It’s safe to say that after over six months being stuck at home, the cabin fever has been setting in big-time for a lot of people – myself included. Although international travel may still be possible in other parts of the world despite the risks associated with it, it’s looking like it’ll still be off the cards for around another nine months for us in Australia, and with travel restrictions still in place between a number of Australian states at the time of writing this, if I wanted to get out of the house it looked as though I’d need to explore my own backyard.
However, that’s not exactly a bad thing as South Australia, the state I’ve lived in for the majority of my life and still do currently, is far from the worst place to be stuck. The state was quick to get on top of the virus that’s wreaked havoc on the global travel industry, and as a result cases in the community have been practically nonexistent for months now – hence why, back in August, I was able to venture out of the house for a day to shine a spotlight on the famed Barossa Valley’s rather alluring foodie side, rather than the wine industry its best known for.
But with it being a good nine months since I’d actually spent a night anywhere out of the house – as in going on an actual trip somewhere a decent distance away – while some day-trips here and there may have helped scratch the itch a touch, it would take a few nights away somewhere new to really appease it.
Essentially being limited to somewhere within the confines of South Australia’s borders, it meant that a road-trip was what was on the cards – but, with this being a car website, that made it ideal fodder to spin up a spiel about upon my return. And, despite just how long I’ve lived here for, there’s one part of the state I’d been yet to explore – the Far North, which meant planning a visit to the opal-mining town of Coober Pedy.
With only a small window to fit the whirlwind trip into, after a phone call to my friends at Isuzu UTE Australia I’d managed to snag myself a Mercury Silver 2021 D-Max LS-U they had lying around to take with me on this adventure.
The same spec as the D-Max I’d previously been fortunate enough to drive out at Eagle View as part of the model’s Australian launch back in August, aside from the colour and lack of roof racks, having only spent a day off-roading and a few subsequent days puttering around town in this all-new model I was keen to really put it to its paces on the open road as with many Isuzu buyers being keen travellers, as indicated by the mass number of whom tow caravans with their vehicles, a 2000km-plus round trip ought to really put it to the test.
Setting off early on a dark and rainy morning, I elected to take the more scenic route from my home in the Adelaide Hills, bypassing the boring and frustrating drive through Adelaide and Port Wakefield in favour of heading to Cudlee Creek before turning off to go to Claire for a late breakfast. As it turned out, I was particularly glad I ended up going this way as it was the last taste of any twisty roads I’d encounter for a few days.
After steering back onto the main track at Port Augusta, the rain really started to bucket down as I turned onto the Stuart Highway, and although the D-Max felt sure-footed enough for a ute with a practically unladen tray – only my esky that contained bottles of water and some snacks sat there in the perfectly-sized gap behind the wheel arch – it wasn’t the road surface the torrential downpour had me concerned with so much, but rather the lack of visibility it was causing further afield on this 110km/h road and the massive spray oncoming road trains would cause as they blew past.
Even if it’s not raining, though, there’s still plenty of other things that will make the 530km drive along the Stuart Highway one of the least pleasant you’ll encounter. For one, there are no less than 40 cattle grids along the road between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy, and hitting the metal monstrosities at over 100 clicks is certainly rather an alarming sensation – although, it must be said, the softly-sprung and compliant new D-Max was soaking most of them up rather well, although some were bumpy enough to upset even it a little.
The more pressing issue that I found, though, was boredom. Although occasionally you’ll encounter the view of a lake or some sheep roaming around on one of the many unfenced stations at either side of the road, you’re in for a drive fuelled by tedium.
Oh, and speaking of fuel, between Glendambo and Coober Pedy you’re in for 253km with no filling stations at all, so that’s something to keep in mind if the fuel gauge is starting to look a little low, although the D-Max’s 72 litre tank meant I had nothing to worry about as such – a good thing, given they were out of diesel at the time.
I must make a special mention to the D-Max’s advanced array of active safety systems which includes Level 2 semi-autonomous driving in the form of its Lane Assist system which, while perhaps not quite as advanced and quick to react as Tesla’s Autopilot or Volvo’s Pilot Assist, truly helped keep fatigue at bay.
Around 50km or so outside Coober Pedy, however, the scenery will start to change. as you begin to enter the opal fields. The landscape starts to become even more desert-like and the mounds of sandy soil surrounding mine shafts grow bigger and bigger. And then, finally, over 900km from home, the sight of a big lorry sat atop a plinth with the insignia “Welcome to Coober Pedy” scribed on the side of it meant I could let out a sigh of relief as I’d finally made it.
The typically hot and harsh climate out here in the desert – although the rain the day of travelling there signalled a cooler change that saw it remain in the temperate mid-20s the whole time I was there – has led to the town having some incredibly unique architecture, if you can call it that, as rather than living in regular houses like you or I do, most opt to live underground in dug-outs.
Typically built in old-mining shafts if truly underground, or into the side of a hill if on ‘ground floor’, these dug-outs will stay at a temperate 23°C all year round – even when the temperature outside is nudging 50°C as it often can during summer.
The Desert Cave Hotel where I stayed on Coober Pedy’s main street fell into the latter camp as it was carved into the side of a hill, meaning that while the front door opened out onto the big wide world, I was surrounded on all other sides by thick, cool rock which meant that while it was certainly a pleasant temperature inside, there was a total lack of natural light – the primary cause for why I slept in the following morning.
Now, if you’re wondering at this point why one would ever want to live in the hot desert around 900km away from the state capital, opal mining, as I touched on before, is the sole reason for the town’s existence. Known as the ‘Opal Capital of the World’, the town accounts for the mining of more than 75 percent of the world’s commercial opal, and during a browse through the opal store at my hotel, necklaces nudging $15,000 assured me just how big a business opals are.
It was over 100 years ago that opals were first discovered here, and a self-guided tour through the Old Timer’s Mine, one of the originals which dates back to 1916, confirmed to me that you’d want there to be a decent pay-off given the conditions. For as cool as the temperature may have been underground, the dryness, dustiness, and truly claustrophobic feel for a taller fellow such as myself assured me quickly that you’d have to be pretty game.
However, plenty of people from across the globe clearly are game enough to take the plunge, which has led to the town accruing a wonderfully multicultural group of residents. Despite the small population of only around 1700, nearly 50 nationalities are represented in its community including even an Eskimo at one point, supposedly. This, of course, has led to many adding a slice of their culture to the town in very unique ways – for instance, one of the town’s four churches, Saint Elijah’s Serbian Orthodox Church, is the only underground Orthodox Church in the world.
The unique, Mars-esque red desert landscape has given birth to many firsts above ground as well as below, though, with a grassless golf course being one such example, but if you start to head out of town along the Oodnadatta Track – which you’ll need something four-wheel drive for such as my trusty borrowed D-Max – you can go from Mars to the Moon in around 15 minutes.
Dubbed the Moon Plain, the 1500km2 area closely resembles the surface of the Moon due to the flat hummocky landscape that’s largely free of vegetation, and sue to its similarly soft surface that saw my feet starting to sink down while standing at the side of the road through to snap what I found to be some truly phenomenal photos. No wonder, then, that the area has been used for filming of a number of high-profile movies including Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
Unfortunately though, due to the downpour the day before, the Oodnadatta Track was closed off not too far beyond this point, although I’d ultimately have needed an entire day just to drive it. Similarly, the track leading to the stunning Kanku-Breakaways was closed all weekend due to the prior rainy weather also, meaning a view through binoculars would have to suffice this time around. Both would be reason enough to go back once again though, and for as much of a shame as it was, I think it’s always important to leave yourself with a reason to go back to wherever it may be.
Back at the hotel, a budget-friendly room service dinner (which was very good) and a drink at the hotel’s underground bar beckoned before an early night as I knew I’d be in for a long drive the next day and wanted to make an early start. Of course, the next morning, I managed to sleep in by a matter of a couple of hours though due to the lack of sunlight that would normally wake me up on cue.
That wasn’t the biggest issue in the world, though, as since I was not feeling like subjecting myself to another 900km battle of a drive back home, I opted to spend a night in the lovely town of Quorn, a short distance outside Port Augusta, on the way back there which proved to be well worth it.
In fact, I regret not spending a night there on the drive to Coober Pedy as well as it felt to be the perfect midway point. Another town featured in a number of Hollywood productions, it’s home to the famous Pichi Richi Railway which was unfortunately fully booked due it being in its final weeks of operation with a steam train before summer hit and a diesel locomotive was instead to be used during the hotter months.
However, there was plenty to still do in the lovely little town, such as indulging in the deliciousness of eating quandongs used in various dishes at the Quandong Cafe, along with – perhaps more relevant here – going just outside the town to do some off-roading.
Heading out to Warren Gorge, the prior rains had created a few big muddy puddles to go splashing about in, and filled up a few creeks allowing for the D-Max to be subjected to a couple of water crossings, although none were quite deep enough to really challenge its claimed 800mm wading depth.
Most stunning of all here, though, was that because Quorn essentially sits in the foothills of the Flinders Ranges you get to traverse through a smaller-scale version of the terrain in the ranges proper – something I plan on exploring further in a few months’ time, so watch this space – all while getting to admire the view of the stunning ranges themselves as you do.
Given it was easy to head directly for Claire from Quorn in order to bypass Adelaide once again on this return drive, I decided to make a quick detour on the way back to revisit the Hornsdale Power Reserve – better known as the ‘Tesla big battery’ – as well for a few photos.
The largest lithium-ion battery in the world when it was opened in 2017, Tesla won the contract to build it after South Australia experienced a mass blackout the year prior, and received some fame when Elon Musk wagered it’d be built within 100 days from the contract signature or it’d be free.
I was actually fortunate enough to attend the official opening of the battery, which lies in the middle of a wind farm, three years ago – with Musk himself in attendance to deliver a PowerPoint presentation largely comprised of Tweets with a couple of graphs thrown in for good measure – and, despite the battery having lost its title as the world’s largest to the Gateway Energy Storage in California a couple of months ago, it’s still impressive to consider something so advanced being here in little ol’ South Australia first.
And really, this unique power station, like everywhere else I visited on this whole trip, really showcased just how unique this state truly is – something that, it must be said to give credit where it’s due, is the case in most Australian states due to the sheer size of them. To go from my home in an area not dissimilar to the British countryside, past a city of 1.5 million and through a wine-producing region on the way to the Flinders Ranges, and then onwards into the Mars-like desert all without crossing a single border is something quite staggering to ponder, I find, and serves as a reminder of how lucky I actually am to live in this part of the world, all the challenges that do come with it aside.
Additionally, this proved an important test for the all-new D-Max that proved to be a loyal companion on this trip. Wanting to see just how this re-designed model hacked it on a punishing trip that combined a properly long distance, drastically varied weather, and a diverse range of road surfaces, it’s safe to say it left me thoroughly impressed with its comfort and refinement for a dual-cab ute in particular, along with its impressive capability on every surface it was pitted against. A great trip all around, then? You can bet this one sure was.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle used for this trip was provided by Isuzu UTE Australia. All fuel costs and other expenses were covered by the author.