You know the old saying “there’s a lot going on beneath the surface” when someone is explaining that a person may seem one-note at first glance but they’re actually incredibly interesting and unique? That’s exactly what’s going on in the South Australian town of Coober Pedy.
Established in 1915 after a teenage boy found a large opal segment underneath while on a gold prospecting party, Coober Perdy is now one the leading global manufacturers of opal. It’s also built almost completely underground.
While the gems were abundant beneath the Earth’s surface, the amenities were few and far between above ground and living and working in Coober Perdy proved to be a challenge for the first settlers. With temps reaching well into the 100s, rarely any cloud cover, few trees and unbearable humidity, it’s no surprise!
Before being christened Coober Perdy, the town was actually named the Stuart Range Opal Field in 1858 in honor of the first European explorer of the area, John McDouall Stuart. It wasn’t until 1920 that it was re-named Coober Pedy, an English version of the Aboriginal word “kupa piti” which means “white man’s hole.”
And these “white man’s holes” are full-sized homes built into the side of hills. The entrances are at street level with the entire living quarters buried within the underground cave-like structure. There’s vertical ventilation so residents can keep their homes temperature controlled.
The dugouts aren’t just homes, however; there are many public stores, restaurants, cafes, hotels and churches that are all secreted underground for both town residents and tourists to use. As for above ground living, there is a hospital, police station, school and a few stores and restaurants.
The danger signs posted throughout the town have become popular not just because they’re incredibly useful but also because they’re so unique and quirky. Falling into one of the many holes littering the Coober Perdy landscape would definitely be incredibly scary!
The underground churches are of particular interest to tourists; St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church is perhaps the most popular. It was hand dug in a group effort by some of the first settlers of the area and was originally meant to be a non-denominational space. It has since been designated a Catholic church and even features stained glass details!
The Serbian underground church is another stunner. For being completely underground and made of stone, it’s rather grand and impressive. There is a definite spiritual component to the location that makes it feel special and sacred.
With less than 2,000 people as the total population but making up a large percentage of the world’s opal production, Coober Perdy is a small but mighty town. It’s got lots of charm, character and an awesome story.