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What comes into your mind when you hear of an underground town?
At first sound, a little creepy, like the movie The Hills Have Eyes!
A den of vices? A nuclear hide-out bunker?
None of these apply to Coober Pedy – a fascinating underground town situated in Southern Australia’s desert.
Located halfway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, about a 1,000 miles from the country’s capital, Canberra, is an interesting small town of about 1,800 to 2,000 citizens, fondly referred to as the “opal capital of the world,” called Coober Pedy However, this is not your ordinary normal town because Coober Pedy is not located on the ground surface but underground. Coober Pedy was discovered in 1915 by a 14-year old boy named Willie Hutchison who was left at camp while his dad and others when looking for gold. Leaving him to watch the camp, he wandered off on his own and was nowhere to be found when the mining party came back. In time, and to their surprise and delight, he returned back to the camp with news of water and a back sack full of opals.
Opal is a hydrated form of Silicia
A semi-precious gem could prices over AUD $15,000 a carat.
The news of this discovery soon traveled around and people were willing to leave their homes to settle in Coober Pedy in search of the precious gem. Thereafter, Coober Pedy became a mining site for opals and it is reported to be responsible for over 70% of the world’s opals. The name Coober Pedy accurately arose from an aboriginal term “Kupa-Piti” which means “the white man’s hole” or “White fella Hole.”
However, the weather and climate were not particularly welcoming to the new inhabitants. Water was scarce and the temperature can go as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. With little rain and rare vegetation, dust storms was a very common occurrence. Mining naturally creates dugouts. With time, in a bid to conquer the harsh weather, the inhabitants decided to go underground by turning the abandoned mining dugout holes into permanent homes. And that started the building of a town underground. Regardless of the weather condition and temperatures above ground, the temperature in the underground city stays constant at between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
The first notable home was created by Faye Nayler who purchased a one-room dugout from a mail truck driver. With two of her friends, the three women soon expanded the room using only shovels and picks. They soon added other rooms and facilities such as three bedrooms, walk-in robes, full eat-in kitchen, bar, wine cellar, billiards room, and a swimming pool. Fayes Underground Homes is one of the prime tourist’s places in the underground town. It is open from Mondays to Saturdays, from 8 am to 5 pm. Entrance fee for adults is $5 and $1.20 for children.
Today, Coober Pedy is a thriving town with many other homes and a world’s famous tourist center. Houses in the town have normal over-ground-house amenities such as kitchens, spacious bedrooms, storage areas, walk-in closets, internet, water, and electricity. Ventilation is provided via vertical shafts that can be seen as vents out on the overground surface.
The underground city flourishes with infrastructure and facilities such as churches, bars, bookstores, shops, museums, and even swimming pools. The 1st hotel was built by Umberto Coro who decided to explore the potential of the town for tourism. The underground townhouses the Desert Cave Hotel where you can get a room for $150 per night. There are also other hospitality outlets in the town such as hotels, bed and breakfasts, motels, and backpackers.
But while Coober Pedy has been living in the euphoria of its past glory (i.e. that of mining of opals), it could be venturing into a trending, modern day enterprise, by joining the league of towns and cities in the world where the cultivation and processing of medicinal cannabis and industrial hemp are legal.
The growing of cannabis and industrial hemp is becoming legal in more and more countries around the world. While cannabis is grown for its medical uses, industrial hemp is grown for industrial purposes. Many people, however, confuse industrial hemp with marijuana. Both plants belong to the same plant family but they are not the same. Industrial hemp contains very little amount (0.1% - 0.3%) of the psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and does not satisfy the desire of the plant for recreational purposes.
The fibers from industrial hemp are key input materials in the production of clothing, cosmetic and building products. The fibers are also useful in other industrial products such as body oil and lotion, soap, fuel, human food, plastic, paper, pet food and bedding, construction products, oil-based products, and many more. Government data estimates that by 2023, the hemp industry could bring in a whopping $5 million annually, in addition to the creation of jobs.
Because of the medicinal and industrial uses of these two plants, and its impact on people’s welfare and on the economy of the State, the South Australia government opened up discussions with concerned parties (such as research bodies, government agencies, companies and industry associations, and lobby groups). Discussions were held about existing laws that hinder the commercial and medicinal uses of these two plants in a bid to harness the economic and industrial benefits of the two plants. The outcome of the discussions led to the promulgation of the Industrial Hemp Act.
Currently, in Australia, the Federal Government’s Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 allows the growing of Cannabis for medicinal purposes. Such growing in controlled by the Commonwealth Government under the auspices of the Commonwealth Office of Drug Control.
Research trials have been conducted to ascertain the viability of growing the plant. The Industrial Hemp Preliminary data shows that first research trials, involving first varieties, conducted in Riverland and South East were successful and that the crop adapts well to South Australia’s weather conditions. The second round of trials has already commenced with six varieties of the plant in Riverland and Coonawarra.
The Industrial Hemp Act 2017 paved way for cultivating industrial hemp, processing and manufacturing industrial hemp products in South Australia. Under the Act, those interested in planting, processing, and distributing the plant’s processed products are required to meet conditions set by the Department of Primary Industries and Regions (PIRSA). Those who satisfy the conditions will be issued licenses and permits. Ten licenses for cultivation and two for processing have now being issued by the State Government. And it is anticipated that more will follow, among which might be Coober Pedy.
So, if like me, you have never slept in an underground town before, relax! Fear not! Next time you are going to Australia or when planning that your next holiday break, you just might want to put Coober Pedy high on your list of places to visit. By then, perhaps some of the products you might be buying would be those produced from the new, booming industrial hemp industry.
But, regardless, perhaps by then, the new industrial hemp business would have boosted the economy of Coober Pedy making it a more enjoyable holiday resort for you, family and friends. It will be a wonderful experience that will take you many years to forget.
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