Living Underground: The Post-Apocalyptic Allure of Coober Pedy

catacomb underground church
Bedroom of a dugout house
Bedroom of a dugout house in Coober Pedy, Australia – Photo credit: Benjamin Jakabek on Flickr

In 1985, Mel Gibson went head to head with Tina Turner in the post-apocalyptic action film “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” The movie was set in an otherworldly, Australian landscape, intriguingly barren and completely coated in a red layer of sandstone dust.

It may come as a surprise that Hollywood set designers didn’t create the backdrop for the film – it’s a very real place full of regular citizens leading normal lives. Coober Pedy, located in the vast Outback of South Australia, is a bustling town, known for its rich, opal-mining history and unique tourist attractions.

Just over a century ago, a teenager stumbled upon across some priceless opal gemstones. The discovery began Coober Pedy’s opal mining industry and eventual reputation as the “Opal Capital of the World.” Over 70% of the world’s opals have come from the town, and most of its 3,500 residents make a living in the opal industry.

The moon-like landscape of the Coober Pedy opal fields in Australia
The moon-like landscape of the Coober Pedy opal fields in Australia

Because of the town’s intense heat during the day and chilly temperatures at night, many of the town’s buildings were built underground. The subterranean community has everything from museums to churches. About half of the town’s residents live underground and conduct much of their business in the many establishments below the earth’s surface.

catacomb underground church
Serbian Orthodox church in Coober Pedy, South Australia

One of the most popular tourist sites, The Desert Cave Hotel, is far from a dusty Thunderdome. The hotel has won numerous tourism awards for its authentic Outback furnishings and cuisine and exceptional customer service.

Visitors to Coober Pedy can tour working opal mines, purchase some of the world-renowned gemstones, or experience one of the many Outback tours and museums. Each year, the Cooper Pedy Opal Festival draws thousands of visitors from around the world to experience the food and culture of Outback life – both above and below ground.