Coober Pedy South Australia
26 Dec 2006
|Jeff - Coober Pedy, an unforgettable experience.
Opals were first discovered at Coober Pedy in 1915. Soldiers of many nationalities returned from the war and flocked to Coober Pedy to seek their fortune by mining for opals. They were used to digging and living in trenches. Some became very rich, many became broke. Over the years many partnerships were formed over a few beers and when the beer ran out, they discovered they did not like their partner after all and the partnership never got off the ground or under it as the case may be. You have to be very trusting of your partner if you seek opals.
Mining is no longer allowed within the town boundaries. At the beginning the mine shafts were horizontal into the hill sides. The resultant caves became the underground homes of the miner and there are many of these within the boundaries of Coober Pedy, as well as many above ground homes, a number of which have deep basements. If you own an underground home and sufficient land to extend, and can justify the need for an extra room, the resultant excavation might well more than pay for the extension. After the surface opals were exhausted, the vertical hole digging began. You have to go down quite a number of feet to reach the level where opals are formed. There may be opals further down still and these will be of lesser value as they will contain more water and be softer; (still worth finding).
Our first day at Coober Pedy was a very lazy day. We strolled around in intense heat, and sussed out the Underground Backpackers Hotel where we would later return to use the Internet. This was a very interesting, and cool place to visit. I got money from a hole in the wall, like most miners. This money was mine, (well ours), and provided by an ATM. We could now visit the Black Opal shop next door to the bank. A Greek man said, "Hello, how are you doing". Seems the language is the same here as in other parts of Australia. I said I felt much better now I had got money from the bank machine. Over 100,000 people visit Coober Pedy each year with most arriving after lst March when the summer is over.
The shop owner was very helpful. We explained that this was only the second shop we had visited and we were not planning to make any purchases until two days time. Sitting on a black velvet cover, in a corner of a show case, was a large, and the most beautiful red opal I am ever likely to see. It shimmered as if it was alive. Around the shop was pictures of the owner when he was a young man; he informed he still does some mining. The red opal, 'The Desert Flame', is featured in a book he showed to us and is not for sale. (Not that we were able to make an offer). He had initially thrown the stone into a spare box of stones whilst working on the ones he felt were the most profitable. He had allowed others to indulge in fossicking in his pile of discarded stones and no one had taken this one. Eventually he had picked up the raw stone, detected faint traces of red and began to clean and polish it. What a wonderful find.
Opals can be bought as solid, or cut and stuck on another surface known as a double, or thinly pared and stuck onto a double surface and sold more cheaply as a treble. This man stated he would not sell the later. The man took us into his back room, complete with a see through mirror into the shop, and showed us the opals he was currently working on and the raw stones he had still to decide what to do with; he also demonstrated his trade and Sylvia was given an uncut opal. It was a fascinating experience to watch, listen and speak with this man. Most Coober Pedy prices for opals are a lot less than you would pay in Adelaide, let alone the price in London or New York.
We went into the Underground Hotel and learned more history of the town before enjoying the underground buffet lunch which had been recommended to us. Then it was a lazy hot afternoon with some work in our air conditioned van on our scribing. In the evening, back at the Underground Backpackers Hotel we sent off new entries to the blog site and were introduced to three of the hotel pets. These proved to be desert lizards known as Bearded Dragons who enjoyed a taste of beer. Had I mentioned that this internet point had a bar?
At 8.30am on our second morning we embarked with two others for a tour of the town, our guide Rudi was a 71 year old ex opal miner of 44 years experience with lots of stories; he intends to stay and die in Coober Pedy. The tour went round the town which has a bowling green and a golf course, (no grass and a sort of black ash green, seems a bit of a contradiction), with a rake for you to smooth the green once you have played the hole. We passed by some of the opal fields, visited one of the Underground Churches, an Underground Home, Underground Pottery, an Old Mine and watched the educational video before being shown the Underground Opal display, (which proved to be a tourist trap).
Our second trip of the day was a four wheeled desert drive and was known as the Sunset Breakaway Tour. The Breakaway Reserve consists of low hills which have broken away from the Stuart Range, hence the name 'The Breakaway'. The expansive view can give a visitor the impression of the long gone inland sea. We travelled through a working area of an opal field and watched an open cast mine where the miner and his partner were using a bulldozer. This was one of 4 currently working the opal fields, there once was over 200. Apparently you now have to spend a lot so you might make a lot. This is one occupation where a person might become a millionaire over night, or work for 40 years and be lucky to have made a small living.
The tour went close by the Dog Fence which is still the longest fence in the world. Without this fence the sheep industry would have been wiped out by the dingo. Lots of films have been made in the areas of this tour which also took in the Moon Plains. At one point Sylvia and I was reminded of the man who said, "This might not be the middle of nowhere but you can certainly see it from here". Coffee, and chocolate biscuits which were produced from a 'cold box', were consumed whilst we watched the sun set over the desert.
We later learned from a young man who had taught recently at Coober Pedy, there had been 47 nationalities in the school; this did not surprise us. What a place, some describe it as lawless but none of the miners would break the rules which would cause them to loose their mining permits.
A brochure of Coober Pedy has a web site on the front; www.opalcapitaloftheworld.com.au
I have not yet looked this one up but if authentic, it may be interesting. It's a great claim to have as your E Mail number