New South Wales
White Cliffs: discover the town underground
August 1, 2021 • Matt Cheok
6 min read
Have you ever heard of a dugout?
The summer heat ‘Down Under’ can be unrelenting, particularly when you’re living out in far-west NSW. As a matter of practicality, the residents of White Cliffs really had no choice but to build their homes underground to avoid the sweltering temperatures. And even now, as I sit here devouring a sandwich next to my van, I can feel the bite of the winter sun on my skin. Thank goodness it’s not December!
White Cliffs is quite unlike any town I’ve ever visited. It feels like you’re in some kind of post-apocalyptic world, as you pass by rusted trucks and piles of excavated earth all around you. It’s safe to say that the hot weather and isolation isn’t what attracted its first visitors.
As with seemingly everything in this world, if there’s money to be made, fortune-seekers will flock in numbers — especially in pursuit of the elusive opalised ‘pineapple’, which you’ll only find here (and worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars). White Cliffs is in fact, Australia’s first commercial opal field, dating back to the 1880s, when a group of stockmen by chance stumbled across these shiny minerals. The rest, as they say, is history.
Welcome Sign, White Cliffs
These days, you’ll encounter miners navigating the shafts below and even hobby fossickers arriving over the winter months in pursuit of these prized minerals, which is totally permitted. So if you’d like to take your chances, head out to the opal fields and fossick until your heart’s content (though you’ll need to avoid digging on someone else’s registered claimed area).
The desert town’s home to about 200 residents, though at times can feel rather abandoned with most of its population living underground. It’s truly a place that must be seen to be believed.
Almost immediately you’ll notice the thousands of used opal digging sites and scattered “blower” trucks in between. Interestingly, they’re used to vacuum rocks from beneath the surface. And while they may not appear operational at first glance, they certainly make a miner’s job much easier!
A ‘Blower’ Truck
There’s plenty of kooky things to discover here in White Cliffs, many of which feel out of place and quite frankly, completely random. On my walk around the opal fields I observe a leather couch perched at the top of a large mound of earth. You’ve got to appreciate the commitment of the person that carried it up here. And when you ascend up it, you’ll quickly realise that it’s the best seat in town and a prime vantage point for watching the sunrise and sunset. Amongst other quirky encounters, it’s unsurprising that the humble opal field restrooms are labelled, “Anybody’s Toilet” or “Somebody’s Toilet”, which truly plays on our Aussie larrikin culture.
A couch with a view
Take the self-guided walking loop from the centre of town towards Sullivans Hill. And although it can be tempting to explore the environment around you, stick to the established path and make sure to watch your step, because falling down a shaft is probably the last place you’d like to be.
As far as vantage points go, I’d highly recommend visiting Turleys Hill at sunrise for uninterrupted views of the plains to the east. Equally, the external facades of the dugouts nearby are interesting to explore.
Below the ground, residents are able to enjoy pleasant (and consistent) temperatures between 16-26°C whilst avoiding the extreme conditions outside. As you may expect, fossicking isn’t permitted on the dugout hills. If you’re interested in gaining an insight into the lifestyle and the interior design below the surface, ‘White House’ offers daily tours at 11am ($10 for adults and those under 12 go free). However, on the two days I visited, they were unfortunately closed.
Opal mine tours
If it’s the opal mining scene that fascinates you, it’s possible to put on a safety helmet and explore the tunnels with a flashlight in hand. Red Earth Opal Tours (run by miners) depart from their showroom at 3pm daily ($25 for adults, $15 for those between 10-16 and $10 under 10). You’ll get a chance to learn about the history of the town, see and touch the elusive ‘pineapple opal’ and observe the extraction process underground. They’ll even show you what to look for if you plan on doing your own fossicking too!
The Opal Fields
Eat & drink
One of the great joys of visiting a country town (for me at least) is trying out its pubs. White Cliffs Hotel hits the mark! The food servings are generous, and although service is a little slow (as to be expected), it’s buzzing with energy, particularly in winter when you can grab a beverage and congregate around the fire.
If you’re in town on a Sunday, drop by White Cliffs Sporting Club for a hot roast dinner.
In the centre of town you’ll find a petrol station and a General Store selling takeaway meals and limited supplies (including gas cans). So it’s probably a good idea to stock up on what you need before arriving in White Cliffs.
White Cliffs Hotel, Town Centre
From Wilcannia, it’s about an hour’s drive, or just under three hours from Broken Hill. Access to White Cliffs is via a sealed and well-signposted road.
Where to stay
If you’d like to experience an evening below the surface, visit White Cliffs Underground Motel. And even if you decide not to sleep here, Smiths Hill, which is where this accommodation is located, is definitely worth ascending.
For a more budget friendly option, check out White Cliffs Hotel offering basic single rooms, or alternatively, Pioneer Reserve Caravan Park with powered sites, coin operated showers and a camp kitchen.
Slightly outside of town, it’s possible to stay at the paid Coach and Horses Campground, with its own barbecues and picnic tables.
Personally, I’d recommend spending the evening at Potch Gully, and it’s free to camp here. And let’s face it — how often can one say they slept a night in an opal field?
Want more ideas? Filter and search Campermate’s maps to see all your campsite options and road trip essentials for your outback NSW adventure.