Coober Pedy-underground city in Australia
Home Under the Range
Coober Pedy looks down in the dumps for good reason; film makers have
long used the place to portray a nuclear strike zone. Still there is a
certain zany charm to the desolate underground desert mining town, and
you don't need to dig too deep to find it
By Ron Gluckman /Coober Pedy
WAY OUT IN AUSTRALIA'S OUTBACK, where the lakes are salty and the beer
is warm, men with big arms and funny hats cook kangaroo and crocodile.
River races are run in bottomless boats by louts scurrying
Flintstone-style over dry bedrock.
One can easily grow jaded on the outback oddities, until arriving with a
jolt in Coober Pedy, the underground town.
Marlon Hodges, of Alice Springs, recalls passing through a decade ago.
"It was right after they filmed the second Mad Max there. We stepped off
the bus, and everyone in town had a huge mohawk. It was bizarre, all
these ten feet tall, mean-looking guys covered in tattoos."
The hair has grown back, but Coober Pedy remains weird as ever. The town
of tunnels, where reclusive residents live in caves, has been seen in
many movies. Besides "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," Coober Pedy’s credits
include Wim Wenders’ "Until the End of the World." Perhaps most
noteworthy is "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," not for winning an
Oscar, but because it’s the first film to portray Coober Pedy as
anything other than a nuclear strike zone.
There is an eerie apocalyptic resemblance. Set in sun-scorched desert,
Coober Pedy’s best feature is a field of conical hills. Tourists visit
at sunset, when the golden glow frames small, pyramid-shaped
silhouettes. It’s scenic until you remember you’re standing in a gravel
pit, gazing at piles of dirt kicked up by the world’s largest opal
Aesthetic concerns are pretty much on par with ecological considerations
in this rough and tumble town of miners and drifters. Resident Trevor
McLeod recalls a controversial proposal to level the hills to fill in
the mining holes, partly because a few tourists tumbled down the 90-foot
shafts and died. The idea got about as much support as suggestions to
halt strip mining, which, like most things in this frontier town,
"Anyway, those piles are nice to see on the horizon," Mr. McLeod says.
"If we pulled them down, what would we look at?"
Dirt walls, mainly. About 70 percent of Coober Pedy’s 3,500 residents
live underground. It’s simple survival, since summer temperatures soar
above 55 degree Celsius. The boroughs remain cool in summer, and warm in
Many are former mines, but some are underground mansions. "This is the
kind of place where, if the wife wants another room, you dig her one,"
jokes Mr. McLeod. Some underground homes even have swimming pools.
Yet, the oddest thing about Coober Pedy is that the underground
dwellings are by no measure the oddest thing here.
Coober Pedy’s golf course has no trees or greenery to mar what is
essentially an enormous sand trap. Nine dreary holes are dug in dirt
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