It’s as if we’ve landed on the moon. Overlooking White Cliffs and spreading as far as you can see in every direction is a parched, treeless landscape pockmarked with the crater-like scars of opal mine shafts. In total, there’s over 50,000 of them, most long abandoned, along with the hopes and dreams of those who dug them.
One of the few places where there are no craters is the town centre, if that’s what you could call a general store, church and pub, and where the streets, but for a few dust-encrusted tumbleweeds, are deserted.
But this isn’t due to a Covid-19 lockdown, rather because almost all of White Cliffs’ 100 or so hardened inhabitants live in underground homes called dugouts.
“There are two main reasons we live in dugouts,” explains Rob Dyson, who operates the town’s only tour service in a mini bus.
“Firstly due to lack of building materials, and secondly the extreme heat. Underground it’s a constant temperature of about 22 degrees which is much cooler than the 45-plus degrees we often get outside.”
While living like a troglodyte has its obvious climatic benefits, it also comes with unexpected challenges.
“A few years back someone decided to add an extra room to their dugout,” says Rob.
“He miscalculated his boundary and ended up, with pick in hand, in his neighbour’s bedroom at midnight.”
Rob’s knock-about tour also includes a peek into the White House, a luxurious architecturally designed dugout, and the underground shop of local luminary Dick Wagner, who, soon after purchasing a mining lease in 2000 hit the jackpot, finding a rich seam of the prized opal.
But like most of this outback outpost’s desert dwellers, Dick’s luck quickly turned and since his initial find, he’s found “next to nothing”. Or at least that’s what he tells us.
“Opal mining is like a giant dreamcatcher, you get a sniff and you can’t stop searching for the next big one,” confesses Dick, who admits to leading the life of ‘a married bachelor’ with his wife “preferring the more cosmopolitan Victoria for most of the year”.
However Dick is not alone in being lured by the outback’s laidback lifestyle. According to Rob, “The majority of the opal was found 20 years after a couple of kangaroo shooters made the first discovery here in the late 1800s, so most of today’s miners are here for the lifestyle, not the money.”
It’s no secret that in most far-flung towns the pub is the heart of the community and true to form White Cliff residents are clearly a thirsty bunch. Heck, there’s even an opal shop made entirely of beer bottles. 60,000 of them. Empty, of course.
However, White Cliffs isn’t just about digging and drinking (or in some cases both simultaneously), near the site of Australia’s first solar power station at the entrance to town is a dusty oval which includes a cricket wicket.
“Bill (Tiger) O’Reilly, the great spin bowler, was born here in 1905, the son of our first school teacher,” Rob tells us, puffing out his chest.
“Sir Donald Bradman considered Tiger to be the best bowler of his era.”
What Rob fails to add is that shortly after he turned two, Tiger moved to Murringo, near Young, thereby avoided having to learn the art of spin bowling on a ground devoid of a single blade of grass.
When the sun sets, you could head to the caravan park or pub, both with comfy beds, or escape the heat and head for the Underground Motel.
On arrival you are given a map with explicit directions to your digs. Don’t throw it away.
Consisting of over 30 unique rooms (incredibly not one single opal was found while excavating them out of the hillside) it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of tunnels. One leads to a pool, another a museum and yet another to the in-house restaurant.
When you eventually find your room, the first thing you notice is how quiet it is.
The thick walls and ceiling not only keep the temperature refreshingly cool but also insulate sound. You best take a torch with you, for once the lights are off, with no natural light, it’s pitch black. Perfect for that long slumber.
With a population of over 5000 charlatans and desperados, early last century White Cliffs deserved its reputation of as a rough town, but today it’s a haven for harmless hermits and outback larrikins who welcome outsiders and offer them a voyeuristic peek into their different way of life.
White Cliffs is 255km north-east of Broken Hill in north-west NSW and the Underground Motel is subject to seasonal closures.