What is it that’s so intoxicating about the idea of travel? That’s a tough one to answer, as everyone has a different idea of travel in mind. Sometimes, it’s the annual blow-out of a luxurious vacation, with sun, sea, sand and novelty fruity drinks with little umbrellas in. Sometimes, it’s just you, a backpack, a few changes of clothes and a long slog ahead.
The main thing that keeps me traveling (either that or wistfully planning the next trip) is the idea of embracing different cultures. There’s so much to learn out there in this amazing world of ours.
You could be a world-renowned scientist or scholar, but when you head on out of your comfort zone, you realise just how much more there still is to learn. It’s humbling, life-affirming and fascinating, speaking as someone who is certainly not a world-renowned scientist or scholar (heck, this morning it took me about five minutes to realise what was wrong with my pants: I was trying to put on my wife’s instead of my own).
With all of that in mind (not the pants thing, though; no need to dwell on that, it’s embarrassing), let’s take a look at a place you’ve probably heard of, but could do with a little more background detail about: Australia’s mysterious underground city, Coober Pedy. Why do the people of the town live underground? What are the houses like? Just how darn hot is this place? Let’s find out.
24 The Cruel Coober Pedy Heat
Now, buckle up, friends, because I’ve got a stunning newsflash for you here: it tends to be hot in Australia. I know, you’ve tuned in for exactly that sort of revelation.
The thing is, though, that’s nothing unusual. The people of this proud, beautiful country have long since become used to the blistering temperatures. What kind of heat can make an Australian start to suffer and wilt? The heat of Coober Pedy, near Adelaide in South Australia. Here, according to NPR, the temperature can reach 127 Fahrenheit… in the shade.
“This is the kind of place where the searing heat warps perspectives, and yet somehow clarifies them,” they report. Speaking as a super pasty Brit, I’m already a little afraid.
23 We’re Just In It For The Opals
So, yes. Even by the standards of hardened, sun-baked Australians, the Coober Pedy area is really darn hot. What led people to settle in the region, then? Well, the usual: the chance to make a whole hecking helping of cash, that’s what.
Coober Pedy may be famous for its underground houses (we’re getting to those, don’t worry), but it’s also noted around the world for something else: its opals. Incredible finds in the area began with a famous find in January 1915, and has experienced peaks and troughs ever since. It became a multi-million dollar industry, and led to Coober Pedy being deemed ‘the opal capital of the world.’
22 Not Many People Know That
Needless to say, then, this is one of those challenging and inhospitable yet rewarding places that we humans just can’t get enough of. Should people have settled here? The Sun says no, no, no, but the opals say oh, heckola yes.
It’s not a big town by any means, though. According to Travel Outback Australia, the population of Coober Pedy stands at a modest 3,500 or so people (a 2016 census puts the number at 1,762 people, depending on where you draw the line). It’s quite extensive for a settlement, though, particularly when you consider the unusual living arrangements the people have devised.
21 “I’m Goin’ Deeper Underground…”
“…there’s too much panic in this town.”
I hope someone out there appreciates that reference, or I’m going to feel really, really old. Never mind that, though. Let’s get onto those famous underground houses.
As you’ve probably heard (not least of all because I’ve mentioned it several times already), Coober Pedy’s USP is the fact that its residents live in underground cave-homes. This is largely to escape the area’s stifling heat.
On the surface (literally and figuratively), the town doesn’t look like very much. It boasts the basic amenities; a few stores, a hospital and police station and the like. The bulk of people’s homes are under the ground, though. Let’s take a closer look.
20 You Call That A Cave? *This* Is A Cave
These underground homes are often completely misunderstood. If you’ve never visited, you’ll hear that people live in spaces left by opal mining, that said homes are called ‘dugouts’ by the locals, and luxury and comfort are not words that immediately spring to mind.
As Outback Travel Secrets explains, though, the early Coober Pedy dugouts were simple and quite primitive, but they’ve expanded far beyond that. They report on one example of a once-primitive residence that was expanded:
“Three bedrooms with walk in robes, living room, bar, wine cellar... What else could you want? Billiard room and swimming pool? Believe it or not, [they] added it!”
19 Watch Your Step
Historically, then, mining has been crucial to the economy of Coober Pedy and the people’s way of life. It still is. With that in mind, then, there are certain things that residents take for granted, which visitors will need to be aware of.
Here’s one of those things: there are darn holes everywhere. As this famous warning sign attests, you’ve got to be darn careful where you walk. As Amusing Planet reports, there are over 250,000 mine shafts in and around the town. This isn’t a place to wander about staring at your phone, like you’re playing Pokémon Go or something.
18 It’s A Super-Unique Place To Play Golf
Of all the claims to fame you’d expect of Coober Pedy, this probably wouldn’t be one of them. Sure, there’s the underground town and the opal mines, but here’s something you may not have heard about: the truly one-of-a-kind golfing facilities.
As you’d expect, there’s no lush green here. There isn’t any grass at all on the town’s golf course, in fact, so players use an artificial little slice of green they carry with them to strike the ball. That’s not unusual enough for you? How about this:
17 Subterranean Splendour
Now, maybe splendour isn’t quite the word here. We’re not talking about the sorts of pads where Kim and Kanye would had glamorous photoshoots. We are, however, talking about homes that far too impressive to warrant the name ‘dugouts.’
I mean, granted, the walls aren’t the classiest-looking out there. There’s not a lot that can be done about that, as you can probably appreciate. What matters here is that the newer Coober Pedy homes have a surprising array of mod cons, complete with electricity and shafts drilled into the ceiling of each room for ventilation. They can be surprisingly spacious, too.
16 What’s In A Name?
There’s something else you may be wondering about Coober Pedy: what does the name mean? After all, Australia is world-renowned for its magnificent place names, including Wonglepong, Humpybong and Nowhere Else.
What does Coober Pedy mean? Well, we’re not quite clear on that. It’s an Anglicised take on two Aboriginal words, Kupa Piti, which has been taken to mean ‘Boy’s Waterhole,’ ‘White Man’s Hole,’ or some variant on that.
Also, because I’m sure you’re just desperate to know, Wonglepong is said to either mean ‘Forgotten Sound’ or to refer to a feature of the majestic Mount Tambourine, which is in the area. Humpybong, meanwhile, means ‘Forgotten/Dead Houses,’ in reference to a few old residences that were left standing at Redcliffe.
15 Praise The Machines
Now, I’m a huge fan of the Terminator movies, which means that I am not a huge fan of machines. The key thing here, I’d say, is that we ensure that they always work for us, rather than the other way around.
Just look at the difference that machines can make when they’re used for good, and not being sent back in time to chase John Connor in a truck. In Coober Pedy, sophisticated mining machines can make new homes in the hillsides, far more cheaply and easily than doing so by hand (well, by pick and such).
What kind of numbers are we looking at? Well, according to Monica Nagyszollosi, Raine & Horne Coober Pedy real estate agent, in 2015, houses and dugouts would set you back around $60,000 ($43,300 or so US dollars).
14 Noisy Neighbors? That’s Not A Problem Around Here
Do you remember that snarky scene from The Simpsons, where Bart tells the Australian boy he’s prank calling to go and speak to his neighbors? The boy cycles off into the distance and is gone for an eternity. To be fair to the show, that’s not far from the truth.
Australia is a vast and often very remote country, and your neighbors can be a long, long way away. As reported by Travel Outback Australia, Coober Pedy is 688 kilometers (427 miles) from Alice Springs, 2060 kilometres (1280 miles) from Sydney and an incredible 2501 kilometres (1554 miles) from Perth!
13 The Perfect Spot To Film A Movie
So, yes. We’ve covered the fact that your closest neighbours are sometimes in a totally darn different time zone, but there’s something else Australia is famous for: its beautiful, inimitable, often otherworldly scenery.
The Outback is a truly sensational backdrop, the likes of which you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on the planet. As such, it’s no surprise that Coober Pedy was chosen as a filming location for a whole diverse range of movies, some of which include the sci-fi horror Pitch Black, action adventure Ground Zero and (of course) silly comedy Kangaroo Jack. Because that one was kind of a given.
12 You’re Sure To Get A Good Night’s Sleep
Now, we all have our sleeping rituals. We all have those things that we need to have before we can get to sleep. A fan on, perhaps, or a foot out of the blankets, or a cuddly penguin named Hugsy (in Joey Tribbiani’s case)… we tend to be creatures of habit when it comes to sleep.
We don’t like to be brought out of our comfort zones in that way, and for many of us, the idea of sleeping underground is totally alien. The people of Coober Pedy, however, know how ideal this arrangement is. As Robert Coro, managing director of the Desert Cave Hotel, states:
“The beauty of living underground is that it’s very quiet and very still… 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.”
11 Water, Water Everywhere… Oh, Wait, No It’s Not
As you can imagine, rainfall is… well, almost entirely non-existent in Coober Pedy. On February, the wettest month of the year, they hit a paltry average of 21mm of sweet, life-giving rain. Living in constantly-soggy Britain as I do, I’ve got to say that those really are rookie numbers.
More seriously, this also means that water is a very precious commodity. This is the case across South Australia, but the unique nature of Coober Pedy’s community makes things a little more complex still.
As The District Council of Coober Pedy reports, the town’s water has to be:
“bought in from a bore 25km North East of Coober Pedy on the Oodnadatta road via a pipeline.
The water is then processed through a Desalination/Reverse Osmosis Plant.”
10 Living Like The Locals
With an unusual lifestyle such as theirs, you might think that the residents of Coober Pedy may be a little secretive. The fact is, though, as is so often the case in Australia, the people aren’t having any of that. they’re super welcoming (tourism is incredibly important to the community and the country in general, after all), and they love people to share in the underground-living experience.
The town boasts some excellent hotels, unique experiences for visitors, and the possibility that, just maybe, you’ll strike it lucky (more on that later). It’s no surprise that, as one report on the town stated,
“…every resident I know is a visitor who never went home.”
9 Something For The Tourists
So, as we know, Coober Pedy is no bustling metropolis. If you’re looking for a Times Square-like festival of noise, bright lights and crowds, it’s safe to say that you’re probably in the wrong place right here.
Coober Pedy may be famous purely for its unconventional qualities, but there are some tourist attractions to be enjoyed too. Some of the town’s most popular sights include the Old Timers Mine on Crowders Gully Road and Faye’s Underground Home, one of the finest examples of the town’s dugouts and the scope residents had to expand them.
The opal mines and the dugouts are what you’re here to see, after all.
8 Anyone Can Get Rich Here
Now, that’s a selling point right there. As we’ve already established, it’s the area’s rich crop of opals that led people to settle and thrive in Coober Pedy in the first place. Along with tourism, this industry is crucial to the community and economy of the town.
As reported by Passport & Pixels, there’s something very special about the opal fields:
“…unlike with gold and diamonds, there is no scientific way to track opals: finding them is entirely pot luck, hit and (usually) miss. So big corporations don’t bother: it’s not worth the investment. Which means that any Tom, Dick or Harriet can simply turn up and give it a go.”
7 Dig On, Tom, Dick And Harriet!
Following on from that last entry, the next question you probably have in mind is: just how does any old amateur go about making their fortune in Coober Pedy?
Needless to say, it’s not a sure thing. On the scale of sure things, it’s right there between “Buying A Lotto Ticket” and “McDonald’s Actually Deciding To Extend Their Delivery Service To Your Area.”
What you can do, though, is give noodling a try and see what you can turn up. Noodling, also known as fossicking, is the simple process of sifting through the waste that other miners have left behind. It’s not as bad as it may sound, though, as Passport & Pixels reports:
“Many of the large-scale miners focus solely on the big deposits, and don’t waste time on the odd gem or two here and there. For those that can be bothered, there’s good money to be made simply picking up what the big guys have left behind.”
6 Everyone’s Welcome
As we’ve seen, the unique aspects of Coober Pedy living (and the prospect of possible riches, of course) attract visitors from all over the world. And not just visitors, either. Many are so entranced by this quaint, unusual place that they choose to stay.
These new residents really are from all over the world, too. The town may only boast a very modest population, but it’s a truly cosmopolitan society. According to Lonely Planet, there are 44 different nationalities represented by the people of Coober Pedy!
I think that fact says it all. Clearly, the town’s unorthodox approach is one that can resonate with anybody.
5 A Handy Halfway Point
I’ve also already covered the fact that Coober Pedy is a super, super long way away from… just about anywhere, really.
This is nothing particularly unusual, though, as far as Australia as a whole is concerned. The outback is a vast and very sparsely-populated place, after all, and those familiar with it understand that we’re talking about hundreds upon hundreds of desolate miles travelled between towns.
Which is another darn useful thing you may not know about Coober Pedy: weary travellers are also drawn to the place because it’s an ideal halfway house. If you’re journeying between Adelaide and Alice Springs (a journey from South Australia to the Northern Territory), that’s just over 950 miles. Fortunately for you, Coober Pedy is ideally situated mid-way between the two. Make sure you take a pit stop.