Human beings can survive and even thrive in some of the most inhospitable environments. This is one of the main reasons I’ve always been absolutely fascinated with remote communities and hamlets, especially those in the arctic regions, and in the deserts.
There resides a town in the outback halfway between Adelaide and Alice Springs in south central Australia called Coober Pedy. This town has always held a great fascination in my mind’s eye for travel. It is one of the most unique travel destinations in Australia and in the world.
Coober Pedy is a desert town and a very harsh place to live due to the torrid temperatures, so the majority of residents live in CAVES below-ground or bored in the hillsides called “DUGOUTS” which the town is renowned for. Daytime temperatures can exceed 113 degrees Fahrenheit.
The name "Coober Pedy" comes from the local aboriginal term kupa-piti, which means "boys’ waterhole". Very little plant life exists in town due to the region's low rainfall, high cost of water, the sandstone and lack of topsoil.
Today about half of the population of Coober Pedy lives underground in dugouts where the temperature stays at a constant 75 degrees year round. The otherworldly landscape -which is checkered with ruddy-colored mounds of sandstone - is the result of years of opal mining and provides the perfect backdrop for a post-apocalyptic reality.
Since its founding after a teenager discovered opal gemstones there over 100 years ago, the town has been ground zero for opal mining. An estimated 70 percent of the world's opal production can be linked back to the town, earning it the title of "Opal Capital of the World.”
Here the majority of its 3,500 residents work in the opal industry.
Rather than move to a cooler locale, the town’s earliest residents learned to adapt to the scorching environment. They found inspiration on the very ground they stood. Using mining tools, hardy prospectors did what they did best and dug holes into the hillsides to make underground dwellings or “dugouts.”
The first tree ever seen in the town was welded together from scrap iron. It still sits on a hilltop overlooking the town.
Great Attractions, yet a Quiet Place
There are underground visitor attractions in Coober Pedy which include hotels, shops, the mines, the graveyard, and a few underground churches (the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church).
“People come here to see things differently,” Robert Coro, managing director of the Desert Cave Hotel in Coober Pedy, tells. Parts of his hotel accommodations in Coober Pedy are located below the ground, like many other buildings in town. “It’s that kind of adventure mentality that attracts people here in the first place.”
Over the years, Coober Pedy's residents have become extremely adept at building their own dwellings underground, creating customized subterranean houses that go beyond just one or two rooms morphing into sprawling labyrinths that stretch out like spiders' webs. People carve out bookshelves into their sandstone walls. Even others have built private underground swimming pools in their homes.
“The beauty of living underground is that it’s very quiet and very still,” Coro says. “There’s no air movement or rush of air from the air conditioner, and since there are no windows or natural light, you get a very peaceful night’s sleep.”
What makes Coober Pedy so unique isn’t just what’s going on beneath the surface, it’s above ground. Here visible hints of the city’s strong mining roots and eccentricities abound at every turn.
For instance, at the Coober Pedy Drive-in Theater, the management requests that guests leave their “explosives at home”, while signs around town warn people to beware of unmarked holes, and the remnants of previous opal digs. Then there’s the annual Coober Pedy Opal Festival held every spring.
And last but not least, the wonderful golf course traversing the desert flats - The Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Club. Golf is played year round on this unique course where the greens are black and the fairways are white! Many a golfer have found opal whilst playing a round.
Even the thin veil of red dust that settles on roadways, cars and buildings serves as a constant reminder of Coober Pedy’s strange charm.
There really is no other place like Coober Pedy on—or below—Earth.
Please feel free to share any insights or stories you may have about this strange and magical place.