Deep in the South Australian outback, there lies a town where some fifty percent of its people live underground. The reason? It’s not due to some nuclear catastrophe or a mass case of agoraphobia. Rather, intense summer heat—and winter cold—is what led most of its approximately 2,000 inhabitants to carve out a subterranean home.
A curious sequence of events led to the birth of this otherworldly-looking place. It all started just over a century ago when in 1915, a band of three men were unsuccessfully prospecting for gold south of Coober Pedy. With them was 14-year-old Will Hutchinson, son of one of the men, Jim Hutchinson.
After setting up camp, they searched for water in the arid landscape. Young William spotted something glinting on the ground; it wasn’t gold, but the semiprecious gemstone opal. According to the Coober Pedy Historical Society:
“Will found a small waterhole as well as the opal. At the time he thought more of the water than the opal.”
The teenager had, in fact, sparked the beginning of what would become the largest opal mining operation in the world—but first, the first settlers had to figure out how to survive there. Situated approximately halfway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, Coober Pedy is surrounded by barren, stony desert. There is very little rainfall, and temperatures in summer often top 104 Fahrenheit.
In 1915, the first dugout was made. Carved out of soft hillside rock, this underground dwelling would provide a respite from the blistering heat. It wasn’t until it rained in 1919, though, that a real opal rush began when men streamed in on camels and horses. In order to get a post office, a name for the town was needed. A miner suggested Coober Pedy—an anglicized version of the Aboriginal words “kupa piti,” roughly translated as “white man in a hole.” Aboriginal people had been living in the area for thousands of years.
In the 1930s and 40s, during the Great Depression and Second World War, with no market for luxury goods, Coober Pedy experienced a slump. But it recovered in the post-war era; fast forward to 2023, and those first primitive first dugouts have evolved to become sophisticated modern underground homes.
Wonderfully temperate, the sandstone cave dwellings maintain a perfectly comfortable temperature year-round. There’s also an array of subterranean shops, restaurants, hotels—even a casino. The town’s Desert Cave Hotel calls itself “the only international rated underground hotel in the world.”
It goes on to say:
“Sleeping underground is a unique experience. Quiet, cool, dark and airy—the rooms are spacious with high ceilings. Enjoy fine dining, splash in the pool, relax in the spa, workout in the gym or browse in the cool comfort of the underground shops.”
There are beautifully ornate underground churches around town, one of which features stunning stained-glass windows. A state-of-the-art, 360-degree cinema runs showings of the changing landscape, filmed over 12 months, and nighttime golf sessions are played with glowing balls on a grassless course.
Owing to the uniqueness of the surroundings and adventure element, Coober Pedy has evolved to become a popular tourist destination. Visitors can explore the many museums and attractions, including “Crocodile Harry’s Underground Mine & Dugout,” the home of a Latvian crocodile hunter who arrived in Coober Pedy to try his luck at opal mining. His cave featured in “Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome,” the majority of which was filmed in the town.
Meanwhile, “Faye’s Underground Historic Home & Mine Tour” allows visitors to see the spot where female miner Faye Naylor found her fortune in the early 1960s, and the cave home she dug out by hand with two of her friends—also the location of the first below-ground swimming pool.
Building methods have, thankfully, moved on and Coober Pedy’s residents now don’t lack contemporary comfort or convenience. In 2021, a collection of 33 one-and-two-bedroom cave homes went to auction at the Desert Cave Hotel. The highest-selling dugout sold for $33,000, and the lowest fetched just $1,300. Photos revealed that the condition of the homes, around half of which were vacant, was quite basic with most requiring work to bring them up to modern living standards.
Had 14-year-old Will Hutchinson seen ahead to what his opal discovery would become, he would not have believed his eyes. Yet, looking around outside, the timeless, dreamy desert landscape is ever unchanging. Nor does the relentless heat show signs of letting up anytime soon.
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