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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Australia: An Entire Town Below the Surface

Article by: Amelia Simmons

The World’s Opal Capital

Imagine a town which functions entirely underground. In the 21st century. Under the Earth's surface, there are restaurants, bars, hotels, restaurants, and homes. Glimmers of sunlight peep through gaps and cracks, setting apart night and day as the life down under thrives. For approximately half of the population of Coober Pedy in Australia's Outback, living underground is the norm. The tiny Australian town is known as the world's opal capital, with opal gemstones being the key draw here, generating millions of dollars annually. It is Australia's subterranean oasis. But how did this relatively new town come about?

The Discovery of the Town

A little over one hundred years ago, 14-year-old teenager Willie Hutchinson stumbled across the area, discovering opal. He was initially tagging along on a gold prospecting mission. Wandering aimlessly across the suffering land plagued with drought, Willie and his fellow prospectors had split apart, searching for a lifesaving water source. Hours later, the rest learned Willie had struck gold when he returned with a two-week supply of water… but he had something else in tow. A bucketload of opals was slung across his shoulder. One year on, miners began flocking to the then baron land.

Let's Live in Coober Pedy

Soon enough, the town of Coober Pedy was born. Approximately 70 per cent of the world's opal production can be linked here, with pearls dating back over 65 million years. In its heyday, the Opal Capital of the World was home to over 1,000 miners. Today, this stands at just 100. However, this does not mean people no longer live here. Currently, around 3,500 people live in Coober Pedy, many of whom are families of Europeans that arrived here in the 1960s in search of a fortune, with 45 nationalities making up the population dynamics. But why do they live underground?

Why Down Under?

Coober Pedy is hellishly hot. Before being swayed by the mining fortune which could be made here, the reality of temperatures reaching over 43 degrees Celsius, or 110 Fahrenheit, just in the shade, should be considered. The region's arid desert climate does not make it an easy place to live. So, that is the reason why around 1600 of its population live below the surface. Saving on the air conditioning bills in the blistering heat of a summer's day is a no-brainer. And in the winter, heating bills are a distant memory as the cave walls act as an excellent insulator. The burning sun is not allowed to defy the steady, comfortable 23 degrees Celsius, which can be felt underground. Who knew the Earth's surface could be such a great moderator of mother nature's weather?

How was the Town Built?

To build Coober Pedy, residents carve whatever they need from the surrounding sandstone. Aside from the more obvious wall structures, they also carve bookshelves, tables, and even underground swimming pools. There is undoubtedly a flare of creativeness between residents. Need a new seating area? No trip to IKEA is needed. Simply get the tools out and start chipping away. Nothing goes amiss in these underground homes. Each home enjoys modern-day comforts: electricity, water, and internet access.

Self Sufficiency

Aside from the fortune and enticing opals found here, Coober Pedy is now gaining attraction for another feature: its hybrid energy project. The surfaces of the underground town harness both sunny and windy weather. These are perfect conditions for a renewable energy plant that generates 70 per cent of the town's energy to be built. In the summer months, the mercury inside thermometers climbs to 53 degrees Celsius when placed under direct sunlight. Thus, cleaner energy provides much-needed relief to the heat of diesel fuel and smoke which previously powered Coober Pedy. Now, the Opal Capital is drawing residents for this very reason: the ability to live self-sufficiently.

Diversifying the Economy

But it is not just new permanent residents being drawn here. The town also boasts a thriving tourism industry for the less permanent visitors. As we know, there are only 100 residents who still mine in Coober Pedy. So, what else do its residents do to make a living? The answer is tourism. In fact, tourism is relied on as much as the opal mining industry as it provides both employment and sustainability. There are several key sites where visitors flock to. This includes the mines, underground churches, and graveyards. All of which are immensely unique by being housed in an underground community. So, what exactly does Coober Pedy have to offer?

Experiencing the Town

Perhaps one of the most-visited attractions is the home of Faye Nayler. Back in the 1960s, she shovelled and picked her home, which now boasts a built-in bar, full eat-in kitchen… and a swimming pool in the living room. She charges an entrance fee to her home-come museum, but it is undoubtedly a must-see spot. And fancy living like a local for a night? The town even offers a hotel named the Desert Cave Hotel, which provides an authentic Coober Pedy Experience. Finally, being located in the outback poses no problem when travelling here. The underground oasis can be reached by rail via the Adelaide to Alice Springs route.

A Town Different to the Rest

Back when Willie Hutchinson accidentally stumbled upon the fortune-gaining opal just over one hundred years ago, who knew such a town would evolve? Innovation and thinking outside the box have been vital to creating life below the surface. As the extreme outside elements are kept at bay, residents here can enjoy comfortable and liveable conditions. And to ensure the somewhat less sustainable act of opal mining does not hinder their future living, they have become self-sufficient with a renewable energy plant and diversified their economy by enticing tourists. Coober Pedy is undoubtedly a unique and somewhat eccentric place.

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