COOBER PEDY, Australia — The bleak lunar landscape, pockmarked by thousands of potholes, craters and chalky white mounds, loomed up toward us as we gently descended in our little twin-engined craft. Astronauts on a moon landing? Hardly. But a sense of excitement gripped us as our Saab turbo-prop plane from Adelaide touched down at Coober Pedy, the unique "underground town" in the arid outback of South Australia. A hand-lettered sign on the shack-like terminal building spelled out: "Welcome to Coober Pedy--Opal Capital of the World."
A lone airport worker, a dark-haired young woman, met our Kendell Airlines flight--the drowsy airport's total traffic for the day. She tossed our hefty suitcase into a mini-van, climbed behind the wheel and asked which of the town's half-dozen accommodations we were headed for. Our slung cameras and bug-eyed looks served to emblazon the label "Tourist" across our chests. My wife, Simone, and I were booked at the Desert Cave Hotel, eager, yet a bit wary, to experience its advertised claim: "The World's Only Underground Hotel."
On earlier visits Down Under, we had talked of getting away from Australia's big coastal cities and heading for the red desert heartland. Especially intriguing was the legendary Coober Pedy. We knew that maximum daytime temperatures here, capable of soaring from 95 to 115 degrees for eight months of the year, had brought about a lifestyle of "dugout" cave-style dwelling. A network of undergound shops, accommodations, restaurants and churches sheltered the Coober Pedians from the scorching heat, occasional stifling dust storms, and swarming desert flies that afflict the austral summer between December and February. We had planned our trip for the relatively "milder" Australian winter (June-August), and the temperatures hoovered in the 70s during the day.
But the mining of opals is really what Coober Pedy is all about.
Chauffeuring us into town last July, Laura Campagna was a mine of information. "Most of the world's opals come from Australia, and most of those stones are dug up right around here," she said. "It tallies up to $20 to $40 million dollars' worth a year."
We had heard that fortune-seeking adventurers trekked to Coober Pedy from all over the world, lured by the "Queen of Gems." The town's population of 5,000, Laura told us, included 42 different nationalities. This was no simple ethnic mix. It was probably the most motley work force outside Babel or the U.N. Building in New York. Laura dropped us off at the hotel, in the heart of town. With typical outback friendliness she invited us to stop in to the sightseeing office or souvenir shop anytime, even if just to say "G'day!"
Our underground hotel room, a cube-like chamber burrowed into the side of a hill, reposed about 13 feet below a solid rock surface. A door led out into the open air, but the pink sandstone walls produced the effect of a snug crypt--complete with air-conditioning, television and international telephone. Whorled patterns on the striated walls, like giant fingerprints, were the telltale marks of powerful tunneling machines that had hollowed out this room. In the rambling subterranean hotel arcade, illuminated only by electric lights, we found an art gallery, a well-stocked bookshop, cozy bar, theatre, and, for sure, shops selling opals. The hotel also maintained aboveground rooms for claustrophobic guests. Upstairs, a first-class restaurant featured international cuisine, as well as local dishes such as pan-fried crocodile tail, oven-baked kangaroo fillet with strawberry and cassis sauce and medallions of char-grilled water buffalo.
Venturing outside, we surveyed the scene on Hutchinson Street, the town's main drag, named in honor of Willie Hutchinson, the 14-year-old youngster who "founded" Coober Pedy.
On Feb. 1, 1911, Willie was left to look after a desert base camp while a group of gold prospectors, including his father, went in search of water. It was during one of Australia's worst droughts. When the men returned empty-handed after dark and found Willie missing, they grew anxious and prepared to light a signal fire. But a grinning Willie stumbled into camp, announcing he had found pieces of precious opal. And water too.
Within days more opal was discovered, eventually leading to the establishment of the town. Tragically, young Willie drowned five years later in a swimming accident in Queensland.