Coober Pedy: The Opal Underground

There are countless numbers of towns and cities all over the world that exist due to mining. Very few, however, literally exist in mining. Such is the case of Coober Pedy in South Australia. The very same opal mines that gave the town it reason-for-being also keep it liveable in the summer, for most of the residents here live inside old refurbished mines.

Profoundly isolated (845 km north of the state capital, Adelaide), Coober Pedy lies on the Stuart Highway, which cuts through the arid heart of the Australian continent.The conditions are extremely hot and dry; the average January high is 36.4°C, and much of the summer is spent in the mid-forties °C. The town itself was founded in 1916 after the first opal deposits were discovered the year prior (today, Coober Pedy is known as the ‘Opal Capital of the World’). Over the past century, a large amount of mine tunnels have been carved into the ground, and it is here where between 50 and 80 percent of the town’s 2-to-3 000 residents live, depending upon what source one cites and their definition of ‘underground’. While the central business district and immediate environs look somewhat similar to any other small desert, you only have to go a few blocks before you run into a rather alien landscape:


Aerial view of a neighbourhood of underground houses on the east side of Coober Pedy.


View Larger Map

Koska Street, Coober Pedy.

If those mounds and networks of bunkers look like they could be straight of out a post-apocalyptic film, then perhaps you’ve seen Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, or a half-dozen other pictures that have used Coober Pedy as a filming location. Don’t be fooled, though; inside those mounds lie some pretty comfortable, modern houses built right into the dugouts (it costs 25 percent less to burrow out a dugout home and furnish it as it would to build a house above ground). Entrances are at street level, and houses are then dug into the sides of the mounds. Inside, residents can escape the heat and enjoy pleasant, constant temperatures thanks to the heat shield provided by their caves. Little shafts extend out of the tops of the mounds in order to keep the houses ventilated. Tourists should be aware, however, that there are hidden unmaintained shafts both in town and surrounding the town for kilometres that can collapse at time and have claimed lives in the past.

Coober_Pedy_underground_house

Inside an underground house in Coober Pedy.Source; nachoman-au, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4d/Coober_Pedy_underground_house.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.


View Larger Map

A hotel built into the ground.

Since the paving of the Stuart Highway in 1987, tourism has become quite the burgeoning industry in Coober Pedy, as people flock from all over the world to observe its unique underground accommodations, many offbeat attractions, and surprisingly cosmopolitan underground dining. In addition to touring the attractions spread throughout the dugouts and caves and visiting active opal mining operations, visitors can enjoy such above-ground amenities as an entirely grassless golf course (trees don’t occur here naturally – although they did build one out of the remains of an old truck – and grass is pretty much impossible to find). Here’s a link to a satellite view of the course. The black spots are the ‘greens’, produced by mixing sand with diesel and oil. There’s also a throwback drive-in theatre. In summer, it is recommended to visit both the golf course and the drive-in at night, when the temperature is actually bearable (the golf course, in fact, is most played at night using glow-in-the-dark balls). And there’s the Big Winch, which lives up to its name. The landscape surrounding Coober Pedy is stark and breathtaking and certainly can hold its own scenery-wise (although it is recommended you have a travelling partner with you along with plenty of water and food; getting trapped in the desert alone with no supplies guarantees unfortunate results).

Coober Pedy Golf Course

A hole at Opal Fields Golf Club. The tee in the background is artificial turf (as is the piece of turf you are given to take around the course with you to place under your ball every time you hit). Source: nic_pepsi, http://www.flickr.com/photos/nic_pepsi/3810585791/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic  licence.

For a photo tour underground (including the town churches), visit Offbeat Earth or Outback Australia.

Further Reading

Bradtke, B. (2010). Coober Pedy – Australia’s Opal Capital. Outback Australia Travel Guide. Available at http://www.outback-australia-travel-secrets.com/coober-pedy-australia.html. Accessed 6 December 2010.

District Council of Coober Pedy (2010). Coober Pedy – Opal Capital of the World. Available at http://www.cooberpedy.sa.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=191. Accessed 6 December 2010.

Gluckman, R. (1995). Home Under the Range. Ron Gluckman in Cyberspace. Available at http://www.gluckman.com/CooberPedy.Australia.html. Accessed 6 December 2010.

Lefevre, N. (2010). Living Underground in Coober Pedy. Suite101, 4 May 2010. Available at http://www.suite101.com/content/living-underground-in-coober-pedy-a233344. Accessed 6 December 2010.

Offbeat Earth (2008). Coober Pedy Underground Desert Cave. 18 June 2008. Available at http://www.offbeatearth.com/coober-pedy-underground-desert-cave/. Accessed 6 December 2010.

Nearby Articles