EXCLUSIVE

Haunting images of Coober Pedy – Australia’s underground desert community

Photographer Tamara Merino's series on Coober Pedy happened by accident. Travelling through Australia by camper van with her boyfriend in 2015, Merino was forced to stop in the town because of a flat tyre.

The photographer soon discovered, however, that the unintended stop was a unique place to take images.

Gabriele, a German immigrant, waits in the kitchen for her husband to return from mining. Approximately 60 per cent of the population of Coober Pedy lives in underground houses called dugouts. <cite>Photo: Tamara Merino</cite>
Gabriele, a German immigrant, waits in the kitchen for her husband to return from mining. Approximately 60 per cent of the population of Coober Pedy lives in underground houses called dugouts. Photo: Tamara Merino

"We were actually in the midst of an incredible underground community where intimate daily life is invisible to those passing by on the highway," Merino told Fairfax Media.

You can read our full interview with Merino below:

Tony,an Italian immigrant, dreams of carving a luxurious underground house and a private opal museum out of this space. <cite>Photo: Tamara Merino</cite>
Tony,an Italian immigrant, dreams of carving a luxurious underground house and a private opal museum out of this space. Photo: Tamara Merino

How did this series come about?

I first discovered Coober Pedy on November 2015 while travelling in a 1985 camper van with my boyfriend around Australia. We were driving for almost 750 kilometres surrounded by desert on the Stuart Highway towards Uluru. Suddenly near the road, old signs started to pop up … "underground bar" "underground restaurant". We got a flat tyre and stopped in what we thought was the middle of nowhere.

After changing the flat tyre we began to wander around and discovered an amazing underground Orthodox church. We walked on a red carpet down the church, and when we were down there it felt so unreal and magical. There was nobody in there, but seven or eight candles were burning and everything was clean and organised. As soon as I saw the church, I immediately realised there had to be an active Orthodox community in town and I knew this was a place I wanted to stay for longer. So we decided to start exploring the town and at that moment we realised there were many hills with entrances and doors. It was hard to find them, because sometimes you just see the vast desert land and many little hills but not an entrance to a house. Having seen this, I decided to meet people and understand the town.

What was it like documenting the depths and extremes of this place?

Trucks, cars and junk from old machinery decorate Coober Pedy?s landscape, waiting to be used as spare parts. <cite>Photo: Tamara Merino</cite>
Trucks, cars and junk from old machinery decorate Coober Pedy?s landscape, waiting to be used as spare parts. Photo: Tamara Merino

Being capable to involve the story of a town into a single story of what I experienced, is such a gratifying feeling, because I can share with the world the voices and stories of these amazing people. Having the opportunity to document this community encourages me to always follow my dreams, no matter how big or impossible they seem to be, because the people here do it every day.

Being above ground during the summertime is a rough place to live for anyone, because is it an extremely dry, hot and isolated place. Coober Pedy breaks all of the social structures and rules of a conventional town, and for a moment, it deceives you. At first glance this is nothing but a ghost town. In reality, it is a subterranean culture that is as mysteriously dark as it is bright and beautiful.

An unexpected storm hits Coober Pedy at the beginning of 2016, dropping half the amount of water in two days as falls in a full year. Miners need to wait for the ground to dry to go back to work. <cite>Photo: Tamara Merino</cite>
An unexpected storm hits Coober Pedy at the beginning of 2016, dropping half the amount of water in two days as falls in a full year. Miners need to wait for the ground to dry to go back to work. Photo: Tamara Merino

Coober Pedy is a closed community, and therefore wary of outsiders, but with time I made friendships that allowed me to do my work confidently. When we arrived we walked around the streets for five days without finding a soul.

Who were some of the characters you met and befriended in Coober Pedy? 

Goran, a miner from the former Yugoslavia, works with his circular tunnelling machine while searching for opal. With this technique he covers more surface, allowing him to potentially have more access to the gemstone. <cite>Photo: Tamara Merino</cite>
Goran, a miner from the former Yugoslavia, works with his circular tunnelling machine while searching for opal. With this technique he covers more surface, allowing him to potentially have more access to the gemstone. Photo: Tamara Merino

We rambled for hours everyday with our faces wrapped in dust and 47 degrees of dry heat burning our faces. I felt the loneliness and the immensity of the vast desert land. Finally on the sixth day we met Gaby, a German woman who has been living in Coober Pedy for more than 6 years, and is one of the few female miners and who works occasionally with her husband. I also have a German background, so after a good conversation and some words in my rusty German, we connected immediately. Gaby and her husband invited us to stay at their home for as long as we wanted. I could not believe when I first crossed the door from the desert to their home … it was a cave! The 47 degrees of heat from outside turned immediately into fresh air at a pleasant 23 degrees throughout the year. The extremely high and low temperatures that hit Coober Pedy vary between 50  and  minus one degrees, and it is one of the reasons why people have chosen to live underground.

I soaked up the obscurity of their underground home and my eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness. In the morning when we woke up, our blanket was covered with dust and small pieces of soil that had fallen from the ceiling. I could feel the earth was alive and wanted to tell its story. Jürgen, Gaby's husband, was the first miner to take us down the mine where he was working. We went down 15 meters, sitting on an electric winch, through a hole about one meter wide. The  45 second journey down seemed like an eternity. Little stones fell off while I was going down the shaft and, because the generator was supplying the power for the winch, the mine was completely dark below us. There are only a couple of spotlights at the entrance shaft and walking around with a torch in the complete darkness feels like a labyrinth that doesn't lead you anywhere. But the miners know that opal is there somewhere; they just have to find it.

Underground Orthodox church built in 1993 by the Serbian community. Every Sunday the monk offers service. <cite>Photo: Tamara Merino</cite>
Underground Orthodox church built in 1993 by the Serbian community. Every Sunday the monk offers service. Photo: Tamara Merino

Why Coober Pedy in Australia of all places?

I was totally enchanted by this mysterious lunar landscape and intrigued about the underground living in this remote and timeless place. I was fascinated with the fact that a stone can drive people into the deepest joy or misery. Somehow, I needed to meet those people and hear those underground stories. I wanted to be part of it, and I got to do that. I sought to understand and to participate in their daily life, which felt so different from my reality.

Joe, an Italian immigrant, has an underground museum with a private collection of stones including fossils, opal and other antiques that he has found in the desert around Coober Pedy. <cite>Photo: Tamara Merino</cite>
Joe, an Italian immigrant, has an underground museum with a private collection of stones including fossils, opal and other antiques that he has found in the desert around Coober Pedy. Photo: Tamara Merino

As a photographer, do you approach a series like this with images in mind to form a narrative or is it just bouncing off what happens? 

In my life I never plan too much, because I like to be open to everything that life is offering to me. When you plan too much you miss so many opportunities and surprises and often you can be disappointed. Life is always going to be completely different from what you planned and that for me is the beauty of life.

Jurgen, a German miner, prepares the tools to lower himself into the 20-metre-deep vertical shaft of an opal mine. <cite>Photo: Tamara Merino</cite>
Jurgen, a German miner, prepares the tools to lower himself into the 20-metre-deep vertical shaft of an opal mine. Photo: Tamara Merino

When I find a subject or a theme I stick with it, wanting to tell their story and I try to capture their most sincere inner essence. When I feel completely satisfied with my images I start to create a narrative, trying to include all the aspects of that certain community, town or group of people.

What was the most difficult aspect of this series? Any particular moment?

Opal is one of the most valuable gemstones in the world. Its price varies between one and 10 million dollars, depending on its type, colour and weight. <cite>Photo: Tamara Merino</cite>
Opal is one of the most valuable gemstones in the world. Its price varies between one and 10 million dollars, depending on its type, colour and weight. Photo: Tamara Merino

One of the biggest challenges was wandering around Coober Pedy the first days for hours trying to meet people and miners but it seemed like an impossible task. The temperatures were so extreme that dehydration is very common and you can feel literally how the extreme heat burns you inside. Due to the harsh weather there was nobody on the streets, people were hidden in their underground houses trying to escape the extreme temperatures.

With the days passing by, my work evolved a lot, because the people trusted me more and more and, therefore, they were open and sincere with me. I could capture and reflect moments of intimacy while they continued doing their normal life. I was able to witness their daily life without them giving any attention to my camera.