Coober Pedy is a small town in northern South Australia, 850 kilometers north of Adelaide on the Stuart Highway. On the surface, the place looks pretty deserted. A treeless plain on the edge of the Stuart Ranges, with a few sparsely spaced houses, a couple of inns and restaurants, a police station, a school and a hospital further north. But that’s only half the town. The other half lives underground in spacious caves and tunnels called “dugouts” where the town’s residents have built homes, hotels, restaurants, bars, churches and more.
Coober Pedy was established in 1915 following the discovery of opal by a 14-year old boy who was camping with his father's gold prospecting party. Within a few years hundreds of prospectors were tearing up the turf. But people who flocked here to mine the previous stones soon discovered life above ground was pretty tough. In the summer, the temperature often exceeds 40 degrees Celsius. On these hot days, the relative humidity rarely gets over 20%, and the skies usually remained cloud-free.
One of the most famous signs of Coober Pedy. The town has around 250,000 mine shafts and signs like this warn visitors about the dangers of walking without looking. This sign is now reproduced in t-shirts, coffee mugs, flags, bags and plenty more things which you can buy as souvenirs. Photo credit
To escape the scorching daytime temperatures, the residents began to live underground. The early Coober Pedy houses were built in the holes that had already been dug in search for opal. Modern homes are dug into the hill sides and include all the amenities of an above-ground home including living rooms, kitchens, walk-in closets, bar and cellar. The entrance is usually at street level, and the rooms extend towards the back into the hill. All the rooms are ventilated with a vertical shaft, keeping the temperature regulated.
This ingenious style of living was introduced by soldiers returning from the First World War to prospect from opal mining. Coober Pedy was originally known as the Stuart Range Opal Field, named after John McDouall Stuart, who in 1858 was the first European explorer in the area. In 1920 it was re-named Coober Pedy, an anglicised version of Aboriginal words "kupa piti", which is assumed to mean "white man's hole".
Today Coober Pedy is the leading supplier of gem-quality opal, producing the bulk of the world's white opal. The town has over 70 opal fields and is the largest opal mining area in the world.
An open mine shaft. Photo credit
A mining truck on stilts welcomes tourist to Coober Pedy. Photo credit
An underground living room. Photo credit
An underground bookstore. Photo credit
Entrance to an underground church. Photo credit
There is a local golf course - mostly played at night with glowing balls, to avoid daytime temperatures. It’s completely free of grass and golfers take a small piece of "turf" around to use for teeing off. The lack of grass hasn’t discouraged them to put up this sign in the golf course though. Photo credit
A major attraction of Coober Pedy is this church. Photo credit
Desert Cave Hotel, Coober Pedy. Photo credit
Another hotel room. Photo credit
The Lookout Cave Underground hotel in Coober Pedy. Photo credit
Blower used for mining opal at Coober Pedy. Photo credit
A general view of Coober Pedy. Photo credit
Aerial view of Coober Pedy. Photo credit
This article has been revised and republished from an earlier article that appeared on Amusing Planet on November 25, 2008
Subscribe to our Newsletter and get articles like this delieverd straight to your inbox