Subterranean Coober Pedy

Subterranean Coober Pedy

The Outback’s bizarre underground town offers one-of-a-kind experiences By: Jim Calio
An underground guestroom at the Desert Cave Inn // © 2013 Desert Cave Inn
An underground guestroom at the Desert Cave Inn // © 2013 Desert Cave Inn

Coober Pedy is a quirky mining town in the center of Australia that offers some of the world’s most unusual accommodations and attractions. There are few other places where you can stay in an underground hotel or motel and mine for opal, the multi-colored precious stone that is the country’s national gemstone.

Coober Pedy is situated about 530 miles north of Adelaide, 2½ hours by air, and 425 miles south of Alice Springs, the small town made famous by the movie “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Desert indeed — the Australian outback is a rock-strewn moonscape that was also the setting for “Mad Max” and “Red Planet.”

An estimated 80 percent of Coober Pedy’s population lives underground. As is often the case when traveling, it’s definitely best to do as the locals do. The heat can be unbearable in the summer months. From December to February, it is not unusual for temperatures to soar to 125 degrees. The cave lodgings, known as “dugouts,” create a consistent temperate climate away from the hot Australian sun. Temperatures in the cave-like dwellings seldom stray from the mid-70s, summer or winter.

Coober Pedy has one four-star hotel, the Desert Cave Hotel. Some of its rooms sit above ground, but 19 of them are subterranean. Coober Pedy has other types of accommodations — motels and a bed-and-breakfast — but they all have underground bedrooms.

I stayed at the Desert Cave Hotel, which is ideally situated on the main street, Hutchinson Street, named after the boy who discovered opal in 1915 while his father was mining for gold nearby. The father had no luck, but the young boy set off a boom that drew people from all over the world to Coober Pedy, which now supplies 70 percent of the world’s opal.

Despite my own proclivity for claustrophobia, I found my room surprisingly comfortable.  I had a queen-size bed with a lovely dark blue and white duvet, a sofa and warm lighting that made the place quite cozy.  Nearby was a bar, a restaurant, a gaming room and even a small museum dedicated to the history of opal mining in Coober Pedy.

Most of the “cave” hotels and motels have been carved out of the area’s distinctive red sandstone. The usual procedure is to cut a vertical “face” in a hillside and then excavate the dirt and rock horizontally to create a big open space — a cave, literally.  Then the rooms are built into the empty space.

All of the underground properties I saw, including the Desert Cave Inn, had the usual amenities one would find in any hotel in the U.S., including  minibars, coffee makers, laundry service and more. Many even offered Wi-Fi access, if not down in the rooms themselves, then upstairs in the public areas.

Mining For Opal
The underground dwellings are reason enough to go to Coober Pedy. However, its position as the opal-mining capital of the world makes it a fascinating destination for history buffs and jewelry-lovers alike.

The name Coober Pedy derives from the Aboriginal term kupa-piti, which translates loosely to “white man’s hole.” It is a dubious tribute, no doubt, to the idea that when white men came to this part of Australia, they quickly disappeared underground into the mines, and subsequently into other man-made holes in order to survive.

Hotels and motels organize tours of the several hundred mines that dot the territory, including one that ventures down into a working mine. You can even visit a real underground home, which looks for all the world like any other home except that the walls are made of sculpted sandstone.

But the real fun for most tourists, myself included, is literally getting your hands dirty by mining for opal, or “noodling.”  There is a designated area called Jewellers Shop, where visitors dig through mounds of dirt and rock that have been excavated from real mines in the area. Now and then, someone gets lucky.

Robert Coro, the owner of the Desert Cave Inn, remembers one woman who dug through a pile of dirt and came across a rough opal that had been overlooked in the regular mining process.

“I got it cut for her and put it in a classic simple setting with 18-carat gold,” recalled Coro, who has lived in Coober Pedy for 50 years. “She sent me a letter a few months later saying that her insurance company had valued the piece at $5,500.”

Train Service
You can get to Coober Pedy by plane, bus or by car along the modern Stuart Highway, but if you want a really romantic ride, try catching The Ghan, the legendary Australian train that runs north and south between Adelaide and Darwin. I took it late one night going south and I had to be driven 45 minutes outside of Coober Pedy to meet it. When I got to what I thought would be the station, there wasn’t one, just a long train idling next to a dirt road. My driver took me around the side of the first car and a conductor leaned out and asked what car I was in. When I told him, he said, “Wait here,” and the next thing I knew, the entire train had moved up so I was standing right next to my assigned car.

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