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 mines.

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, remains legal.

"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 winter.

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 mounds of sand, diesel and oil. The fairway is marked by a grove in the moonscape. Once inside, players can tee off a tiny piece of Astroturf they carry.

At first, it was a local laugh, but every Easter, more than two dozen professional duffers play in a Pro-Am tournament. Dennis Ingram, who retired from the links to Coober Pedy, was pressed into service as resident pro. "My first impression was disbelief," he says. "This place gives a whole new meaning to golf."

While cinemas elsewhere may worry about customers toting alcohol, the local drive-in had to ban dynamite. In this town, tempers run thin and everyone packs a blasting cap or two. The Coober Pedy Times rubbed someone the wrong way and found its office firebombed. That case was never solved. Likewise the bombing of the local court magistrate’s office a few years before.

Yet neither incident irritated the community, certainly not as much as the fire bombing of Acropolis. "That was the best Greek restaurant in town," sighs one old-timer. "Now, that was a REAL crime. Who could have done such a thing?"

Such questions are seldom asked. Coober Pedy is a mind-your-own business place. It’s always been that way, ever since opals were found at Big Flat in 1915. Within seven years, hundreds of prospectors were tearing up the turf.

Depression drove them away, but a new find in shallow depths at Eight Mile in 1946 combined with massive immigration from Europe after World War II to set off a boom that has never completely subsided. Civilization started creeping into Coober Pedy in the 1960s, with the opening of a school and the Opal Motel.

The major finds are remembered mainly in museums nowadays, although flashes of color can still be found in the fields. Increasingly though, the town has turned to the motherlode of tourism. The signs are everywhere, literally: Opal Mine, Opal Cave, Backpackers Cave, Opal Factory and Opal Centre. The Red Sands Restaurant and Nightclub sits above a Mobile gas station-roadhouse-opal shop. The Desert Cave, opened in 1989, offers luxury underground rooms.

Still, the offerings rarely keep visitors beyond an overnight stop between Adelaide and Alice Springs. A short distance outside town is Australia’s own Great Wall, the "dingo fence," a 9,600-kilometre barrier that runs the length of the country, from sea to sea.

Another attraction featured in all the brochures, is the Big Winch, which, upon even a cursory inspection, turns out to be just that, a really big winch.

Coober Pedy’s cave homes are far more engaging. Boring machines can dig a four-bedroom abode in a day. The cost is 20-30 percent less than conventional housing, but the real saving comes in energy. While several air conditioners struggle to cool a normal house to under 30 degrees in summer, Coober Pedy’s caves remain a comfortable 25 degrees, year-round, free of charge.

In many ways, housing construction is a cracker-jack trade here. Mr. McLeod tells of a friend who built a 17-room house. "He found enough opals during excavations to pay for the entire place."

Indeed, luck - good and bad - is what brings most people to Coober Pedy. For gamblers and gits, it's a second-chance city, the last exit on the road to nowhere.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, roaming around the wild parts of Asia for a number of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, which ran this piece in the summer of 1995. Mr Gluckman has a warm spot for wacky tales and odd characters, a quirk that dates to his reporting days in the unconventional Alaskan Bush. However, aside from North Korea, which he rates as, "easily the five weirdest places I've ever been," Mr Gluckman has never been anywhere quite as wacky as Coober Pedy - unless you count Japan's Indoor Beach.

For other Australian laughs, turn to his story on Vietnamese boat-person comic Hung Le and the Melbourne Comedy Festival.

The photos on this page, and much of the scanning for this site, are by David Paul Morris, an American photographer in Hong Kong who often travels with Ron Gluckman. For other examples of Mr Morris' work, turn to the Urge to Merge, Melbourne Comedy, Hung Le, the Man Who Beat Beijing, China Beach and Spears of Death. Or visit his new web site: www.davidpaulmorris.com

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