From the first day I saw a picture of the ornate underground church in Coober Pedy, South Australia, the town was on my bucket list. It took a few years to finally get there but with spaceships parked on the high street, eccentric underground houses to explore, a quirky graveyard and cute kangaroos – all surrounded by views of dusty red earth that go on for miles, it did not disappoint once I did arrive. Here’s why you should add Coober Pedy to your outback itinerary – and what to do in Coober Pedy when you get there.
Where is Coober Pedy?
I don’t normally do this bit in my pieces, I just crack on with fun stuff, but to understand why Coober Pedy is so cool, you also have to understand that it’s really blooming hot! And a bit desolate. And that’s a lot to do with where it is.
Coober Pedy is an opal mining town located towards the middle of Australia – it is pretty much directly between Alice Springs (687km away) and Adelaide (850km away). The nearest neighbouring town is Glendambo – 250km away; in other words, Coober Pedy is in the middle of blooming nowhere, which makes it a good place for the more eccentric of this world to set up home, there’ s not many people about to care what you are doing.
Its location in the middle of Australia and the presence of all the red earth and sand in my pictures may also give you a good clue that Coober Pedy gets hot. In summer temperatures average at 36C but can soar far higher.
That can make living there a bit uncomfortable and so, much of the town, including hotels, shops, bars and churches have been dug into the cliffs making them, effectively underground. How can you not love this? But, the underground aspect of Coober Pedy is only part of what makes it brilliant and perfect for lovers of unusual sights and quirky destinations. So let’s go exploring…
My List of the Top Things to do in Coober Pedy.
Visit The Home of Crocodile Harry
As I said, Coober Pedy is a good place to head if you’re an eccentric type – and Crocodile Harry definitely fitted the bill.
The Latvian ex-crocodile hunter moved to Coober Pedy to search for opals and while he was here managed to create quite the unique place to live – and it’s now turned into one of the top Coober Pedy attractions.
His home, dug out into a large cliff face, just outside of town is a real passion project with treasures he collected (or, depending on your perspective, a heap of junk) balanced on every conceivable surface and stuck to the walls and ceiling. The tat has been joined by drawings, graffiti- and a lot of statues of ladies with huge boobs.
The house is located at the end of Seventeen Mile Road and really does need to be seen, you can spend over an hour in there spotting tiny details. It is a dirt road some of the way there so drive carefully.
Meet Bella, the Clever Kangaroo
Josephine’s Gallery on Hutchinson’s Road is an art gallery selling work by indigenous artists including many who live nearby in and around Coober Pedy; but, it’s also home to a small sanctuary for rescued kangaroos – including a very special one called Bella.
Bella had been living at the sanctuary for a while when she started acting weirdly, licking the same spot on Josephine’s arm over and over again. After a month of this odd behaviour, Josephine decided that maybe Bella might be trying to tell her something so she went to the doctor – and sure enough, the spots were cancerous and had to be removed.
Not surprisingly, Bella is now even more special to Josephine and her husband Terry – and when you visit you get to feed her her favourite treats – wasabi peas. That’s what she’s poking her nose out for in the pic above!
Exactly how many roos will be there when you visit varies, but if you’re lucky you’ll get up and close with a joey as we did. Look at that face!
You can only visit the roos during feeding time at 12 and 5.30.
Spot The Orange Flash
The Italian Club located high on the hill above town is a great place to grab an evening drink in Coober Pedy – and it’s also one of the best places from which to see the sunset.
However, don’t make your way into the bar for a top-up too soon after it dips behind the hill – the barman told us that some nights after it looks like sunset is over, the whole sky lights up with an amazing orange glow.
We weren’t lucky enough to see it on our trip, but we did see didn’t exactly suck!
Find the Spaceship House
On a piece of land next to the Miners Club, you’ll find the remnants of a really cool looking house. It reminded us of the UFO style Futuro Houses we visited in Taiwan, but this wasn’t made of plastic – nor was it on legs.
It turns out it was built by some guys living in the town who hoped it would be a really cool bachelor pad, but they ran out of money before they could finish it. Apparently, it also goes underground.
It was for sale when we were there. If you’re interested, have a word with the barman at the Miner’s Club!
Talking of Spaceships
There’s one ‘crashed’ in Hutchinson Street.
Because of its other-worldly appearance, Coober Pedy appears as a backdrop in a lot of movies including Max Max III (which features Crocodile Harry’s house) and Pitch Black – and the team on this movie left their spaceship in the town high street after filming.
It’s just one of the odd things the various opal shops and attractions have dotted around their gardens in an attempt to attract the attention of shoppers – also keep an eye out for Opal Bug here.
Go the Cemetery
I like cemeteries and graveyards – partly because I like to be scared by ghost stories but also because I find the designs of gravestones oddly fascinating – and there are some doozies in Boothill Cemetery in Coober Pedy.
To read the stories of some of the most interesting (like the beer keg above), check out this post on the Quirky Gravestones of Boothill – or just go and see what you can spot.
There are a lot of different nationalities in Coober Pedy and a lot of different churches catering to their various religions – many of which are dug underground.
Most ornate is the Serbian Orthodox Church on Potch Gulley Road (above). This was the church I saw in that picture way back when and it’s just stunning.
But also check out the Catacomb Church and the Catholic Church. They aren’t quite as jaw-dropping but they’re still beautiful.
Look Out for the Priscilla Bus
We met the owners of this bright pink bus at the Italian Miners club and they invited us to go check it out the next day at their home near the Serbian Church.
Some scenes in Priscilla Queen of the Desert were filmed in Coober Pedy – although admittedly, the town doesn’t come off well as it’s where flamboyant young drag queen Felicia gets beaten up!
This bus was used for some interior scenes and the owners are restoring it to look exactly like the bus in the film. Including saving up a for a bigger, more show-stopping shoe on the top.
Its official role is as a mobile opal shop and so you might find it parked at the top end of town during the day- especially on a Friday when The Ghan train brings more tourists to town (see below).
If not, keep your eye out as you head to the church and you might glimpse it parked up at home (if you do, don’t forget it’s on private property, so don’t go exploring, just admire for a distance).
Go See a Drive-in Movie
If you’re wondering what to do in Coober Pedy at night – and you’re in town on a Saturday – the answer might be head to the drive-in on Hutchinson Street.
It’s infamous for it’s ‘no explosives allowed’ sign which sounds amusing until you realise that one of the ways the opal miners open up holes to search for new seams of opals is to blast big holes in the earth – and they have to get those explosives from A-B somehow!
You can check out what movie is showing here and if you don’t have a car, don’t worry they let you walk in too.
They close during very hot summer months so if you’re travelling between mid-Dec and February you might be unlucky, but check the site for details.
Eat a Coat of Arms Pizza at Johns
If you’re wondering what to do in Coober Pedy at night, there’s actually quite a few choices of entertainment and dining – but, top of our list was John’s Pizza.
It’s a simple pizza and pasta joint with indoor and outdoor seating but it’s most famous for it’s Coat of Arms pizza which contains kangaroo and emu – the two animals on the Australian coat of arms.
Admittedly after meeting Bella, I couldn’t quite indulge so mine was bacon, olives and peppers!
John’s is open seven days a week form 10 to ‘late’ – although late can mean closed by 10 pm when the town is quiet so do check if you’re planning on a few drinks before you eat.
We also went to the Outback Bar and Grill which you might not think would be a good choice as it’s basically a restaurant in the gas station – but, it’s incredibly popular with the locals, has huge portions – and the lasagna was pretty good.
Drink in an Underground Bar
As we said if you want to sip your beer with a view, go to the Italian Miner’s Club but, if you want completely the opposite experience visit the underground bar at the Desert Cave Hotel.
We were there about 8 pm on a Saturday night and it was fairly quiet, but apparently it does get really busy – and the ‘drinking underground’ thing doesn’t get old.
Sleep in an Underground Hotel
Being able to sleep underground was one of my other must-dos in Coober Pedy – and we choose the Desert Cave Hotel as our sleep spot.
The Boyfriend was in his element- the walls are thick so you don’t hear other people, it’s pitch black in there at night (I had to use my phone light to find the loo) and it doesn’t need airconditioning.
We picked the Desert Cave as it had a bar on-site, was walking distance to John’s Pizza and The Miner’s Club and had a small pool to cool off in, but there’s a heap of other underground hotels in Coober Pedy to choose from – check out our full review of the Desert Cave and a list of other underground hotel suggestions here.
Or, if you like the sound of the Desert Dave already check out prices and availability click here.
Check out the Golf Course
It’s definitely one of the world’s most unique!
Pretty much covered in sand, you’re given your own patch of turf to carry around and tee off from!
Keep your eyes peeled when you lay it down though as some players have found opal while hitting a round or two.
If you do want to play check their website for where to book (green fees are $10 and you can hire clubs) and also details of their Friday and Sunday events.
Visit the Amazing Breakaways
You’ll find these stunning rock formations about a 30-minute drive out of town.
They are basically what’s left of an inland sea that used to cover much of the middle of Australia and the colours left in the sediment combined with the sheer scale of the place takes your breath away.
If you don’t have a car, you can easily book tours of the Breakaways in town or if you’d prefer to book in advance this four-hour tour takes you to the Breakaways, the Dog Fence, an opal mine and the Serbian Church – then finishes off with a free drink at the bar in the Desert Cave. The benefit of taking a tour is that you’ll also learn more about the different formations you see and their significance to the local people.
Watch out for this rock if you like the film Pitch Black, it appears in quite a few scenes.
I would, however, avoid going there on a Friday if you can. This is when the Ghan train stops in Coober Pedy and there are far more people around than normal – we actually came back to Coober Pedy on The Ghan a few weeks after our first trip and saw how different the town was when the passengers are in town – on the positive side more things are open, but on the downside you might find sights that might normally be deserted have a lot of people around. The Ghan tours don’t spend too long in one place though so if you do arrive and ifnd a coachload of people, just hang back a bit.
See The Dog Fence
Okay, so it’s probably not going to win you hundreds of Instagram followers for its appearance, but this fence that stretches along the states of Queensland and South Australia is the longest fence in the world spanning over 5000km, so it gets top points for quirk factor.
It was built in the 1800s to try and keep dingos from entering South-east Australia and as well as the fence you can see above ground, it’s also buried 30cm underground so the dogs can’t dig their way under.
It’s not perfect, the odd dingo does still get through but generally, it’s pretty effective at its job and definitely one of the more unusual things to see in Coober Pedy.
Visit an Underground House
Around 70 percent of the population of Coober Pedy live underground in houses that can stretch hundreds of metres into the cliffs.
There used to be a few different underground homes you could visit in Coober Pedy, but when we were there most seemed to be closed – however, we did get taken into a dugout as part of the Uumona Opal Mine Tour on Hutchinson Street.
This starts with a short talk about opals (and how to spot a good one should you want to go shopping while you’re on town) and then shows you the cool residence of an old miner on the property.
If you’re more interested in finding out about the practicalities of opal mining, you can also visit a working mine at Tom’s Working Mine Tours.
Noodling is the word used for searching through the piles of earth left behind by past opal miners to look for any pieces of opal they might have missed.
Despite going to Coober Pedy twice, this is the one thing I haven’t actually managed to do, but you can get a map of available noodling sights from the tourist information office.
How Long Should You Spend in Coober Pedy?
We spent two nights in Coober Pedy, arriving Friday afternoon and departing on Sunday. That was enough to get everything on this list done. You can stay in Coober Pedy without a car (if you’ve managed to get there by some other means of transport) and see most of the sights around Hutchinson Street itself, but to see all the cool stuff the town offers, including the Serbian Church and Boothill Cemetery you’re probably best having some kind of transportation.
Even just getting around town is easier with transport, we saw a few poor souls trying to walking around the sights when we were there in March and they looked HOT. I couldn’t imagine trying to do it in summer.
So, there you have it – my list of the most fun and unusual things to do in Coober Pedy. If you liked it, why not share it on social media so other folks can discover what to do in Coober Pedy on their trip too.