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Coober Pedy – Australia's Underground Town

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by Paula McManus (subscribe)
Photography obsessed writer and urban explorer. Lover of nature, art and long weekends. Adelaide, South Australia.
Published November 5th 2015
Opal capital of the world
Coober Pedy is an opal mining town in the far north of South Australia. It is approximately 846 kilometres north of Adelaide and 687 kilometres south of Alice Springs.

Coober Pedy means kupa-piti or "white man in a hole" in Aboriginal language.

opal miner
Opal Miner at Umoona Mine and Museum (©paula mcmanus)

Opal was found in Coober Pedy on the 1st of February 1915 by 14 year old Willie Hutchison when he wandered off from his camp in search of water. He found the water and he also returned to the camp with a big bag of opal!

The first opal miner rush came in 1919 and more than 90 years later there are 3,500 people living in the town and there are more than 250,000 mines shafts in the area. Due to the quality and the quantity of the opals being mined, Coober Pedy quickly became known as the opal capital of the world. There are over 70 opal fields in Coober Pedy and it is the largest opal mining area in the world.

Australian Opal
Australian Opal (©paula mcmanus)

Life and living in the outback is harsh and Coober Pedy is no exception. The town is surrounded by desert and the entire area is devoid of trees - you won't see one for miles and miles. This is due to the arid nature of the area and that the early miners chopped down what they could to make their homes and mine shafts.

Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy (©paula mcmanus)

The heat in Coober Pedy is extreme - the summer temperatures are scorching and can often reach 50 degrees Celsius. Winter temperatures can plummet to below zero.

An innovative solution for residents is to live in a dugout - a cave of sorts. A home or shop is built into a hillside. The entrance is on ground level but the interior is entirely underground. Approximately 80% of the residents live underground and there are many non-homes that are underground too - accommodation (including camping), restaurants, galleries and even a swimming pool. 2 of the local churches are underground and are a popular tourist destination. Their doors are open to those who wish to have a look around.

underground home dugout Coober Pedy
Underground home, Coober Pedy (©paula mcmanus)

The dugouts are not the dark, damp and humid spaces that you might think. The homes are bright, modern and maintain an even temperature all year round - air conditioners and heaters are not needed.

The sandstone in Coober Pedy is perfectly suited for their underground living. It is easy to dig through, but it is very strong and stable - sandstone won't cave in.

underground home dugout Coober Pedy
example of a dugout, Coober Pedy (©paula mcmanus)

Opal mining and the promises of striking it rich has always attracted people to the town. But, once the Stuart Highway was sealed in 1987, the town became a major tourist destination too.

Visitors can get the full outback mining experience. There's a lot to see and do, and of course there are some beautiful opals to buy.

Serbian Orthodox Church Coober Pedy
Saint Elijah underground Serbian Orthodox Church, Coober Pedy (©paula mcmanus)

I would highly recommend a visit to the underground museum - the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum. Join in on the mine tour, it's a brilliant tour and at approximately $10 it's great value. There's a tour through an early miners dugout through to a modern day underground home. You'll get the history of Coober Pedy in a documentary which is screened in the theatre and there'll even be a live cutting and polishing demonstration of opals.

umoona opal mine museum
1920s miner dugout, Umoona Opal Mine Museum (©paula mcmanus)

And, what a bonus - tourists can stay underground too. There are many different accommodation options - ranging from backpacker hostels to 5 star luxury hotel rooms - all underground!

It's an amazing experience to sleep in an underground room - it really was one of the highlights of my week away to the Red Centre. There was no noise from the outside, nothing penetrates that sandstone hill. The backpackers hostel that I stayed in was clean, bright and spacious and I had a wonderful night's sleep.

Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy (©paula mcmanus)

Coober Pedy is a fascinating place to visit.

I absolutely loved it and one day would love to make a return visit and spend more time exploring this unique and interesting area.

Opal, Coober Pedy
Opal, Coober Pedy (©paula mcmanus)

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Why? visit an underground town
Where: Coober Pedy
Your Comment
I've never been there, but your story and photos have just placed it on my bucket list for 2016.
by Steve Hudson (score: 3|1251) 2012 days ago
My husband and I stayed in Coober Pedy twice and a trip to an from Melbourne to Alice Spings ia Uluru. We loved Coober Pedy. We went to a couple of the museums and did a tour of the town and the Breakaways. Did you get to the Breakaways, they are certainly a sight to see.
by Gayle Beveridge (score: 3|8093) 2012 days ago
Beautiful photography, well written. I stayed there more than 20 years ago and it's definitely a place I'm keen to visit again. Great article!
by Reductio ad absurdum (score: 2|225) 2012 days ago
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