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Discovering Coober Pedy: Australia’s underground town

November 8, 2011 - Jo Lane

IN Coober Pedy in the summer it can reach a scorching 47 degrees. For this reason the local population have taken to living underground in houses that are literally carved into the hillside.

Today houses, churches, museums, shops, hotels, pools and even the campground are excavated into the rock to keep temperatures a constant 25 degrees year-round without the need for air conditioning.

Underground church in Coober Pedy. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

And we’re not talking about some place in the African Sahara or Mongolia’s Gobi desert, Coober Pedy is a small town in South Australia, 846 kilometres north of Adelaide.

The name Coober Pedy actually comes from the Aboriginal word kupa-piti meaning “white man’s hole”. This was because it was white miners that came here to establish a town in 1916, after opals were discovered in 1915, that took to living in caves. Eighty percent of people still live underground.

Underground houses in Coober Pedy. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Thanks to its rather quirky origins, unusual housing and eclectic population it has become a popular stopover on the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs, or for those travelling the overland Ghan train route that runs the length of the country. Sixty thousand people venture this way every year to check out Coober Pedy, do a bit of opal fossicking and even play golf.

The large quantity of precious opals in the ground around the town have helped it gain the title of the “opal capital of the world” and if you fancy your luck you can get a precious stones permit and join the hordes looking to strike it rich or simply scrabble around in the heaps of the Old Timers Museum. The world’s largest gem opal, 280mm long by 120mm high, is known as Olympic Australis and was found in 1956 in Coober Pedy. At AUD $2.5  million in value it certainly proves there’s good reason to try your luck.

One of the other key attractions in town is the 18 hole golf course. This course is definitely one of the world’s unique and arid. There is no grass—players tee off artificial turf they take around the course with them—and it’s also possible to play night golf when it’s a lot cooler with glowing balls. Because of the lack of water, mounds of dirt, arid creek beds and rocks form part of the challenges instead of trees and water hazards. There’s even a professional tournament here every Easter.

The other attractions in town include the Opal Mine, Opal Cave, Backpackers Cave, Big Winch, Opal Factory and Opal Centre.

Just outside town visitors also like to appreciate Coober Pedy’s lunar landscape which is actually very attractive. Nearby formations such as the Breakaways, colourful topped mesas, and Moon Plain, a vast expanse of rocky plains, have been used in a number of film sets such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. INXS also filmed a music video in this area. Nothing beats taking a glass of wine out here at dusk to enjoy the striking colours of the land as the sun sets.

Bus used in Mad Max film. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Coober Pedy is also renowned for being a leg of the world’s longest mail run, a 2,600km route from Port Augusta near Adelaide to Boulia in Queensland. Those that like these remote and unusual Australian features might also like to venture just out of town to the dingo fence that passes nearby – a 9,600 kilometre barrier running the length of the country.

If this all sounds just too unbelievable to be true you’ll just have to go out and see for yourself. After all if you’re heading this way it’s one of the only exits on the road to nowhere.

Danger sign for open mines near Coober Pedy. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

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