Small Town Chooses To Live Underground For The Most Unusual Purpose
By Lucy Greider
Just like plants, human beings need sun, air, and water to thrive, and none of those things exist underground. But these hurdles didn't stop the residents of Coober Pedy, Australia, from ditching life on the surface to dwell subterranean. For years, the entire community has been residing in dwellings deep below the ground. A glimpse at the thriving town makes it obvious why these folks Down Under moved down under.
Home, Sweet Home
Being neighbors with worms and surviving off artificial light sounds like the newest form of torture, but for the people of Coober Pedy, these are the makings of their beautiful home.
A Trove Of Jewels
This small Australian village is known for its abundance of opals, a beautiful (not to mention quite valuable) iridescent gemstone said to signify love and passion. Coober Pedy is so chocked full of them it's even been dubbed the "Opal Capital of the World."
Life Before The Caves
In a land lush with precious stones, the Aboriginal people lived off native crops, built thriving communities, and, quite notably, were not living underground. The 20th century brought changes.
The First Discovery
The town’s name wasn’t even officially established until the first outsiders arrived. It was only when Willie Hutchinson first discovered an opal there that other miners began moving to the area in droves.
Opening The Floodgates
After that, the floodgates opened. By 1916, foreign miners were flocking to the area, hoping to get their hands on some money-making stones. And pretty soon, these outsiders started to get some pretty sick ideas in their heads.
Finding Ways To Adapt
The European venturists, unused to the harsh conditions (read: constant heat) of the village, soon realized that if they wanted to make their opal money, they'd need to find a way to survive in the town without dying of a heat stroke. That’s when they hatched their plan.
Leaving Their Mark
First, as colonizers often do, they had to give the area a name they could actually pronounce. They settled on Coober Pedy, after the aboriginal term kupa-piti, which roughly translates to "boy's waterhole." There was a second name the miners didn't like so much.
Only The Beginning
A local joke is that Coober Pedy sounds similar to white man in a hole. Because what did these settlers do when they realized their fragile temperaments couldn't take the heat? They dug underground tunnels, of course. But this was only the beginning.
The Tunnels Expand
After several miners began this undertaking, scores of others followed suit. Over the course of a few years, more and more "buildings" were constructed underground, until there was more infrastructure hidden below the surface than was visible from on land.
An Underground City
So far, there are an astounding three churches, an art gallery, a bar, and even hotels hiding below the surface of what from atop may look to outsiders simply like a desert wasteland. And it’s not just single men who live there, either. ..
Living Below The Surface
Here, people spend days and nights in subterranean rooms. Really, the space is a home like any other, if it weren't for the rock walls. Outside their underground dwellings, the town offered plenty to do.
Even people who live their lives underground have to find creative ways to have fun, and the residents of Coober Pedy have come up with a particularly interesting pastime...
Golf With A Twist
Of course, it's too hot during the day to do much outside (hence the caves) and so most extracurriculars take place under the shade of night. This includes golf, but with a special twist: all the balls glow in the dark.
The Resourcefulness Continues
As you may imagine, the extreme temperatures aren’t very conducive to plant life, so they’ve also had to find out-of-the-box ways to add some greenery to things. Honestly, their resourcefulness is impressive.
A Tree...Kind Of
Instead of your typical shrubbery, the people who live in this village have constructed a tree made entirely out of metal. It's quite the sight. Even so, while they’ve done their best to make the area their home, there are still some serious dangers to watch out for.
A Hazardous Landscape
All around the area are scores of random holes dug into the ground by would-be prospectors hoping to get their hands on a valuable opal. These can be serious tripping hazards for those who visit — especially if you plan on partaking in a friendly game of glow-in-the-dark golf.
The Strange Appeal
The village does its best to appeal to visitors, if only as a fun attraction to see once in a lifetime. There are even opals engraved into the walls of hotel rooms, highlighting the fact that the town offers the majority of the planet’s supply.
Other oddities to check out if you ever step foot in Coober Pedy include Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest, or the Coober Pedy Drive-In. Sounds cool right? But it’s not so easy to make the trip...
Not So Simple Directions
There are several options if you want to make your way to the Australian town. You can either fly into a small airstrip, go via bus on a coach tour, drive in a private car, or, finally, by the Ghan railway line.
'A Location Scout's Dream'
Because of its bizarre, pseudo-dystopian nature, it’s no wonder that Coober Pedy is a Hollywood location scouts dream. The town has been featured in multiple blockbusters including "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome," "Pitch Black," and "Red Planet."
The Second City
Most Cooper Pedy tourists are surprised to learn about another large dwelling that's completely underground, though this one can't be found in Australia. It was carved out beneath a crowded city, thanks to the work of one eccentric individual.
Among London's historic war bunkers and winding subway systems, there are hidden passageways that are even more profound. A series of tunnels lie underground with no discernible purpose, all of which were made by William Lyttle, the legendary "Mole Man." For years, rumors spread between neighbors as to Lyttle's secret plan. If it weren't for the damage that spread above the Mole Man's digging, he would have carried his secret to the grave.
The house on Mortimer Road in Hackney, London looks quite ordinary. Over the years, it turned into a ramshackle structure, but it was what was underneath that truly distressed the community.
Man-made tunnels sprawled out in many directions, though not a part of any city project. It was all because the homeowner wanted something exciting to keep his mind on.
Since William Lyttle bought the house in the 1960s, he knew there was something missing. There was plenty of space, with twenty different rooms. He figured a wine cellar was what was needed.
During his remodeling, the wine cellar changed into a basement and then became even more ambitious. Lyttle had found a passion for digging. As a retired engineer, he had plenty of time for his new project.
Daylight was replaced with the musty, cold subterranean realm beneath, and Lyttle preferred it. The rooms in his home turned into storage places to hold the dirt and clay he excavated.
After 40 years of digging, Lyttle created a system of tunnels that went 20 feet deep and spread out in directions as far as 60 feet. It was his own little secret, as if he was living a childhood dream.
Lyttle would make alcoves into the walls of his tunnels. Once finished, he would place books within for later reading. Tarzan stories were among his favorite in the collection.
Years Long Journey
Above ground, neighbors ranged from being curious to outward frustrated. Lyttle was closer to a hermit than a social butterfly, and if the rumors they passed around were true, what stopped the "Mole Man" from digging into their homes?
In an interview with The Guardian, one neighbor tried to see the amusing side. "I often used to joke that I expect him to come tunneling up through the kitchen floor." But was this a joking matter?
Another neighbor remained more serious. "We moved in six years ago and we've been complaining to the council ever since. Until six weeks ago they had the audacity to tell us the house was structurally sound."
Mole Man Quarrels
Prior to the neighbors' interviews, Lyttle had accidentally hit into a 450-volt cable. As much fun as he was having with his passion, it seemed he hardly gave much thought to those around him.
When pavement in front of Lyttle's home collapsed, his private project became exposed. Neighbors could see the tunnels stretching out all over and many were baffled at the extensiveness of it all.
Them Vs. Him
None of them could think of a reason for the tunnel making. It confounded them even more that Lyttle never saw any reason to offer an explanation. His property was his property.
More than Once
Lyttle was ultimately evicted, though after a few years, he managed to return to his home. Then, in 2009, he was evicted a final time and the city placed him in the residence of a high-rise. For someone who loved digging, it seemed to be a prison sentence.
After Lyttle died in 2010, the city finally filled in most of his damaging tunnels with cement. Yet the quiet that Lyttle's passing had left behind wouldn't remain. He had left a legacy behind.
The house on Mortimer Road became a unique tourist attraction. It caught the eye of a pair of contemporary artists. They quickly purchased Lyttle's rundown house when it went on the market.
Two for One
Sue Webster and Tim Noble cleaned up the property. All twenty rooms of the house would be restored. But the two also bought it fully knowing who the previous owner had been.
The artists planned to preserve several of the tunnels that had not been filled in by the city. There were plans for a studio to be made in some of them or even turning some into a sunken garden. A plaque was soon secured to the house.
It offered a lasting acknowledgement of the "Mole Man" without a hint of irony. While no one will ever really know why he began his half-century-long project, perhaps to Lyttle, that was the point.
"I don't mind the title of inventor," he said in an interview with The Guardian. "Inventing things that don't work is a brilliant thing, you know. People are asking you what the big secret is. And you know what? There isn't one."