Coober Pedy


David Whitley meets the cave-dwelling opal miners in Hollywood’s favourite piece of post-apocalyptic Outback real estate

The walls of my hotel room look like they’ve been splattered in blood, and there are no windows to allow natural light in. It would appear as though I am the unsuspecting star of the latest film in the Saw series. In Coober Pedy, this is all perfectly normal. My hotel room is underground, having been dug out into the side of a hill, and the deep red streaks are part of the remarkable natural sandstone in the area.

But this stone harbours greater riches than just geological quirks that make an international quality hotel room look like a blood-splattered dungeon. 90% of the world’s opal comes from this part of the South Australian desert. And that’s what brings people to Coober Pedy. Since the first opal was found by a 14-year-old boy in 1915, miners have flocked from all over the world to dig out their fortune. This has led to a bizarrely cosmopolitan community in the heart of the Outback. Approximately 45 nationalities are represented in and around Coober Pedy, leading to unexpected sights such as Italian clubs, Chinese restaurants and Greek cafés.

Oh, and an underground Serbian orthodox church, which, as 80% of homes in the area are, is tunnelled out of the earth. To understand the Troglodyte mentality in Coober Pedy, you have to look at what’s above the ground. The landscape is unbelievably stark. Everything is coated in a salmon pink dust, and the only things to mark the landscape are the heaps of rubble spat out by the opal mines. It’s no surprise that when Hollywood wants to set a movie in a post-apocalyptic hellhole or inhospitable alien planet, they bring the cameras up to Coober Pedy. It may be a good ten hour’s drive north of Adelaide and in the middle of nowhere, but it has been perfect for the likes of Mad Max 3 and Pitch Black.

Signs dotted around the town warn against walking backwards, in case you fall down a deep mine shaft, and the drive-in cinema warns that patrons are not allowed to bring explosives inside. And then there’s the climate. Winter nights can be bitterly cold, while daytime temperatures in the high forties (or even early 50s) are the norm. It’s a brutal, dry, dust-blown place to live. Hence people prefer subterranean homes where temperatures are constantly between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius. It may be an unimaginably awful place to live – around 4,000 hardy souls call Coober Pedy home – but it’s a fascinating place to visit. You can go down into the mines, browse around Aboriginal art galleries that double as kangaroo orphanages and flounce about in giant rubble heaps trying to find your own specks of opal.

Or, alternatively, you can see how the other half lives. Colin Maclean lives in Faye’s Underground Display Home. It was excavated by hand, firstly as a garage for the postman in Coober Pedy’s early years, and then as a home for redoubtable café owner Faye Nayler. Faye has now moved on to Queenlsand, but Colin has kept the three bedroom home open to visitors for $5 a pop. It’s a remarkable place to live – and unexpectedly lavish. The upstairs section has an indoor swimming pool, while a chain of bedrooms slinks further underground and a (never-used) fireplace is fashioned out of semi-precious jasper stone.

If it wasn’t at the end of a dodgy dirt road and surrounded by mines, it’d actually be a quite appealing home. Unbelievably, though, Colin didn’t come here for the opal. He lived in the Barossa Valley wine region until he retired, then decided he “would try something different”.He’s now been in Coober Pedy for around seven years, and has become part of the community, just like the other oddballs that have been lured in by the Outback’s weirdest settlementt. He’s on the roster at his underground church, and is a member of the local golf club. For the latter, you can forget about greens and fairways – it’s all dirt and players carry around a small piece of false turf to tee off from. But they do have one unexpected benefit – the Coober Pedy Golf Club is the only one in the world with reciprocal playing rights at the legendary St Andrews in Scotland.