Lonely Planet Writer

Australian road trip: Adelaide to Coober Pedy

Want to see the real Australia? Then hop in a car, drive away from the city and head towards the horizon. Work experience student Kyle McLaughlin recommends a trip he took with his family, starting from the city of Adelaide and heading to Coober Pedy, the opal capital of Australia, if not the world.

Arid landscapes and hot springs are only a warm-up before the main event that is Coober Pedy. The drive from Adelaide is well worth it, as you encounter salt plains, sand dunes, the gibber plains and maybe even a stray camel crossing the Oodnadatta track.

It is best to start in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. Adelaide is a sophisticated, neat and relatively small city, which makes it easy to navigate. With great museums, art galleries and a fantastic central market, it is definitely worth having a look around before leaving for the desert. It has beautiful Botanic Gardens, on the city’s fringe, and for those who are sport inclined what is hailed as the 'prettiest cricket ground' in the world, although for many it may seem just like any other.

From Adelaide, the next stop is Port Augusta, a small sea port that is proud to call itself the crossroads of Australia. It is a pleasant and breezy city, with plenty of places to enjoy a picnic lunch, along with some pelicans eager for a feed, and a walk along the pier where you will find the locals casting off the jetty into the beautiful blue water, or some kids enjoying a refreshing swim. Then you can set off for Woomera, a mysterious town with a large area that is sealed off from the public for rocket testing.

Woomera is a small town attached to the site set up in 1949 for testing British rockets and nuclear programs; it offers a small park showing numerous examples of the rockets that have been tested, in varying degrees of damage. It is a good place to launch off towards Marree, and can be a very useful pit stop. The only other real attraction is the Woomera Heritage centre, which doubles up as the visitors centre. Woomera is a quiet place, unless you have a real attraction to gazing at old rockets. On the road to Marree you will pass the Dingo fence, otherwise known as the Dog fence, a fence built in the 1880s to keep out the dingoes from the southern states, and part of southern Queensland.

From Woomera the track goes off-road, and the desert really starts to show itself. The distance seems longer than it is, with the everlasting plains all around. Marree seems like an oasis, a place to refuel, and fill up some now empty drink bottles. Marree was once a hub of activity, with the local Afghan camel teams setting off from Marree and the Great Northern Railway passing through.

It is now a small and sleepy town. It was at the centre of a mystery that excited UFO enthusiasts, and puzzled others. In 1998, a large drawing was discovered just out of Marree, and was dubbed the Marree man. It was a large drawing of a man with a spear, and it is unsure when it was created, or by whom. It is now slowly fading away back into the landscape. Marree is also the beginning of the Birdsville track, which seems to stretch on forever, just like the red dirt and marvellous blue sky.

The next stop is William Creek, one of Australia’s smallest towns, and also one of the most isolated. With a population of 6, a small pub and Australia’s first public solar phone, it is a perfect place to stay the night before making the final drive to Coober Pedy. With very friendly owners, the William Creek Hotel has many memoirs from the visitors over the years, from notes to postcards, to t-shirts and even the occasional bra or pair of underpants. The area is known for dust storms that can come out of nowhere, and leave passing tourists stranded for days. The picture of an old desert town is complete with an old rusty bus sitting on the road to Coober Pedy.

The section of the road from William Creek to Coober Pedy is very rocky. It is best to travel in a 4WD, as normal cars are vulnerable to large rocks, and the bumpy road can take its toll. Having to wait for a tow-truck from William Creek can really alter one's travel plans, and make mockery of any type of planned schedule. It's a good idea to bring plenty of water and food, as well as a satellite phone, all of which can be helpful if you break down.

Coober Pedy’s landscape is constantly being altered, with piles of red soil from a renewed opal frenzy, gleaming in the distance. The barren landscape begins to open up, with dugouts, and the large unused open mines that dot the landscape kilometres before reaching Coober Pedy itself.

The sides of the road are littered with signs warning of the large open shafts, and the occasional abandoned car, now rusty. It is a typical local story, people running out of petrol on the way to or from Coober Pedy, with many choosing to abandon their car, and walk. This is the last thing to do, with too many stories of people not making it through the intense heat and shimmering light, and the fast approaching dusk. It is another stark reminder of the importance of bringing plenty of drinking water and food, wherever you go.

Coober Pedy has its own golf course, mostly used at night, and a giant winch, a popular attraction (and great photo opportunity). Not to mention the numerous opal stores, most with a section where you can look for your own opals. With some luck, you may find some small fragments of an opal, I did! It is a beautiful place in its simplicity, the long stretching desert all around, and it is no wonder why it is has attracted so many visitors, from all over the world.