Considering my love of the strange, I’m weirdly conventional when it comes to choosing hotels – I like nice bathrooms (preferably with a view), comfy beds, (with a view) – so, my recent birthday trip to Coober Pedy broke the mold a bit, as I had one thing I really wanted to do there – sleep in an underground hotel – with no view. And it was fabulous.
The Underground World of Coober Pedy
For those who don’t know, Coober Pedy is a town in the middle of outback South Australia.
It’s famous for opals – and the lunar-like landscape that surrounds it. This mind-blowing mix of flat red earth and piles of excavated rock has appeared in films including Mad Max 3: Beyond The Thunderdome and Pitch Black (who kindly left their space ship in the middle of the high street).
It’s also famous for being Australia’s underground town.
You see summer temperatures in Coober Pedy can reach around 36C (over 100F) degrees but in winter it can drop to single figures at night and so, a few clever opal miners worked out that the best place to sleep would be underground.
The result is an amazing town where about 80 per cent of the 1700+ folk who live there – and a large number of visiting tourists – sleep in dugouts buried into the cliffs.
A trip here was my birthday present for a recent big birthday. I couldn’t wait to get there, and sleeping in one of Coober Pedy’s underground hotels was top of my list of things to do – you can’t go to Coober Pedy and sleep in a normal hotel.
But I also wanted to be walking distance to bars and restaurants. I’d heard that Coober Pedy could be unsafe at night (NB: We didn’t find that at all) and if that was the case I didn’t want to have to walk too far to find food and drink.
Much googling began.
The Solution was the Desert Cave Hotel.
Not only was it directly opposite what was supposed to be one of Australia’s best pizzas (spoiler: its pretty good), it was a relatively short walk to the Italian Miners Club which was renowned for its sunsets and top of my list of places to visit in the evening.
However, if Coober Pedy did turn out to the be the Wild West come sundown, the Desert Cave had its own bar – and an underground bar at that- so, at worst, we could have a beer there.
Because it was also right on Coober Pedy’s main street, if I wanted to go and explore while The Boyfriend chilled out (which happens a lot), I figured there would be somewhere I could walk to.
Rooms were booked. Adventure Big Birthday was happening.
What’s it Like Sleeping Underground in Coober Pedy?
While I knew I wanted to sleep in one of Coober Pedy’s underground hotels, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it for long. There was a few reasons for this…
I am not a mole. I like daylight – a lot – and I wasn’t sure about being in the dark when drinking my morning tea.
I am allergic to dust and mould and I couldn’t see how a room that was underground wouldn’t have at least one of those things. I could stand one night of snuffling, but two, no.
The solution also came via the Desert Cave as they had both over and underground rooms. We booked our first night underground and the second up top.
Turned out I needn’t have worried. While I still didn’t like being in the dark during the day, the fact that the Desert Cave Hotel has a swimming pool meant I could happily nip up and sit by that reading my book when I felt I needed daylight.
And as for the mould and dust – it wasn’t an issue.
When they excavate the underground houses or hotels in Coober Pedy they paint over the surface with a sealant that keeps dust and other nasties to a minimum. I sneeeze more in my own house than I did in my underground room at the Desert Cave Hotel.
We were there in March when above ground temperatures were about 30. The room was a bit warm, but they do have a fan and that was enough to cool things off for us.
What’s With the Walls?
When you spend a bit of time looking at the selection of underground hotels in Coober Pedy, one thing strikes you. A lot of them look like they were decorated in 1972 – and the reason is they all seem to come with bad, terracotta, flocked wallpaper. When you get there you realise it’s the rock.
In fact, the groves in the wall come from the machines that dig out the spaces and the colour of the room comes from the rocks itself – the more time you spend underground in Coober Pedy the more you notice the different colours. The rocks are a mix of white, red and yellow and the exact makeup of the cliff your room is cut into determines it’s colour.
Of course, if they were very lucky, the miners also found opal while digging out their houses/hotels – it’s illegal to mine for opal in Coober Pedy town itself, but there are no rules against digging yourself another bedroom or a study – there are therefore a lot of big houses stretching out under those cliffs!
Calling the rooms underground, however, does feel like a bit of a misnomer. To me that says you’re going to descend into the earth to get to bed, but in fact, at Desert Cave at least, you enter the property on ground level and there’s no climbing down any stairs or anything to get to your room. This also makes it feel less claustrophobic than if you had to climb into a hole or down a set of stairs to reach them.
The Boyfriend was in his absolute element. He hates noise and this place was whisper quiet. It’s also pitch black at night – I even had to use my phone light to find the bathroom. The walls are thick and the way it’s dug out means some of the rooms have no neighbours joining them. There were above ground rooms above us, but we didn’t hear anything from them. This was his happy place.
The upshot was, we cancelled the above ground room the second night and stayed in our little underground haven. The Boyfriend absolutely loved it and is contemplating whether he can dig out our basement a’la this old miners dugout you can tour at the nearby Umoona Mine.
The only downside is there’s very limited phone signal down there – they have wifi but no cellular.
We spent most of our days exploring all the cool and unusual things you find in Coober Pedy. I spent late afternoons lounging by the pool, then in the evening we headed up to the Miner’s Club to watch the sunset – and, even though we did feel perfectly safe wandering around Coober Pedy, we couldn’t resist a drink in the Desert Cave’s underground bar one night.
We also checked out the underground pokie room, ate sandwiches at the underground cafe and visited the underground mining exhibition in the hotel – seems I might be part mole after all.
If you want to check prices and see more pictures of the Desert Cave, then you can view them here. Or…….
Check Out Some Other Underground Accommodation in Coober Pedy.
While Desert Cave was the best choice for us, it’s not the only place you can sleep underground in Coober Pedy – there are a lot of hotels and motels that offer underground rooms. Here’s where else you might want to pick….
The Underground Motel
Tucked away in the backstreets north of town, the Underground Motel offers an eclectic range of rooms. It was the first motel to be dugout underground in Coober Pedy in 1984. They say all their rooms have natural daylight, so, if you don’t like the idea of being in somewhere super dark, it might be a good choice for you. They have suites with their own kitchen or there is a shared kitchen for the smaller rooms.
The Lookout Cave
This was my other top choice in Coober Pedy as I liked the fact that they had a porch to sit on, but it was just a little bit too far away from everything else in town to get the booking.
In fact, it’s just around the corner from the Underground Motel, The Lookout Cave offers a choice of normal motel room or apartments with full kitchens. Two of these are real old miners dugouts so you get the real feeling of what it would be like to stay in an underground home. Note – neither of these apartments is suitable for children but they do have specialist family rooms. See more here.
Radeka Downunder Motel
This is almost opposite the Desert Cave so the location is great – and it’s actually attached to one of Coober Pedy’s many underground churches. It has a mix of standard rooms and dorms so if you’re on a budget it could be a good option. They also offer both above and underground rooms. Garry who runs the place seems to be a big hit with the guests who say he’s super helpful. It looks a bit more like a souvenir shop than a hotel from the front (that’s actually it in the pic above), but don’t let that put you off. See the prices and more pictures here.
Dug Out B&B
If you want to experience a bit more isolation on your outback trip, this could be a good choice for you. It’s about 4km out of town and while it’s not in the middle of nowhere it does offer pretty good views over the surrounding landscape. It’s also one of the brighter and nicest decorated of the underground motels in Coober Pedy that I’ve seen. Rooms are apartment style and very large, and some have kitchens. Click here to see more.
Water is scarce in Coober Pedy, but the Underground B&B has a spa bath for guests to relax in – it’s underground so the water won’t evaporate! There’s lots of space in this place including some interesting looking communal areas. It’s not that near town, but it is a short walk to the fascinating Serbian Underground Church (that’s it above). If you like the sound of this one, click here to check things out.
Comfort Inn Coober Pedy Experience
It has to be one of the most unusual Comfort Inn in the world – a working opal mine until 1980 it’s now an underground hotel. It’s located off the main drag but close to sights like The Big Winch. A nice touch, considering you’re in Australia, land of the barbie, is BBQs for guests to use. The hotel comes under the Comfort Inn chain (and you can use Choice points to book it) but it’s family owned and operated.
If none of those floats your boat, then click here to check out the other possible accommodation options in Coober Pedy – both underground and overground (wombling free – sorry, couldn’t resist it).
Wherever you pick, I hope you had as much fun as I did. I loved the place.