Coober Pedy, an opal mining town in South Australia, is known as the Opal Capital of Australia and is located in an extremely inhospitable environment. Desert temperatures in the summer usually exceed 104 degrees Fahrenheit and it can get quite chilly in the winter. Years ago, the original miners stumbled upon a solution to living there: Build everything underground. They began using old opal mines or digging out new structures for housing. The underground homes naturally maintain a comfortable temperature. They require no air-conditioning or heating systems, greatly reducing the residents' carbon footprints. Most of the town's 1,916 residents continue to build and live underground.
The early Coober Pedy dugouts were dugout into houses from the holes that had been dug in search for opal. Back then opal mining was back breaking manual labour, so the earliest Coober Pedy homes were no bigger than they absolutely needed to be. Just one room or two at the most. This exterior shot shows former opal mines that have been converted into homes.
Early homes were originally dug by hand and so were kept fairly small. Newer homes are carved out using heavy machinery and are often more elaborate. Very often miners or home owners were actually mining for opals as they dug out their homes. People kept digging, always in search for the next big opal find, and the homes were constantly expanded.
The churches were also not very large. Saint Peter and Paul's Catholic church is the oldest of three churches in Coober Pedy. The church was dug by hand by the mining community and was originally used by all denominations.
A wonderful example of an early dugout that has been expanded into an impressive underground residence is Faye's Underground Home. It started out over 60 years ago, as a one room dugout, used by the mail truck driver. Faye Nayler bought it of him, and that original room is now the kitchen. The home you see today was built over ten years, by hand, using only picks and shovels, by Faye and two of her lady friends. And they did at an excellent job. Where they originally had the kitchen and one other room,
now there are three bedrooms with walk in closets, a living room
, bar, wine cellar, billiard room
and swimming pool.
Believe it or not, she and her lady friends added it all on their own!
Today opal mining in the town area of Coober Pedy is not allowed any more. But you can always renovate or expand, just like Faye did... Need another shelf? Dig a hole in the wall. Shelf not big enough for the new stereo? Dig a bit deeper. A walk in closet? Dig a big hole. Need another bed room? Dig a bigger hole. And always there is the off chance of finding some opal...
Coober Pedy underground homes are not what you expect. The idea of living underground usually triggers thoughts of dark, damp and cramped spaces. It doesn't help that those underground homes are called "dugouts", or that people are told that they are abandoned mine shafts. The homes aren't the deep caves that people imagine. They are actually dug into the hill sides. The entrance is usually at street level,
and the rooms extend towards the back into the hill. In Coober Pedy, even those who love wide open spaces or easily get claustrophobic can feel comfortable in these underground rooms and homes.
People have small front gardens at the entrance, despite the lack of water.
Bougainvilleas in pots add bright and cheerful colours, and of course all desert plants are popular. For example here are two photos of Faye's front entrance, one with a desert garden.
The sandstone in Coober Pedy is perfectly suited for underground homes. It is easy to dig through, like all sandstone, but it is very strong and stable. No need to worry about cave ins, no complicated engineering necessary to calculate ceiling heights or spans. Just dig away...
In reality nobody digs by hand any more. Any new building work is done by modern tunneling machines. As the tunneling machines have been brought in to do the work the houses are now much more expanded than earlier Building a new home is a breeze, compared to conventional building methods, and much cheaper! The tunneling machines leave an attractive pattern on the walls, and the sandstone itself has beautiful maroon and rose coloured swirls, so warm and friendly, are absolutely gorgeous. The Levels underground bar is a popular place to grab a cold drink.
The walls show off the beautiful, natural rose color of the sandstone found in most dug-outs. The underground swimming pool addition at Faye Nayler's home is the height of luxury. One family is even rumored to have a 21-room mansion below the surface.
When the building work is finished the sandstone is sealed with a clear sealer, otherwise an underground home would be rather dusty. All rooms are ventilated via narrow vertical shafts. You can see the top of those shafts poking out of the hills everywhere in and around Coober Pedy. That are the give away signs, the only hint of the hundreds of underground homes in Coober Pedy.
Often there is also natural light entering areas like the kitchen and the living room, through wider shafts. The bedrooms are kept at the back of the house. It's an amazing experience to sleep in an underground room. No noise penetrates, the stillness is absolute. It can be the best night's sleep you'll ever have.
The climate underground is also fantastic. Whether it's below zero or above 50°C(122°F) outside, the temperature in an underground home is always perfect. And so is the humidity, which is really pleasant compared to the bone dry air in the desert outside. It's a nice relief for the skin and the lungs.
If you want to experience the feeling of underground living in Coober Pedy it's not hard to do as there are a range of options for underground accommodation in Coober Pedy, such as hotels, motels, backpackers, bed & breakfasts, there's even an underground campground! We stayed the night in the Underground Motel
By the way, guess who pioneered the idea of offering underground accommodation to tourists? No other than Faye Nayler...
Coober Pedy's underground living is a unique experience you won't find anywhere else in the world, like so much of what you encounter in Australia. They have color ranges in the land I've never seen the like of, and many plants and animals and birds that are found nowhere else in the world.
And that was just the first part of week 5 as we made our way about 862 miles to Adelaide, the Capitol City of Southern Australia.