Coober Pedy was known to me as the town where Guy Pearce’s character in Priscilla Queen of the Desert was chased by angry miners. I had no intention of going to backwater Australia where the locals spent their days hacking out tunnels underground and their evenings drinking beer among the surface rubble and beating up the occasional passing transvestite.
Then Gabby and I started planning a road trip that would neatly fill the four days we had until we needed to be back in Adelaide for WOMAD, the world music festival where we were volunteering.
We had both read Bill Bryson’s Down Under and were enamoured with the idea of an outback sunset “a hundred layered shades – glowing pinks, deep purples, careless banners of pure crimson – all on a scale that you cannot imagine”.
Suddenly there was Coober Pedy on the map, so tantalisingly in the middle of nowhere and a two day drive from Adelaide.
To make our trip into the outback affordable we needed to recruit one or two more people to share the cost of car hire and petrol. We advertised on Gumtree and that’s how we found Ruby, an exotic dancer with no nudity complex and a penchant for gambling. With Ruby we discovered the thrill of pub pokies – nothing to do with her source of income but the push button fruit machines that you find in amusement arcades back home.
On the 541km stretch of highway between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy there are only two refuelling stops: Pimba and Glendambo. We missed the turnoff for Pimba and sailed straight past it. I worried that we might do the same with Coober Pedy. I’d heard it was built underground and I imagined the entrance to be a solitary escalator out in the desert that would be almost invisible in the shimmering heat rising off the tarmac. I hoped it would be well signposted.
I needn’t have worried. The conical mounds of pink earth that had been churned up in search of opals signalled our proximity to Coober Pedy long before we saw the numerous advertising billboards that lined the highway on the approach to the town.
Coober Pedy was neither the rough and desperate place I’d expected from Priscilla nor the underground city of my imagination. The pubs, restaurants and bars on the main street were mostly above ground and the people we met in them were pleasant and friendly. There were a few cave-like constructions that served as entrances to underground churches and B&Bs and the dugout homes, designed to protect their inhabitants from the baking desert heat, were identified by the chimneys, aerials and satellite dishes perched on pink slopes. I thought it was charming.
I wanted to buy some postcards to send to friends and family but it was almost impossible to find one showing an attractive image of the town. The photos were of drills and cranes and brutal looking machinery that gave the impression that everything in Coober Pedy was designed to destroy and damage the landscape.
We spent the day underground visiting an old opal mine and a model dugout home. In the evening Gabby and I climbed a hill to watch the outback sunset we had longed for. Like the machinery pictured on the postcards, the mosquitoes in Coober Pedy were brutal: industrial strength with drills for faces. When we came down off that hill our arms were bubbled and bobbled with itchy bites. It was worth it for that outback sunset though, which really was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.