If there is one place in Australia for which the term Down Under was made, Coober Pedy is it. Two-thirds of its residents live underground, in a troglodyte town that's a must-see for tourists
Stepping off the Greyhound bus at Coober Pedy, I expected to be knocked down by a billowing tumbleweed. The hustle found in other towns was noticeably absent, due to an odd quirk: residents have mostly tucked themselves away beneath the orange-dusted roads.
This eccentric town is set in the heart of the Australian desert, where two-thirds of the population live underground. Before arriving here, I’d read that the blistering 50C heat sends people burrowing beneath the ground in search of cooler conditions. However, once I was in the hobbit-hole settlement, I discovered there was another motive for this subterranean living.
More than 90 per cent of the world’s precious opals are mined in Australia, including the world’s rarest, the black opal – and Coober Pedy is the main source. While mining is forbidden in the township, residents can "extend" their homes underground where they might stumble across a million-dollar gem.
I spent several days in this curious town, "noodling in the mullock piles" (or fossicking for opals, if that makes any more sense) and wandering round the eerily quiet streets. I didn’t become a millionaire, so I made the focus of my stay the half-day Desert Breakaways Tour. As I’m a non-driver who wanted to devour information about this quirky place, the four-hour trip was a great A$50 investment.
Our chugging bus trundled through the camel-back town, weaving between the humps formed millions of years ago and churning up a trail of orange dust. Beneath the mounds’ surfaces are homes that could rival the set of The Flintstones – and I half expected Fred and Barney to yabba-dabba-doo into the living room. Natural light is replaced with electric bulbs and doorways are left as gaping holes. The dense beige walls have a natural stucco effect and act as insulation from the searing heat outside.
There are 43 different nationalities resident in Coober Pedy, many with their own social clubs. Look out, too, for the Serbian underground church, the diminutive Greek church and the Anglican Catacomb church. The latter has a nonconformity expressed through its altar – created from a winch that once belonged to the area’s first mine.
Our super-knowledgeable guide, Brian, said thousands of people with eyes hungry for wealth have come to seek their fortunes in Coober Pedy. More money is spent digging for the world’s rarest opal than is recouped by finding it, and those few people who do make their fortune mainly squander it.
Crocodile Harry, the town’s infamous 80-something playboy, fluttered his wealth away in a short space of time. His underground den is a labyrinth of sleaze and eccentricity. Knickers and the signatures of “over a thousand virgins” wallpaper the rooms. Penniless, he now makes his money from charging tourists to see his tasteless bachelor pad.
The town isn’t just about hovels and opals, however. It also has a great leisure facility – an above-ground golf course on a par with no other. It remains grass-free, as the upkeep would be extortionate; water is an expensive commodity here. Instead, golfers carry their own piece of plastic turf from which to tee off, as they walk around the course.
As the bus jolted to a stop at the Breakaways we could see giant sandstone plateaux sweeping across the blood-red ground. Mad Max, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and other Hollywood favourites have been filmed here – and it’s easy to see why; I felt like an extra in a sci-fi movie. A few kilometres away, at the Moon Plain, nothing stirs in the cosmic landscape. All you can see is stones, and the few tourists who dare to set foot in this vast, barren environment.
Along the Moon Plain runs the world’s longest fence, twice the length of the Great Wall of China. The Dog Fence is so extensive that contractors are employed to manage each 200km section to ensure dingoes are kept on one side and livestock on the other.
To be honest, I struggled to see anything but the immense expanse of the Australian desert. Back on the bus, we left the inhospitable backdrop behind and headed once again for the opal mines, Coober Pedy and its eccentric but generous population.
Where to stay
I’ve slept in plenty of unusual places, but the quirkiest has to be Radeka Downunder Backpackers and Motel in Coober Pedy. Spending the night 6.5m underground, in what can only be described as a tasteful dungeon without a door, is a must for connoisseurs of bizarre experiences. You can book the Desert Breakaways Tour here. Don’t fancy staying literally Down Under? Go to the mid-range Mud Hut Motel instead.
Where to eat
Try the great pizzas at John’s Pizza Bar or the traditional German Bakery for savoury treats. Dine at Umberto's for a mod-Oz chow down.
How to get there
Greyhound Australia bus services stop here. You can also fly with REX Airlines.