Underground town

Many of the world’s opals come from a town where the houses are underground and the umbrellas are upside down.

Coober Pedy
Kerry Raymond / CC BY

I know my intro sounds like a joke from The Simpsons (“in Rand McNally, they wear hats on their feet and hamburgers eat people!”) but there are very good reasons to go underground and also to flip umbrellas around.

Coober Pedy, a town in South Australia, is one of the world’s most prominent sources of opals. In fact, the most valuable opal in the world was found near Coober Pedy: the Olympic Australis, weighing in at 17,000 carats.

Being in inland Australia, the area is very hot. In the heat of summer the average high is above 36°C (around 98°F), and for many of the town’s inhabitants the best way to escape that heat is to go underground. Literally.

Many of the town’s houses, motels, and churches have been carved into a hillside. It’s much easier to control heat underground, and it’s also easier to stay warm when the temperatures drop into single digits in winter. Ventilation shafts to the surface supply air; because dirt falls down the shafts sometimes an inverted umbrella will be placed underneath the hole to catch debris (you can see it in the picture at the top of this post).

The underground Serbian Orthodox Church, carved in 1993, is worth a look; if you’re a film buff you can see exteriors used for Mad Max 3 or the spaceship from Pitch Black; and if you like your environmentalist history Coober Pedy was also the source of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, a council of Aboriginal women who successfully dissuaded the Australian government from dumping nuclear waste in the area.

I don’t know why, but I picture them dressed like the Vuvalini from Mad Max: Fury Road.

[Thanks to Gareth E. for suggesting this topic.]

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