By Jennifer Nalewicki

The Australian town of Coober Pedy looks like something straight out of a movie—probably because it is. In 1985, Mel Gibson, Tina Turner and a team of filmmakers descended onto this barren mining town in the South Australian Outback to shoot Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

The otherworldly landscape, which is checkered with ruddy-colored mounds of sandstone—the result of years of opal mining—was the perfect backdrop for the post-apocalyptic movie.

A Coober Pedy miner holds a finished opal. (EdStock/iStock)

That very landscape, not to mention the lure of finding a pricey opal, has drawn people here for years. It’s also forced the town’s residents underground—literally.

Since its founding 100 years ago after a teenager discovered opal gemstones there, the town has been ground zero for opal mining.

Rather than move to a cooler locale, the town’s earliest residents learned to adapt to the hellish environment. They found inspiration on the very ground they stood on: Using mining tools, hardy prospectors did what they did best and dug holes into the hillsides to make underground dwellings or “dugouts.”

An estimated 70 percent of the world’s opal production can be linked back to the town, earning it the title of Opal Capital of the World, and the majority of its 3,500 residents work in the opal industry.

One of the latest finds was a set of opalized pearls dating back more than 65 million years—but the city offers other kinds of buried treasure, too.

Today about half of the population lives in dugouts where the temperature stays at a constant 75 degrees year round.

Even the thin veil of red dust that settles on roadways, cars and buildings serves as a constant reminder of Coober Pedy’s strange charm. There really is no other place like it on—or below—Earth.

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