru and Kata Tjuta, or you can continue onto Alice Springs along the Stuart Highway.
Do you have a 4WD? You can also reach Coober Pedy via the famous Oodnadatta Track which runs from Marree to Marla. This long dirt road is best done with a 4WD or high clearance vehicle, but check road conditions before setting out as they can change after rain.
10 unique things to do in Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy is queen of everything weird, wonderful and unique. There are so many things that you can’t see or do anywhere else in Australia, making it worth stopping for a few days. Here are my 10 favourite unique things to do in Coober Pedy.
1. Get a snap at the “Welcome to Coober Pedy” sign
On the left side of the Stuart Highway as you arrive at Coober Pedy from the south is the Welcome to Coober Pedy sign. It’s obviously a fan favourite for a quick snap to let your social media following know that you’ve arrived in Australia’s opal mining town. There always seems to be someone there, so go early in the morning or at sunset for a chance at a quieter time.
2. Check out Coober Pedy’s Hollywood sign
Self-described as outback Australia’s Hollywood thanks to it’s feature in many films, Coober Pedy now has its very own Hollywood sign. Commissioned by the local Tourism Association in 2018, the sign is made from recycled galvanised iron with each letter standing 3 metres tall. It’s been built on private land just above the main street in town, but you can access it from Naylor Place or take a photo from the streets below.
3. Watch a film at the drive-in open air cinema
There’s nothing more unique (or romantic!) than sitting back at a drive-in cinema in the outback. Coober Pedy’s open-air move theatre is in the middle of town and run by volunteers during the cooler months. It was originally built in 1965 and has since been upgraded with digital projectors to make it one of the last remaining drive-in cinemas in the country.
They only have screenings on Saturday nights with gates open at 6.30pm. Tickets are around $20 per vehicle. You’ll want to get there early to get the best spot and they also welcome buses and vans, if that’s how you’re travelling around.
You can find the schedule of films on their website here or check their Facebook page for updates.
4. Take a tour at the Old Timer’s Mine
Often considered most people’s favourite attraction in Coober Pedy, the Old Timer’s Mine is a great place to learn the history of the town and the mining industry. Originally built in 1916 and rediscovered in the 1960s, the tunnels of this mine include a museum and showroom. You can do a self-guided tour to learn more about opal mining, which will probably take up a few hours of your time.
The kids will also love it here because they have free noodling pits so you can search for discarded opals as you please.
The Old Timer’s Mine also run a free camp for travellers next door. Find out more below.
5. Learn some history at the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum
Another place to head for a guided tour and museum in a former mine is Umoona, located right on the main street of town. The best part is that entry is free, so you can walk in and enjoy the historical displays in the corridor before heading down to the showroom. The museum is exceptionally well done with both Aboriginal and European history and plenty of old photographs.
If you want to learn a little more, they also run guided tours through the former mine area. They run 3 times a day, with bookings essential. Tickets are from $13 per person and they’re open every day.
6. Watch the sunset at The Big Winch
The Big Winch stands high above the town and was built by Klaus Wirries in the 1970s. It offers the best view in town and is popular at sunset time. While there is now a restaurant and bar opened next to the viewing platform, it’s still open for free for those who want to just enjoy the view.
Or, if you want a sunset spot without the crowds, there is another free spot above the Opal Cave shop on the main street (next to Umoona Museum). You’ll see the steep path leading to the top of the roof from the carpark and it offers a panoramic view of the town and out to the Breakaways. It’s also where the random spaceship from Pitch Black lies parked below, which is worth a photo op!
7. Admire the Serbian Orthodox Underground Church
Coober Pedy is home to a few underground churches, including the first underground Catholic Church of its type in the world. However, the Serbian Orthodox Church is considered the most beautiful, having been built in 1993 and dedicated to Saint Elijah. They ask for a small donation for your visit in a box out the front.
8. Drive out to Crocodile Harry’s House
Probably one of the most unique and bizarre attractions in Coober Pedy is Crocodile Harry’s House, but it’s a must for something a little off the beaten track. A former local of Coober Pedy known as Crocodile Harry was born in Latvia and fought for Germany in WWII. He migrated to Australia, hunted crocodiles for 13 years and moved to Coober Pedy in 1975 looking to make a fortune. I’m not making this stuff up.
He has sadly passed, but his dugout home and mine has been kept open for tourists to visit with a donation requested at the entrance. The undergound home is decorated with quirky furniture, graffiti, women’s underwear, photographs, and random knick knacks. On the outside, there are interesting sculptures and “garden” ornaments. It’s basically just a weird old place that somehow draws plenty of people to visit.
There was no one there when I visited, so it works on an honesty box system and you’re free to roam around the place on your own. It’s located along the unsealed and heavily corrugated Seventeen Mile Road west of town, but is 2WD accessible.
9. Admire the beauty of the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park and Dog Fence
One of the most incredible sights around Coober Pedy is the stunning Kanku-Breakaways. This otherworldly desert landscape is at its best at either sunrise or sunset and is definitely a must-do while in town. The conservation park is 32km north of Coober Pedy off the Stuart Highway and is where many of the films were set while filming in the area. Consisting of colourful hills that have been brokwn away from the Stuart Range, it can be viewed from various viewpoints and on a dirt road circuit that takes you through the park and past the famous Dog Fence.
The Dog Fence or Dingo Fence stretches for over 5300km across three states and was built to protect the sheep grazing south from dingoes and other pests. It runs right through the Kanku Breakaways, so it’s one of the best places for people to see this incredible man-made feat.
The circuit drive is around 70km with around 25km or so on dirt road and the rest now sealed. It’s all 2WD accessible, although a bit corrugated in sections. Most people head out along the Stuart Highway and enter the park on the right, before coming back out on Kempe Road into Coober Pedy.
However, if you want to visit at sunset, I would recommend doing the loop drive in reverse. Start by driving out Kempe Road and turn off on your left down the dirt road heading to the Breakaways. This part runs along the Dog Fence with a couple of stops along the way to see it. Then you will come to Salt and Pepper, an interesting land formation with a great viewpoint that’s worth a stop. From there, you can continue driving around and up to the main viewing area in time for sunset. The best view in my opinion is further around at a spot called Angkata. It’s definitely popular so you’ll want to allow some time to find a good park to enjoy the setting sun. From here, it’s only 10km out to the Stuart Highway to get back to Coober Pedy.
Important! You must get a permit for visiting the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park from the Tourist Information Centre. It costs $10 per vehicle.
10. Try noodling at Tom’s Working Opal Mine
If you want to visit a working opal mine, then Tom’s is probably your best bet. Just outside of town on the Stuart Highway, you can’t miss this mine. They offer guided and self guided mine tours and you can even try noodling yourself. “Noodling” is the term used for fossicking for opals through discarded heaps missed by miners. You can often find noodling pits in town, but heading out to Tom’s Working Opal Mine is great fun for the whole family.
Be careful! There are around 1.5 million mine shafts around Coober Pedy with some reaching up to 30m deep. It’s illegal to wander onto a claimed mine without permission and it can be dangerous to walk amongst the mines without any knowledge of the area. If you want to view the mines it’s best done safely from the Stuart Highway or by visiting somewhere like Tom’s Working Opal Mine.
Where to stay in Coober Pedy
One of the most famous things about Coober Pedy are the underground homes. It’s estimated about half of the population live in somewhat underground or dugout homes around town. The obvious benefit of living under the earth is the more stable temperatures compared to what is experienced outside. The underground buildings are known to be cool in summer and warmer in winter enabling people to survive the extreme seasons.
If you want to experience life below ground, there are underground hotels which are one of the top experiences to have when staying in Coober Pedy. However, if you’re travelling around in a van or with a caravan, there are a few good caravan parks in town as well.
Comfort Inn Coober Pedy Experience || Considered one of the best underground hotels in Coober Pedy, Comfort Inn is located inside an old opal mine. There are double, twin and family rooms available, with a kitchenette and private bathroom for each room. It’s located just next to the Old Timer’s Mine behind the main street, so you can easily walk around town. Check prices here.
Big4 Stuart Range Outback Resort and Caravan Park || The first caravan park as you come into town off the Stuart Highway is the Big4. Known as one of the top caravan park chains in Australia, it has all the best amenities for those travelling with a van. They also offer luxurious cabins, with self-catering options. Check prices here.
Old Timer’s Mine Free Camp || If you’re a true budget traveller like me, then there is a great free camp available in Coober Pedy. Just next to the Old Timer’s Mine, you can find a dusty parking lot where the owners of the mine let you camp for free. There is no power or water, but they do have a toilet open 24/7 for campers. No showers though. I stayed here a few days and thought it was very convenient for exploring the town.
Where to eat in Coober Pedy
There are some great places to eat in Coober Pedy. From quirky cafes to big outback grill restaurants, you’ll find plenty of options. While I didn’t eat out a lot while in town, I can recommend the following:
Downunder Gallery & Cafe || This cute and quirky cafe is the best place for a coffee and breakfast or lunch. Just off the main street, the women running the show are very friendly and have a simple but delicious menu, with gluten free and vegetarian options. Inside the cafe, you’ll also find a great art gallery and souvenir shop with plenty of Aboriginal art and crafts. Next door is an underground bookshop, which is also worth checking out!
John’s Pizza Bar || One of the most famous places in Coober Pedy, John’s Pizza Bar is right on the main street and claims to have some of the best pizza in the country. They offer gluten free bases and vegan options. They also have pasta, burgers and salads, but the pizzas are the clear winner.
Where to next?
If you plan on exploring more of South Australia, heading south of Coober Pedy you’ll reach the spectacular Flinders Ranges. I’ve got plenty of blogs to help you explore this incredible part of Australia:
- A Complete Guide to the Ikara Flinders Ranges National Park
- Best Things to Do in Quorn and the Southern Flinders Ranges
- Exploring the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary
Otherwise, if you’re heading north to the Northern Territory, check out some of my blogs on Central Australia: