Adelaide to Coober Pedy
When we were in the Adelaide Mission office, we became aware that a trailer was needed in Darwin where we would be serving, as well as a few other supplies that were not easy to get there. Elder Buckner and I thought it might make sense to pick up a trailer and as many items for our new flat in Darwin that we could fit into the car while in Adelaide, and drive rather than fly to Darwin. Since nearly everything in Darwin has to be trucked in over long distances, prices are considerably higher there. Between the price differences between the two cities and not paying airfare for the two of us, we thought the four-day, 3026 km drive would be a way to save the mission some money as well as get us there sooner.
We are both usually up for a little adventure and also thought seeing the interior of Australia by driving through the middle of the Australian Outback might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – in spite of these cautions we received from the Australians we had met and discussed it with:
- First, we would have about 12 hours of daylight driving time each day. We were universally cautioned about driving at dusk and after dark, when kangaroos are more likely to dart across the road. Hitting bigger ones is like hitting a full grown mule deer, and can be fatal to more than the kangaroo.
- Second, during the day we were told we had to be constantly on the lookout for kangaroos, sheep, cattle and emu, since there are nearly no fences for the 1900 mile drive.
- Third, this road is NOT like driving on a U.S. interstate highway. It is a paved (“sealed” here) two-lane road nearly all the way with no speed limits in some places, and no barrier or median between you and the opposing single lane of traffic. Pulling a trailer would also make it slower.
- Fourth was the fact that we could easily drive for great distances without seeing a single other vehicle. We could be very alone much of the time.
- Fifth was the fact that over much of the road there is no cell phone service. Gas stations are few and far between, and accommodations are scarce.
- Sixth was the peril of the road trains. A road train is a huge semi-truck pulling anywhere from three to six trailers behind it. We were told that they would both overtake (pass) us on the road and also come from the opposite direction, and the best way to stay safe would be to just pull over and let them pass by. Knowing Elder Buckner, I was pretty sure this would not happen, and it didn’t. We were not passed by road trains – we passed them. Note the huge brush guard designed to deflect unwary kangaroos or wildlife and protect the tractor. I doubt these big rigs can slow down fast enough to avoid hitting an animal.
But, in spite of all the cautions we received, we spent several exhausting days making all the purchases we could, and headed off on our adventure to Darwin at 9:30 AM on Monday, August 15th, 2016 with our little car (a Toyota Corolla) packed to the gills and pulling a small trailer with our luggage in it. We had been advised that we would need to completely empty the trailer each night into our hotel room if we wanted to keep the contents all the way to Darwin. Luggage was larger and easier to unload, so it went into plastic and under a tarp to keep it clean from dust and insect spatters.
Our understanding is that few Australians make this kind of drive. With the population primarily in or near the large coastal cities, nearly everyone flies rather than crossing the more desolate Australian Bush. Except us. I laughed out loud when I read the words of the mission secretary from Brisbane, Sister Wilmott, after we left: “We sent the Buckner’s to Darwin by camel ….” There were a number of people in Adelaide that were genuinely worried about us making the trip. Elder Buckner having less than 2 week’s experience driving on the left side of the road probably didn’t help.
Adelaide to Coober Pedy, 852 km, about 9 1/2 hours. The drive north on what they call the Explorer’s Highway through South Australia from Adelaide was one of the prettiest parts of the drive on A1. Green fields arched over rolling hills, which were divided and laced throughout with ribbons of trees. We saw an occasional pink-tinged lake or pond and glimpses here and there over the entire trip of a set of railroad tracks that runs all the way from Adelaide to Darwin, although the only trains we saw were road trains. The large mud flaps on the back of the last trailer always had “Road Train” printed clearly on them, letting you know that you needed a lot of empty road available to pass them.
We first stopped at Port Germein, south of Port Augusta, where I walked 3 km to the end of the pier and back. The pier picture was taken near the end where there finally was some shallow water, and the picture from the shore shows how far out the water really was.
The dry land extended out FOREVER. They actually have to tow boats out that distance to launch them even at high tide. The port was formerly used for the transport of grain via wagons at low tide to barges and then to large sailing vessels, but now the pier is used only for crabbing, fishing and dolphin and whale watching. It was good to get some exercise and walk out to see the water at low tide. Notice the deeper, bluer water of the bay in the distance in the photo above. If we’d had more time, I would have loved to take the turnoff
to Mt. Remarkable National Park, which we passed next, and the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park a bit further north in this area. Instead, we stopped for gas at Port Augusta at 2:15, a seaport on the north end of Spencer Gulf with a population of about 13,000. Here the road changed to A87 (aka Stuart Highway, which goes all the way to Darwin) and veered northwest away from the mountains and into dryer terrain with much shorter vegetation.
I really enjoyed this entire first part of the trip, including the occasional glimpses we had of Spencer Gulf, which we followed all the way from Adelaide to Port Augusta. Throughout this section there were frequently pretty yellow wildflowers strewn everywhere alongside the road, and in some places yellow fields thick with blossoms made me wonder if they were being cultivated. I especially enjoyed seeing the small, intermittent mountains (I love mountains) to the west of Spencer Gulf and the Mt. Remarkable range to the east of us, which extended from south of Port Germein to well past Port Augusta. We also saw a number of large mesas north of Port Augusta, and not long after leaving we had trees & large shrubs thick & high enough to make it difficult to spot any game near our two-lane road. Immediately after this change, we weren’t surprised to see two dead kangaroos on the side of road – a sight (which I will spare you) repeated many times by the time we reached Darwin.
Although inland water was not common, we did stop briefly on our way to Glendambo at large Lake Hart, which surprisingly was not dry. It usually appears more like a salt flat, as do many of Australia’s inland lakes during the dry season. I’m not sure where the water came from during the dry season, but it was a treat to see it.
Our next stop was for gas at the Glendambo Roadhouse complex, which also had some food available and a place to camp or park your RV (which are called caravans in Australia). Incidentally, we passed many, many caravans going towards Adelaide that day. Australian campers love the bush, and many were out during the cooler dry season to enjoy it. I loved this sign, which pretty much described the place. We saw many herds of sheep on the trip in addition to occasional groups of exotic cattle we were not familiar with. I believe this area was about where the Australian Outback in that part of the country really begins.
From here it was on to Coober Pedy where we planned to spend the night at at the Desert Cave Inn. The landscape as we approached Coober Pedy was much more barren, very reminiscent of the desert landscapes in Utah. I wondered at the piles of earth everywhere as we approached, and later found out they are called “mulloch heaps.” Although opals are found in many locations in Australia, Coober Pedy is pretty much the opal capital of the world. Man-sized, exploratory tubular holes are drilled into the ground in
the search for opals, resulting in these mounds near the holes. Occasional visitors have fallen into one of these many holes, so are discouraged if not outright prohibited from traveling through these areas. There are areas where opal seekers can “noodle” for opals, although we didn’t see them. The hotel had some mine shafts beneath it (whether real or man-made, I’m not sure) containing a number of nice displays on how opals are mined, which I found interesting. The exit brought one back up a set of stairs that lead to a small area of nice shops where very expensive opal jewelry, souvenirs, or food was available.
We had understood from their website that the Desert Cave Hotel had “underground cave” rooms. When we went to our room it was clean, and the room location was like a walk-out basement where the walls, although flat, had been plastered and painted to give it an underground look. To enhance the cave-feeling, the glass panel in the entry door had also been painted to block out all light, and there was no window in the room. This was definitely a better place to stay in Coober Pedy, from what I saw of this tiny town.
In the morning we arose fairly early. We stopped for gas down the street from the hotel, and picked up a little food at the small grocery store for breakfast. While Elder Buckner was getting fuel, I slipped into the opal shop next door to compare prices with the hotel shop. The pieces were quite nice and less expensive than the ones at the hotel, but nothing tempted me enough to buy it. I did come away appreciating the apparent value of two opal rings I already own. If one has more time, the Painted Desert is nearby, but we didn’t take time to go see it.
STAY TUNED FOR A Drive Through the Middle of the Australian Outback, Part 2: Coober Pedy to Alice Springs. I thought Part 1 covered my favorite part of the trip – until I saw Alice Springs!