The crossroads – the road from Port Augusta to Coober Pedy and beyond…

This blog records our adventure from a previous trip as we continued north from Port Augusta.

We travelled through some unique outback towns of South Australia and the Northern Territory as we followed the long straight Stuart Highway to Coober Pedy and beyond.

Port Augusta is often called ‘the crossroads of Australia’. 

It is where the desert meets the sea, and huge road trains roll off across the Nullabor to Western Australia, or head north up the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs and beyond.

From the crossroads at Port Augusta we headed north to Coober Pedy.

This section of highway took us through the Woomera Restricted Area that used to be a restricted Australian Defense Force facility for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), otherwise known as the Woomera Rocket Range.

Often we passed a dead camel or cow on the side of the road or the occasional burnt out or abandoned car.

We spotted a sole emu very close to the verge and several wedged tailed eagles fed on road kill as a few scrawny looking sheep wandered the fenceless plains.

Occasionally dry brush bushes stood tall on the barren land but mostly small shrubs clung to the stark red rocky ground. The scenery was constantly changing.

Every now and then we could see low ranges on the horizon and salt lakes surrounded us with various viewpoints of the white salt plains that stretched into the distance, including Lake Hart, Island Lagoon and Lake Gairdner.

Occasional clouds dotted the skyline as if a child had cut them out and pasted them onto a painted blue background and kilometre after kilometre of red soil stretched before us in every direction… an almost featureless landscape with little vegetation that was actually mesmerizingly beautiful.

Horses grazed amazingly close to the highway amongst the dust and spinifex as we continued on… a reminder to keep any eye out for wandering animals on the highway as many just loved to wander in front of cars and after several stops to swap driving we finally reached our next destination.

Our journey from Port Augusta to Coober Pedy was a long drive of 545-kilometres.

After the flat and desolate desert scrub, the outlying area surrounding Coober Pedy (pronounced peedy) was quite unlike anything we had ever seen.

There were no trees or grass – just piles of dirt as far as the eye could see.

We were surrounded by hundreds of mounds of earth jutting out of the desert, all varying in size from small to some as big as houses and all ranging in colour from deep ochre red to limestone white… barren, stark, white rubble and dust everywhere. 

These piles of dirt were the mounds from vertical shafts built by miners in search of gems.

Coober Pedy is situated in the vast Gibber Plains of Central Australia and at first glance seemed the strangest town we had ever seen.

This desolate place had a rustic charm and was very much an outback town with not a blade of grass in site and dust blowing everywhere.

We could make out a number of doors built into the hill side as we drove down the very quiet main street and we half expected some strange creatures to inhabit this town.

This settlement began and subsequently developed into this desert town following the discovery of opal in 1915.

After World War I returning soldiers started to drift into the settlement and introduced the unusual and unique method of living underground in ‘dugouts’ as many had done in the trenches of France.

This way of living has continued and people not only dig holes to extract the precious gemstones but also for their underground homes.

Today the population is approximately 3500 and is one of the most multicultural communities in Australia with an estimated 45 nationalities.

It is the largest opal mining area in the world with over 70 opal fields that are still in use today.

Probably the most unique town in Australia, the name of the town describes both the way many people make their living and how they live. It’s name comes from ‘kupa piti’, aboriginal language for ‘white man’s hole in the ground’.

The whole town was pretty geared up for tourism with a large number of the underground mines in the town now converted into a hotel with the world’s only Desert Cave underground bar and gaming room, art galleries, gift shops, facilities for tent camping and a museum depicting the early days in Coober Pedy and the hardships the pioneers of the community endured to bring the town into existence.

Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest was well worth the visit. Crocodile Harry, who passed away in 2006, was one of Coober Pedy’s most notorious characters who lived in one of the most bizarre dugouts. His home was made famous from the underground scenes of ‘Mad Max – Beyond the Thunderdome’.

If that wasn’t enough we then witnessed the strength of character Coober Pedy was built on. ‘Faye’s Underground Home’ or dugout as the locals call it, was excavated 30- years ago by 3 women in the original method using picks and shovels and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. The finished product having all the mod cons of modern day living.

Approximately 33-kilometres north of Coober Pedy the ‘Breakaways’ were a striking and unique example of arid scenery and shouldn’t be missed.

The flat-topped mesas and the stony gibber desert provides breathtaking views of what was once (over 70-million years ago), a vast inland sea.

While taking in the scenery a sign reading ‘KEEP OFF GRASS’ caught our attention. We couldn’t help but smile at the local humour as we realised it was an 18-hole grassless golf course and voted in the top 10 of the most unique in the world. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about divots out here on this dry arid land… one swing of the golf club and you would probably have a dust storm instead!

We couldn’t visit Coober Pedy without taking the time to wander through and enjoy South Australia’s largest regional Aboriginal Art Gallery. At ‘Josephine’s Gallery’ we got to see didgeridoos, boomerangs, the opal showroom and the stunning works of world renown and local artists.

The Kangaroo Orphanage also located at the gallery gave us the opportunity to learn how our unique Australian icon, the ‘Big Red Kangaroo’ survives and prospers in the harsh conditions of the Australian Outback. The owners, Terry and Josephine have been raising orphaned joeys for many years and it was great to get up close with these little creatures.

After hours of checking out the sites of Coober Pedy we set up camp at the ‘Oasis Caravan Park’ pitching our tent on the very dry, dusty earth.

Feeling quite dirty a shower was a welcome relief even if the amenities were pretty basic… and if they were basic, the highlight of our stay had to be the swimming pool, a large water tank located in a tin shed and certainly a cooling plunge pool. Ooh how refreshing…it was frrreezing.

Not far from the caravan park we came across ‘The Coober Pedy Open Air Outback Cinema’. This was certainly a blast from the past where you can watch the latest movies from the front seat of your car once a fortnight on a Saturday night. Unfortunately we just missed a screening.

That evening we settled into our camp chairs with our books and a nice glass of wine, under the clear, starry skies of the outback. It was so quiet and peaceful surrounded by so much openness and the outback sky but the silence was short lived as a large school group set up camp opposite and our guess was we were in for a long night with plenty of time to read our books.

Other than the few tourists on the highway the next morning, road trains and road kill punctuated an otherwise desolate plain.

We sang to the ‘The Beach Boys’, ‘Crowded House’, ‘The Eagles’ or the ‘Beatles’ that blared out of the car speakers and played games as the road stretched ahead of us.

It appeared we were the only vehicle heading north but as time went on we eventually passed, or were passed, by other travellers going our way… 3-caravans, 1-camper and 2-cars loaded to the brim just like us and a wave or a lift of the finger from the steering wheel to acknowledge a fellow traveller reminded us we were in Australia. It is the Aussie way to say ‘good day’… regardless if you are in Tasmania or in the Northern Territory it will always be part of our culture.

We constantly took turns at the wheel and were occasionally reminded to swap driving as the wrrrr… of the white guidelines on the side of the road whistled into our thoughts.

The drive was tiring as the monotonous black road stretched before us… so straight it was easy to drift into a dangerously meditative state after half an hour behind the wheel. 

We occasionally passed more dead animals; a camel or cow and sometimes a burnt out car on the side of the road and far off on the horizon in the hazy heat of the day a freight train stretched for kilometres.

We could see Mt Illilee and Mt Chandler in the distance but the more we drove, the further away the mountains seemed.

It was a strange and eerie wasteland either side of the highway as we headed north. A harsh but beautiful landscape of small rolling sand hills, spinifex and sand.

Our next stop was Marla, a small bush community surrounded by thousands of kilometres of cattle stations and the last or the first town in South Australia, depending on which way you are travelling.

It is Pitantjatjara Aboriginal country and also the gateway to the Oodnadatta Track, the Birdsville Track and the Simpson Desert.

From Marla head north by clicking on the links below and enjoy our ‘Red Centre’ advenures taking in Uluru, Alice Springs and the MacDonnell Ranges, then continue north to Tennant Creek, Daly Waters, Katherine, Kakadu, Darwin and Litchfield and all the little towns in between.

From Alice Springs – South Australia bound…

West and East MacDonnell Ranges

Kings Canyon

Uluru 

The long road north of Alice…

Take the side trips west and east at the ‘Top End’…

Gulf Country

Darwin and surrounds…

Litchfield and the Reynolds Track

Western Australia bound…

… or come with us as we head across the iconic Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks!

Enjoy our travels!

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Enjoy our travels!

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