This is part of our Road Trip 2018 summer series “Taking It to Extremes,” which looks at what happens when people mix everyday tech with insane situations.
After spending a night in an underground rock cave in the middle of the Australian desert, I learned three things: The silence is deafening. Your eyes never adjust to the darkness. And if nobody brushes the ceiling before you arrive, that clump of dirt is going to scare the living hell out of you when it drops on your face at 2 a.m.
I’ve flown 1,200 miles for the privilege of sleeping in a hole in Coober Pedy. There’s no Wi-Fi down here. The glare of my MacBook feels obnoxious in the subterranean stillness. The TV plays ads for a “local” cleaning service from the next town over, but that just happens to be 400 miles away.
Australia is a country defined by “the tyranny of distance,” but traveling to the underground opal mining town of Coober Pedy feels like taking a holiday on Mars.
In the middle of the South Australian desert and an eight hour drive in either direction from the nearest capital city (Adelaide to the south or Alice Springs to the north), Coober Pedy is off the grid and mostly hidden underground. More than half the residents live buried in the bedrock in cavelike homes called “dugouts” in order to escape freezing winters, scorching summers and the occasional cyclone. Often, the only sign you’re walking on someone’s roof is the air vent that’s sprouted up next to your boots.
While first nation peoples have lived in the central Australian desert for thousands of years, the Coober Pedy we know today wouldn’t exist without opals. Miners rushed here in the 1920s, enduring extreme conditions to hunt for the multicolored gems, digging, bulldozing and eventually blasting out earth in a bid to find the elusive seam that would make them rich.
Living in Coober Pedy is not just about surviving. It’s about carving out a way of life in one of the harshest environments on the planet. For locals, that means being resourceful, jury-rigging solutions to everyday problems that combine advanced 21st century tech with the low-tech reality of life on the frontier.
But with miners picking up their lives and leaving, the biggest story of survival might be that of Coober Pedy itself.
As a kidin Australia, I’d grown up hearing about Coober Pedy: the town where everyone lives in a hole! Where dusty men in Crocodile Hunter hats mine rainbow-colored opals (Australia’s national gemstone) and where they filmed Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. The town where some unlucky sod in your fifth-grade class drove on school holidays, stuck to the scalding pleather back seat of a Datsun for three days of road-tripping through endless Australian Outback.
Even flying to Coober Pedy is epic. After departing Sydney and touching down in Adelaide two hours later, I faced another two-hour flight to Coober Pedy. For that, I boarded a 34-seat Saab 340 plane operated by Australia’s regional airline, Rex (how appropriate for the bush).
We have internet when the generator’s on.”
After reading the in-flight safety card (the fact that our plane was fitted with a “survival kit” was ominous), I spent much of the flight mentally positioning a pith helmet and safari suit on the refined elderly gentleman next to me.
Minutes before touching down on the landing strip, I was still craning my neck to spot the town. From my seat in our still-miraculously-airborne plane, all I could see was an endless stretch of Martian-red dirt, pockmarked by countless mining holes — row after row of shafts dug into the earth, each partnered with a mound of dusty white soil alongside it.
The marks of the opal rush are etched all over this landscape. I’d later hear that the rush to find opals here gave Coober Pedy its name. According to folklore, “kupa piti” in the local indigenous language means “white man’s hole.”
And then I see Coober Pedy itself. A cluster of roads and tiny buildings clinging to the edge of the Stuart Highway, like a town that had terraformed out of the dust. I had the sensation I was in some alternate reality, about to touch down on the moon to visit humanity’s last outpost.
Still, I thought, it was going to look pretty good on Instagram.
Driving from the airport in my rental car — a ludicrously large mining vehicle with spinning lights on the roof that I would later accidentally turn on while taking a scenic drive — I see signs erected along the barren roadside warning about Coober Pedy’s deep mine shafts: Don’t run! Watch out for unmarked holes! And never, never walk backward when you’re trying to take a photo.
I’m off to meet Andy Sheils, a local who’s lived here for more than four decades and who runs the Underground Art Gallery as well as the local State Emergency Service and Mine Rescue volunteer group. A few weeks before my visit, Sheils and his team rescued a man from the bottom of a 50-foot-deep mine shaft who’d been blacklighting for opals (using UV lights at night to find opals left behind near mine shafts). He somehow survived, only sustaining an ankle injury. He clearly didn’t read the signs around town with the same panicked fear I did.
I drive to Sheils’ gallery — marked by a massive boomerang sign over what looks like a bomb shelter entrance. At the bottom of the stairs is Andy, wearing a Coober Pedy Mine Rescue cap over his white hair and turning the lights on around the big sandstone cavern, illuminating art from local indigenous artists and rows of glittering opals in cabinets.
It occurs to me that it’s the first gallery I’ve been to with an excavator parked in the corner.
Unlike conventional buildings, dugouts like this gallery and the homes around town are a bit of a free-for-all, architecturally speaking.
The local council guidelines stipulate that all dugouts must have ventilation (often as simple as a pipe through to the ground above), emergency lighting, safe egress and a roof thickness no less than 2.5 meters (just over 8 feet). From there, you’re pretty much free to take your dugout where you want. When there’s no need for square rooms, corridors or windows, the world is your hobbit hole.
Sheils has owned his place since 1975, slowly growing it from family home into an art gallery, blasting out walls and excavating new rooms in a process I come to lovingly think of as “renovation by gelignite.”
Conveniently, the same process used to dig out new rooms is also used for finding opals. Hunting for that telltale seam of rainbow in the sandstone involves drilling holes into the rock and setting explosives. If you get lucky, you’ll find a stratum where water has seeped down through the sandstone and mixed with silica over millions of years to create luminous seams of opal. Though not as expensive as other rare gems like diamonds, opals are brilliant to look at and can fetch a hefty sum — especially in overseas markets like China.
For many miners and locals, mining is quite a low-tech, almost domestic pursuit. Searching for opals on the weekend can be as simple as sticking some explosives in the living room wall and blasting out a cavity in search of an opal seam to pick out. Even if you don’t strike a seam, you still get an extension for the dining room.
“When you blast, it shakes the place like hell,” Sheils tells me. “You light 11 fuses in succession and put your fingers in your ears, [then] go around the corner and find a safe place. When they go off, it lifts your bum off the ground if you’re close enough.”
Sheils isn’t the only local to dig his own home. A few blocks away from the Underground Art Gallery I visit Faye’s Underground Home — a dugout built by local pub cook turned opal miner, Faye Nayler. Alongside her friends Ettie Hall and Sue Bernard, Faye dug out this underground home by hand between 1962 and 1972, searching for opals as she went. The house is still in its original condition, from the tidy master bedroom eight meters (26 feet) below ground to the underground pool. The women opened the dugout to the public in 1972.
“They wired the house themselves, and there was no Googling back in those days,” says volunteer guide Grant Steele, walking us through the house. “That was fair dinkum women’s power.”
Back at the gallery, Sheils shows me his efforts to connect his underground abode. For a hole in the ground, it’s surprisingly high-tech — in a low-tech sort of way. He wired the whole place himself, blasting out holes for electrical cables using ammonium nitrate before filling in the holes with cement and reinforced steel bar. When he whips out his phone to show me photos of his recent mine rescue training, he says he’s always connected underground, thanks to a portable Wi-Fi hotspot.
“We took on computers before virtually anyone else,” he tells me. “It was our only link to the outside world.”
But while Coober Pedy locals have welcomed the arrival of technology, it was often slow to arrive on the frontier.
Television was first transmitted to Coober Pedy in 1980, long after the rest of Australia had it. Before that, entertainment consisted of movies at the drive-in, built back in ’65. Fixed telephone services came in the ’70s, giving townspeople a way to stay connected underground, but interstate calls still had to be sent through an operator at an exchange 200 miles away until the mid-’80s. Before phones, locals had to send messages via pedal wireless — an Aussie invention that let radio operators send Morse code messages using power generated by their feet.
But things have gradually improved. Mobile coverage came in the ’90s and now the whole center of town has 4G coverage. Plenty of people use mobile broadband at home, using hotspots they take on the go or with a rooftop antenna that picks up a mobile signal and runs it via cable into a home router (though you may want a Wi-Fi extender with all those rock walls).
We took on computers before virtually anyone else. It was our only link to the outside world.”
Now, thanks to Australia’s new National Broadband Network (NBN), three quarters of the town are set to be connected to a mix of copper and fiber-optic cable to bring fixed-line broadband to people’s homes by next January.
For those outside of town, the NBN is connecting homes with satellite technology. That means families can finally say goodbye to getting on the internet from one SIM card on their mobile phones. And because the government mandates that NBN provides equal internet access to all Australians, people in Coober Pedy won’t have to pay any more than Aussies anywhere else.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, when miners of more than 100 different nationalities came to try their luck in Coober Pedy, life here was decidedly more low-tech.
One of those immigrants was Jim Theodorou, who arrived from Greece in 1966 with his brother. Back then, miners dug by hand, working all day (and often through the night) to eke out a living. At the door to Jim’s workshop, his wife Litsa shows me a photo of a young Jim, peering into the sunlight from a deep hole, his pick perched on the edge.
Theodorou tells me he spent his first five years here living in a tent in the desert. I almost choke. I brought 43 jackets and a pair of silver glitter shoes for my two-day winter trip here, and he survived five winters and five summers in a tent, getting supplies from town once a week and picking mold off his bread. He tells me about buying water allotments — in the early days 44 gallons of water cost 1 shilling and had to last you 15 days. Showers were scarce. When Litsa moved to join him in Coober Pedy, one of the first things things she did was wash 110 pairs of socks for Jim and his mining mates.
Theodorou has given up mining but he still cuts, polishes and sets every opal he sells in the family shop. Sitting in his workshop in the house he and his brother built with their bare hands, I feel like a sheltered city slicker. This man lugged all the rocks I can see in the walls. My shoes are made of silver glitter.
But speaking to him gives me the sense that the low-tech days were easier for miners — all you needed was a pick and a place to peg your claim. These days, mining has turned into a technological arms race.
In the commercial mines at nearby Prominent Hill (“nearby” meaning a two-hours’ drive from Coober Pedy), massive mining company Oz Minerals uses spectrometry to analyze samples drilled from the earth to detect valuable minerals. The company has even kitted out its dump trucks with sensors so technicians can monitor trucks from an office in Adelaide.
But back in Coober Pedy, small-time miners still have to rely on bulldozers and expensive fuel.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, you can have electronic lights and electronic dials, but the engine needs diesel. You can’t escape from that,” says Theodorou. “You used to buy one barrel of petrol for $7 or $10. Now it’s $400.”
Diesel is the lifeblood that runs through this town. All the caravans and four-wheel drives passing through fill up on it. At one point, the entire town was fueled by it.
Because of its remote location, Coober Pedy has always been off the South Australian electric grid. Until recently, the entire town drew its power from generators running on expensive diesel fuel trucked in from the coast. But that changed last year with the Coober Pedy Renewable Hybrid Project — a solar and wind-generation installation on the outskirts of town that now provides the town with approximately 70 percent renewable energy. On some days, that figure goes as high as 100 percent.
But despite the push into renewable energy, some of the locals still rely on diesel to get by every day, with jury-rigged setups that power their underground homes.
And to see one of them, I had to take a trip out toward the Breakaways.
There’s no real way to describe Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest. Part abandoned home, part relic of the Coober Pedy heyday, it’s best summed up as the graffiti-filled underground lair of a crocodile-hunting Latvian sex god.
Crocodile Harry’s is an institution. It was once the home of Arvid Blumenthal, who came to Coober Pedy to mine for opals and who ultimately built a mythology out of his love for women, hunting and the persistent claim that he was a baron in hiding since World War II.
Regardless of who he was, he wrestled a mean croc judging by the photos I saw on the walls. Thousands now flock to his nest to see the weird tchotchkes left on dusty shelves, the underwear pinned to the ceiling, and the rooms where the wild pilot Jedediah lived in Beyond Thunderdome.
But it’s also where I find what feels like the last relic of the big city hiding in Bartertown — a kid more concerned with coding than mining.
Sam Nagy’s parents run Crocodile Harry’s and he’s here manning the front desk for tourists during the school holidays. He’s studying programming and wants to get into game development. So how the hell does an 18-year-old programmer survive in the desert with sketchy phone reception and no electricity?
“It’s not like we’re living thousands of kilometers under the ground,” he tells me. “It’s pretty similar to living in a normal house.”
Sam’s family, who live in a dugout close to Crocodile Harry’s, have solar panels for power — but those generate only enough electricity for a few hours a day. Diesel handles the rest, he says.
“We have to rely on tourists to pay for our fuel,” he says. “Gasoline is valuable out here. Fuel is really expensive.”
That means no fridge running all day and night — they keep nonperishable food and get the rest from town every day. Otherwise, life is pretty similar to what other 18-year-olds in the city experience. Sam says he can still charge his phone and use the TV “for a bit.”
“We have internet when the generator’s on. Dad’s got an Xbox but we don’t even try to use the solar for that.”
I never thought visiting a crocodile hunter’s rock cave would pay for someone’s next game of Halo.
Sam’s story shows me how the people of Coober Pedy are used to doing a lot with the limited tech they have.
But it makes me question the town’s future.
“There’s not that many miners left anymore,” Andy Sheils tells me. “It’s too mined out, and our kids won’t do it because they’re not nutcases.”
The locals who have stayed are largely building a living on tourism. But those tourist destinations still look to the past, whether it’s the Old Timer’s Mine, which re-creates mining life from the early 20th century, or Crocodile Harry’s, where the ’70s heyday is a dusty memory on the walls.
Now the old miners have been replaced with “FIFOs” — fly-in, fly-out miners, who work a week at a time on projects like the one at Prominent Hill then fly back to Adelaide when they’re done.
Is the extreme life of Coober Pedy sustainable? Are humans really designed to eke out an existence in the toughest conditions imaginable?
“We do what we want to do, when we want,” says Sheils. “I’m not bloody selling. This is home, and it’s the lifestyle we want. You can keep your traffic lights.”
Leaving Coober Pedy and getting back to the city takes me a full day — it’s like I’m decompressing after a visit to outer space. I crawl into bed, exhausted, thankful that there’s no dirt falling on my head, and start lazily flicking through photos on my phone choosing what to post on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram before I go to bed.
But lying in my room in the center of the city, lit by the dim blue light of my smartphone and hearing the noisy traffic outside my apartment, I’m almost sad to be back in civilization.
I’ve found my favorite shot — a photo of me standing on the edge of the Breakaways, wearing my 1980s Ken Done “Australia” jumper and my silver shoes. On Instagram it’s pure #AussieDesertInspo, the picture of a city sheila trying to look legit. But it will always remind me of the time I met Aussies who were the real deal.
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