The famous South Australian town of Coober Pedy is not the only place in Australia where the residents live underground. The not so famous town of White Cliffs, New South Wales, is another opal mining settlement where the population avoids the blistering sun by digging subterranean homes. One doesn't normally associate N.S.W. with the really hot temperatures of the northern part of the country but White Cliffs can put on a scorcher. The hottest day ever reached 49°C so it makes a lot of sense to head below ground where the temperature is comfortable all year round. It makes even more sense when you realise someone has half dug your new home in the search for opal.
The opal from White Cliffs is high quality, white seam opal as opposed to the black opal that originates in Lightning Ridge 800km away. The fields were accidentally discovered by four kangaroo shooters in 1889. Ten years later and 2000 people lived in White Cliffs in a variety of shanty's, hessian huts and in the mine shafts themselves. White Cliffs was the first commercial opal field in Australia and for many years was the worlds only supplier of opal - the Hungarian fields having dried up 25 years prior.
The working conditions were atrocious - hand digging through shale to get to the opal underneath, the constant biting sun, unrelenting flies and dust. Epidemics of cholera and typhoid fever made a regular appearance causing tent nursing posts to be erected by the usual hospital. Water was non existent and had to be carted from 100km away while the delivery of supplies was under constant threat. The only water available was from stations on route and if their supply dwindled then it was impossible to get horse-drawn delivery wagons through.
A combination of World War 1, harsh conditions and dwindling opal finds began White Cliffs's decline. Europe was at war and also the largest buyer of good opal and as the diggers left for the trenches of Europe, so the opal market dried up.
It's a barren, pock-marked landscape, covered in low saltbush, red dirt and thousands of hopeful holes - dug by a bevy of miners. It's miles from anywhere and on the road to nowhere but there is still some history to be found and things to be seen.
The original Post Office is still in service and the old Police Station has been rejuvenated into a private residence. The Pioneer Children's Cemetery dates from 1890 and paints a vivid picture of life on the White Cliffs opal fields. There's plenty of opportunities to get underground and have a look at a subterranean lifestyle with underground museums and jewellery shops and if you're really keen there's even a dugout bed and breakfast.
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