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The Jan. 14 edition of Sunday TODAY featured a story on Coober Pedy, Australia, a remote town where opal mining and underground dugouts make for a community that's like no other. Below, Sunday TODAY producer Jillian Wolf takes us behind the scenes and explains what it was like to visit this town in the outback.
The record-breaking cold temperatures in New York City had the Australian in me dreaming of a winter escape. So when I shared a story during our weekly pitch meeting about a small town in Australia where almost all of the residents beat the heat by living underground, I was ecstatic to get the green light!
Coober Pedy is located in the heart of the Australian Outback, about 525 miles from the nearest city. Getting there from any major Australian city, let alone from the U.S., is a feat in and of itself. Its desolate, moon-like landscape has been the backdrop for many films, including "Mad Max" and "Pitch Black."
Our cinematographer, Marcus, flew from Sydney to Alice Springs and then drove across the desert for about eight hours to get to Coober Pedy. As he arrived, a massive storm rolled over the tiny town. The drone footage he captured of the storm ended up being a key element in the story that aired on Sunday TODAY.
Correspondent Sara James and I met at the airport in Adelaide, located in South Australia, and after a couple of adventurous flights that included a casual "propeller failure" before takeoff and a beyond-bouncy landing, we made it to Coober Pedy.
Coober Pedy is home to the world’s largest supply of opals. The name comes from the Aboriginal term kupa piti, which means "white man in a hole." Fittingly, it refers to both the miners who work underground and those who choose to live underground.
Ever since the first opal was discovered there, in 1915, people have come from all corners of the globe in hopes of striking it rich. It’s a place where you can become a millionaire overnight. According to the locals, your chances are better than winning the lottery. But you can also miss the opal — and your chance at wealth — by as little as an inch.
The temperature in Coober Pedy can soar to 115 degrees, and water is a commodity. To deal with the extreme heat, residents live in dugouts, which are homes excavated into hillsides, where the temperature inside remains a comfortable 65 to 75 degrees year-round.
Dugouts aren’t limited to homes. You'll also find an underground bar, bookstore and beauty salon, as well as numerous churches, cafes, restaurants and hotels.
Coober Pedy is a transient town. Some residents stay for decades, while others stay for years or even months. But with a population of around 2,000 people, representing more than 40 nationalities, you’re bound to come across some colorful characters.
Sonja Chiechi and her husband, Edi, are Swedish. They run an Airbnb inside their dugout, featuring beautiful interior design. Edi was kind enough to walk us through a typical home expansion.
Many of the residents draw comparisons between this town and the Wild Wild West. Sabrina Platzer, manager of the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum, told us that when the town recently celebrated its 100th birthday, the police station celebrated its 50th. That means there was no law and order for half a century! You can only imagine what it would have been like, she explains.
Sam Kambouris grew up in Coober Pedy. She moved to Adelaide to receive her education and eventually returned to manage The Lookout Cave Underground Motel. Her father, who now works at the hotel, was a miner in the '70s and '80s, the heyday for opal mining.
Shelley Wells started her own underground beauty salon when friends complained they had to travel at least 500 miles for the nearest mani-pedi. Her business may well be one of the only underground salons in the world.
In Coober Pedy, she says, you have to be a jack of all trades. With opal having so much to do with luck, many of the town's residents balance multiple jobs to get by.
Platzer says opals come in all sizes and colors, but the biggest money these days is for fossils encased in opal. One miner recently discovered the backbone of a squid, she says, which sold for $1.2 million. You don’t need to find much to get rich, she laughs.
While we may not have left Coober Pedy a million dollars richer, we did leave with a wealth of knowledge and stories that will never grow old.