AUSTRALIA : Living underground
Blue Opal Land
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Coober Pedy, a subterranean town in the South Australian desert is where most of the world’s best opal comes from. Arriving at Coober Pedy must be one of the strangest experiences ever.
The scorching desert heat is killing, but the real surprise is the bizarre scenery, which can be best described as a lunar landscape, or sea of molehills.
These are the opal fields and the heaped mounds of dirt reveal the quest for this precious blue treasure. In this remote town, everything takes place underground. Most of the locals live in underground dugouts and there are even underground hotels and restaurants.
The strange desert hills are familiar from films like Ground Zero and Mad Max. But with temperatures reaching well into the thirties, I didn’t stand around admiring the view. I couldn’t wait to get underground to take a look at a Coober Pedy opal mine.
Our guide, Jim, with an obligatory cowboy hat, beard and leather boots, was an excellent representation of the typical old-fashioned adventurer type.
His rough hands gesticulated non-stop as he explained that in this part of the world anyone can acquire a mining concession for just a fistful of dollars, and he happily flashed the small do-it-yourself booklets that the municipality distributes for the use of the beginner.
“Opal mining is a fascinating pastime,” he assured me. “The only tricky bit is choosing your spot. After that, the machine does the job for you.”
Down in the cool bowels of mother earth, the machine really did do what was expected and dug about thirty metres into the rock. The tons of rock torn out by the machine are then hauled to the surface by a huge suction pump and spat out to form the peculiar hills that give Coober Pedy its strangely unique appearance.
Once the hole had been made, Jim installed a neat system composed of a swing and a pulley. He secured it, tugged on the metal cable and then disappeared into the darkness, his voice echoing back to us: “Your turn next when the lift comes back.” The descent seemed very long and I was wondering if hell was the heat above, or down in the deep dark hole, but below Jim was already inspecting the walls of rock with his lamp. Scraping the earth, he revealed a fine layer of the precious mineral.
“Now all we have to do is help ourselves,” he shouted.
In order not to damage the opal, it must be freed carefully from the rock protecting it with the aid of an ice pick.
But our little gem was in no hurry to make an appearance and the operation turned out to be more difficult than expected.
“A better lode”, explained Jim “would be a little lower down in the depth of the rock, but the only way to get to it is by using dynamite!” Too dangerous for the likes of me I protested, and Jim urged me to return to the surface where I could search through the heaps of discarded waste material, or mullock, for pieces of precious opal which may have been overlooked by careless operators. “It’s called ‘noodling’,” he explained, “and the only equipment you need is a sieve, a rake and a good eye.”
And if you’re really keen you can buy a noodling machine, which is a sort of conveyer belt that transports mullock under an ultraviolet light, hopefully helping you to spot a precious stone.
But even though I noodled and noodled – not a single opal came to light.
Coober Pedy goes back a long way, to the time when the first opal was discovered by Willie Hutchinson in 1915.
But it was only after World War I that returning soldiers wanting to get rich quick started to go there. They were the ones to first introduce the dugouts. Living conditions in those days were incredibly harsh and water provisions had to be carted from the other side of the continent; though finally, the introduction of underground water tanks did improve matters enormously.
But it was only in the 1960’s that the mining industry really took off, and many European migrants arriving in Australia made their way there to make their fortunes.
Today the mining area of Coober Pedy is huge. The town is surrounded by nearly 40 km of working mining sites. It’s the world’s largest and richest producer of precious opal and makes up 80% of world production.
Besides a wealth of Aussie cowboys, about 400 Aboriginal people live in Coober Pedy and it was they who gave it the apt name ‘white man’s burrow’.
Most residents who strike it lucky and become millionaires simply disappear, but Crocodile Harry, a well-known crocodile hunter, has been there long enough to have built a veritable troglodyte palace. Some of the scenes from Mad Max were even filmed right in his home.
It’s difficult to decide what’s fascinating at Coober Pedy: the mysterious blue opals or the weird and wonderful underground home of Crocodile Harry who has carved his mansion out of rock right in the main street. Most of the houses here are dug out of the hillside and are cool and comfortable inside, and it’s no problem to excavate another room if it’s needed.
Fitted with all modern conveniences, they can be really quite luxurious. Not my cup of tea though, despite the fact that they are cool in summer and warm in winter – give me the fresh air and open spaces of the Australian outback any day.
But after travelling the hundreds of kilometres of monotonous corrugated highway, we couldn’t leave Coober Pedy without purchasing a precious opal souvenir; and there are plenty of shops in the vicinity where traders are more than willing to help you make a choice.
Our assistant at the rock shop was eager to explain exactly what an opal is and pointed out that millions of years ago non-crystalline silica gel seeped in crevices and cracks in the sedimentary strata. Gradually, over aeons of time, the gel hardened, capturing within it the glowing darting colours that dance, as different angles of light bring them to the surface. “No two opals are alike,” she told us, “and the changing nature of the stone was not fully understood until scientists discovered, by means of the microscope, that opal is made up of minute particles of silica. Light passes through these transparent spheres and is scattered, hence the magic quality of opal.” In good quality opal, the larger spheres are linked together in a remarkably regular pattern. This results in fiery flashes and bands of colour which seemingly float in a three-dimensional void.
The stunning black opal is the most sought after I was told, and was the gem I had come to ogle. More valuable than diamonds they are rare and considered to be the ultimate in gem perfection. I took a black beauty in my hand and it was almost like holding a little bit of outer space, filled with brilliant stars.
“Only a very small percentage of mined opal is precious,” I was told. “Potch is the common opal and is usually white, grey or black, and it has little or no colour play. The feature that determines the price is the brilliance and clarity of the stone.
A brilliant, lustrous light opal can cost more than a dull black opal.”
No wonder that so many get the opal bug, even though it’s an endurance test for miners who have to put up with hellish temperatures and dust storms. It’s the promise of finding a stone of unsurpassed quality and beauty that keeps them going. Unlike goldfields, the opal fields are open to anyone who wants to try their luck, and tourists find it an exciting experience to spend a couple of days digging an opal field.
The opal has always been said to have magical qualities and black opals are prized by magicians and modern-day witches as power stones. They are also thought to bring luck and the Arabs even believed opals were magical beings fallen from the sky.
A medieval English writer claimed they had the power of foresight and in Poland opal was thought to be able to make its wearer invisible.
Queen Victoria whose favourite stone was opal, increased its popularity by giving one to each of her children. It is also said that opal can be worn to bring out inner beauty and I tested an authentic witch’s beauty spell: place a round mirror on a table or altar so that you can see your face within it while kneeling. Place two green candles on either side of the mirror.
Light the candles. Focus on your desire for beauty and while holding the stone gaze into your reflection. Then, with the scalpel of your mind’s eye, mould your face and body to perfection and let the opal work its magic. Whether or not you believe in this approach, there’s no denying that there’s something magical about these Aussie gems.
COOBER PEDY: TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Where? 850 miles north of Adelaide
How to get there: Flights operated by Kendell Airlines from Adelaide, or rail or coach services from Adelaide.
Where to stay: Comfort Inn Coober Pedy Experience - an underground hotel. There are only six rooms, so book ahead. Otherwise, there are motels and bed and breakfast rooms available.
Tourist Information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org