Amazing Places

Coober Pedy, Australia Beats the Heat by Building Underground

Living underground is a popular strategy for desert animals. All types of critters do it — Gila monsters, trapdoor spiders, small rodents, and even certain types of owls. Well, you can add Australians to that list. In Coober Pedy, the bars, churches, and art galleries are all underground.

"White Man's Hole"

Australia has kind of a reputation for extreme environments, but there must be at least a few better places to live than somewhere where it's too hot to even stay above ground. So what led the European colonizers to start the town that (eventually) took its name from the Aboriginal term for "White Man's Hole?" Opals. A comfortable temperature isn't the only thing that the founders of Coober Pedy discovered underground. They also found one of the world's largest deposits of opals. Today, nearly 70 percent of the world's supply can be traced back to this boiling-hot settlement.

Okay, it's not literally boiling hot, but at 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius) in the shade, it's not the kind of place you'd want to go sunbathing. But down below, the environment is a comfy 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 Celsius), so it's no wonder that the parts of the mines that have been cleared of gemstones are now being called home sweet home. Half of the residents of this settlement of around 3,500 live in manmade caves, and the place's stark but scenic surroundings attract visitors to underground hotels as well. That's right, these aren't rough openings in the rock to give weary miners a place to lay their heads — there's some serious luxury waiting in these caverns.

If you do make it out to try the gopher lifestyle for yourself, there are a few must-see destinations in that corner of the rugged Outback. Take the Serbian Orthodox Church with its high-vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, carved directly into the sandstone. There's also Crocodile Harry's Underground Nest. The late Harry was one of Australia's most notorious raconteurs, and his home is a museum of a very strange and eclectic mind.

Welcome to Hole-ywood

Even if you've never set foot in Australia, you may have seen Coober Pedy in the past. That's because the iconic town and its striking surroundings are irresistible to moviemakers. It showed up in "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" (where Crocodile Harry's residence made an appearance), "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," and "Pitch Black." While you're in town, you could also take in a movie at the above-ground drive-in theater — as long as you don't bring your explosives. That rule's been on the books since the mine's heyday.

There's so much more to Australia than the sun-baked desert and the unlikely characters that live there. Explore the country with "In a Sunburned Country" by celebrated travelogue writer Bill Bryson (free with a trial membership of Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

The Town Hidden Beneath the Australian Outback

Key Facts In This Video

  1. In the indigenous tongue of the resident’s of Australia’s Coober Pedy, the town name means “white man’s hole.” 00:32

  2. Coober Pedy is an underground Australian mining town that sits more than 300 miles (482.8 km) from civilization. 01:24

  3. Some Coober Pedy residents believe that if you stay in the town for more than 10 days, you'll never leave. 03:00

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 20, 2018

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