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The Motel on ‘Poor Mans Hill’

The Motel opened in 1989. It has gradually expanded currently providing accommodation for almost 100 people. Peak periods at the motel are in April, July and September/October, with the quietest month being February.

The White Cliffs Underground Motel is built almost entirely by hand, using jack hammers. No two rooms are the same and walking through the Motel is a world of discovery. The entire complex is the size of a football field underground.

With the most underground rooms out of the three underground motels in Australia, staying at the White Cliffs Underground Motel is an experience like none other.  It is dug into ‘Poor Mans Hill’ (Smith Hill), so called due to the lack of opal, the first excavations of the site were done by a local opal miner around the early 1900’s.

By the 1980’s the site was renovated and became the Hornby family home. As the Hotel in town overflowed with guests, the family began to offer visitors the opportunity to sleep underground. Guests were invited to join the family, share meals and enjoy the ambience of a dugout. The demand to sleep underground continually increased and in 1989 if formally became a motel. It was officially opened as a Motel by the Hon. Gary West Chief Secretary and Mininister for Tourism on 14 May 1989.

While the motel has grown to a complex with 30 underground rooms and 2 above ground rooms, some of the traditions remain. Visitors share meals in the way of a family, and experience the simple pleasure of sleeping underground In 2002-3, 12 additional rooms were dug for staff and they become extreemly fond of their subterranean abodes.

A Haven in a Hostile World

This is a different world. In an above ground building, windows provide ventilation. In a dugout, the combination of door, vents, and air shafts create a gentle breeze that ensures a fresh, dry ambient living space. Light filters through the shaft during the day, and you can tell the time of day once you become accustomed to it.

‘Cool in summer, and warm in winter’. If the doors are kept shut, to reduce airflow, the temperatures vary little from 22 degress all year. This helps to reduce heating and cooling costs, and is kind to the environment. Heaters and airconditioners are not needed underground. With wild dust storms and temperatures outside soaring to 50 degrees, and plummeting to below zero, the dugout is a haven in a hostile world.

Sleeping in a dugout at the Underground Motel is like sleeping in the ‘womb’ of the earth – cosy, tranquil, protected and private. With minimal noise and light, people talk of having their ‘deepest sleep ever’.

Digging A Dugout

The dry temperatures and cretacious compacted sediments which are 75-135 million years old support these dugouts to be incredibly stable and reliable. The are built into a mesa (flat topped hill), construction starting with an excavator that cuts away the side of the hill, leaving a vertical face. The rooms are carved out the rock, gradually working further into the hill. Originally picks and shovels were used, with buckets and wheelbarrows to remove the dirt.

Today, most people use jackhammers and blowers (massive vacuum cleaners that sit above the ground and suck the dirt out through the shafts). The Motel took 3-4 years to build in this way, and has been gradually expanded ever since. When the Motel was built, electricity was supplied be a diesel generator that is still used as a back up today. Shafts are drilled down from the surface and the inexact science of surveying between the surface and underground means that some shafts are more interesting than others.

Power and Communication

In some ways White Cliffs has changed little since the pioneering days , and in other ways is is very different. In the 1900’s mining boom, men often disembarked from the paddle steamer in Wilcannia and walked the 95km with a wheelbarrow. Some also walked in this way from Broken Hill seeking their fortune. Today we use the internet, satellite TV, next G mobile phones and 4WD vehicles (with air conditioning).

However it was not long ago that there was no refrigeration, no electricity, no radio, no television and no telephone. Whilst power was put through in the 1990’s we still rely on the diesel generator when power surges and blackouts occur. If you wake up at night and all the lights are out, just wait for a few minutes while we go down and start the generator.

Water – The scarce resource

Before white settlement, 70% of Australia had no permanent water source. Securing water meant travelling long distances in the harsh dry climate. White Cliffs was no exception. In the early 1900’s over 500 children died from complications due to lack of water. Today we have the luxury of a treated town water supply, piped from a man made dam 5km north of the township. The average rainfall is only 234mm (approx 8 inches) per year, so water remains scarce.

This is the outback. If we are not in the middle of a drought, we are either just coming out of one, or just about to enter another one. Conserving water is part of the culture, and we capture as much rainwater as possible.

Water and the Dugout

Being built into a flat topped hill means the dugout is only affected by rain that actually falls on the mesa itself. With little vegetation, most of the rain runs off onto the plains below, leaving the dugouts dry and secure.

Nevertheless the potential for leaking pipes undermining the walls or roof cannot be overlooked. Water leaking underground challenges the structure and stability of the soil, and the dugout. The practical and pragmatic solution for a dugout is to build wet areas at the front. At the Motel, the location of the bathrooms and kitchen follows the same principle.

General water is supplied from a dam north of town, and rain water is provided for drinking and cooking.

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