The Ghan – Third Stop, Coober Pedy


About half-way between Alice Springs and Adelaide, in the middle of nowhere, sits a small town in South Australia called Coober Pedy, once the Opal Capital of the world, which seems to rely more on tourism these days than opal mining.

Opals were first discovered here in 1915 and until the 1980’s business was booming as more than one thousand miners supplied opals to overseas markets. But today there are fewer than 100 miners left, production has dropped right off and the people in the town hope that some young blood will come and help to kick Coober Pedy on again.

So why would tourists want to visit a mining town past its heyday? Probably because they want to see for themselves a town like no other – more than half of the 3,500 population live underground due to extremes in temperature – in summer, over 50oC is not unheard of and it can be freezing in winter.



Ventilation pipes mark the “dug outs”

The old miners realised that they couldn’t live in these temperatures, so they started to dig out their mines and live there. Later on they replaced them with underground homes, dug into the side of the hill. Each room has to be ventilated, and in the early days they consisted of wide, open air shafts but when drunken miners kept falling into them on their way home from the pub, they were replaced with thin pipes with mesh on top to keep out the snakes. This is what you see today.



This is a display home underground.


Electricity is no problem but there is no mobile phone connection underground, so you need a reliable alarm clock!


All houses have a front door above ground. Some houses have all the rooms underground and others have built some rooms (such as the wet areas) above ground and the living rooms and bedrooms are dug out. While temperatures soar and plummet, below ground it is always about 23-25 degrees C and they say you will get the best night’s sleep you have ever had.


We ventured down a mine, had a nice Greek lunch there and spent the afternoon looking around the town and surrounding areas.  It probably has the only golf course in the world with no grass, and the golfers are given a grass mat to tee off.


There are no gardens or flowers, just desert, and the areas surrounding the town consist of thousands of mounds where miners have tried their luck.



There are no company mines here, it is too difficult and they would not survive. All you need to find opals is luck!


Here is a collection of rusting old cars and obsolete mining equipment.  Every few months someone comes into town to take it all away.

One thing there is no shortage of is opal shops, which is just as well;  the only opal chips I managed to find were in the charm I bought for my Pandora bracelet!

Dining out is not a problem; around 45 nationalities are represented, mostly from Europe and the Mediterranean. Very multicultural.

So if you would like to go somewhere really different, do yourself a favour and visit Coober Pedy and stay a few nights in the underground motel. It’s the only place where house reno’s are not a problem. Need another shelf? Dig a hole. Need a walk-in robe? Dig a bigger hole….and you might even find some opals while you’re at it.



The Dog Fence.  It seems to go on forever, like the red dirt and blue sky

The Dog or Dingo Fence was built in the 1880’s and is the world’s longest fence at 5,614 km or 3,488 miles.  It has in the most part been successful in protecting sheep from dingo attacks.  You may be surprised to know that some sheep and cattle stations can be larger than some small European countries, and tens of thousands of sheep were being killed every year before the fence was completed.



The end of a busy day at Coober Pedy – time to relax with canapes and drinks while watching another amazing sunset.  Then all aboard for a sumptuous dinner in the restaurant.


Next morning, the outback reds and oranges gave way to lush green as we made our way into Adelaide and the end of a great rail journey.


The Ghan – Second Stop, Alice Springs

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The Alice Springs Desert Park, situated on 1,300 hectares, at the base of the MacDonnell Ranges is where we spent the day with our guide for an exclusive walking tour.


I couldn’t recommend this outing more highly, and if you ever visit Alice Springs, it is a must-see. But allow plenty of time. You could easily spend most of the day here and you will be truly inspired. There is so much more to deserts than you think, and this educational facility explores everything the desert region of Australia has to offer – the birds, animals, medicinal plants and the people, and the relationships between them.

Our day started with a very interesting presentation by an indigenous guide about the aborigines and their way of life, including their weapons such as boomerangs etc. We made our way past several aviaries of birds for the free flight bird show, after which we got up close and personal with some of the birds and the trainer.


Then we strolled past dingos and emus and made our way to the Nocturnal House to see various animals moving around and foraging, such as the iconic bilby, numbat and snakes. Our guide was very knowledgeable and answered all our questions.  I was pleased to find out that all the animals here are either rescued or being used in breeding programs because they are in danger of extinction.


After lunch, we spent the afternoon exploring the rest of the park, which is divided into three separate areas – Desert Rivers, where you can walk through dry river beds and areas which were past swamps and waterholes, discover outback flora and fauna which included a demonstration showing how the aborigines search for food and medicine.


Next was the Sand Country which re-created the sandy desert and lastly the Woodland which was where we saw kangaroos out in the open.  I liked that the guide would not let us get too close but to stop and observe them from a distance. They seemed very relaxed and after some photo taking, we were formed into a single line and quietly moved on.


Once back at the train we just had time to freshen up before being whisked off in buses for dinner at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station. The beautiful stone buildings have all been restored and offer a glimpse of how it must have looked when families lived there in the late 1800’s. They were all lit up and each had a plaque explaining how the building was used back in the day.

We arrived at sunset and were greeted by staff bearing glasses of champagne as we made our way to the open central area which was set up with tables with white tablecloths. On the back of each chair was a lovely  poncho bearing the Ghan symbol as a memento of our visit.


We had a delicious meal under the stars with a live band playing in the background. Before dessert was served, we were given a star gazing presentation which was one of the highlights of our trip. A truly memorable day.


The Ghan – First Stop, Katherine



Katherine Station.  It’s a long walk to the end of the train.  We were situated about half-way down.

Katherine is situated on the Katherine River in the Northern Territory, Australia, 320 kilometres south-east of Darwin. The town is a tourism gateway to nearby Nitmiluk National Park, particularly Katherine Gorge and its many ancient rock paintings, which was where we were heading.



There are millions of termite mounds all over Australia, all shapes and sizes.

Our bus took us to the Katherine River, where we cruised between sheer sandstone cliffs down the First and Second Gorges, while our guide told us stories about the traditional owners, the Jawoyn people.  The Park covers 292,000 hectares and comprises 13 sandstone gorges carved over 23 million years.



On our way to the boat ramp


There is all sorts of wildlife from bats to crocs;  our guide was very knowledgeable and we learnt a lot about the area.  At the second gorge, we walked a short distance to see the ancient rock art which is believed to date back about 40,000 years.

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We didn’t see any, but the river is inhabited by harmless freshwater crocodiles.  Sometimes the river rises after heavy rain, and saltwater crocodiles move upstream.  These are the ones you don’t want to mess with.



Here is one of the baited traps which park rangers check daily for saltwater crocodiles.  They are relocated to another part of the river.

We had heard a lot about the beautiful scenery at Katherine Gorge and we weren’t disappointed.  We had an excellent guide who kept us entertained with many stories of the aboriginal people, legends and traditions.

A very enjoyable day.



The Ghan Expedition – Darwin to Adelaide

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Brisbane was experiencing some cooler weather as we departed for Darwin for the start of our train journey on the Ghan a couple of weeks ago.  Following a 3 hour flight, we arrived to much warmer weather and immediately regretted that we hadn’t thought to pack our swimmers.  The pool at our hotel looked very inviting.

We were booked in for two nights, so we stopped by the information centre to find something interesting to do the following day.

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We decided on the Hop On-Hop Off Bus, and it proved to be great value for money.  We rode the bus all day, as it did a different route in the afternoon, and we came away with a lot more knowledge than when we arrived.

We learned a lot about pre-war Darwin, wartime Darwin and Cyclone Tracy.  We were very surprised to find out that when the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942, a greater number of bombs was dropped that day than were used in the attack on Pearl Harbour.  For generations the country was kept in the dark about the true dimensions of the Japanese attack and I think a lot of people probably still don’t know.  We didn’t.

On the other hand, most Australians are very familiar with Cyclone Tracy, a tropical cyclone that hit Darwin in the early hours of Christmas Eve, 1974, the worst one ever recorded which virtually destroyed Darwin.


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A hand painted sign on an original house wall.  Looters were a problem when approximately 35,000 of the 48,000 residents were temporarily evacuated.


We visited several museums that covered a lot of this history;  you can stand in a darkened room, where you can experience the sounds that would have been heard when Cyclone Tracy hit.  Quite eerie.

The Military Museum had holograms telling the story of a commanding officer of a US destroyer, who watched the bombing from the water after he was blown out of a small boat while trying to return to his ship.

This museum also included The Royal Flying Doctor Service, with an interesting film on its origins in 1939, as well as being able to discover what it’s like to be inside one of its aircraft.


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The RDFS provides medical services to people in remote and rural areas of Australia



What I liked best was the virtual reality headsets taking you into the battlefront of the bombing of Darwin.  I had to do it twice, it was incredible – 360 degree views on board a ship with the bombs coming down from Japanese planes flying overhead;  then being on the wing of a fighter plane as the pilot ducked and weaved and finally being hit and falling out of the sky with the pilot down into the fiery sea.  Not for the faint-hearted!

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Sweetheart was a 5.1 metre, 780kg saltwater crocodile responsible for attacking dinghies and fishing boats between 1974 and 1979 in a NT river.  He now resides at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.



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A huge termite nest.  We saw a lot of these from the train – not as big as this one, though!


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Australia has many beautiful native birds.  Here is a red-winged parrot.



Boarding the Ghan

(Just in case you are thinking this looks familiar … somehow I lost parts of my original post so I am publishing this again!)

The Ghan is regarded as one of the world’s famous rail journeys, travelling from Darwin to Adelaide through the heart of Australia.  We were lucky enough to take this journey a few weeks ago and can highly recommend it as a way to experience the dramatic and ever changing landscape that is Australia.

If you are wondering about the name of the train, we were told that when the first camels were imported with their handlers from Afganistan, about 150 years ago, to explore the interior of the country, these pioneers soon became known as Afghans;  which was then shortened to “Ghans”.  The emblem of an Afghan on a camel can be prominately seen as you board the train.

Although we didn’t know it when we booked, we were on “The Expedition”, the first special trip of the season, which gave us a 76 hour trip instead of 54, meaning more time at Alice Springs and a stop at Coober Pedy, so that was a lucky break!

The train had 250 passengers and 38 carriages including two locos.  Our cabin would have to be described as “cosy”, consisting of upper and lower bunk beds, the lower one converting to a three-seater lounge during the day, and a private en-suite.  The secret is not to pack more than necessary, as there is nowhere to put anything away.  We took two small bags – I don’t know how other people managed who were going on board with suitcases on wheels!

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However, we spent most of our time in the lounge and bar carriage or the restaurant where we were treated to excellent 3-course meals, all drinks covered ias well.

There were lots of tourists on board, so the meals had a distinct Australiana theme – kangaroo steaks, crocodile sausages and beef cheeks  … very nice!

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Also included in the price were the off train excursions so we thought it was great value for money.  The staff provided excellent service and we even got chocolates when they pulled down the bunk bed every night.

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the bumpy ride at night.  We woke up a few times getting jostled around when the train slowed down to pull into a siding.  The Ghan has to give way to every freight train, and one night we were stopped for 3 hours.  So I just had to eat chocolates and read my e book until I got back to sleep!