Riba’s Underground Camping, Coober Pedy
1811 William Creek Rd, Coober Pedy South Australia Phone: 08 8672 5614
It’s the mullock piles which signal you’re near the end of your ride. Resembling some sort of weird geophagist wet dream, a vast smorgasbord of brobdignagian pinches of salt and spices, they grab your tired eyes about 30kms out of town. First they dot the landscape but soon they dominate it.
Mounds of mine waste, from a metre or so high to some several storeys tall surrounded by signs warning of endless open shafts and the dangers of walking backwards and running in any direction.
This is a landscape that’s as novel as it’s unique. Where-ever you’ve come from, you’ve come a long way to get here and I can tell you one thing for sure, there aint anything close to this. Now you can take that literally, figuratively, culturally, geographically or architecturally. Doesn’t matter, whichever way you’d be right!.
Welcome to what’s known in the local indigenous dialect as, White Man’s Hole, as ‘kupa piti’ and which was phonetically transposed into “Coober Pedy’ from its original name of Stuarts Range.
I head down the access road, past the turn off to the cemetery named, “Boot Hill” and then the Shell Servo to the centre of town needing some stores so I stop at the IGA further down the main street. It’s got heaps of fresh crisp fruit and vegetables plus all the other stuff you’ll find in larger towns. The attached bottle shop also has a good range but Coober is subject to special alcohol restrictions so it’s only possible to buy one bottle of spirits or wine per day per person. (Unlimited beer though!)
I’m bound for Riba’s Underground Camping Ground which is 4km south of the town so I head out while there’s still light, take the left and follow the good gravel for 1km until I get to this amazing place. This, quite literally will be my ‘digs’ for the next two days and I’m met by, er, mine hosts.
Rick and Barb arrived in Coober Pedy 21 years ago, in a campervan, aiming to drive around Australia. They were booked in for standard camping at Riba’s which was then owned by a German who was about to sell the rudimentary camp and its attached two small cliff face mines to a young Swiss couple.
Well the Swiss bloke fell over whilst noodling on a mullock heap and the sale fell through in the three weeks Rick and Barb were camped and, to cut to the chase, they fell in love with the blue sky and the clean air, Barb got opal fever and they decided to put the trip on hold and buy the joint. (‘Noodling’ is bare hand fossicklng through the mullock piles.)
Neither will claim credit coming up with the idea of underground camping but it evolved during a trip back to Melbourne to sell their car and other stuff. When they arrived back they began to dig .
Each stick of gelignite yielded a metre of progress. It also yielded 35 wheelbarrows of rock, with 15 shovel-fulls per barrow load. All to be pushed uphill to the exit by Rick.
Pretty soon Barb told him that it was going to take a 100 years or it was going to kill them so they called in a couple of miners with an tunneling machine. In 1996 they opened the first section, a long common area like a long stone dining room.
People went crazy. It was full all the time. They decided to expand. Working during the hottest months of January and Feb, they finally opened the 12 alcove extension and the enlarged TV and internet room in 2006.
They’d spent 9 years living in a hole, sixteen years without their own bathroom but finally had their dream. And it was the dream of a lot of others too. The only underground camping ground in the world, in the quiet serenity 5kms out town and a full kilometre from the highway, was a hit from the beginning.
Quite simply it is unique and so much fun!
Reception is above ground so I hand over my 30 bucks for the two nights and ride around to the entrance. The flies are fierce at 3.30 in the arvo but as you walk down the ramp and into the cave, they hang back in the sun: no need for screens or doors or sprays, nature takes care of it all. Brilliant!
Down the ramp and into the cavern. I head to the back section where already a few tents are set up and chuck my stuff into ‘my’ alcove. I figure there’s no need for a tent so it’s just the Thermorest cot and my sleeping bag. Easy. Next to me a couple of blokes I’d met up north the previous day are already fully set up. The air is cool and dry. Each alcove has a light and the walkways have regular ventilation and natural light tubes. It’s cool, quiet, peaceful, unworldly.
In addition to the open camping alcoves the underground also has five rooms all with a double bed and at least one bunk. Cost is $66.00 per double with extra adults at $25.00 per night. Good if you’re not travelling with camping gear but they lack the unique atmosphere of the open camping alcoves.
Once I’ve settled in I head into town. The only traditional pub in CP is the Opal Inn and if you wanna pass time at the end of a long ride in a sterile, characterless mausoleum with nowhere to escape the blaring TAB (are all punters deaf?), ‘served’ by young things who aren’t too happy being distracted from the ‘social’ media on their phones, then this is the place for you. Otherwise don’t waste your time because there’s a couple of far better options.
The Outback Bar and Grill is attached to the Shell Servo and the service is tops, the drinks are reasonable, the food good and atmosphere outback-friendly. But if you’re after something more, well, more, Cooper Pedy, head down to Desert Cave Hotel where the bar and café are underground and the pool room is cut into the rock. Oh and there’s no PubTab although the service can be a bit slow and offhand.
Riba’s has a deal with the best pizza joint in town: John’s Pizza Bar is across the road from the Desert Cave and though it has an extensive menu of Pasta, Grills and Seafood, where else are you ever going to get a chance to eat a country’s emblem? Yup, number 33 on the menu is the Coat of Arms Pizza featuring emu metwurst and smoked kangaroo! I didn’t know whether I should cut it or salute the bloody thing!
Another astonishing thing about Coober Pedy is the water: the sweetest water you’ll have tasted in ages and oh so much better than most capital city supply.
It’s local artesian which is pumped up, undergoes reverse osmosis and then chlorinated, but Rick reckons the trick is that heat dissipates chlorine and so as the water stands in the water towers, the burning sun warms the water and removes the chlorine taste. He tells the story that if you ever drink a litre of the stuff you’ll never leave Cooper Pedy.
The processing also makes the water expensive, about 250% what city folks pay, and Riba’s is the only camping ground in the town with free showers. It’s also the only place with free toilets, cooking and internet!.
The kitchen has three gas rings good seating and tables all within a bug meshed enclosure on the surface and the toilets and showers are very clean and well maintained.
You can park at the mouth of cave and in the morning your bike’ll be dry and untouched.
So, following Attenborough’s principle of treating Ribas and Coober Pedy all as one organism, (See sidebar) it rates well into the four helmet category whilst off the charts for unique character.
When you add the good bar at the Outback Bar and Grill and the IGA stocked with fresh food and reasonably priced drinks to the completely memorable accommodation with its quality facilities, and friendly owner, you end up with a 100% MVP (Must Visit Place.)
My life’s about making memories. If yours is too, you’ve gotta get yourself deep into the guts of Australia and chill out in Coober. James Reyne once proclaimed that, ‘every day above ground is a good day’, but hell, a couple of nights below are way,way better than merely good!
Full disclosure: Contrary to usual industry practice, I was not offered nor did I seek any discount or special deal whilst staying at any establishment mentioned in this review.
Thanks to my HR dept for their continuing inspiration.