Weird Wednesdays: The town down under

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

A look at the underground abodes in Coober Pedy, Australia. Over 80% of the towns residents live in subeterranean caves. (Graeme Churchard/ Flickr)

If you think your dorm room is dark this time of year, then give the residents of Coober Pedy, Australia, a thought.

At a glance, their abodes are normal enough. They have access to Wi-Fi. They furnish the walls with nice pictures, and have man caves and sitting rooms – with one addendum.

It’s all underground.  

Over 80 percent of the townspeople of Coober Pedy (population 1,695) rock it “Hobbit” style by living in subterranean caves, making cozy homes deep beneath the sandstone. While the residents venture to the surface for groceries and some sun on occasion, many conduct their business beneath the earth, traveling from location to location through a series of passages.

It’s not as dark, oozy and filled with worms as you’d think. The sandstone corridors are dry, well-lit with an underground supply of electricity and most importantly, cool.

Australia, which wins the prize for “Continent Most Likely to Kill You In A Large Variety of Extremely Nasty Ways,” can hit summer temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit in certain areas-- and Coober Pedy happens to be one of them. Thus, residents beat the heat by staying in the shade of their underground network, which includes a bookstore, a church and even a bar (because it wouldn’t be Australia without the local watering hole).

Of course, this begs the question: why would anyone want to build a town and live in the middle of the Australian desert, which is as harsh as your English professor’s commentary on your midterm essay? The answer: opal.

On Feb. 1, 1915, a set of miners decided to try their hand a prospecting for gold in the southern region of Australia. Fourteen-year-old Willie Hutchison, accompanying his father on the trip, did what all rebellious teenagers do when messing around in the foothills in search of water, and possibly Wi-Fi if it had existed in 1915.

The boy did indeed strike water, and something more precious than gold. Lugging back a sugar sack filled with precious opal stones, the first deposit Hutchinson found would soon become one of the many the miners tapped for the rainbow mineral. By 1916, the population of the mining camp boomed.

As the miners’ families looked for a habitable place to make home, the empty mining shafts became an inviting escape from the Australian sun. By 1920 the town had an official name: Coober Pedy, from the Anglicized version of the Aboriginal words “kupa piti,” which apparently means “white man in a hole.”

Holes indeed are a major theme in modern-day Coober Pedy, with signs on the surface warning tourists not to run, lest they fall in a ventilation shaft or old mining entrance.

The town receives hundreds of visitors a year, who come in through the Coober Pedy Airport or with the twice-weekly mail delivery. Activities include tours of the resident’s houses, staying in the underground hotel (which reportedly boasts the quietest night of sleep you’ll ever have) and grassless golfing above-ground (a patch of Astroturf is provided for the first swing).  

As well, tourists can relive the achievements of Willie Hutchinson by mining for opal themselves. Don’t expect to strike it rich, though. Most of the town’s opal reserves have been cleared out. New homes are now excavated using massive drill or, in the one case of a resident and some friends, pickaxes and shovels.

So visit Coober Pedy next time you’re in Australia. While it doesn’t seem like much on the surface, I hear the underground scene there is top notch!  


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.