COOBER PEDY is the most enduring symbol of the harshness of Australia’s Outback and the determination of those who live there. It’s a place where the terrain and temperatures are so extreme that homes – and even churches – have been built underground, yet it has managed to attract thousands of opal prospectors. In a virtually waterless desert 380km from Woomera, 845km from Adelaide, and considerably further from anywhere else, the most remarkable thing about the town – whose name stems from an Aboriginal phrase meaning “white man’s burrow” – is that it exists at all. Opal was discovered by William Hutchison on a gold-prospecting expedition to the Stuart Range in February 1915, and the town itself dates from the end of World War I, when returning servicemen headed for the fields to try their luck, using their trench-digging skills to construct underground dwellings.
In summer Coober Pedy is seriously depopulated, but, if you can handle the intense heat, it’s a good time to look for bargain opal purchases – though not to scratch around for them yourself: gem hunting is better reserved for the “cooler” winter months. At the start of the year, spectacular dust storms often enclose the town in an abrasive orange twilight for hours.
The local scenery might be familiar to you if you’re a film fan, as it was used to great effect in Mad Max III, Pitch Black and Wim Wenders’ epic Until The End Of The World. There’s not much to it, just an arid plain disturbed by conical pink mullock (slag) heaps, and dotted with clusters of trucks and home-made contraptions, and warning signs alerting you to treacherously invisible, unfenced 30m shafts. Be very careful where you tread: even if you have transport, the safest way to explore is to take a tour. Past the diggings, the stunning Breakaway Range consists of a brightly coloured plateau off the highway about 11km north of town, with good views, close-ups of the hostile terrain, and bushwalking through two-hundred-year-old stands of mulga.Read More
Finding and buying an opal
Finding and buying an opal
Opal is composed of fragile layers of silica and derives its colour from the refraction of light – characteristics that preclude the use of heavy mining machinery, as one false blow would break the matrix and destroy the colour. Deposits are patchy and located by trial and error: the last big strikes at Coober Pedy petered out in the 1970s, and though bits and pieces are still found – including an exceptional opalized fossil skeleton of a pliosaur (the reptilian equivalent of a seal) in 1983 – it’s anybody’s guess as to the location of other major seams (indeed, there may not be any at all).
Unless you’re serious (in which case you’ll have to pay $60.50 a year to the Mines Department for a Miner’s Permit to peg your 50m-by-50m claim), the easiest way to find something is by noodling over someone’s diggings – ask the owner first. An area on the corner of Jewellers Shop and Umoona roads has been set aside as a safe area for tourists to poke about freely without danger of finding open mine shafts. Miners use ultraviolet lamps to separate opal from potch (worthless grey opal), so you’re unlikely to find anything stunning – but look out for shell fossils and small chips.
The best time to buy opal is outside the tourist season, but with about fifty dealers in town, it’s up to you to find the right stone; reputable sources give full written guarantees.