Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tuesday Voice: Coober Pedy (Part 1)

The opal capital of the world

By Vic Midyett

My sister, Anita, was coming from Perth, Western Australia, to visit me and Shirley in South Australia, and we all wanted to see Coober Pedy, which is sometimes referred to as the "opal capital of the world" because of the quantity of precious opals that are mined there.
    Opal was found on the ground on February 1, 1914 by a 14-year-old boy, and settlement followed the same year. Since then, Coober Pedy has been supplying the world with the majority of gem-quality opal.
    Today Coober Pedy relies as much on tourism as on opal mining for employment to sustain the cosmopolitan population of 3,500, which comprises over 45 different nationalities.
    It is estimated that approximately 10% of the total mining area of 4,954 square kilometres has been worked.
    Coober Pedy was originally known as the Stuart Range Opal Field, named after John McDouall Stuart, who in 1858 was the first European explorer in the area. In 1920 it was re-named Coober Pedy, an anglicized version of the Aboriginal words "kupa piti," commonly assumed to mean "white man in a hole."
    An interesting short history of Coober Pedy can be found on its official website, including more about the boy who found opals on the ground, the town's water supply, the Great Depression (when opal prices plummeted and production almost came to a standstill), and an Aboriginal woman's sensational opal find in 1946, which started a new rush to the fields....
    A report was published last year that there are billions of barrels of oil to be had just north of Coober Pedy, and there could be enough to turn Australia into an exporter, but my understanding is that the process to extract it is similar to fracking – a very expensive process and, I'm told, probably 15 years down the track still.

Our trip to Coober Pedy started with Shirley and me driving to the city of Adelaide to hunt for the rental car company we had engaged for our long trip into the South Australian desert, due north. After picking up the car, we collected Anita, whose plane had landed at 1:30 p.m. It took us all the rest of the afternoon to drive as far as Pt. Augusta, arriving at dusk for our overnight stay.
The sunset that evening
    We got back on the road early the next morning and were in desolate surroundings very quickly. But the sunrise that greeted us was just wonderful:

The sun was over our right shoulders as we headed north for our six-hour trip to Coober Pedy. The 550-km ride was a whole lot of not much:

It did have it's own beauty, though, and a big sky. This is open-range country with no fences.
    "Farms" in Australia are called "stations," presumably because they are so large in area. They are generally measured in square kilometers. In this region they raise cattle and sheep primarily. These animals are not known for being the brightest bulb in the box and wander onto the road frequently. Then there are also the kangaroos, Emus, and foxes. We saw carcasses of all of them at one point or another, in varying degrees of decomposition. They had been hit by cars or trucks. These animals like the road, unfortunately, because it is generally warmer than the ground.

Through one of those arches was our underground room
We arrived at our underground motel room, which, without any heat or cooling, stays at a constant 23°C (about 74°F). The room that my sister had booked for us was a budget room and 60 feet below the surface. It had no plumbing and they expected us to climb a 50+ flight of stairs in the middle of the night to ground level to pee. Not! We negotiated for a room on the "top" level with its own bathroom (see below). The top level was still about 12 feet below ground. (Notice in the outdoor photo above right that air vents and TV antennas are sticking out of the hill above the rooms.)
That's Anita on the left, acting goofy
The walls are mostly sandstone, with the darker lines being rock. Opals are generally not found in vertical rock formations, but in horizontal ones. This cavity was dug out by various sizes of augers. You can see the scrape marks.
    Can you imagine the time it took just to dig out this little closet behind the white louvered door?
Walls are mostly lime stone with the darker bits more
rock substance; opals are found in horizontal rock
Next week: "Looking around the town"

Copyright © 2014 by Vic Midyett


  1. Aside from the opals, I'm struck by the fact that "Coober Pedy," Australia's "opal capital of the world" got its name from the Aboriginal "kupa piti," commonly assumed to mean "white man in a hole."

  2. :-) I never let someone else book my room, as the first thing i want to know is about the bathroom :-)

  3. Sorry it has taken so long to get to your post. As you know we were on our way back home. That looks a little too outback for my taste. The Four Seasons it is not. It does look interesting, however I'll just wait for your next post. {smile}

  4. Ha! No problem Ed. Thanks mate! It was not 5 star for sure. he he