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South Australian Outback Adventure - Trip Log 4

Part 4 - Chaos In Coober Pedy

A busy day in Coober Pedy then it's back on the road heading north to Dalhousie Springs and into the Simpson Desert. 

Click here for all posts about our South Australian Outback Adventure

Last night we spent our first night sleeping underground in Coober Pedy in our 'dugout' accommodation. Basically a nook cut into the wall from a central communal chamber that you access by walking down a sloping pathway that's cut into a small hillside.

It's certainly a different experience from sleeping under the stars. The temperature is more stable and warmer than the temperature outside which would have been approaching freezing.

It's also quiet for the most part until other people staying in their nearby nooks start moving around and then it becomes more like an echo chamber.

The underground 'Dugout' at Riba's Underground Camping

Something to experience but I probably won't rush back to do it again next time I'm in Coober Pedy.

We crawled out of our swags fairly early, around 7:00am and headed over to the camp kitchen for a quick breakfast and to make a plan for the day.

There's a lot to get done today as it's our last opportunity to refuel and resupply before we get to the Simpson Desert and beyond.

A mine tour is also on the agenda so with breakfast out of the way we hit the road.

First stop is the supermarket where we stock up on food, including 4 packets of spaghetti, a bag of oranges, 40 litres of drinking water and . . . after scouring the supermarket, 4 new tea towels!

Somehow in the rush to get out of Melbourne I managed to forget to pack tea towels even though we have a bag of at least 20 camping tea towels sitting with all our other camping gear!

40 litres of drinking water should do it

Loading everything in the car in any available space we can find we drive up the street to the laundromat which thankfully has several available washing machines and a big dryer which actually works.

We get 3 loads of clothes going and after scraping off all of the mud I dedicate a fourth machine to washing the girls shoes and socks that took a beating in Lake Eyre yesterday.

A double dose of washing powder and 20 minutes later and to all of our surprise they come out looking almost brand new.

While the machines are all doing their thing I repack the back of the car and find a home for all of our new food supplies. Tomorrow on the way out I'll grab a new bag of ice for the ice box.

With the washing done and the clothes dry, it's over to the roadhouse at the Shell servo for a coffee and some hot chips before taking a short drive out to Tom's Mine Tours.

I haven't contacted them about doing a tour and filming it for our doco mainly because I wasn't sure if we'd have time to squeeze a tour into the itinerary.

Fronting up to the counter with video camera in hand, they are happy to oblige and Daniel is given the task of guiding us through the mine and showing us how it all works.

Finding opals is not easy and very much reliant on luck mixed with experience and intuition.

Daniel demonstrates to us how they use divining rods, the same used to find underground water, to locate changes in the magnetic field in the ground that indicate the presence of a 'slide' which is a shift in the ground that often leads to the water that's seeping through the ground collecting in pockets that can become opal deposits.

The girls and I take a turn with the divining rods to see if we can get them to cross over and to our surprise we have some success. Not sure whether it's the magnetic forces moving the rods or the mind willing them to move and tilting the hands subconsciously but either way it's a bit of fun.

Before it's cut and polished, opal looks much like the material surrounding it in the ground making it hard to spot. Fortunately though it glows when you hit it with a UV light so Daniel shows us pockets of opal in the walls with his UV torch. Most of the material will be 'potch' which has no commercial value but you can't tell until you cut it out and take it to the surface to view under sunlight.

Whatever you do . . . don't drop it!!

This tour is pretty hands on and we all have a go at digging some opal bearing material out of the wall with an electric jack hammer and we also managed to see one of the electric tunnelling machines in action.

Overall a great tour and we certainly came out knowing a lot more about where opals come from . . . but with no real urge to stake a claim and start digging our own mine.

I get the sense that these days there is more money to be made from showing visitors around your mine than digging for opals.

Next stop we head back into town and refill our water tanks from the towns 'water bowser' - yes, in Coober Pedy, water is as precious as opals and you need to pay for the town water which is dispensed from a bowser much like fuel.

Filling up the tanks from the water bowser in Coober Pedy

At $1.00 for 30 litres it's not exactly expensive so I'm not complaining and I invest $2.00 to top up our water supplies - all up we have around 130 litres on board which should be at least twice what we actually need and enough to sustain us if we breakdown in the desert and are stranded for a while.

Then it's across the road to the Shell servo to fill up the diesel tanks, 250 litres all up, and we head back down the main street to watch the sunset from above the Umoona Mine.

Since we'll be on camp rations for the next week we have dinner at the Shell roadhouse (where we had lunch) and we're actually lucky to get a table. Unlike many roadhouses which are pretty basic, this one is more like a real restaurant with a bar and the food is great. Obviously word has gotten around because they are doing a roaring trade.

This is our last Internet access until we get to Birdsville in 5 days time so I'm busy making sure everything is dealt with that needs to be. Going offline is not easy in todays super connected lives that we lead and as much as it's nice to switch off from the world, you know that the longer you're offline, the more that will be waiting for your attention when you get back. Such is life!

Coober Pedy to Dalhousie Springs

It's an early start after a noisy night in the dugout with other travellers up at some crazy hour packing up their swags and heading out.

It doesn't take us long to get ourselves packed up and we skip breakfast and head back into the Shell for a bag of ice and an iced coffee before we hit the road north towards Oodnadatta.

We're only a few minutes out of town before being once again surrounded by the vast and featureless outback and I'm running through my mental check list of things that I may have forgotten and other that I need to deal with in the days ahead.

The most important thing for today, besides getting to Dalhousie Springs, is buying a Desert Parks Pass at the Pink Roadhouse in Oodnadatta - I've even enlisted the girls to remind me when we get there.

The Desert Parks Pass is issued by National Parks South Australia and is required to enter numerous Parks including the Simpson Desert Conservation Park and Regional Reserve and Witjira National Park east of Dalhousie Springs.

It covers the cost of entry and camping and is $160 for 12 months use.

You can buy them online and I originally planned to do that the week before we left Melbourne but what I didn't realise until I went to actually buy it is that they need to post it to you and it takes 3 weeks to arrive - I assumed (I know, woops!!) that I'd pay for it, download the paperwork and print it out.

Nope - you need to buy it at least 3 weeks before you intend to leave so keep that in mind if you're planning your own trip.

Fortunately you can buy them over the counter at a number of places enroute including the Pink Roadhouse.

Arriving into Oodnadatta about 3 hours after leaving Coober Pedy, the girls dutifully remind me not to forget the pass and so I hand over the $160 (cash only!) and immediately see why you can't download it.

Rather than just a sheet of paper, it's in fact a book and several maps with a lot of information about the various desert parks it covers.

While I look through the info in the book, we have a pie for lunch then it's back in the car and we continue north - next stop Dalhousie Springs.

Once past Oodnadatta the road gradually turns into a track and the going gets slower.

While I'm not driving too fast, maybe averaging around 80 kmph, I manage to get stuck behind a convoy of 4WD's all towing campers who are probably doing 60 to 70 kmph. They're throwing up clouds of dust and on the single lane track, passing opportunities are rare so it takes more than an hour for me to finally get past them all and into the clear air in front.

After having now made it to the front, I'm determined to stay there so on the few occasions we stop for a quick break or to film the car driving along the road, I'm keeping a close eye behind us for signs of them catching up, which they nearly do a couple of times.

We finally make it to Dalhousie late in the day and I'm surprised at how full the campground it - It's practically overflowing!

Trying to find a site at Dalhousie Springs campground

We came through here 5 years ago about the same time of year on our way back from a trip to the red centre and there were not anywhere near the numbers here then as there are now.

A slow crawl around the campground and I can't find an empty campsite anywhere and in the end ask a couple who have some spare space if they would mind sharing it with us.

They were very happy to oblige and it turns out they had just been watching The Big Lap series only a couple of weeks before their trip and here we are standing in front of them. It's a small world!

Having found somewhere to camp, it's time to wash off the dust and we have just enough time to get down to the springs before it gets dark.

It's probably about a 400m walk to the springs and we are breaking into a jog to get there.

Dropping towels and shoes we barely slow down as we climb down the stairs and sink into the warm (almost hot) mini lake that is Dalhousie Springs - it's sensational and the perfect therapy after a long dusty day in the car.

We finally made it to Dalhousie Springs

While an ice cold beer would have been made the experience even more perfect, it's a good feeling knowing we've made it this far and a real milestone on the trip.

We spend about 45 minutes soaking in the spring as the sun sets and only drag ourselves out when it's getting dark.

Click here for all posts about our South Australian Outback Adventure

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Steve Baile
Steve Baile
Iā€™m the founder of Expedition Australia, a writer, filmmaker & adventure travel junkie. Passionate about my family, health and fitness, hiking, 4WD touring, adventure motorbikes, camping and exploring as much of the planet as I can.


  1. Great read. Mywife and I a4e wwaiting for our trailer to be delivered and we will be off. Not the real remote places but at least off the most used tracks. CHEERS Brian

  2. Hi Steve, thanks for the update, it brings back great memories seeing you where we have been.
    Stay safe.

  3. Hi Steve, thanks for the update, it brings back great memories seeing you where we have been.
    Stay safe.

  4. Great to here all you guys are haven a great time. Sharon and I can't wait to hit the road.
    Can't wait to see the DVD. Great stuff

  5. I remember when Graeme and I stopped at Dalhousie Springs and the only ones there were us and our neighbours travelling with us from Oodnadatta back in 2010. It is a welcomed spot and good to see so many people enjoying so much of what Australia has to offer. Great reading about you and the girls journey, they have grown so much since we watched the big lap!

  6. We went to Coby Pedy and went up through the centre to Darwin. We haven't done the section you are doing now as we don't have a 4wd. It is very interesting reading of your trip and hope all goes well for you all.

  7. Love reading about your adventures with the girls. How they have grown since the Big Lap. I've just come back from visiting my daughter in the channel country and know full well how that country gets under your skin. Safe travels and I look forward to the next snippet šŸ™‚

  8. My ancestors, along with several other families pioneered that great part of our amazing country.
    Umberatina was my Dads home station.
    We have been following your family's adventures with great interest.
    It's so nice to hear and see you all enjoying our great country ??????????

  9. Could you mention track conditions along the way - also fuel mileage (litres per 100km or whatever!?). We also have a well travelled 80 Series (petrol/LPG); plus an AWD Holden Adventura and was wondering how that might fare with what you have travelled on to date. Having spent a number of years in aboriginal communities I am aware how far a two wheel drive vehicle can get when driven with a degree of common sense - I'm sure it would amaze a lot of people, not that I would consider desert travel with one. šŸ™‚
    Cheers for a great read, Martin

  10. We had the same at Dalhousie due to every one coming back across the Simpson after the Big Red bash even when you book don't mean you will get a spot.

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