>>>Coober Pedy: living underground

Coober Pedy: living underground

After the forty-niners swept through the 'golden' lands of California, the Australian outback was the scene of another, quieter fever, the opal rush.
S
crap iron was used by one father to build the only tree in Coober Pedy in the early 20th century. He wanted his kids to see a tree, even if it was a metal one. Some 846 kilometres from Adelaide, in southern Australia, you have to go into Coober Pedy to see that life doesn’t happen above ground, but a few metres beneath the surface instead.
The thermometer is reading 48 degrees centigrade and not a soul is out in the street, but that doesn’t mean the place is uninhabited. The Coober Pedy census shows there are around 3,500 inhabitants here. They’re in their houses, built below ground and at an average temperature of 20 degrees. People do venture outside, but with extreme caution. “Don’t run, don’t walk backwards” the posters say, warning people about the holes in the ground.
Travellers going to Coober Pedy can explore the caves on trips and can even search in the mines for their own opals.

White man's hole

Coober Pedy got its name in 1929 from the translation of the Aboriginal words ‘kupa piti’, which means ‘white man's hole’. The first dugouts were built by soldiers returning from the First World War, and their structure imitated the trenches they had dug in France.

The only viable option is to live like ants. Living in sheltered houses dug out of the ground and the rock is the way to avoid spending a fortune on air conditioning. They call these houses ‘dugouts’ and 70% of the population lives in them. There aren’t any windows but “it’s very quiet, very dark and very peaceful” says Christine Henry, a local resident. And if you need another room, you just dig it out.
Coober Pedy is a town obsessed with ‘desert fire’. That’s what they call opals, which can fetch up to 3,000 dollars on the market. They have their own festival devoted to this semi-precious stone, with a digger parade included. It’s hardly surprising, as along with the towns of Andamooka and Mintabie, they account for 85% of world opal production, a figure that translates into an income of millions of dollars. Even so, less than 1% of the population is wealthy.
The town has dugout homes but there are also underground hotels like Desert Cave Hotel and churches like the one in the photo.
Opals date back 150 million years, when the region was covered by ocean. When the water dried up, silica, an ocean nutrient, was left behind in the rock. The very first collectors were nomads, but in January 1915 a late gold fever came to Coober Pedy with the New Colorado Prospecting Syndicate. It was run by Jim Hutchison and his 14-year-old son William, PJ Torno and M McKenzie. It was the youngster who found pieces of opal on the ground.
Coober Pedy has been a shooting location for films including "Mad Max III: Beyond Thunderdome", "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "Red Planet".
Two months later they were joined by the O’Neill brothers, opal mining pioneers. Production fell during the Great Depression, but in 1946, an Aboriginal woman called Tottie Bryant found an eight mile opal field that attracted an avalanche of wealth-seeking adventurers. The first were Yugoslavs and Serbs, and today more than 45 nationalities live side by side here.
Coober Pedy has become a modern mining town with more than 70 fields, 300,000 mine shafts and 150,000 tourists who do ‘noodling’ to find opals, playing golf at night on a course without grass and using glowing golf balls. The only risk, according to guide and miner Wayne Borrett, is not wanting to go home: “You think tomorrow you’ll find that magic stone – and then you just can’t leave”.

Related articles

The desert carpet of lights

“Like the dormant seed in a dry desert would burst into bloom at dusk, with gentle rhythms of light under...

The cage of death

15 minutes swimming with one of the biggest marine crocodiles in the world. Terrifying or terrific? Only at Crocosaurus Cove,...

Australia: forever tied to the sea

The untamed ocean on one side, nature at its wildest on the other. Two lanes separate land and sea and...

Fremantle, festival capital of Australia

The home city of Bon Scott, the lead vocalist of AC/DC, is a prime magnet for music, art and gastronomy...