The Craziest Town on the Planet?

Arriving in Coober Pedy, in the South Australian outback, is like landing on another planet. Not just because the place has stood in for Mars in many a movie and almost outclassed Tina Turner in Mad Max III. Not just because of the crazy pits and slagheaps which dot the barren red landscape.

This place… Well, it’s all kinds of crazy, really. Not just the art. Though that’s pretty crazy.

On the fringes of the desert in the second most arid continent on earth, where the mercury can hit 50 in high summer, hundreds of miles from, well, anywhere you’d want to go and even plenty of places you wouldn’t, more than three thousand people choose to live, year-round. Mostly underground.
plastic models of young girls in 1970s dugout home, coober pedy, south australia

Coober Pedy is riddled with opal mines and dugout houses, furnished in styles that run from chintzy to billiards to, well, just plain unnerving.

It’s full of scrap metal, junk art, film props, Heath Robinson machines, and, well, scrap metal.
mining machinery against dead wood, coober pedy, south australia

It’s only the fans and chimneys protruding from the dusty red slagheaps which enables you to tell the homes from the mines. And the sights…

signs promising spectacular views, along with art based on the film pitch black

The people? Well, Coober Pedy’s population is surprisingly cosmopolitan. There’s a mix of 45 different ethnic backgrounds with tendencies running from hippie to evangelical to, well, bored farm boy racers who like to blow stuff up with dynamite. Y’know.

Or perhaps you don’t. The kind of guys who hang out back of the Italo-Australian Miners Club filming each other doing burnies on dirtbikes and chatting about the availability of nitrous. It’s actually the closest this planet comes, not to Mars, but to Star Wars’ Tatooine.

1970s living room in dugout home, Coober Pedy, Australia

People just, sort of land here. And get stuck. It starts with a little dynamiting for opal. Then, before you know it, you’re 30 feet down, excavating under your own shack, building little rooms in your warren, tunnelling away from the heat, while the bricks you built above you, when you were new here, fracture in a fashion that would give the average surveyor a heart attack.

Now, I’ve seen cave houses before. At Guadix in Spain, Santorini in Greece, the Dogon in Mali, Matatma in Tunisia. As an escape from desert heat, they make, well, a great deal of sense.

But these ones? They wind. Scraped out with mining machines, their walls textured rock, mining galleries transformed into corridors, kitchens, bathrooms… Dig out a little bit more, as the folk behind the Old Timers mine museum did, and you might well hit an abandoned mine.

This is what they dig with.
mining machine with sanding drills on it

It started, I guess, with a rush. The opal rush of 1915, because the rich, red sandstone here holds ancient shells and marine creatures opalised by ancient forces into strands of glittering jewels.

Guys started digging. They carried on. And, when the diggers came back from WWI, bruised by trench life but habilitated to underground, they dug in further.

It made more sense to live underground in dugouts, with a temperature constant at around 22C and decent ventilation than brave the flies, the midges and the dust up above. Someone brought his wife out. A post office began.

And, almost a century on, though the town now makes more money from tourists than opals, it’s still bloody here. There’s a college campus. An ambulance station. A wildlife hospital, rehabilitating baby roos orphaned by Aboriginal hunters. Some seriously shocking public art. Several bars. A handful of restaurants. And, six churches.

picture of the madonna in the underground catholic church, coober pedy, australia

Yes. Six churches. Most of them underground.

The one at our motel is called the Revival Fellowship. And it’s built, as these things tend to be, on a miracle. Debbie and Dean, who started the motel, asked God to send the guy who dug it out back from the Pacific to dig the church out. And, miraculously he cames.

It’s a strange old place, Coober Pedy. Populated by large men with big beards. Friendly families. The kinds of lone male that scared off Guy Pearce in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

And wandering Indigenous from the surrounding communities, decanting 5l wineboxes into mineral water bottles every Friday night and drinking them in the dubious shade of the acacias until the cops come round and move them on.

It’s my personal candidate, in fact, for the single craziest town on the planet: though Woomera comes close. What’s yours?

Thanks to Debbie at Delicious Baby for hosting Photo Friday.

38 Responses

  1. Saw the headline and I just knew you were talking about Coober Pedy! I’ve wanted to visit since it was featured on The Amazing Race.

    What a wacky place. Love your pics of the cave houses.

    • admin says:

      Why, thank you, sweet lady! It does not disappoint. Though, unless you’ve got a bucketload of cash, it gets old EVEN faster than Vegas.

  2. it looks SO freaky there. did you mind going underground, i think i’d be freaked out a bit. WOW!

    • admin says:

      I’m alright with underground, actually, provided it’s not pot-holing/spelunking type underground. And the motel has big, spacious living areas, so you almost forget you’re underground until you look at the walls…

  3. Sonja Key says:

    I can’t think of anywhere that comes close! Sounds very odd!

    • admin says:

      It is bizarre. We’re in Alice Springs right now, another crazy town, but very much looking forward to the weirdness of Woomera…

  4. Anna says:

    Wow, this place looks really interesting. I am slightly freaked by the weird dolls underground though!

  5. Nicole says:

    Yeah, I think that might be the craziest town on Earth. But so very interesting. I could do without the girl in the bed though. Creepy. Also, LOVE your new site design! Congratulations!!

    • admin says:

      Aw, thank you. The move to wordpress.org has cost blood, sweat and tears, plus several posts and a lot of comments, but I think it is working out… They are very creepy, aren’t they?

  6. Lubi says:

    It looks like something out of the horror film ‘The Hills Have Eyes’!!!!!

  7. That is pretty Mad Max looking. I totally would go there if the chicks dressed in 80’s clothing. 🙂

  8. Justin says:

    I’d seen this on Globe Trekker/Lonley Planet and I’ve always wanted to visit – I’ll definitely add it to my “to see” list this spring. The underground dolls are a bit creepy ya?

  9. Snap says:

    Nope! Can’t think of a more strange town…unique, isn’t it? 😉

  10. greg urbano says:

    definitely mad max sounding, find any opals?

    • admin says:

      No! We didn’t noodle through the mullocks, as one’s supposed to. But we did see an awful lot in situ.

  11. What a crazy place, seems like a cool experience to visit!

    • admin says:

      Yeah. It’s up there in my top Australian experiences, actually. Wowed me more than Uluru, over which I’d kind of take Sigiriya in Sri Lanka.

  12. Raymond says:

    I was SO thinking of the Cantina scene from Star Wars when I saw the first cave photo, then you go and mention Tatooine 🙂

  13. Crazy, but pretty cool to visit, I’d think. I’ve seen some weird scrap metal “art” displays, but these might win the weird award. Would like to see the cave houses, too. But I’d probably feel relieved getting out of that town.

    • Theodora says:

      If you’ve seen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it’s the place they have to leave in a hurry. We actually watched Priscilla there. Which was funny as Z asked my mum what the ping pong ball reference meant, my mum didn’t know so I had to explain to both of them.

  14. Phil says:

    Whoa. Kind of reminds of a few places in the states – middle of nowhere, draw in tourists who have been driving for miles with no entertainment – but this is much crazier. Not quite like the Dogon in Mali eh? 😉
    Take care,
    Phil

    • Theodora says:

      Talking to Americans who’ve spent time in small-town Oz, and Australians who’ve spent time in small-town America, there are a lot of similarities, in fact. I’ve only really spent sustained time in NYC. But Gold Coast Queensland = South California, Red Centre = Deep South. The scrap art thing, and big distances thing, is not something we have in the UK, which is tiny. On this road trip we did over 4000k in 8 days. A distance that’s unimaginably huge compared to what we have in the UK — it’s like a trans-Europe road trip.

  15. Marsha says:

    Ummm, no—I think this place definitely takes the cake for the craziest spot on the planet…great storytelling by the way.

  16. went there myself… and yes, its an odd little place.

  17. Yvonne says:

    wow, really cool and beautiful pictures. never heard about this town. seems like I really wanna go there…

  18. Victoria says:

    Really good write up of the place- gutted I didn’t make it there when I did a van tour of South Australia. It was just so far away from anything!!

  19. Wow! Amazing! I didn’t know there’s a place like that here. It’s like your living in Mars, the house is unique. I wanna go there.

    Sandy Allain

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