Welcome to Coober Pedy, Australia's Underground Town

Travel Guide: Australia’s Underground Town of Coober Pedy

Tucked away 864 km to the north of Adelaide in Southern Australia is Coober Pedy, the world’s opal capital. What makes this town unique is almost everything is underground- residents’ homes, churches, landmark buildings and hotels. If you fancy staying in underground hotels and visiting underground churches and museums, then Coober Pedy is the place for you.

History

Opal Mining, Coober Pedy
credit@ Flickriver

The opal mines at Coober Pedy came into existence around 150 million years ago. Ocean water covered the area, and as the water receded, underground water tables were lowered due to climatic changes. Silica solutions flowed into faults, cavities and fractures in the ground. Millions of years later, the opal was formed out of silica solutions.

Years before the site became a mining area, the Aboriginals led a nomadic life in Coober Pedy. They adapted their lifestyle according to the desert environment by leading a hunter- gatherer lifestyle. Besides combing the area for food and water, Coober Pedy was also where they held their traditional ceremonies and rituals. By June 1975, the Aboriginal community took the name of ‘Umoona’, which means long life. Umoona was also the name of the mulga tree that was commonly found in the area.

Before being called Coober Pedy, the area was called Stuart Range Opal Field. It was named after the first European explorer who visited the area 1858, John McDouall Stuart. In 1920, the place required a name change so as to establish a post office. Stuart Range was considered unsuitable since there already existed a town named Stewart Range in Western Australia. Opal miners got together at the Progress Committee and chose Coober Pedy, which comes from the aboriginal term ‘kupa- piti’ meaning ‘white man in a hole.’

Mining

Opals from Coober Pedy
credit@ Pinterest

Mining for opal was not always smooth sailing. In fact, opal was only discovered in February 1914 when the members of the New Colorado Prospecting Syndicate were looking for gold. John Stuart may be the first European to wander into the area, but the opal was discovered there by a native. When Willie Hutchison’s father was out trying to find gold, he was left behind at camp. The fourteen year old wandered off out of boredom and returned later at night with an enormous bag of opals on his shoulder. Hence, fourteen weeks of unsuccessful mining for gold resulted in the discovery of opal, but due to the extreme isolation and lack of surface water, the number of miners actually working here was extremely low. It was only five years later, followed by good rainfall, that the number increased. After the name change, a store, post office and an underground water tank were built in 1922.

Till today, the number of miners working at Coober Pedy hasn’t been steady. When the Great Depression (1929- 1939) hit, the opal industry took a bad fall. The plummeting prices led production to become almost non-existent and didn’t pick up until after World War II. It was late 1945 when the industry picked up pace again. An Aboriginal woman, Tottie Kendall and her partner Charlie Bryant, rediscovered opals, leading to a renewed interest and a rush into the opal fields.

Growth of the Town

Barren land into an urbanised town, Coober Pedy
credit@ Smithsonian Magazine

The existence of the town started taking root during the late 1960s for a couple of reasons. The demand for opal grew. Moreover, many Europeans migrated to the land in hopes of making their fortune here. It was also the time when mechanisation began, which boomed during the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s. All these reasons added to the opal industry becoming a million dollar industry and Coober Pedy a modern mining town.

For the past two decades, the floundering number of miners and activity has affected the industry. Now, tourism plays an increasingly active role in sustaining the town’s income and gaining recognition as the Outback’s (remote districts of Australia) major regional centre.

Living Underground

Underground Home, Coober Pedy
credit@ Pinterest
Underground Home, Coober Pedy
credit@ Business Insider

While Coober Pedy produces almost 80% of the world’s opal, the blistering heat, lack of water and vegetation as well as the isolation did not make it an easy place to work, let alone build a permanent residence. The landscape was pocketed with pits and holes, and old rusted cars lay everywhere. Adding to these issues were the clouds of flies continually buzzing around and the red veil of dust clinging to the surface due to mining. When George Miller shot parts of his film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderstorm here in 1985, the already remote area with its peculiarities became viewed more as an apocalyptic barren land.

So to battle the anomalies of the land, the people came up with a creative strategy rather than leave the town for good. An underground or subterranean town came into existence when the residents started making homes out of the old mines. The pits were enlarged by digging and carving- hence earning the name dugouts- to make room. Shelves were either hammered into the wall or carved out of the sand. One home owner even managed to create a swimming pool and beauty parlour in their living rooms. And it’s not just homes, but an entire town that exists underground- a church, hotels, B&Bs with rooms undergrounds, a campsite (visitors can pitch their tents) and museums. Even on the hottest of the days, the temperatures remain cooler beneath the ground.

Today, there are more than 3000 residents at Coober Pedy. Apart from native Australians, you’ll find people of several nationalities like Sri Lankans, Greeks, Americans and even few Inuit making a living here. There’s a movie theatre (a drive-in) and a golf course without grass! Whoever wants to play golf carry around their own turf and use balls that glow in the dark. Night golf has been popularized here to avoid the daytime heat. All around the town, signs have been put up warning the visitors to beware of the numerous unmarked holes.

In recent times, the town’s hybrid energy project makes use of the area’s sun and wind to harness into renewable energy. 70% of the town’s power is produced through this project. Formerly, diesel fuel was used to power the town. Now, the clean energy project provides much needed relief from the smoke and heat of the former fuel.

What to do in Coober Pedy

Apart from being famous for the opal industry, Coober Pedy has a lot to offer to tourists too. From underground museums to churches, climb under to visit this unique town’s landmarks.

Serbian Orthodox Church

Inside the Serbian Orthodox Church
credit@ Orthodox World

The Serbian Orthodox Church, dedicated to St. Elijah the Prophet was built in 1993 by Serbian opal miners in Coober Pedy. The church is 30 metres long, 5.3 metres wide and 7 metres high. What’s more interesting is that the church has a parish house, community hall and a religious school. The ceiling window is made of beautiful stained glass. The glass iconostasis renders the place a divine atmosphere. Statues of saints are carved into the sandstone, making the church one of the most unique ones in the world. The church is located 3 km away from Coober Pedy with an entry fee of $5 for tourists.

Catacomb Church

Inside the Catacomb Church
credit@ Inspirock

Named after the Catacombs in Rome, the Catacomb Church was dug in the shape of a cross. The church was built in the 1970s and the natural interior wall of the church is coated with sealant to prevent dust from gathering around. The temperature inside remains constant at around 25 C all year long, providing a respite from the heat outside.

Kanku Breakaways Conservation Park

Kanku Breakaways Conservation Park
credit@ Coober Pedy Tours

Covering almost 15,000 hectares, the Kanku Breakaways Conservation Park offers you the chance to see the native flora and fauna. Home to the Aboriginal Antakirinja Matuntjara Yankunytjatjara people, the park houses flora such as acacias, mallee and eremophilia and fauna like the red kangaroo, echidna, dunnart (mouse-like marsupial) and many bird species. Entry rates amount to $8 while a vehicle entry is permitted at $10. Camping or mountain biking is prohibited. The park is 15 miles away from Coober Pedy. It is accessible via the Stuart Highway.

Umoona Opal Mine and Museum

Umoona Opal Mine and Museum, Coober Pedy
credit@ Wikipedia
Opal showroom in the museum
credit@ TripAdvisor

The Umoona Opal Mine and Museum is Coober Pedy’s award winning tourist attraction. Go underground to learn about the Aboriginals, early European settlements and the early days of mining. The museum also has a theatre where you can watch the documentary ‘The Story of Opal.’ If you’re looking to buy some opal, then the retail showroom is filled with opal jewellery and rough and cut opal. The in house jeweller will also fashion a piece of jewellery for you from your choice of stone in the showroom. The museum lies in the main street of Coober Pedy and the tickets cost $12 and $6 for adults and kids respectively.

Faye’s Underground Home

Inside Faye's Underground Home
credit@ TripAdvisor
Indoor pool, Faye's Museum
credit@ TripAdvisor

This underground home was built by three women in the 1960s and gives you a glimpse into the underground life in Coober Pedy. Faye is no longer an inhabitant of the home, but the couple who currently reside here opened it up to the public. Comfortably furnished, the place has a fully functioning kitchen, rooms, a fireplace for winter heating and a swimming pool in the living room. For a small fee, you can get a taste of what it is to live underground.

Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage

Tourist with a joey at the orphanage
credit@ Wikipedia
Feeding kangaroos at the orphanage
credit@ Wikipedia

The Kangaroo Orphanage was established in 2008 and since then, it doesn’t just take in and care for orphaned kangaroos only- birds, wombats and lizards find a loving home here. The owners, Josephine and Terry Brennan- Kuss are dedicated to saving wild life and mining opals. Displayed in the gallery are their opal collections, the most impressive amongst which is the ‘Centenary Plate,’ mined in 2014. An Aboriginal culture and heritage talk narrates the history of Aboriginal weaponry, art and medicine.

Where to stay

The Underground Motel

Room, Underground Motel
credit@ FashionPlayTes

This motel is situated at the edge of the town. The room are underground with air conditioning, kitchenette, attached bathrooms, TV, phone and free Wi-Fi. There are outdoor verandas, play area for children, laundry and BBQ facilities.

Opal Inn

Room at the Opal Inn
credit@ Agoda

The Opal Inn is above ground, having 65 rooms and more than 50 caravan sites. The rooms are air conditioned and have a TV, fridge and tea and coffee making facilities. The hotel has a restaurant, a bar and free Wi-Fi. The caravans are pet friendly with a fire pit, BBQ and laundry.

Desert View Apartments

Room at the Desert View Apartments
credit@ wikipedia

The apartment is located away from the main street and has 11 underground homes, with 2 or 3 bedrooms. The swimming pool is open during summer. Pets are allowed, and the hotel has BBQ facilities.

Di’s Dugouts

Room at Di's Dugout
credit@ Wikipedia

Di’s Dugouts is a complex made of two places- Di’s Place and Dinky Di’s Dugout. Both have facilities like laundry, kitchen, BBQ and outdoor areas. The parking can accommodate trailers and caravans.

Comfort Inn Coober Pedy Experience

Room at the Comfort Inn Experience
credit@ Wikipedia

The rooms have a TV, a fridge, a kitchenette, and free Wi-Fi. The inn also has several shops. Guests can enjoy BBQ facilities. It is close to several landmarks of Coober Pedy, like Faye’s Underground Home, Umoona Opal Mine & Museum and Catacomb Church.

The residents of Cooper Pedy have used the town’s isolation to create something unique and attractive. Enjoy an underground experience at Coober Pedy!

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