A dot appeared in the horizon and it was coming at us, slowly taking the shape of a vehicle. The car eventually drove past our van and its driver waved at us, which seemed to be a custom in the area. Meeting another human being on that road going through the desert was indeed a big event, so much so that every other driver from Darwin up to this spot in the middle of nowhere had waved at us in the same way. To be fair, there hadn’t been too many encounters either.
We had met a great number of people near the Uluru but we had been driving for hours since we’d left the infamous rock and it seemed very few people had followed suit. That’s why, as we saw a sign indicate that the city of Coober Pedy was near, it felt like a big event too.
A quick look at the landscape around us could have told us as much. The plain old outback, with its scarce bushes and lonely trees, was all but gone. Instead, the ground was nothing but craters and holes freshly dug by gigantic machines. Either we had landed on the moon; either we were in a post-apocalyptic world taken over by sentient machines.
Truth be told, we were only entering one of the most peculiar towns in Australia. There was nothing post-apocalyptic in this city of merely 2000 souls but we couldn’t help feel puzzled as we drove into its streets. Everything looked normal. People were having a friendly banter in front of the same old grocery stores we had seen everywhere else in Australia while other people were parking their trucks in front of the town’s church. Except, all this normality looked out of place.
The concrete roads and tiny houses making up Coober Pedy seemed like an extension of the outback, an oddity that made us wonder why people would come and settle into such a harsh and remote place. The answer was pretty straightforward. Everyone in this town had come to chase a dream. Coober Pedy was indeed the world’s largest opal mining area, drawing thousands of people in for over a century.
Although Aboriginal people had always lived in the area, the story of Coober Pedy as an established town had only begun in the early 20th century. Miners from all around the world had moved in from 1916 onwards and turned this bare spot, miles away from any big city, into a full-fledged, multicultural town. The harsh climate could have deterred them but they had put up with these rough living standards, most notably by building underground dwellings to escape the unforgiving summer heat.
We weren’t planning on sleeping in a cave overnight and decided to visit some of the town’s troglodyte churches instead. The first one on our way was the St Peter and St Paul Catholic Church, a small place of worship right in the middle of the town. It was totally empty when we pushed the door. We relished in the serene atmosphere of the church and in its coolness, giving us some respite from the heat.
Our next stop was the Serbian Orthodox Church, located in the outskirts of Coober Pedy, which meant a mere 5 minute-drive. Once again, the church was completely empty. Yet, it was a much bigger building in the inside. Stairs led to a level below the ground where walls had been carved directly into the rocks. On these walls, Orthodox icons had been painted. Just like every other church, it was calm and soothing, but this was definitely the most unusual church we had ever seen.
We skipped the Catacomb Anglican Church and drove towards the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum to learn more about the precious gem that had led so many people to Coober Pedy in the first place. Located on the main street, this original mine had been converted into an underground museum and was now one of the main attractions for tourists.
The visit began in the museum’s front yard, where a guide showed us the different machines used to dig up opal and the ways around them. He also pointed out to abandoned car wrecks, which were actual props for some of the movies that had picked Coober Pedy as their filming location. Not surprisingly, Mad Max 3 was one of these movies, along with The Chronicles of Riddick or even The Adventures of Priscilla - Queen of the Desert.
After the visit, we drove up to a place offering the best viewing platform on the whole town. Truly, every one of the movies that had filmed in the area couldn’t have found a better spot. Coober Pedy was uniquely appealing, in its own quirky way.
As sun was getting down, we decided to crash at a pizzeria in town and ordered a huge kangaroo pizza at the John’s Pizza Bar. The Australian outback postcard was complete, or so we thought before we left Coober Pedy the next day and hit the Stuart Highway towards Port Augusta.
A 6-hour drive was ahead of us, with very few stops along the way as the map didn’t show any interesting spot in the area. Halfway through, we and the map were proven wrong. The landscape started to change and the usual green and ochre colours were swapped with a pristine white that looked like snow.
This intriguing white area commanded us to pull the car over and we walked towards it, fighting the many flies that felt like home there. We crossed an ancient, abandoned railroad and as soon as we stepped on the ground past the railroad, it started squeaking underneath our shoes. The mystery was finally solved. We were on a salt lake.
We figured the lake used to be a mining site as there were traces of ancient wooden infrastructures on the surface. There had been a railway on that site too, along with wheels that were now entirely covered in salt crystals. Salt had claimed and fossilized everything. As far as eyes could see, there was nothing but a sea of pure, white salt, like an unexpected oasis in the middle of nothing. That was a mesmerizing sight.
If not for the flies, we’d have stayed for the rest of the day but they kept on flying to our faces so we got back to the car and hit the Stuart Highway once more. When we’d arrive in Port Augusta, the outback would be gone but we could consider ourselves lucky to have discovered its many faces. On that one road trip, we had seen how diverse and riveting the Australian outback could be, and there was still plenty for us to discover.