Ben Morris really opened his eyes when he became a YouTuber and began traveling the world. YouTube once was his portal for exploring everything, satisfying the curiosities of a small-town boy from outside of London.
Mr. Morris is now 23 and one of those traveling YouTubers himself, collecting stories the world over. He’s stayed at the cheapest hotel in New York and flown 7,000 miles to collect his stolen AirPods; visiting a radioactive abandoned city and sleeping in the world’s most dangerous bed were also on his itinerary.
In the blistering heat of South Australia, the sizzling streets of Coober Pedy are punctuated by diners, jewel stores, and motels. It was, and still is, a mining outpost for the precious gemstone Australia is most famous for: opal. The town has seen fortunes made since the early 20th century, and treasure hunters still come, shovels in hand, to try their luck.
Thirsty for knowledge, Mr. Morris wondered why someone would live in a cave. Somehow the lifestyle became all the rage here. Many of the original miners would burrow into a rocky hill, find opal, and ultimately, call their mine shaft home.
Mr. Morris contacted town liaison Michael Edgecomb, whom he hoped to meet and obtain answers from. But before he could find the fellow or answers, the first challenge on stepping off the plane was the endless swarms of flies buzzing about as he strode into town. He found Mr. Edgecomb outside the IGA.
“Do you swallow a lot of flies a day?” was among Mr. Morris’s first inquiries.
“If you talk too fast—straight in!” was Mr. Edgecomb’s answer.
The two men escaped the flies by getting into Mr. Edgecomb’s compact and set about investigating some of Coober Pedy, including its famous cave homes.
After a stop at the local grassless golf course and the town’s riotous rally track, where locals cut loose kicking up dust, the pair wound up at the home of a local legend. The late Crocodile Harry lived inside a rocky bump hollowed out, closely resembling the cantina on Tatooine in “Star Wars.” The famous Harry was a crocodile hunter known for the prolific number of guests staying at his cave abode.
Pulling up to his moon-like living space, they find themselves hugged by dusty mounds littered with skeletal contraptions, motorized and pedal-powered, and décor consisting of oxen bones and horns. A sign reads: “Enter Miners Nest On Your Own Risk.”
In through the open double doors, the walls, ceiling, and appliances are covered with memorabilia. Hats hang from above. The names of visitors with dates—1984 and 1985—and places the world over are painted colorfully across the cavern walls and overhead. Lewd posters adorn a vintage, wood-paneled fridge where Harry undoubtedly once stowed many brews. The furnishings are simple and homely but cozy.
“This is like a proper dugout,” Mr. Morris said. “It’s huge.”
Miners like Crocodile Harry were so profuse over the years, their ventures so scattered, that it’s hazardous to waltz around outside of town. One might all too easily fall into one of “millions” of unused shafts, Mr. Edgecomb told Mr. Morris as they scanned the barren fields while driving.
Sure, its subterranean lifestyle has put the tiny town on the map, but it’s still sparsely populated somehow, with under 2,000 inhabitants. Mr. Morris is treated to a night out by another welcoming hand, Paul Howard, who promises women at the Italian Club. The room is nine-tenths empty, with dart boards and pool tables. This is nightlife in Coober Pedy.
Back in his cave, it’s a blissfully cool slumber. It stays thusly year-round.
Old Timer’s Mine is now a museum. From the 1920s, until as late as the 1960s, the roughly hewn complex dozens of feet down is where miners bunked and, later, a regular family, the Goughs, lived out their lives.
Mr. Morris has to duck, donning a hardhat as he passes through shafts, and on entering the old family dwelling he finds black and white and early color photos on the mantle: Christmas Day, 1963. The Goughs with dated hairdos and fashion sit and smoke. Around a dinner table with a faux tree, tinsel, and bulbs, they unwrap presents. They could be your neighbors. Vintage furniture and a wooden tube TV inhabit the square rock room.
“This was someone’s home,” Mr. Morris commented.
Back in the car the traveler poses a question to Mr. Howard, “Why did you choose to live in Coober Pedy?”
Mr. Howard answers funnily.
“Simple,” he said. “It’s simple—it’s an easy life. I look better here; there’s a lot of ugly people here and a lot of dumb people here, so I look really good here.” Living in a dark cave isn’t depressing. It’s more calming, he said. Sleeping in a cave completely blocks out sound, lights, and temperatures outside.
He attributes the town’s dwindling population to death, for one. “That’s natural. People leave, or we just get rid of the people who shouldn’t be here,” he said jokingly. The tiny outback town is sustained by its flow of opal and curious visitors.
“We’re a thousand kilometers from the nearest capital city, so to get building materials and trades out here has always been a problem,” Mr. Howard said. “To just dig a hole was much easier and smarter.” Fierce summer temperatures in Coober Pedy average over 90°F and can top 120°F. Winters can get cool. A dugout underground stays even all year round and costs not a penny.
It got its name from the aboriginals in the 1910s. People were seen living like rabbits, and it was called “kupa piti,” roughly translated as “white fella’s hole in the ground.” It suited the men who returned from World War I to live in South Australia’s outback.
Digging for water, they found opal in 1915, sparking an opal rush in 1919. You just burrow to find it—locals call it “noodling.” Nobody really knows how opal is formed. Rainbows frozen in time, they possess infinite color combinations, including black and white, ranging from opaque to translucent. Their uniqueness broadens the mind to what is possible.
After finding opal, miners like the Gough family and Crocodile Harry made their fortunes and homes within the rocks.
Thirsting for more discovery, Mr. Morris and Mr. Edgecomb now contact local miner Dan to take them on a midnight dig. Opal hunters hide their tunnels, guarding them at night for fear of thieves.
Not in ten days had Dan found any opal. Excavators burn diesel so there are costs involved, but luck is with them tonight. They rip into the soft rock, see brilliant color, and extract several pieces of the rainbow-hued stone. “Haven’t paid for fuel yet,” said Dan, who shared the spoils with Mr. Morris.
Rolling the mud-covered rock between thumb and forefinger, he is told to suck it like a gobstopper. Wash it. Check the color. Tossing bits in a bucket, Dan guesses he has a thousand dollars.
Mr. Morris poses a question to Mr. Edgecomb before leaving, “What is your favorite thing about Coober Pedy?”
“Just this lifestyle,” the town liaison said. “Seriously, how many places in the world can you be out in the middle of the night mining … Milky Way above your head, and just sitting back relaxing?”
Before flying out, Mr. Morris takes in a movie at the local drive-in. The post-apocalyptic thriller “Mad Max 3” with Australian star Mel Gibson is playing, including footage from this very town and even Crocodile Harry’s.
Back in England, he now has his answer. Why live in a cave? Besides the sublime solitude and small-town hospitality, Mr. Howard really hit the nail on the head. “The ability to do nothing and not feel bad about it.”