Photograph by Daniel R. Westergren
No town in Australia conjures up images of the outback like Coober Pedy, the famous opal-mining town where the searing heat drives residents underground. The town has plenty of accommodations that give you the chance to sample life underground and make an ideal base to explore the area’s underground churches, galleries, mines, and other attractions.
Underground houses are the by-products of opal mining. Miners dug tunnels to extract ore—and the opals they hoped that ore contained—leaving behind caverns naturally insulated against the scorching summer heat and cold winter nights of the desert. Most new houses in Coober Pedy sit aboveground and rely on the wonders of air-conditioning, but the town has a good selection of subterranean digs. Most are stylish caverns with modern conveniences.
The Desert Cave Hotel is one of the swankiest places in town. Dug into a hillside, it has rooms both aboveground and underground. Even if not staying here, a drink in the underground bar is de rigueur, and visitors should check out the historic mining display. Down to Erth B&B is a good choice for a smaller, family-run establishment with underground rooms.
The Lookout Cave Underground Motel was originally a miners’ dugout before motel rooms were added. Others offering an underground experience include the Comfort Inn Coober Pedy, The Underground Motel, and Radeka Downunder, while Riba’s Underground has underground tent camping sites.
Churches followed their parishioners underground. The hand-dug St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church was the first to hold underground services in Coober Pedy. The machine-drilled Serbian Orthodox Church has visually interesting scalloped walls, while the Catacomb Church is carved into the sandstone in the shape of a cross. Many opal shops and galleries are belowground, some housed in old mines. The Old Timers Mine and Museum, Tom’s Working Opal Mine, or the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum are worth visiting to see opal fossils and opal seams, and get an understanding of the mining process.
These days, Coober Pedy relies on tourism as much as opal mining, which is largely done by bigger companies rather than the lone fortune seekers and adventurers that first settled the town. You can try your luck at noodling, or prospecting, for opals at safe public noodling areas, away from dangerous mine shafts.
Vast opal-mining moonscapes riddled with shafts lie off the Stuart Highway north of town, before the turnoff to the Breakaways Conservation Park. The multihued mesas of the Breakaways are spectacular at sunset, and have been featured in movies such as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The dog fence also crosses here on its epic 3,500-mile journey to keep the native dog, the dingo, out of the sheep farms of southern Australia.
When to Go: The mercury regularly exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, and sometimes rises much higher, but Coober Pedy’s climate is pleasant much of the year. April to October is the preferred time to visit, though desert nights can be chilly in winter.
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