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 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.