Coober Pedy

The name Coober Pedy originates from an Australian aboriginal term for “boy’s watering hole.” That is interesting because there is so little water in this desert town that it is about the most expensive commodity to obtain. Coober Pedy is the largest opal mining complex in the world. It is located in the territory of South Australia. Along the national road A87, the town sits about halfway between Adelaide on the southern coast and Alice Springs, which is way up in the Northern Territory.

Mining of opal gems began in 1915 and it continues today. This has been going on for so long that the area in and around Coober Pedy is a labyrinth of tunnels, more than a quarter million of them in the 1999 count! Since so many of the tunnels are vacant, many town residents simply move in to occupy them in order to get a cheaper dwelling and to escape the searing desert heat. The tunnel homes, which the locals call dugouts, forego the need to continually run the air conditioner. There are many above ground dwellings too, but over time, the newer dugouts sport three bedroom fairly modern living that is almost indistinguishable from an outside home. The caverns are walled in, and a home front is placed at the entrance, where the door and windows are located.

The population is about 1700 today, and not all of them are miners. There is a small, but growing tourist industry. The town has a hotel, and many folks stop by for an overnight between other more appealing Australian destinations. Local jewelers sell the polished opals singly and mounted in jewelry. There are a couple of museums, an art gallery, and two churches. These and other establishments are situated underground! This appeals to tourists. Visitors can tour the “breakaways,” elevated areas that afford a breathtaking view and photography opportunities. Some underground scenes from “Mad Max, Beyond the Thunderdome” were filmed in the dugouts. Some scenes of “The Red Planet” were filmed in the surrounding desert. Most likely someone there will sell you an “I dig the dugouts in Coober Pedy” tee-shirt.

The organized townspeople passed an ordinance to block large mining operations. Any individual or family can move to town to mine opal, but your mine can be no larger than 165 square feet in size. I find that to be interesting, and it fits with the town heritage. From the early 1900′s to today, adventure seekers, loners, and folks who want no beaten path to trod upon have come from all over the world to sink their shovel here. Many planted their DNA too. The present generation of several longstanding families call the place home and likely will continue to do that with succeeding generations. Today, 45 nationalities are represented, mostly from Eastern Europe. There is also a thriving community of aboriginal people who mine opal while they try to both fit into the modern Australian world and maintain their tribal traditions. It is easier for them to do that in Cooper Pedy, a place that slowed down and mostly let the rest of the world go by.

Web search to find some fascinating photos and stories. Read about the mystery of some early 1900′s miners who dug their mine and found a fortune in opal. They back-filled the shaft where the wealth was located, left the area, and never returned! No one knows who they were or what happened to them. In 1968, a homeowner expanded his dugout into the fill dirt, which was easy to shift, and discovered the lost fortune in opal on the other side of it!