There’s something undeniably cool about staying in an underground hotel, and there’s something truly other-worldly about White Cliffs. This town has a population of about 200 and is home to one of the three of underground hotels in Australia.
White Cliffs is an opal-mining town where most residents live beneath the surface to escape the harsh temperatures, which can reach 50 degrees. It’s a few hours’ drive from Broken Hill in Outback NSW, which is another great place to visit for a taste of real Aussie outback.
Opals were first discovered in the White Cliffs area around 1884, and the town’s first store and hotel opened in 1892. Soon, lured by the hope of striking it rich, miners began to arrive to dig for their fortunes.
The town is set in a bizarre moon-like landscape — everywhere you look, there are thousands of hillocks of white dirt and rubble that was dug up and tossed aside in the quest for finding opals.
You can’t visit White Cliffs area without staying in the Underground Motel. It has 30 underground rooms and two above-ground. No two are the same and the winding hallways are like a maze. The interesting thing is that the complex started out as a family home, but as the local hotel would often run out of rooms, the owners would let people stay to experience living underground. This became so popular that it officially turned into a motel in 1989.
The town has a last-frontier kind of appeal – like villages in American Western movies. Locals have really interesting stories to tell, and you can go on a tour of a home, which are called ‘dugouts’. Most homes were made in what was left of mine shafts from the opal mining boom of the 1800s, but some people have dug their own new spaces.
The locals have endless interesting stories of wealth won and lost, and at the Pioneer Children’s Cemetery, you can learn about the harsh early history of White Cliffs, or follow the self-guided heritage trail.
If you’re visiting White Cliffs in May, you can dance the night away at the White Cliffs Music Festival, which is a really fun night where local and out-of-town artists entertain guests. Most people simply bring their own fold-outs chairs and there are drinks and food for sale.
Visit the many opal stores and take home a shiny souvenir, or fossick in the old diggings (this is called noodling) and you might find a bit of opal to take home. Chances are, you won’t be able to convince mum or dad to buy a ‘pineapple’. They’re amazing chunks of opal unique to White Cliffs. There are loads of different kinds, but they’re a bit like a 3D starburst of richly coloured opalised spikes. A good one sells for about $80,000 and recently a very happy miner found one that was worth $150,000. One of the most interesting discoveries in White Cliffs was in the 1970s, when a miner found the opalised skeleton of a two-metre-long creature called a plesiosaur. It’s still talked about, and the miner sold it for a million dollars!
Michelle is a publishing consultant who has worked as a journalist, foreign correspondent and travel writer for the past two decades.