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Going Down Under Down Under
The Underground World Of Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy, Australia is an anomaly any way you look at it…or under it, as the case may be. Although the area has strong ties within the aboriginal peoples of the region, the first European didn’t stumble by until 1858…and just kept on walking. In 1915, the New Colorado Prospecting Syndicate, which consisted of Jim Hutchison, his son P.J. Winch and M. McKenzie, had been unsuccessfully searching the area south of Coober Pedy for gold. They struck camp at what was to become Coober Pedy and while they searched for a water source, Hutchison’s son found shards of opal lying around on the ground. Eight days later, the first opal mine claim was laid and Coober Pedy was born.
The name Coober Pedy most probably comes from a bastardized pronunciation of the aboriginal phrase “kupa piti” which, loosely translated, means “white man in a hole” as an abridged, and rather apt, description of what the nomadic tribes perceived. The Australia’s Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1917, carrying with it miners, construction workers and veterans returning from the Great War. These soldiers introduced a unique method they had learned on the fields of war to find shelter called dugouts. Due to the extreme desert conditions, with temperatures exceeding 104 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity that rarely goes over 20%, shelter had to be created that could withstand such a setting. The answer was right under the miner’s feet.
Coober Pedy has a population consisting of 1,916 people (1,084 males, 832 females), 70% of which live underground in custom carved caves. Before you get the wrong impression, it’s not as if this is a clan of Mad Max mooks living in a hole in the ground. There are tourist hotels, restaurants and other amenities that would seem more apropos in a more upscale, urbane setting. Some of the “dugouts”resemble underground mansions, while “the bad side of town” are abandoned mine shafts. On the upside, if you want a room addition, all you have to do is dig one. A four bedroom home can be bored out in a day and one man who drilled out a seventeen room home was able to pay for the whole thing with all the opal he found during his excavations. As another amenity that would not be expected in such an environment, the water for the town is tapped from an underground reservoir some miles away, and then treated in a reverse osmosis water purification system.
Some of the oddities that come with this type of life are illustrated best by the fact that dynamite had to be banned from public places as some people’s tempers were of the hair trigger variety and everybody seems to be prone to carrying around blasting caps. Another bizarre feature is Coober Pedy’s world renowned golf course. Of course, you have to play at night with glow in the dark golf balls and carry around a chunk of Astroturf so that you will be able to tee off properly.
Coober Pedy has enjoyed its share of the limelight, having been featured in such films as Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Pitch Black. Actually, some of the sets for Pitch Black are still standing, being one of the few structures to be found aboveground. Another tourist feature are the stunning conical hills outside of town which, although they are just piles of rubble and waste that came out of the mine, are breathtaking nonetheless. Another tourist site is called the Big Winch which is, umm…a big winch.
So if you want to get away from it all (and I mean everything) and see what it’s like to be buried alive in a luxury underground crypt, then Coober Pedy should be number one vacation desitnationon your AAA itinerary!