It is with fondness and nostalgia that I look back on the numerous road trips my family embarked on as I was growing up. Many an audiobook, many a bush walk, many a car snack and many an unusual campsite saw us through the hours of driving, none so unusual as our two-night pit stop in Coober Pedy.

Years ago now, this particular trip saw us traverse the Flinders Rangers, explore the Yorke Peninsula and even contemplate gunning it to Alice Springs. Our arrival in Coober Pedy was tainted by tempers torn by a long day’s drive and a lack of pre-booked accommodation. I remember the late afternoon sun spreading out across the bizarre moonscape that makes up this South Australian desert town proudly known as the Opal capital of the world.

Coober Pedy's biggest landmark: Truck sign

Coober Pedy’s biggest landmark. Photo: Sophie Cullen

And moonscape it was – from the outskirts of town, you could sometimes see across the gravelly, open expanse, past the small hills and mining rigs here and there, all the way to the horizon. We drove in circles for a while before settling on a joint campground and motel. About fourteen at the time, I was ecstatic at the prospect of venturing beneath this surreal, post-apocalyptic desert to the invisible network of caves below the surface.
Cooober Pedy after sundown

As the sun goes down… Photo: Sophie Cullen

In Coober Pedy, there are numerous options for experiencing the mines up close and personal by taking tours or even staying underground in caves and tunnels. We stayed in a room cut out of the rock – I remember it being cool, dark and having to sleep on the top bunk when I wanted the bottom. The other family we travelled with pitched their tent underground in a perfect tent-sized nook, which felt strange after a week or two of camping underneath a vast and starry sky. The camp kitchen, picnic tables, toilets and showers were all safely above ground – the ‘Thunderdome Dunny’ was a favourite with my brothers and the young boys of the other family.
Bunk beds in underground hotel room

‘Bunker’ beds – get it? Photo: Sophie Cullen

Perhaps I have put too much emphasis on how bizarre Coober Pedy felt to me. The landscape was undeniably unique – but we were made to feel at home by locals and fellow travelers alike, all of whom went out of their way to recommend some good spots to visit. From a lookout, we were able to see 360˚ views of the remarkable Breakaways, part of a conservation park just north of Coober Pedy. A marvel to any budding geologist, the Breakaways are a mix of plateaus, odd-shaped mesas and rocky gibber desert, all in earthy reds, browns and oranges.
Landscape shot of the desert

The kind of red dirt that turns white socks orange. Photo: Sophie Cullen

We also popped our heads into an opal shop and art gallery, which also, as it turned out, moonlighted as a kangaroo rescue home. We got to get up close to the little joeys, most them picked up from the side of the road and dropped off for some TLC.
Young boy pats joey wrapped in a blanket

He’s a little camera shy. Photo: Sophie Cullen

After a long yarn with the couple who ran the sanctuary, called Josephine’s Art Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage, we were treated to the wonderful hospitality and friendliness of Coober Pedy locals when they agreed to show us their very own opal mine. Out a side door and down some stairs, we were able to hear about the mine’s construction and history straight from the owners themselves, made all the more memorable by the fact it was a free, totally unexpected, private tour.

Two boys and their dad explore the caves underground at Coober Pedy

“Is it just me, or are the walls moving in closer and closer?” Photo: Sophie Cullen

Having had a good dose of unusual landscapes, encounters and accommodation myself, I am a huge advocate for family road trips. The clichés tend to turn out true – you never know what’s around the corner, you’ll bond over chats (and arguments!) in the car, and with any luck, you’ll be treated to weird and wacky camping experiences and tours in unique locations like Coober Pedy!
 

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