Coober Pedy is a town in the northern area of South Australia. Geographically, that places it just a bit southward of the center of the country. It’s a fairly barren area as far as vegetation goes, but it has proven to possess one resource in abundance: opals. In the latter half of the nineteenth century opals were discovered in what was then called Stuart Range. Miners, and sometimes their families, moved to the area to remove opals from the ground. Large shafts and caves were carved out. Thankfully, due to the very stable soil and rock, cave-ins were extremely rare.
In 1920, enough people lived at the Stuart Range to warrant a post office, but a problem arose: an existing Australian town named Stuart Range. Town leaders came together to decide upon a new name, and they eventually settled on one which had its roots in the aboriginal language. Specifically, Coober Pedy, which translated to “White Man in a Hole”.
Their town name has since become unusually appropriate.
Australian soldiers had joined on the side of the British during World War I, and had spent months and even years living in the trenches. Some survivors, upon taking up civilian jobs of mining in the newly renamed Coober Pedy, realized that decades of excavation had resulted in some shafts and caverns which provided not only stability but also protection from the elements and a year-round comfortable temperature. Having been created for human habitation (however temporary it was expected to be at the time) they were also well ventilated.
Former trench soldiers didn’t simply become miners, they became homeowners… and those homes were disused mine shafts.
The tradition continues to this day. In a town with an estimated population of 2500, about half of the residents live underground. As there were only so many shafts available, most of the new homes have been excavated directly from hills and have never been used for opal extraction.
The town has a variety of tourist attractions including the expected opal museum and opal mine and events like kangaroo feeding and outback tours. If you just want to see something strange, you can go see the Big Winch… which is, as one might guess, a giant decorative winch. If you’re a movie buff, you can try to identify the locations used for Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Red Planet or Pitch Black (this one’s easy, because the film crew left the spaceship behind). For visitors wanting a taste of local housing, it also houses the only full-service international underground hotel in the world, the Desert Cave Hotel.
Question of the night: Have you had any memorable hotel stays?