SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - After Deane Clee ventured to Coober Pedy in the Australian desert to run a church, he struggled to eke out a living until he found himself drawn to the outback town’s main passion -- opal.
Business opportunities are limited in Coober Pedy, a unique desert town where half the 3,500 residents live underground in “dugouts” or mud caves to escape the summer heat as temperatures can soar to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
So in a bid to finance his missionary activities in the outback, Clee and his wife Valerie decided to turn an abandoned mine next to his underground church into an underground motel -- striking opal, a semi-precious stone, as they dug.
“The miners missed them by just a couple of inches. There was no indication there would be there,” said Clee’s daughter Deborah who now helps run the motel with her parents.
Clee gave up an accountancy business in Adelaide to move to Coober Pedy about 25 years ago to care for a growing spiritual community called the Revival Fellowship, a Christian Pentecostal denomination based in Australia.
But his motel, opened six years ago, is more of a shrine to opals and a showcase for Coober Pedy, which calls itself the “opal capital of the world,” situated 846 kms (526 miles) north of Adelaide on the way to Alice Springs.
The town was established in 1915 after some men prospecting for gold discovered opal, a semi-precious stone born from fossilized silica. Today, over 90 percent of the world’s opal production comes from Australia.
Over the past century, hordes of prospectors have headed to Coober Pedy to seek their fortune, with the town’s lunar landscape now dotted with thousands of mine shafts spread over about 40 kms.
Its barren, treeless landscape has made it a favored shooting location for a list of movies including “Max Mad,” “Beyond Thunderdome,” and “Mars, The Red Planet.”
But some of the prospectors never left, just stayed digging in the hope of the lucky strike and making their homes in caves bored into the hillsides.
Underground homes have all the modern conveniences of traditional dwellings such as telephones, televisions and the Internet, but there don’t have airconditionned or heating as the temperature naturally stays at 25 degrees Celsius.
Although Clee does not know the total value of the opals he has found during his 11 years of excavation, he did have one find worth A$20,000.
“We sold the opals and it paid for the diesel to run the digger to carve this out,” his daughter told Reuters, pointing to one of the motel’s underground areas during a one-hour motel and church tour.
But most opals found during the Clee’s excavation of their 15-room motel, The Comfort Inn Coober Pedy Experience Motel, were either kept in the bedroom walls to show clients or in the motel’s opal shop.
Clee said shortly after the motel opened, a French tourist stole stones from his bedroom, leaving a hole in the wall.
“That was the only time, it never happened again,” Clee said, pointing to a sign warning of a A$2,000 (US$1,310) fine or six months in jail for unauthorized mining in Coober Pedy.
Reporting by Cecile Lefort, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith