Eating underground in Coober Pedy
A recent visit to the opal capital of the world opened my eyes to an entirely different way of living.
You may or may not have heard that there's a global pandemic going on right now, and that it's made travel not only risky but in some places not possible. Here in Australia where I am, international travel is completely off the cards and will be for some time – the national air carrier, Qantas, likely won't resume international flights until mid-2021 at the earliest.
Even interstate travel is incredibly difficult, too – although the state I live in, South Australia, has gone for extended periods of time without any active coronavirus cases at all, neighbouring Victoria is grappling with an horrific second wave which has caused nearly all state border restrictions being eased to be a much slower process.
Thankfully, though, South Australia is a massive state, and as I was feeling the need to bugger off as far from home as possible recently to clear my head, making the near-900km trek to Coober Pedy in the state's Far North was entirely doable with ease – minus, of course, a gruelling 900km drive.
Out on the Moon Plain which begins around 15km outside Coober Pedy on the way to Oodnadatta. The surface is comparable to that of the moon, especially in its soft texture, and it has been used as a location for filming movies including Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
Known as the opal capital of the world, the town was founded 1915 and supplies the vast majority of the world's gem-quality opals. It's clearly big business as at the four-star hotel I stayed at, its opal shop contained pieces of jewellery proudly featuring opals worth as much as AU$15,000.
Although 150 million years ago the area was underwater, it's now an incredibly hot, dry, and dusty desert area which is why much of the town – not just the mines, but the houses, hotels, churches, and more – is all based underground.
While in an above-ground home or business you'd be running the air con at full chat during summer and having it struggle, people instead opt to live in dug-outs – which can be based in the side of a hill like the hotel I stayed at, along with in caves or disused mine shafts – that stay at 23 degrees celsius all year round.
A depiction of what an opal miner's dug-out would have looked like in the town's post-WWI early days, also as seen at the Old Timers Mine and Museum.
Although gastronomically-fascinating food options are limited – the kangaroo and emu pizzas at the pizza shop opposite my hotel being the most out-there things I really encountered – for a small town in the middle of the desert 530km from the next-nearest bit of what most would call civilisation, the food was far better than you'd expect.
The roadhouse on the way into town served up a killer steak sandwich, the pizza I did have from the aforementioned shop across the road was brilliant, and while the restaurant at the hotel I stayed at was far too expensive for me, the much more affordable Bolognese I ordered for room service was excellent.
What was great about this hotel though was that in addition to the restaurant – which was mostly above ground anyway – was that it had an underground cafe and an underground bar which was what felt particularly unique. As you can see below, I had smashed avo for breakfast in the underground cafe, which gave off a most unique vibe. The smashed avo was far cheaper than it would be back in Adelaide as well, so I should still have enough change left over for a house deposit in theory. (Sorry to all the non-Aussies whose heads this last comment will likely go over.)
Not pictured is the excellent lemon, lime, and bitters I had at the underground bar that afternoon, although you will see the sign leading to it from the underground display that runs under the hotel. Safe to say there aren't many signs leading upstairs to an underground bar in the world.
Although it's quite the trek from my home in the Adelaide Hills, it not only gave me the getaway I'd been craving but opened my eyes to an entirely different way of living right here in my own state.
Could I see myself living in such conditions? Probably not as I despise the heat (it was thankfully lovely mid-to-high 20-degree weather when I was there) and the lack of natural light due to there being no windows underground meant that as a heavy sleeper I never woke up when I intended to, but as a place to go and visit for a few days it was absolutely fascinating and a great trip.