We’d been driving north for hours through the desert; mile after mile of red earth and scrubby trees, with only the occasional beaming white salt lake to provide a contrast, and the ever present dead kangaroos on the roadside.
Then, finally, it loomed up in front of us – the iconic ‘welcome to Coober Pedy’ sign. Hurray! Finally. The opal mining capital of the world, an outback town that gets so hot that people build their houses underground. I’d read so much about the bizarre place, now we finally got to see it.
An Underground Town
When we first rolled into town, I couldn’t help but think… where the hell are we? A sparse and ramshackle main street with few shops or houses, a dusty looking caravan park with barbed wire fences, an old scrap yard, heaps of dirt piled up over a building labelled ‘Museum’. Rusting heaps of cars and old machinery littered every front yard. Dirt piles rising to border the tiny settlement. It looked like the deserted towns you see on apocalyspe films; baking hot, blank eyed residents in clusters by run down shops staring as you go past, dust and flies and silence.
Then your perspective shifts. Those heaps of dirt bordering the town have pipes sticking out of them – air vents, light shafts, chimneys. The museum isn’t covered in debris, it’s carved into the side of the hill. The empty looking doorways in tiny tin shacks are entrances to ramps cutting into the ground, leading deep underground. Follow one down and find an opal shop, glittering glass cases displaying jewelry and uncut gems. Enter the museum to find a series of hollowed out caves, an old opal mine. Each hollow space, once holding the promise of riches, now hold fossils and exhibits dating back millions of years.
It’s incredible. They have underground homes, cafes, churches, hotels, pubs. And with each new room carved into the rock comes the dream of opal. Finding that one big stone that’ll make you rich. One guy has a 27 bedroom mansion under there as he found a bit of opal during home extensions and simply kept on going.
Mining is now banned within the town limits as too many people ended up getting a bit too enthusiastic with their mining operations and causing the ground to become unstable, or tunnelling into their neighbour’s living rooms. Most neighbours in our part of the world argue over the garden hedge, or a badly parked car. Imagine sitting there in the bath and then old Colin next door pops his head through your wall…
Mining for Opal
The opal mining began in the early part of the 1900s, when a teenage boy made an unexpected discovery. He’d been left under the shade of a tree to wait for his father to get back from gold prospecting. He grew bored (being 14) and had a little explore of his own, kicking at the rocks on the ground. He kicked over an opal.
Miners flocked to the area and staked their mining claims. They began boring holes up to 30 meters down into the sandstone, then digging their way along the level to find the precious stones. The area was known to the aboriginal population as ‘Kupa-piti’, meaning ‘white man’s hole’. And so Coober Pedy was born.
No industrial scale mines were ever set up, as opals do not occur in the same way as gold or other precious gems and metals. A geologist can’t look at a landscape and know it promises opal. The miners here are all individuals, or miners who’ve banded together and bought a few mining claims, which they have to renew every year. If they don’t renew their claim, the land can be taken from them and bought by another. So how to they know where to dig? Throw their hat into the air. Dig where it lands. Job done.
We had a tour of Tom’s Working Opal Mine on the outskirts of Coober Pedy. Tom managed to mine over $2m worth of opal out of the tunnels and hollows we explored. There is still working machinery in the mine for crushing the sandstone and tunnelling further into the rock. Amazingly, the machinery isn’t factory made – it’s all adapted and welded and stuck together by the miners to serve their purposes. The reason for the scrap heaps and junk yards in town suddenly became clear – that heap of rust is junk to me, but to the miners of Coober Pedy it’s new machine parts, adaptions for their equipment, replacement levels and engines and motors. In a town hundreds of km into the barren desert, if something breaks you damn well fix it yourself because no help is coming.
You know what the craziest thing is? All the machinery has to be unassembled to fit down the mine shafts, then bolted back together again down in the tunnels, where it can start breaking up the rock. To save this hassle, some miners keep it old school and just make their own explosives. The town bank, courthouse and a few other bits in town have all been blown up from time to time. Like I said, it’s an interesting town.
Worth a visit?
So many visitors to Australia will miss outback towns like Coober Pedy because they just do the east coast, or if they do want to see the red centre, fly straight to Alice Springs and get a tour down to Uluru.
What I would say is that if you have the time, and the patience, to drive the 9 hours north from Adelaide or the 7 hours south from Alice Springs then do it. You’ll see a town like no other. Where punishing heat drives people under the ground. Where the promise of riches keeps people hoping. Where people have gone for a weekend and stayed for a lifetime. Go all out, buy a mining claim for $70 a year and start digging… who knows what you might find?