Opals in the Outback: Australia's Amazing Underground Mining Town

Coober Pedy Tourism

Looking for a truly unique place to bring the kids in Australia? Consider Coober Pedy, a century-old opal mining town in the Outback known for its "dugouts"—houses carved into the earth to protect miners from the blistering heat, an idea first introduced by Aussie soldiers returning from WWI. The town's name comes from the Aboriginal word kupa-piti, meaning "white man's hole."

The first opal was discovered in 1915 by a 14-year-old kid named Willie Hutchison. An opal rush followed, a town sprung up, and today Coober Pedy (pop. 3,500) supplies the majority of the world's high-quality white opals. Most of the town's year-round residents still live in dugouts. 

Must do and see: Families can dig for their own opals, and explore the town's attractions, which include dugout museums, churches and other venues. Willie's first opal is still on display at the Old Timers Mine museum in town.

In the The Jewell Box area, there is a designated opal "fossicking" area. Fossicking means rummaging through piles of rock with a small pick and shovel. When an opal is exposed to sunlight, you can check for signs of color, or "potch." In some locations, you can view rubble go through a conveyor under an ultra-violet light in a darkened enclosure in order to spot opals more easily.

Fun trivia: The town itself was a main location of Wim Wenders' "Until the End of the World" in 1991 and "Opal Dream" in 2006. Outside of town is the Moon Plain, a barren, flat landscape that has appeared as the post-apocalyptic landscape in cult film "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," a chief location in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and it served as an alien planet in Hollywood sci-fi flick "Pitch Black."

Getting there: Coober Pedy is about 525 miles north of Adelaide on the Stuart Highway, in the northern region of South Australia's Outback. You can also get to Coober Pedy on a Greyhound Bus from Adelaide or Alice Springs. 

When to go: March to November. You'll be less comfortable during summer in Australia (winter in North America and Europe), when temperatures can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius). The harsh summer desert temperatures is the reason many residents prefer to live in caves bored into the hillsides, known as "dugouts."  It can be sizzling hot outside, but dugouts remain at a constant cool temperature.

Where to stay: When in this unique mining town, you can stay in one of the underground motels or B&Bs in Coober Pedy, or opt for a more traditional hotel.