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Inside Coober Pedy: Australia’s real-life Mad Max town


The first thing that shocks you when you land in Australia is that it actually exists, thereafter it only ever gets weirder. First and foremost, if you’re travelling from the Northern Hemisphere, let’s take Los Angeles, for example, a day out of your life is miraculously deleted. You can leave L.A. on October 20th and 14 hours later you arrive in Australia on the 22nd. This is one of many inexplicable tricks that ‘The Lucky Country’ has up its enormous sleeves. 

Firstly, it is too big for its own good, far too big. In fact, it’s almost the same size as Europe. However, whilst Europe has a population of 746.4 million people, Australia only amasses 25.69 million. Thus, naturally, there are some huge open spaces, and in these bewildering wildernesses, strange things are forever happening. The manic production of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in the oddball town of Coober Pedy is testimony to the glorious mayhem of the sprawling outback.

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Adrift from the world, over 500 miles from civilisation lies the Opal Capital of the World. However, if you’re travelling along the tumbling expanse of the Stuart Highway, there’s a chance you might miss this first sign of life amid the vast engulfing desert because most of the life therein exists underground. The Aboriginal’s dubbed it Kupa-piti meaning ‘whitefellas’ hole’ for good reason, most of the 1700-1800 residents live in abodes dugout of the parched Earth itself. 

However, the eccentricities to this subterranean realm don’t stop there. The landscape is pitted with abandoned mineshafts, Hollywood paraphernalia, apparent UFO hotspots, odd martian-like sandstone mounds and myriad other opal-derived oddities. Therefore, it only seemed natural that the maddest film franchise ever to grace the mainstream would plunder the depths of the town for its post-apocalyptic gain. 

Equally befitting is that director George Miller declared the set plonked in the middle of the weather-beaten erosional scrap a dry zone, meaning that no alcohol was to be consumed on set. Running a water-tight ship in the world’s wildest west proves easier said than done. For starters, as the 2004 biography Mel Gibson: Man on a Mission attests, the leading man was himself struggling with alcoholism at the time of filming. 

(Credit: Alamy)

Gibson was assigned a driver and a minder and by all accounts, he was a paragon of professionalism throughout, but the $10 million budget did not stretch far enough to ensure that every single actor could be kept out of trouble in the same way. As the aptly named Gary ‘Angry’ Anderson would recall regarding his time filming Beyond Thunderdome: “Once we got to the desert, it was f—king on for young and old. There was a lot of dope going around. A lot of cocaine. A lot of speed.”

In a town of fewer than two thousand people and not much in the way of standard post-shoot leisure facilities, the influx of substance riddled actors made for quite a mix. While the locals were out mining opals during the day, rumours were bountiful that several actors had been sneaking off to conduct affairs. Even Mel Gibson had a gun pulled on him owing to whispers of alleged frissons one evening. In boozers that still boast signs stating: “Please check explosives and guns in at the bar,” clashes between the mixed-up milieu were bound to occur. The underground town had become a figurative Molotov.

At one point the authorities had to step in to stop the whole place from detonating. A huge drugs raid was underway, and an emergency production meeting laid out the law: If you are caught with drugs then you will be fired. These words sent a small army of cast and crew members scurrying off into the desert to bury their stash. How they planned to retrieve them in the disorientating landscape is anyone’s guess!

Elsewhere the set was besieged by suspicious folks who were either police officers or simply up to no good; it was beleaguered by sandstorms and heat was a persistent clear and present danger. In short, if anywhere in the world is more befitting of Mad Max, then it is yet to make itself known to man. 

Over 35 years on from the filming of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the town still holds the same madcap alluring appeal for film crews and tourists alike. Perhaps it even holds more appeal now than it ever has. As more and more places are engulfed in the globalised sprawl of commercialism and contemporary architecture, this alien land is a living relic of a time that never was and a true one-off.

Bars remain almost unchanged from the days when they were beset by Gibson and co, madcap spaceships and crooked sculptures still litter the landscape and the Gold Rush feeling of a chance to get rich or a chance to get lost is still the tangible zeitgeist. For a town that exists mostly underground there is still plenty to do and plenty to see for a reasonable outback price, but just being there and knowing that the place actually exists is an experience enough in of itself. 

Surely anywhere where you can be traversing the mindbending outback in the morning, marvelling at the otherworldliness of an underground catacomb-like Serbian Orthodox Church by lunch, meeting baby kangaroos at a sanctuary in the afternoon, checking out filming locations shortly after, finding opal success in the evening and finishing the day by swilling it all down in a bar blasted into the side of a great sunburnt mound before retreating to your spaceship hotel, is worth a visit. 

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