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View of Coober Pedy Town

Coober Pedy, South Australia, is the “opal capital of the world” and, having long admired that lovely gem, I jumped at the chance of visiting there some years ago. However, since luxury and beauty for some people is often founded on the misery of others, I wondered if the same would be true of Coobar Pedy.

The town is located about 700 km north of Adelaide, in the middle of the “8-hour country”(named for your life expectancy if you get stranded there without water and cover). You know you are there when you see notices warning of unprotected mine shafts and the pyramid piles of mullock (material excavated from the shafts) stretching to the horizon. Landscaping and planning aren’t the priority here.

Coober Pedy, The White Man's Hole - Dec 1997

Like Australia itself, Coober Pedy is new. It was established after 1915 when young Willie Hutchinson found the first “floaters”-pieces of opal- nearby. Since then, digging has continued unabated and the town has become a magnet for prospectors the world over. 50 nationalities are represented here, only 20% of which is Australian. The town’s facilities have grown with it and the modern visitor is well catered for in opal shops, hotels, restaurants and pubs. I didn’t avail of the latter- because the clientele hanging around some of them looked more like something out of Dodge City in another era. In spite of that, however, I was sorely tempted because in this place you simply breathe and eat dust all the time. It mats your hair and lines the wrinkles of your skin.

To start digging for opals, all you need is a mining permit which allows you to peg out a 50 by 50 metre claim. Just that and – I nearly forgot – about $100,000 for equipment. So the locals told me.

Nobody is compelled to buy the gear but you won’t dig far without it and, even then, there is no guarantee of a claim coming up trumps. You might have a better chance around here if you become a middle-man! You buy the green gold from the miners at the basic price, process it and sell for a profit to the tourists.

For many tourists (and local housewives), noodling is the low-tech alternative. This means searching the mullock heaps for opals that the miners might have missed. But, before you do that, you need to find out whether you’re on somebody’s claim. You ignore that simple precaution at your peril. Gunfire is not unknown after nightfall in these parts and then, as in any frontier town, you are on your own.

I visited Coober Pedy during the Australian winter when temperatures can drop fairly low at night. In summer, the daytime temperatures can reach 50 celsius. There was one way to survive in these conditions and the miners took it- they made their homes in dugouts, caverns dug underground into the rock. Most of the town’s homes, shops, motels and churches are underground although, with the advent of air conditioning, much recent building has been above ground level. Underground or overground, however, the dust gets at you and nobody who travelled with me wanted to stay long enough to get used to it.

Before I left town, I walked up to the Big Winch for a view of Coober Pedy or ‘kupa piti’, the aboriginal for “white man’s burrow”. Nearby is the only tree – a work of art fabricated from the broken parts of a crashed truck.

I, for one, won’t be returning but, if you’re in the vicinity of Adelaide or Alice Springs, you shouldn’t miss it. It’s a bit of pristine pioneering that helped build Australia into what it is today.

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Written by Paul Holland

Published here 16 Feb 2023 and originally published December 1997

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