Around the world there are many locations where people have dug their homes into the ground due to stable soil conditions and a lack of building materials. The troglodyte caves of the Loire Valley in France and the amazing geography of the Cappadocia region of Turkey are just two examples. In Australia there is also a long history of underground homes called dugouts, primarily in the opal mining towns of outback Australia. The most famous is Coober Pedy in South Australia, and the lesser known option is the township of White Cliffs in New South Wales.
The remote township of White Cliffs in Outback Australia provides a fascinating expose of human behaviour and the desire to get rich quickly. The discovery of opals in 1884 subsequently led to a population explosion from around 30 people to the lofty heights of 5000 people living in the township area. As sadly evidenced by the Children’s Cemetery, life in White Cliffs was tough and a combination of a poor water supply, drought, disease and a reducing market for opals caused the population to reduce back to 30 people by 1914. Since then, a small number of optimistic miners have continued to seek the precious white opals, and according to the 2006 census the population of White Cliffs has marginally increased to 119 people.
We pre-booked into the White Cliffs Underground Motel so we could experience what it is like to live underground. Before arriving I mistakenly assumed that we would have to enter the motel through a vertical entryway. Upon arrival in White Cliffs we realised that the town consist of three rocky outcrops, and all of the dugouts are actually dug into the side of the outcrops. The motel consisted of a maze of underground passageways connecting the rooms and amenities. Our children loved running through the passageways.
There was also a lengthy set of stairs which took you to the top of the Smith’s Hill outcrop to an enclosed viewing room which also provided access to the top of the outcrop.
As a result of the perfectly clear and light free sky the stars at night were spectacular. Courtesy of the Space Junk application I had downloaded onto my phone we were able to identify many of the constellations and planets on view. The top of the outcrop was also the place to view the cold but amazing outback sunrises and sunsets across the barren countryside.
As you would expect there are many places to purchase opals. A surprising alternative experience is to visit Jock’s Place, where Jock provides a tour of his personal dugout. Jock is a larger than life character and he tells the story of the recent history of the White Cliffs area. In Jock’s opinion, finding a worthwhile seam of opal is pure chance, so every person who decides to search for opals is a gambler. After Jock’s monologue he then takes you for a tour of the dugout in which he has accumulated a lifetime of historic opal mining equipment and other junk. The dugout itself is amazing, as it is presented in the raw unlike the carefully coated walls of the Underground Motel. Seeing how tiny a vein of opal is gives you a clear idea that searching for opal is the equivalent of searching for a needle in a haystack.
The opal diggings areas are also fascinating and dangerous to explore. We mostly drove through the diggings areas as with three young children we didn’t want to take chances with their safety. Most diggings are started via a vertical shaft until it is either decided to abandon the shaft or expand it further. These shafts are everywhere and are a real danger if you fall into one. There are photos of White Cliffs from the air where the holes create the effect of a bizarre moonscape.
After staying in White Cliffs for two nights we felt as if we had truly commenced our exploration of outback New South Wales. After thinking for several years about visiting the remote town of White Cliffs we had finally accomplished our aspiration.
The next leg of our journey was to Broken Hill. One of the other visitors to the Underground Motel had provided an intriguing recommendation to visit the café at the top of the slag heap to see the views across Broken Hill. We had no idea what to expect but looked forward to discovering Broken Hill.