Coober Pedy and The Breakaways Country

Coober Pedy from the air: Coober Pedy from the air

My favourite photos from the Coober Pedy area can be found in the Outback Australia Collection.

Sunrise from Coober Pedy: Sunrise from Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy, in central South Australia, is famous in Australia for being the home of Opal mining, and for the searing summer temperatures that have resulted in a large percentage of the population living in underground homes. During a short visit this year, I discovered that this quirky and remote outback town is nearby some beautiful, and remarkably relatively unknown, natural landscapes.

The interior of the Lookout Cave Motel: The interior of the Lookout Cave Motel
My journey to Coober Pedy started at the main Adelaide bus station, where I boarded a Greyhound coach for a long overnight 11 hour drive. After draining my laptop and phone batteries, I tried to get some sleep by lying down across two seats – given how narrow bus seats are, this was pretty uncomfortable. Finally, the bus arrived at 5am, but being a small country town, nothing was open, so I had a further three hours of sitting outside waiting for my hotel’s reception to open for the day. Forgetting to pack a book didn’t help time pass, though I did see a nice sunrise.

True to the nature of the town, most hotels are underground. I stayed at the Lookout Cave Motel, built into the side of one of the larger hills in the town. The hotel itself was pleasant, and the underground rooms meant the temperature stayed warm over the cold winter night.

Outside the town – Breakways Country

The featureless Moon Plain: The featureless Moon Plain
The main reason for my trip to Coober Pedy was to see the Breakaways country around Coober Pedy, where, in a few small places, steep hills of white, orange, yellow and red rock protrude from an otherwise flat, featureless desert landscape. They are the remnants of an ancient sea floor that covered much of inland Australia millions of years ago.

The Dingo Fence stretching over the Moon Plain: The Dingo Fence stretching over the Moon Plain
A journey to two of these places, The Breakaways and the Painted Desert, involves traversing the Moon Plain – a perfectly flat, lifeless expanse of rocky plain as far as the eye can see. This expanse of nothingness is interesting for being nothing much enough to have been used to depict nothingness in several films that were not nothing, including Mad Max and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

The Moon Plains are bisected by a part of the Dingo Fence, a 5,600km fence running from Queensland To South Australia. Described as the world’s longest fence, it was built to keep Dingoes separated from the sheep stations in Southeastern Australia.

The Breakaways

Salt and Pepper: The Salt and Pepper rock formation in the Breakaways near Coober PedySalt and Pepper
Of the three main scenic sights, the Breakaways are the closest to the town, at around a 30 minute drive along a good quality dirt road across a small section of the Moon Plain. For those without cars, many hotels offer tours, both during the day and at sunset. Sunset or sunrise are the best times to go as the hills glow in the late afternoon or morning sun.

One of the most prominent features of the Breakaways is the locally named Salt and Pepper formation; striking for the contrast between a starkly white hill and an adjoining orange hill. After this, I went up to the main lookouts to view a spectacular sunset over the entire reserve.

Sunset Mesas: The spectacular arid landscape at the BreakawaysSunset Mesas
The Breakaways: The colourful rock formations of the Breakaways near Coober PedyThe Breakaways
Stand Out: The Salt and Pepper rock formation in the Breakaways near Coober PedyStand Out

The Painted Desert

Road restrictions sign heading towards the Painted Desert: Road restrictions sign heading towards the Painted Desert
The Painted Desert is located on Arckaringa Station, around 200kms north of Coober Pedy. The rough, and at times bumpy dirt road to the Painted Desert is very remote and desolate. As such, without a 4WD and proper equipment, joining a tour from Coober Pedy is the best way to see the area. I went on a day tour offered by the Desert Cave hotel, and our guide was great.

The dusty road the Painted Desert traverses some of the most featureless and barren landscape I have ever seen, only broken by occasional winding lines of greenery that surround dry river beds. After making a few photo stops entering the Painted Desert area, we headed to the Mt Batterbee lookout for an amazing view over the plains and multi-coloured hills. After a picnic lunch, we headed climbed one of the mesas for another brilliant view.

Desolation: The flat, empty landscape of the Moon PlainsDesolation
A Painted Landscape: Across the Arckaringa Floodplain from Mount Batterbee LookoutA Painted Landscape
Yellow Mesas: Mount Arkaringa in the isolated Painted DesertYellow Mesas
A dry riverbed in the desert: A dry riverbed in the desert
An old car on the way to the Painted Desert: An old car on the way to the Painted Desert
Wild horses in Arckaringa Station: Wild horses in Arckaringa Station

The Painted Hills

Scenic plane for Painted Hills flight: Scenic plane for Painted Hills flight
Only recently discovered on the vast Anna Creek station (which at 6 million acres, is the largest cattle station in the world and is larger than Israel), the exact location of the Painted Hills remains a secret in order to preserve the delicate landscape. The only way to view them is to take a scenic flight from one of the nearby towns, such as Coober Pedy or William Creek. I went on a scenic flight from Coober Pedy to see the hills. After passing over barren, brown/red landscape, suddenly mounds of white, orange and yellow sandstone appeared almost out of nowhere.
The Painted Hills: Sandstone monoliths in the Anna Creek Painted HillsThe Painted Hills
Anna Creek Painted Hills: Anna Creek Painted Hills
Controls of a light plane: Controls of a light plane

Inside the Town

Interesting no stopping sign in Coober Pedy: Interesting no stopping sign in Coober Pedy
While for me the scenic sights around the town were the main reason for visiting, there is enough to do in Coober Pedy itself to occupy a day. The main attractions are the numerous opal mines, which, due to laws prohibiting large companies from mining, are generally owned by locally families. Some of the larger mines have small tours, such as Tom’s Working Opal Mine, where they take you underground and show you how opal mining works, and what seams of opalised rock looks like compared to the surrounding sandstone. One of the more interesting facts was learning how people decide where to dig for opals – if you loosely hold long metal poles in each hand together, they will twist away from each other as you walk over an opal seam.

Other places to see in the town in the various underground churches, the many opal shops along the main street, a kangaroo orphanage that cares for some very cute baby kangaroos, and some quirky pieces of film paraphernalia dotted around the town. Additionally, being located in a very sparsely populated area of Australia, it is worth driving a few minutes away from the town and enjoying the star filled sky.

Not wanting to have another 11 hour bus ride, I decided to end my enjoyable journey into the South Australian Outback by catching the Rex flight back to Adelaide.

Opal mines from the air: Opal mines from the air
Desert scenery around Coober Pedy: Desert scenery around Coober Pedy
Baby kangaroo orphan: Baby kangaroo orphan
Danger sign seen around Coober Pedy: Danger sign seen around Coober Pedy
Dust extractor for opal mines: Dust extractor for opal mines
Inside an opal mine: Inside an opal mine
Rex plane at Coober Pedy Airport: Rex plane at Coober Pedy Airport
Serbian Orthodox Church: Serbian Orthodox Church
Under the Milky Way: Viewed from near Coober Pedy in the South Australian OutbackUnder the Milky Way