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Living on the edge: Life off the grid in Australia's most extreme town

It's in the middle of the desert and an 8 hours' drive to the nearest capital city. Living in Coober Pedy is an exercise in self-reliance.

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Claire Reilly
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Welcome to Coober Pedy

In the middle of the South Australian desert, eight hours' drive from the nearest city (Alice Springs in the North and Adelaide in the south), the opal mining town of Coober Pedy is one of the most extreme towns in the world. The rocky, treeless landscape is unforgiving -- with summer temperatures regularly pushing past 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and freezing temperatures in winter -- meaning more than half the town lives underground. 

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Like Mars on Earth

On the drive into town, the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park (part of the traditional country of the Antakirinja Matuntjara Yankunytjatjara people) shows just how alien the desert surrounding Coober Pedy is.

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Mining country

The Coober Pedy landscape is surrounded by mining shafts and piles of cast-off earth, left from decades of opal mining.  

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Mine shafts

Outside the town center, the landscape is dotted with countless unmarked mine shafts, some dropping as deep as 50 or 60 feet. Large tracts of land are fenced off for mining operations, and visitors are warned never to enter fenced-off areas or leave the main roads. In June 2018, three weeks before our visit, a man was rescued from a 50-foot shaft with nothing more than an ankle injury. Others aren't as lucky.

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Mine shafts

A sign at the entrance to town warns visitors about the dangers of Coober Pedy.

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Coober Pedy welcomes dogs

A patch of rocky, treeless Coober Pedy (somewhat indistinguishable from the rest of rocky, treeless Coober Pedy) designated by the District Council as an off-leash area for dogs. 

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Coober Pedy's slice of Hollywood

Coober Pedy's version of the Hollywood Sign stands over the main street and welcomes visitors on their way into town. 

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The town centre

The main street of Coober Pedy at dusk. While many of the buildings in the center of town are above ground, most of the locals live underground in homes known as dugouts. Stretching out into the rocky hills on the outskirts of the town center, these dugouts wind under the earth like rabbit warrens. 

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Ventilation underground

Coober Pedy's underground homes are surprisingly low-tech when it comes to oxygen supply. Every dugout has simple ventilation shafts built into the rock to keep air flowing from the outside into the room below. Because they're built into the sandstone, the rooms stay cool all year round. 

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Living underground

One of the most famous underground homes in Coober Pedy is Crocodile Harry's. Sam Nagy and his family own the dugout, which is built into the sandstone rock in the middle of the desert, four miles outside of Coober Pedy. 

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Serbian Orthodox Church

The Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet sits at the outskirts of Coober Pedy, carved directly into the sandstone. Built by volunteers in the early '90s to serve a strong local community of Serbian Australian miners, the church is 17 meters (56 feet) underground at its deepest point. 

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Serbian Orthodox Church

The interior of the Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet in Coober Pedy.

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Boot Hill Cemetery

Not far from the Serbian Orthodox Church, down Boot Hill Road, is Coober Pedy's cemetery -- a humble final resting place pulled straight from a Western movie. 

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'Have a drink on me'

The grave of Karl Bratz, a local legend known for his love of a good beer. Bratz's friends completed the grave with an 18-gallon beer keg after his death in 1992. 

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'Blowers' that suck

Coober Pedy is famous for opal mining, but many of the town's miners use relatively low-tech equipment to search for the rainbow-colored gemstones. From the early days of digging by hand with a pick, mining has evolved to blasting out mine shafts with explosives, digging with bulldozers and moving earth with "blowers" -- converted trucks that suck up and remove dirt from the ground like a vacuum cleaner.

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Opal in the rough

Australia has 95 percent of the world's opal supply, but only about 15 percent of all opal found has the vivid, iridescent colors that make the gemstone precious. 

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Cutting and polishing

Opals are one of the softest gemstones, so local sellers spend a great deal of time polishing and shaping each piece by hand. 

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The Big Miner

The sign outside The Big Miner, one of the oldest opal sellers in Coober Pedy.

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Off the grid

Coober Pedy is completely off the electric grid, and once relied on expensive diesel trucked in from the coast, eight hours away. While the town's reliance on diesel hasn't disappeared, the Coober Pedy Renewable Hybrid Project now provides sustainable power to the town thanks to two wind turbines and a 1MW solar array. 

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Tech graveyard

Locals were quick to embrace tech, even if it took its time arriving. Telephone services didn't come to the town until the '70s, and TV didn't reach Coober Pedy until 1980. But even in the desert, old tech still has a use-by date. 

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'Spectacular Views'

The path to Coober Pedy's scenic lookout. 

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Moon Rocks for sale

A sign for an abandoned opal store. 

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No Through Road

Coober Pedy's scenic lookout, above the main street. 

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Pitch Black

A set piece from the Vin Diesel movie "Pitch Black," which was filmed in Coober Pedy. 

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Pitch Black

The space ship from "Pitch Black" now sits in disrepair in a parking lot in the middle of Coober Pedy.

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Desert wasteland

An abandoned car, left to rust at Crocodile Harry's dugout -- one of the most famous (and bizarre) homes on the outskirts of Coober Pedy.

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Desert wasteland

In the desert, an old car can double as a garden planter. 

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Desert wasteland

The "garden" at Crocodile Harry's dugout. The property was used as a location for part of "Mad Max 3."

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Desert wasteland

Bones strung up near the entrance of Crocodile Harry's. 

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Desert wasteland

A statue stands guard against the sandstone rock face, the last sign of life at Crocodile Harry's dugout on the border of Coober Pedy. 

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