Days 334-336: Adventures In An Underground Town

I checked out of my Airbnb while my host was at work, and drove to the Adelaide airport to pick up my friend, Brittany. We drove to a restaurant on the beach to eat breakfast. Brittany and I met in Los Angeles in 2008 in a running group that trains for the marathon. Our mutual friend, Toni, invited me to the group that met every Saturday for six months. Brittany was a mentor at that time for our pace group. I’d hung out with her a couple of times, but it was in a group and usually involved running. 

When I met Brittany, she was married to Daniel. We all went to the same college in Missouri but didn’t know each other then. Brittany and Daniel ended up divorcing, and she remarried. She and her new husband left California and moved to Fort Collins, Colorado. After four years there, they decided to sell their house and move to New Zealand. They had never even been there, but they wanted to live abroad, and they liked what they heard. They had lived in New Zealand for nine months when she flew to Australia to meet me. 

Brittany was 37 years old, and her husband was 47. In the U.S., Brittany was a dietician. Now, she was unemployed while she decided what she wanted to do for a career. She was taking a class but was able to sneak away for ten days to explore the outback with me. New Zealand was a five-hour flight away from Adelaide, and she found a cheap flight on short notice. 

The weather was fantastic, making me forget it was winter. Brittany and I took a brief stroll on the pier and then drove to camping stores. Brittany camps a lot, and she brought most of her gear, like a stove. It was awesome because I didn’t have my camping gear with me. Her stove uses white gas, which she couldn’t bring on the airplane. We struggled to find the correct type in Australia but eventually found a large bottle. 

Once we finished getting supplies, we drove north. We talked during the entire drive, and it was great to have some company. We stopped for the night in Port Augusta and stayed at the same motel that I stayed at a couple of nights prior. Because this was all planned last minute, we spent the evening digging through guidebooks and reading online. After much deliberation, we decided that with our time frame (ten days) and our interests, we’d drive to Coober Pedy, Uluru, Alice Springs, and then drive the Oodnadatta Track on our way back. 

Into the Outback

The next morning, we stopped at the grocery store and bought some food for our road trip. Brittany is a vegetarian and knows a lot more recipes than I do. I asked if she’d do most of the cooking, I’d do the dishes and set up our beds each night when we camped. 

Once we had some food, we continued driving north towards Coober Pedy. I was told that as soon as I left Port Augusta, I would be in the outback, and they weren’t lying. The two-lane highway was a vast desert with hardly any cars. It was flat with the occasional cool-looking tree. When looking forward, the pavement appeared gray, but when I looked in the rearview mirror, the pavement seemed to be red. 

We stopped for lunch in a tiny town, and both ordered the fish and chips with a refreshing beer. We continued driving and saw wild Cassowaries! They are giant prehistoric birds, and it was crazy to see them in the wild. 

Our first stop was a salt bed. We walked down a hill and then across railroad tracks. There were just a handful of people there, and they were all leaving. Once we crossed the tracks, we were quickly walking on a salt bed of a dried-up lake. 

It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen! Thick, white salt covered the ground as far as the eye could see. The crunching sound of the salt under our shoes was the only sound around for miles. Anything that came into contact with the salt for some time was completely covered in it. The salt swallowed up an old metal wheel that had rust.

Brittany and I walked along and found a path laid out with rocks that were, of course, covered in salt. It was a perfectly symmetrical path, so we each took turns walking the runway. After touching some of the salt, I tasted a tiny bit of residue on my hand. It was indeed, salty. 

The weather was warming up as we continued to venture into the “red center” of Australia. In Melbourne and Adelaide, it was reasonably cold because it was winter. In the outback, winter is the best time to go, so it’s not scorching hot. It’s just regular hot. They don’t really have seasons in the outback. Instead, there is a hot season and the “wet season” when all the rain floods many areas. 

Brittany and I continued our drive north until we reached Coober Pedy. My brother-in-law had sent me a link to the underground town a few weeks prior, and as soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to go. 

Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy is an old opal mining town that is built mostly underground. Brittany and I stopped at the sign at the beginning of town and couldn’t help but notice the signs warning of deep shafts and unmarked holes that you could easily fall into if you’re not careful.

The temperatures can reach over 110 °F (43 °C) and drop to below freezing at nighttime during certain months. There is virtually no rainfall, with an average of 6.6 inches a year. Only one inch separates the driest and wettest months. Good luck finding shade because there are barely any trees or plant life. The golf course uses carpets instead of grass. 

The population of Coober Pedy is 2,500 residents. When a teenager found opal in the area more than 100 years ago, miners started digging. It’s estimated that around 70% of the world’s opal comes from Coober Pedy. Because the temperatures can be extreme, people began building dugouts into the side of mounds. The ground is perfect for it because it’s soft enough to dig but sturdy enough that it won’t collapse once you’ve dug into it. 

While most of the homes are underground, you still walk into a door like a typical house. You’re just basically walking into a very large mound. I was so excited to see this town, and I couldn’t wait to stay at The Underground Motel. There are only about five rooms. The temperatures underground stay a consistent 75 °F (23 °C) year-round. 

Brittany and I walked into the lobby to check-in and rang the bell for assistance. A woman who appeared to be in her 40s with red hair pulled back came to the desk. Her face and chest were bright red, like she was sunburned and hot. It was in the low 80s °F (27 °C), and it was a dry heat. The woman told us that she and her husband had been traveling in their campervan for the last 14 months. They were from Queensland, Australia (in the northeast). 

The couple planned to drive to Victoria, but the woman said Adelaide (South Australia) was too cold because it was winter. Instead of going to Victoria, they decided to go to Uluru. They hadn’t made it there yet because they stopped in Coober Pedy on their way. The couple usually slept in their R.V. but wanted to experience the underground motel. When she checked in a month ago, she noticed that the owner was struggling. She asked if he needed help, and he told her that he had other properties to manage that were far away, and he was struggling to keep up. 

The woman showed the owner her resume, and he hired her. After three weeks of training, the owner left to attend other properties. The woman joked, “Hopefully, he didn’t do a runner.” I was fascinated that this couple decided to stay in Coober Pedy on a whim. She explained that she used to have a 9-5 office job, but “that’s no way to live.” The couple wasn’t in any hurry to return home. She told me that during their travels, they searched a website for remote jobs and would spend a couple of months working and then continue on their travels.

The motel had a central hallway with the rooms directly off of it and ended in a full circle, creating a family-type style. Our room was at the end of the hall. Brittany and I set our bags down and checked out our room. The walls were carved out with a machine, so grooves were left behind. They put lacquer over the walls to keep the dust down. It was so cool, and we had our own bathroom. 

Kangaroos

After setting our stuff down, Brittany and I walked to the kangaroo orphanage. There was one last feeding scheduled for that evening. The man who runs the orphanage takes in injured kangaroos and rehabilitates them. There were a few of us signed up for the feeding. The man handed us food, and then we all walked to the back yard. There was a fence, but we stuck our hand through and fed the kangaroos. 

They slowly came towards us but didn’t look like they were in the best shape. There were just a few kangaroos, and one of them can detect cancer, according to the owner. As we waited for the kangaroos to come towards us, a couple with a boy about three to four years old told us how their son loved kangaroos. He kept telling his classmates that he was a joey (baby kangaroo). They tried to get him to understand that he wasn’t actually a baby kangaroo, but he insisted. This would be his first chance to feed them. 

Once we fed the kangaroos, the owner brought out a baby kangaroo that was only nine weeks old! The man carried him in a cloth bag that mimicked a kangaroo pouch. Typically, a baby kangaroo lives in the pouch for nine months. The man sat down and started feeding the baby with a baby bottle. The kangaroo was so small and adorable! The man and his wife have to feed the baby every four hours. 

Once the baby was finished drinking the milk, the man put him on the ground to try to walk. He bounced around like he was drunk, stumbling around. After a minute, the man put him back in the sack. It takes them a while to learn to walk (or hop), but they need daily practice. 

We were all standing in a small circle watching the baby kangaroo, and then the owner took him around to each person so we could see him up-close. I was at the end of the circle and couldn’t wait to see the little guy. Once the man was two people from me, he told us that we could try to blow into his mouth, and the kangaroo might kiss us. Brittany and the man next to her blew into the kangaroo’s mouth but didn’t get a kiss. 

Then it was my turn. I locked eyes with the baby and slowly blew into his mouth. The kangaroo kissed me and then slipped his tongue into my mouth! I kept the steady stream of air going, and that sneaky kangaroo slipped his tongue through my lips a few times! We were bonding, but it took me by surprise. Everyone started laughing, and the man next to me said, “Whoa, don’t tell her husband.” 

It had only been less than a week since people told me that I was an animal whisperer when feeding the animals at a wildlife park in Adelaide. Maybe there was some sort of energy that was connecting me to Australian wildlife. 

Once the feeding was over, Brittany and I walked to the bottle shop to get some wine. The man behind the counter took our passports to scan because they track alcohol sales. We were told that the local aboriginal population has a problem with drinking too much, so it’s regulated there. Once we got our wine, we ate dinner at a nearby restaurant. Walking through the small town was interesting. It was a fairly run-down town. On our walk back to the motel, a drunk man followed us for a little while yelling at us, trying to get our attention. He was drunk, so we walked away. 

When we arrived back at the motel, we took our wine outside and sat on a swing that was at the front of the motel. The WiFi only worked when we were near the lobby. We showed each other funny videos, and we were having a fun time. Then, as I was looking through photos that Brittany took while I was kissing the baby kangaroo, I noticed that the boy who called himself a joey was in the background looking terrified! 

I zoomed in, and Brittany and I could not stop laughing. We laughed so hard that Brittany spilled her wine, and tears fell down my cheek. That boy had a look of horror and confusion on his face, wondering what was happening. I said, “I don’t think that little boy is going to call himself a joey any longer!”

Exploring the Underground

The next day, Brittany and I decided to stay another night and go on a five-hour tour of the area. Before the afternoon tour started, we drove to the grocery store to pick up fresh food that we would need once we left Coober Pedy and started camping. 

The tour guide, Aaron, picked us up outside of the motel in an off-road all-terrain vehicle, a beast that could handle the rough roads and soft sand. Brittany and I climbed inside and joined around 20 people for the tour. Aaron was tall, appeared to be in his late 30s, and was wearing a wide-brimmed hat. 

Our first stop was Faye’s House. It’s an underground house that offers tours. A man lives there as a caretaker because Faye has passed away. The house was dug by hand by three women between 1962-1972 using picks, shovels, and jackhammers. 

Faye came to Coober Pedy when she was just 29-years-old. She was a cook for miners in the area at the local restaurant. One day, the restaurant owner told her to feed a steak that had turned green to her customers. He said, “Just put it in vinegar, put sauce and gravy on top, and no one will know.” Faye was disgusted by this, so she quit. 

The miners loved her food so much and didn’t want her to leave, so they built her a restaurant. Unfortunately, it ended up getting destroyed by a tornado. When that happened, Faye bought some land and started mining. 

We toured the home, checking out the different levels as it kept going lower into the ground. Faye had built several rooms, and it was incredible to see that she did this all by hand.

In the 1920s, the government built a water reservoir, but it took five years to fill up because of the lack of rain. The town only gets a big rainstorm every 15-20 years. Understandably, there was a water limit. Every fortnight (every two weeks), each household would receive 400 liters. Water was so scarce that people would steal it. One day, Faye put a lock on one of her bedrooms and said it was a separate residence, which gave her an additional 400 liters. 

In 1975, mining in the town limits was banned because miners would sometimes run into someone’s house underground by accident. They would set dynamite, which was dangerous. Faye’s land was in the city limits, so she had to stop mining. Being a smart businesswoman, Faye opened up her mining operations and home to tourism. She also opened an opal store.  

Faye was a unique woman. She played the guitar and was a great entertainer. She built a pool with an entertainment area that was above ground and attached to her house but was inclosed. She said they needed an entertainment space in town. She rented out that space to locals who wanted to throw parties. Faye died in 2015 in Queensland at the age of 82. 

Our next stop was at an underground Serbian church. They built it by using giant machines that gave it an artistic design. Archways were built, and it was an incredible sight to see. 

Once we finished the tour, we got back into the all-terrain vehicle to drive to the moon plains. On the way there, Aaron spoke to us over a speaker system. He told us that there are more than 400 underground homes in Coober Pedy. The only thing that you can see is the pipe that sticks out from the ground a few feet for airflow. Aaron said the price ranges from $200,000 to $250,000. You can buy a fixer-upper for $100,000. 

Aaron told us that even though it’s illegal to continue mining in city limits, people make “additions” to their home. If they happen to come across opal, they can keep it. Because of this, homes can get very large. He knows of one house with more than ten rooms. Once you find opal, it is often stuck in the rock/dirt and follows a horizontal line. He knows of a man who followed the path to get the gem and ended up with a long, narrow room. When the authorities questioned him, he said it was a shooting range. 

Coober Pedy has an interesting history. Aaron said that people used to buy dynamite at the grocery store and then go to the drive-in movie theater. With dynamite in their car. Coober Pedy draws a particular type of person. Sometimes it’s someone running from the law. What better place to hide than an underground home? 

We stopped at the Moon Plains, which is sacred land for the aboriginal people. We weren’t allowed to get too close to it because it’s holy, but it did look like the moon. The area near us was a vast red, dirt desert.  

Our next stop was the Dog Fence – the world’s longest fence. It stretches 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) and was built to keep the dingos away from the sheep. Dingos enjoy the kill and can kill 100 sheep in a single night. The country spends ten million dollars a year maintaining the fence, but the sheep industry brings in 120 million a year. 

Our next stop was at a beautiful lookout point. Aaron put a table out and set out the champagne, cheese, meat, and crackers. While he set up, he told us that we could walk five minutes to the edge of the lookout and see the views. There were multicolored hills and rock formations. It was beautiful. Naturally, Brittany and I took pictures. We took a selfie, and we overheard a woman say to her husband, “Must be a different generation.” How else are we supposed to take a picture?

While we ate some snacks near the truck, we talked with that Australian couple, and they told us they were caravanning after recently retiring. I asked how it was going so far since they were new to the campervan life. They joked about wanting to kill each other as they got used to being in small quarters 24-7. The couple told us that the housing market had become unaffordable for the younger generation. They took advantage and sold their house to buy the R.V. When the couple found out we were from the U.S., they told us that they did a bus tour decades ago that started in New York and took them across the country. They didn’t like New York and said, “People there are so mean, and they hate tourists.” 

While we talked and attempted to enjoy our snacks, small black flies surrounded us. It was an insane amount of flies. Hundreds landed on all of us and attacked our mouths and noses. Aaron said they were horrible at that time because of the drought. They were seeking water sources, even if it was our faces. They seemed to be attached to dark colors because a man wearing a black shirt had about 30 flies sitting on his back. One flew straight into my champagne glass, the instance that I moved my hand to take a drink. 

We continued the tour, and Aaron pointed out the endless sea of dirt mounds. When they dig a shaft, they don’t fill it back with the dirt, so you have to be very careful. There are three to four million shafts around the vast area. Aaron said, “It’s a great place to hide a body, and there have been reports of people being thrown in on purpose.” 

Aaron bought an old mine that was no longer operational so he could give tours to the site. Only property owners are allowed in the area. You need a specialized vehicle to drive through all of the sand. As we drove through, stakes outlined different properties. You don’t want to step foot on someone else’s property, or you could be shot. Aaron’s mine was a massive set of caves. We couldn’t go inside for safety reasons, but we could stand just outside of it for pictures. 

The final stop was at an underground museum that showcases marine fossils. The area used to be underwater millions of years ago, so there are fossils from sea creatures. It was also an opportunity to go inside a mining tunnel. We climbed down into the caves and saw some opal that Aaron lit up under a black light. The museum also put rooms on display so people can see what it is like living underground.

The tour ended after the museum, so Brittany and I picked up some pizza at a local restaurant and ate it back at our motel on the front porch. We were both exhausted from the day of exploring. Brittany went to bed while I stayed in the hallway to use the WiFi to update my blog. 

We planned on leaving the next day and would head to Uluru. It was worth spending a full day in Coober Pedy because there are many unique things to see there. It has a bit of a strange vibe, but that’s what makes it what it is – a small desert town in the middle of nowhere, living underground. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people were there because they ran from the law. 

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Published by Christy

I quit my corporate job and sold my house in Los Angeles so I can travel and write. I grew up in St. Louis, MO and moved to the Los Angeles area after college. I worked in the business world for 15 years. Follow along to see pictures and hear stories of people I've met along my journey so far - driving to Alaska.

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