Twelve hours’ drive west from Sydney, the hardy residents of the isolated opal mining town of White Cliffs live very different lives to their coastal counterparts. Numbering about a hundred or so, White Cliffs locals aren’t easily found. With only a small collection of buildings above ground, most residents live underground. If you want to meet people in White Cliffs, you have to head, quite literally, down under.
Two things have shaped the face of White Cliffs: opals and heat. The highest recorded temperature of 48.6 degrees occurred in 1973, but it’s not uncommon for the town to experience temperatures above 40 on a regular basis. While Australians are generally accustomed to enduring scorchers, in recent years record-breaking temperatures and prolonged heatwaves have been occurring more frequently. White Cliffs only recently set a new national record for the warmest night time temperature, with an overnight low of a sweltering 34.2 degrees recorded in February. With scientists confirming that heat stress is Australia’s biggest natural killer (responsible for taking more lives than bushfires, storms and floods combined), keeping cool is a matter of survival.
Featuring subterranean homes, businesses and hotels since the mining boom of the 1800s, in many ways White Cliffs is ahead of the game when it comes to combating the effects of climate change. Well before the world started talking about energy efficient housing and eco-living, the people of White Cliffs were quietly leading a sustainable lifestyle in their ragtag collection of dugout housing. Long before renewable energy was in vogue, White Cliffs had Australia’s first solar power station. Built in 1981, the station is no longer operational, but provides a surreal backdrop to the local golf course that is more scorched earth than well-manicured golf green.
Local artist Cree Marshall and her partner Lindsay White are underground living experts. Originally from New Zealand, Cree’s lived in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth but now calls White Cliffs home. “I came to White Cliffs 25 years ago with the plan of staying for a year. When I first got here I thought I was either going to love it or hate it. After 25 years, you can guess which one it was,” she says.
Enjoying year-round temperatures between 22-24 degrees, Cree’s underground home is an expression of her personality. “I have no intention of roughing it. So even though I live in a cave, it’s a luxurious cave,” she says. Featuring handmade art pieces and mosaic tiles, the dugout is still a work-in-progress after 10 years of building. “You really need to focus on keeping the air moving. Designing a place that has vents to allow airflow is so important – otherwise you’ll get mildew” explains Cree, adding that underground living can come at a price. “When you’re living underground it’s easy to become disconnected from nature. We’ve used glass blocks and skylights to provide natural light down the shafts into the bedroom. Grill holes mean we can hear birds singing in the morning.”