From blockbusters to opal hunters, the South Australian outback has no shortage of quirky characters and other-worldly landscapes.
No Australian bucket list is truly complete without experiencing the majesty of the outback. The ‘outback’ refers to the desert regions of central Australia – the vast and seemingly endless red dirt plains, mammoth rock formations and a cultural and geological history that dates back to when time itself began. With vivid hues and desolate Martian landscapes, it’s no surprise that the outback has inspired great works of art for thousands of years. From Aboriginal art to famous poems and even Hollywood (think blockbusters Mad Max, Mortal Kombat and Hugh Jackman’s Australia) all featuring a slice of the red centre – the outback holds a mysterious allure. But its vastness makes large swathes of central Australia inaccessible. One of the easiest gateways to experiencing the Australian outback is via South Australia and the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. Need a behind the scenes, or should we say, below the surface guide? Step on set and experience this other-worldly destination.
Coober Pedy might be the most bizarre town in Australia. But while it produces plenty of gems, Coober Pedy itself is not a hidden one - having cemented itself as a bucket list destination for travel in Australia. Despite only around 2,000 people calling ‘Coober’ home, millions might recognise the outback oasis thanks to its long list of film credits or because it is known as ‘the opal capital of the world’. Coober Pedy is dual named – also known as Umoona – and the traditional owners of this area are the Antakirinja Yunkunytjatjara peoples.
With a permanent population of just six people, William Creek might be South Australia’s smallest town. William Creek is the closest town to Lake Eyre and Anna Creek Painted Hills (with Wrights Air offering scenic flights from William Creek) and is on the traditional lands of the Arabana peoples.
If Paul Hogan stared in a wild west film, the set would look something like Oodnadatta. There is a famous dirt road track from Marree to Marla known as the ‘Oodnadatta Track’ that leads to this isolated desert town, that sits just 112 metres above sea level. Oodnadatta is the last refuge for adventurous travellers before they push on to the Simpson Desert, while others are drawn to the town thanks to its rich history and quirky Pink Roadhouse.
Where to stay
Mount Eba Station
Mount Eba Station is truly the heart (or if we are being anatomically correct, the sternum) of South Australia – as the geographical centre of the state. Recently opening their farm gates to adventurous travellers looking to make camp along the journey to Coober Pedy, Mount Eba is first and foremost a working station. Located a short detour off the Stuart Highway, a visit to this 3,370 square kilometre pastoral property is a great way to break up the drive from Adelaide to Coober Pedy. They offer camping, caravan spots and even air-conditioned rooms in their original homestead.
Writers tip: There is a lot of myth and legend around the iconic Australian ‘jackaroo’ or ‘jillaroo’ – so why not ride shotgun with one? Be sure to ask when booking your stay about their ‘station water runs’. These micro tours will see you join farm workers on the job as they head out for a water run – you can expect to see sheep, cattle, kangaroos, emus and more!
The further north you trek, the warmer it gets. But how do the locals escape the heat when living in the middle of the outback? Well, they dig deep. Coober Pedy doesn’t just dig for opals; they dig for shelter as well! The town largely exists underground in a series of structures known as ‘dugouts,’ as the consistent ambient temperature and earthen walls provide relief in the summer months, when the temperature is often sitting above 40 degrees Celsius. In fact, nearby Oodnadatta has Australia’s highest ever recorded temperature – 50.7C! The town is now renowned for its underground lifestyle - with shops and even churches popping up down below. You can experience it for yourself by booking your very own dugout – like Di’s Dugouts or the Dug-Out B&B – or checking into the Lookout Cave Underground Motel or Underground Motel.
Umoona Opal Mine and Museum
Another distinctly local experience is a stay at the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum. A precious stone that has captured the eye of princes and pirates, majority of the world’s opals come from Coober Pedy. Australia has around 95% of the world’s commercial opal supply, with the majority of that harvested from the 70 opal fields dotted around the outskirts of Coober Pedy. Book a stay in this underground bunkhouse style abode and you’ll get to peruse one of the largest opal jewellery displays in the world (they even have a professional jeweller onsite), before hopping on a tour with your hosts to check out their opal mine and the Aboriginal Interpretive Centre.
What to see
Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park
Standing before the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park, it’s easy to understand why Coober Pedy’s landscape is often compared with that of the moon. This majestic, almost celestial, scenery is so unique in its appearance that it looks straight from the set of Star Wars. Easily accessed from the nearby town of Coober Pedy, ‘the Breakaways’ covers 15,000 hectares and is a place of great cultural and spiritual significance for traditional owners. The Breakaways feature in stories passed down through thousands of years and is a place that traditional practices are undertaken. The park is open daily so that visitors can share in the natural magnificence of this arid geography – access is via the Stuart Highway or Kempe Road.
Anna Creek Painted Hills
If the outback is a canvas, then Mother Nature’s palette must be Anna Creek Painted Hills. Imagine soaring above a surface that looks splattered with radiant blobs of red, orange and yellow. This rocky outcrop is a jarring sight, thanks to the hundreds of rainbow hued mountains and mounds emerging from the endless desert flats. Only accessible via a scenic flight with Wrights Air, the Anna Creek Painted Hills are actually located within Anna Creek Station – one of Australia’s most famous working cattle properties, that spans an area almost the same size as Slovenia.
What to do
Hop on a guided tour
Benefit from the unrivaled knowledge of a local guide by hopping on a tour of the great South Australian outback. Jump on a quick day tour and tick-off multiple must-sees, or save yourself the admin and have your outback expedition planned out by the experts. Hop in a 4WD with Desert Sky Tours and get off the beaten path on your very own tailor made itinerary, that strings together your outback wish list. Or depart Adelaide with Just Cruisin 4WD Tours on a five-day adventure to Lake Eyre, William Creek and Coober Pedy. Alternatively, jet set straight into Coober Pedy and hop on a day-long tour with Noble Tours, that will tick off all your must-sees around this underground town or join the postie on an outback mail run.
Visit the only drive-in cinema in South Australia
A trip to the drive-in was once an Australian institution, but sadly the concept has slowly become another thing of the past. Everywhere, that is, except Coober Pedy. If you are visiting the town while on the road, then you must take a trip down memory lane and catch the latest flick at the last operating drive-in cinema in South Australia. Reverse the car up, pop the boot, set up your blankets and get cosy for a Saturday night movie date.
Journey further to the Flinders Ranges...
Explore more of the Explorers Way road trip route with a visit to Australia’s largest outback mountain range. Be awe-struck by the many natural wonders in the Flinders Ranges before planning your trip with our Flinders Ranges itinerary.