Down Under Down Under

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Herve Hughes / Getty Images

Coober Pedy has no pretense to normalcy. The mining town sits 300 miles from the nearest anything in a vast section of Australia’s arid Outback known best for abandoned mine shafts. On summer days, the mercury here bubbles over 120 degrees and the 1,700 locals try to escape the heat and desolation in underground rooms, bars, and halls terraformed into subterranean neighborhoods. The settlement has retained a bloke-and-sheila vibe and is nothing if not dusty on the surface, but an increasing number of tourists are making the drive along the legendarily lonely Stuart Highway to visit the desert town and its otherwordly surroundings. While there, they go to the buried church and the mining museum before trying their hand at fossicking, the process of sifting through mined rock for gems and precious stones.

Coober Pedy was settled in 1915, when 14-year-old Willie Hutchison discovered an opal and ignited an opal rush, but unlike a lot of mining boom towns, the village has remained relevant to the mineral trade. Today, the region supplies the world with roughly 80% of its turquoise and most of its quality gem-quality opal. Which means that the locals are not merely playing the role of hardened Australian miners welcoming foreigners to town. They are hardened Australian miners welcoming foreigners to town with a drink in “The Levels,” a famed underground bar, and by offering directions that often include the word “down.”

Beyond the town center, a 45-mile loop along the Oodnadatta dirt-track brings road trippers to the Dingo Fence, which, at 3,488 miles long, is one of the world’s largest man-made structures. Cutting a lonesome figure along the Moon Plains, the barrier was erected in the 1880s to prevent Australia’s famed wild dogs from leaving the cattle country in northern Australia in order to plunder the sheep farming regions to the south.

Slightly further north, the Breakaways, a series of spectacular mesa peaks named after their relative proximity to the territory’s Stuart Mountain Range, stands guard over nothing in particular. The mountains, sacred to the Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara people, are best experienced at twilight, when purple skies fall upon the ochre plateau. Drivers, however, should be aware that many Aussie car rental companies do not insure dusk-to-dawn journeys because wild animals are so abundant on outback roads (when in doubt, opt for an SUV with “Roo Bars,” Australia’s answer to the deer catcher).

Come sundown, the town gets hopping. Locals head to John’s Pizza Bar for emu mettwurst and the slightly grimmer Opal Inn Saloon for a Victoria Bitter. Even better are the $10 dinner gatherings held by the local Italo-Australian Miners Club, which provide locals with an excuse to get together and party down. After a few beers, visitors are prone to blurt something out about how the town is a buried treasure. The locals are given to agree.

More information: Coober Pedy’s accommodation options range from the bizarre (Desert Cave Hotel from $225) to the ridiculous (Riba’s Underground Campsite, from $14). Even the mildest of claustrophobes should venture underground with caution. That said, most caverns do come complete with oil lamps so you can track your way out in the event of a blackout.

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