A woman sits in an underground hotel room in Coober Pedy

80 Percent of This Town in Australia Lives Underground!

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In the remote South Australian desert, where temperatures are known to reach 125 °F / 51 °C in the shade, lies a town named Coober Pedy (literally ‘white man’s hole’), where residents have dug themselves underground to escape the blistering heat.  Once the largest opal mining operation in the world, Coober Pedy is now a peculiar site where chimneys rise from the sand and signs warn people of unmarked holes in the ground.

Coober Pedy was founded during the early part of the 20 th century, as a result of the discovery of opals, a valuable gemstone, in the area. Opal mining is such a huge industry in Coober Pedy that it is still known also as the ‘opal capital of the world’.

Chimneys of underground homes and buildings poke out of the ground in Coober Pedy

Chimneys of underground homes and buildings poke out of the ground in Coober Pedy ( Nicholas Jones / flickr )

The history of Coober Pedy may be traced back to 1915. In the beginning of that year, the New Colorado Prospecting Syndicate had been prospecting for gold just south of Coober Pedy. This syndicate, which consisted of Jim Hutchison, his 14-year-old son, William, and two other associates, had set up camp after their unsuccessful prospection. On the 1 st of February, as the men went to search for water, William came across several pieces of opal on the surface of the ground. As a consequence of this discovery, the town of Coober Pedy was born.

Rough opal from Coober Pedy, South Australia

Rough opal from Coober Pedy, South Australia ( CC by SA 3.0 )

Initially, Coober Pedy was named as the Stuart Range Opal Field. This was to honour John McDouall Stuart, a Scottish explorer who was the first European to have explored this part of Australia, in 1858. Several years later, in 1920, the place was renamed as Coober Pedy, an Anglicised version of the Aboriginal ‘kupa piti’, which is commonly said to mean ‘white man in a hole’. Since William Hutchison’s discovery of the first opal pieces in the area, Coober Pedy has grown to be the world’s largest supplier of this gemstone. A report, published in 2016, claimed that an estimated 70 % of the world’s supply of opal comes from this Australian town.

A unique feature of Coober Pedy is that it is almost entirely underground. The early opal miners who followed in the footsteps of the New Colorado Prospecting Syndicate had initially built their residences above the ground. They tried to adapt to the harsh climate, which was extremely hot in the day and very cold at night. Soon, however, they were struck by an inspiration to live underground, where the temperature would be constant, and neither too hot, nor too cold. According to one source, this inspiration was brought by Australian soldiers returning from the Western Front after the First World War. These veterans had experienced trench warfare, and applied their wartime experience to improve living conditions in their new home. The residents of Coober Pedy eventually became highly skilled in building their subterranean homes.

Interior of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Coober Pedy, South Australia. Like many of the dwellings in Coober Pedy, the church is a dugout, which is essentially a chamber drilled into the side of a hill. After the drilling is complete, the rock is sealed with polyurethane or similar sealant, and that forms the walls that you see.

Interior of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Coober Pedy, South Australia. Like many of the dwellings in Coober Pedy, the church is a dugout, which is essentially a chamber drilled into the side of a hill. After the drilling is complete, the rock is sealed with polyurethane or similar sealant, and that forms the walls that you see. ( CC by SA 2.0 )

In the following decades, the fortunes of Coober Pedy depended on the price of opals on the market. For instance, during the Great Depression, the price of opal plummeted, and production at Coober Pedy almost came to a halt. By contrast, during the 1960s, the influx of European migrants resulted in a boom in the industry, which turned opal mining into a huge industry, and transformed Coober Pedy into a modern mining town.

An underground home in Coober Pedy

An underground home in Coober Pedy ( BRJ INC / Flickr )

Whilst unlikely to have been the initial motivation for the building of the underground town, Coober Pedy has now developed into a tourist destination. Websites promoting the town as a tourist hot spot abound on the Internet, with such sites as ‘Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest’, the ‘Underground Art Gallery’, and the ‘Umoona Opal Mine and Museum’ marked out as places of interest. Apart from touring an underground town, and staying in underground hotels, visitors also have the opportunity to partake in ‘noodling’ or ‘fossicking’, i.e. looking for opal amongst the rubble.

Finally, it may be pointed out that the uniqueness of this underground town and its surrounding landscape has also attracted the attention of film makers. One of the best known films to have had scenes shot here is the 1985 post-apocalyptic Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome , starring Mel Gibson. Others include the 1994 comedy-drama The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert , and the motoring reality television series, Top Gear Australia .

Comments

I suspect you're right about conditions: soft enough to excavate, stable enough to not collapse. In addition, being a mining community, they would have the mindset, tools and expertise already at hand.
In St Louis, Missouri, the area is riddled with limestone caves and has hot, sultry, steamy summers. Brewers used the caves before mechanical refrigeration became available. One of those brewing families, the Lemps, owned what was the largest brewery in the country at one time. Their mansion was connected to the Cherokee Cave system and had naturally air conditioned subterranean swimming pool, bowling alley and theatre.
The Cherokee Cave is now sealed, but one local TV show broadcast a tour of the Lemp area. It looked like the set of the Phantom of the Opera.
Before mechanical air conditioning became available, commercial caves in the area (Meramec Caverns for one) were a popular summertime destination.

I live in an area of the world where it gets hotter than Coober Pedy and we don’t live underground. I suspect that there is another reason for underground living. For example, the rock is not hard rock and not difficult to dig out, making it much cheaper (then) to build than conventionally. Slave housing for the workers back then but novelty living today.

I will say that the walls of my house are thicker than a European cavity walled house and that we have a stoop (stoep), which is a roof like overhang, surrounding the North East side, shielding the sun from entering the windows. During the hotter summer months we close all windows and curtains and external doors to keep the house cooler. 

Walking outside is like entering an oven at 40c (104 F) which it can get up to here during January and February.

 

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