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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.