The operative word, when it comes to the Australian outpost of Coober Pedy is “interesting.”
“Coober Pedy is interesting,” said the publicist who arranged my trip there in 2013, with audible italics. “Interesting,” people I met in Adelaide would exclaim cautiously when I told them my itinerary. That ominous euphemism even makes it into Lonely Planet’s tepid directory: “With swarms of flies, no trees, 50 degree summer days, subzero winter nights, cave-dwelling locals and rusty car wrecks in front yards, you might think you’ve arrived in a wasteland. But it sure is interesting.”
The Australian I met at a party in New York a week before I left was more direct: “Coober Pedy is weird,” she said, before recounting that when she visited as a teenager, the bus driver admonished her upon embarking, “Don’t get raped.”
Of all the unlikely tourist destinations on the planet, Coober Pedy, Australia has to be one of the least likely. If Americans had heard of Coober Pedy, it was likely from 1994 year cult movie classic Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and if you’ve seen that you’ll know that it’s also not the best advertisement for a visit. It’s so tiny, so far-flung even by Australian standards that it’s hard to imagine its appearance on too many bucket lists. And, yet, it is a tourist destination, in a strange way, or it’s intended enough to be that a few years ago, I traveled there on a trip sponsored by the state government, so that I could write about why people might want to visit.
It’s possible that 26 hours of flying and a 14-hour time change had something to do with my initial impressions of Australia, a place that seemed somehow more foreign than I’d anticipated. My jetlag felt like a blood clot, and even the seemingly simple act of ordering an iced coffee in Adelaide, my stopover before heading out to Coober Pedy, proved absurd when I was handed a cup of cold coffee with a scoop of ice cream on top. I laughed at myself, in my awkward delirium, but also felt rattled to my core, understanding exactly how far away from home I was, how little I knew about the place I’d come, how extremely, very alone I was here.
It was that lingering sense of disorientation and a bit of loneliness that I caught an early flight on a small regional airline, one of only two departures each week. If you look at a map, Coober Pedy is just south of right smack in the middle of Australia. It doesn’t get much more outback. And from the sky the vast, empty desert out there looks like another planet: Mars, appropriately, as this is the location for many films set on the Red Planet. But approaching Coober Pedy, you can see how the earth is pockmarked with white hills that surround small black holes, like anthills. Unlike any alien planet we know, this landscape is inhabited. And clearly there are things to get at underground.
Life in Coober Pedy happens as much below ground as above it. This is why I’m booked at one of the town’s best-known efforts at tourist attraction: an underground hotel. I think when I first heard it described—the locals here live in homes carved deep into the sandstone, an ingenious bit of engineering that means despite the desert’s unforgiving temperatures, they don’t need climate control—I pictured something a bit glamorous, if perhaps faded at the edges. I imagined descending deep into a pleasantly cool cavern, with an outdated but well-maintained water feature or two, perhaps in an overly opulent glass elevator like the Marriott Marquis. (Clearly, I’ve been in New York too long.)
It’s upon landing that I realize this is not going to be that. The tiny jet unloads its sparse passengers directly onto the tarmac and into a one-room airport. I’ve been told there will be a hotel shuttle but there’s not. One by one everyone else from the flight finds their rides and leaves. The airport staff is also the flight crew, and they’ve already re-boarded the plane and taxied away. There’s just one other guy lingering, and a baggage handler, loading a dolly with cargo. We are literally the only three people in this airport.
The guy introduces himself. His name is Andrew and he’s headed to the same hotel as I am, the one I’m now sure isn’t going to have elevators at all. He works for the South Australian government on unemployment policy and comes here, where unemployment and poverty rates are high, to conduct studies. I tell him I’m a writer from New York, here to write stories that will inspire people to visit. “Coober Pedy is very interesting,” Andrew says. Finally, the baggage handler finishes his work and comes over to collect us: it turns out he’s also the hotel shuttle driver.
Driving into town, true to Lonely Planet’s prediction, I feel very much as if I’m arriving in a wasteland, or at least a fairly barren military outpost. The hotel is on what amounts to the main strip, a collection of low buildings, some of which are half-dug into mounds of ruddy earth.
When I check in I say goodbye to Andrew and head for my “deluxe” room, which means underground, and that’s about it. It’s simple and clean enough and the decor has not been touched since the ‘80s, or earlier. The walls show the scars of the machinery that carved the room out of the sandstone. The air is pleasantly cool and assured to be fresh—it’s ventilated with a visible pipe—but immediately I’m having trouble breathing.
Outside, the desert sun is beating down, the parking lot is dusty. Across it there is a fairly bleak looking café. I need coffee and a computer, connection of some kind. There’s a man curled up on the ground in a patch of shade, talking to himself, looking at me. I’m ignoring him with heightened attentiveness when I’m startled to hear my name from above. There is Andrew, leaning over a railing. I note that the rooms on the second floor have not just windows, but doors that open to the outside. He waves, I wave, remembering that I haven’t, after all, arrived alone.
Another reason why Coober Pedy is interesting is that it’s built around a mining industry that’s pretty idiosyncratic. According to an oft-recited local legend, a century ago a teenager stumbled on an opal deposit and people started coming here to dig for it, seeking fortunes in the wasteland. Those endless anthills are opal mines—reportedly, there are as many as a million of them. It’s these that, shepherded by a Yugoslavian tour guide with a thick accent—also a part-time miner—I’m spending the afternoon exploring.
Opal, of course, is that iridescent gemstone that, at least in my mind, is filed among Rainbow Brite, certain legwarmers, mood rings, and other colorful hallmarks of the 1980s. Opals, in other words, aren’t exactly diamonds. There are a fabled few miners who’ve made millions out here. But for the most part, my tour guide tells me, mining for it is a modest enterprise: With a small investment in the right equipment and an inexpensive permit, anyone can dig a hole in the ground and start picking away at the sandstone by hand, looking for pearlescent layers in the rock where millions of years ago water mixed with silica. Mostly, miners are attracted to the prospect of working for themselves, setting their own hours, being their own bosses.
Of course, the mere possibility of striking it even just a little bit rich doesn’t hurt. Compared to big industrial mining industries, opal is wrought in a way that’s a little more carefree and cunning: some people dream of where to start to dig, my guide says, others literally toss a hat to the wind and go dig where it lands. The appeal was enough to bring prospectors here in droves in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and still sustain hundreds of active mines. Prospecting is even part of the draw for tourists, who are invited to pick through piles of chaff discarded from the mines on the chance that anything potentially precious has been overlooked by the professionals.
For those that would prefer to simply go opal shopping, there are shops in town peddling jewelry. There’s a pretty extensive museum that pays tribute to every possible aspect of the stone, and to the history of the town it built. So clearly Coober Pedy is a mecca for opal aficionados. But there are other draws that lure visitors here. Not too far out in the desert there’s a rockscape called the Breakaways, not quite as iconic as Uluru but vast and strange and stunning. (There’s also an easily accessible stretch of Australia’s famous “dingo fence”—an unassuming looking wire divide that becomes very assuming when you consider that it’s 3,500 miles long and keeps all the dingos on the continent on one side so that smaller livestock can be farmed on the other.)
And from here you can get to the Oodnadatta Track, a long unpaved hardcore-desert route that connects a smattering of other small outback outposts, which lukewarm Lonely Planet ranks as #24 on its top 25 sites in Australia.
When I return to my room at the end of the day I’m still dusted with the desert and can’t escape the feeling of suffocation below ground. So I go to the front desk and request to switch to one of those rooms upstairs, with windows and doors that open to the outside. There’s a young man working at the desk and at first he can’t quite figure out why I’m asking for what’s considered a downgrade. “Your room is the deluxe!” He says. “I know, but … I’m claustrophobic,” I say. “I really just want a window.” He laughs as he types up the switch. It takes a long time. We make small talk meanwhile. He’s from Sri Lanka, where he worked in finance. He came to Australia for the promise of a job in Adelaide, but it fell through. He wound up here, 600 miles out in the desert, working at the front desk of an underground hotel.
“I don’t really understand why people come here,” he finally says, looking around to make sure we’re alone, in a tone not much more than a whisper.
He’s reluctant to hand my key over. Not in a shady way. He just wants to keep chatting. I’m reluctant to take it. We talk a long while after I do.
My new room is smaller, stuffy with stale smoke and a little more ragged around the edges. But it has a sliding glass door that opens onto a dank little concrete balcony inhabited by skittering skinks and overlooking the main drag’s gas station. I drink a mini bottle of white wine from the mini bar and open a can of Australian Pringles, which are reassuringly Pringle-y, and I leave the door open even when I go to sleep, willing to chance lizard invasion in exchange for the desert air.
To call a desert a wasteland is to misunderstand it entirely. A desert isn’t a dearth of life or points of interest, it’s rife with interesting (and even, yes, weird) plants and animals, if you know how to look. Even if there’s nothing obviously alive in plain sight for miles, the ancientness and expansiveness of all that sand and stone and nothingness can’t not remind you that the planet itself has a lifespan, and all of human civilization is a microsecond of it.
I’ve started to think that the same is true for this strange little town, with its rough edges and faded tributes to its luminous rocks, and that this is the real draw of visiting a place like this: the chance to unearth something small but precious in spite of the odds. For me, it was an unlikely bit of human connection just when I needed it most; a certain valuable emotional state only attainable in circumstances that are a bit uncomfortable, a set of stories I’m still telling years later. All of this is not the obvious stuff of everyday junkets, to be sure; what I got out of visiting Coober Pedy was somewhat harder to put a finger on. Maybe this is why there seems so little to say besides the vague accolade that it’s “interesting.”
It could be that the ultimate travel incentive exists in Coober Pedy: You have to be here to get it.
In the middle of the night I wake up with a feeling that there is something in the room with me. I’m alert in an instant, on edge, before realizing that it’s just that a howling wind has picked up and it is funneling through the open door, flapping the faded drapery, filling the room with dust. I’m still reluctant to shut the door. Instead, I step out on the balcony. A desert wind is something else entirely strange and fascinating: that all that air can travel unfettered, carrying ancient dust and crazy-making positive ions, on nothing but its own invisible momentum. Who knows why it ended up exactly here, or from how far it came?