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Joining the opal rush in South Australia



Story and photos by Mike Crane

Traveling north of the wide open green avenues and lush parks of Adelaide I found the utter definition of isolation somewhere in the centre of South Australia’s million square kilometres.

The drive along the lonely Stuart Highway cut through dry desolate land for hours, offering limited signs of life except for some non-native residents. A pack of roaming camels wandering roadside seemed like one of the few creatures that could stand any amount of exposure in this climate. Ironically Australian camels are now highly sought after exports to the Middle Eastern lands where they once originated.

In the distance we caught our first glimpse of the cosmopolitan Coober Pedy, a town that is home to a few thousand colourful characters blending perfectly into the inhospitable surroundings.

Strewn with broken down cars, crude mining equipment and random heaps of junk all overshadowed by piles of dry, dusty dirt, the outskirts of Coober Pedy appeared on the landscape like a scene from an old Mad Max movie. Truth be told, Coober was once the location of several science fiction movies including the cult classics Mad Max III and Pitch Black .

Pulling into town it was evident that the effort along the Stuart would be rewarded by delving into Coober Pedy’s mysterious story. Aside from its big screen fame this small town is mostly famous for something entirely different. Coober is the opal capital of the world and people have been joining the “opal rush” ever since a 15-year-old boy found opals here in 1915.

Now Coober Pedy produces an estimated 70 per cent of the world’s opal. The hunt for easy money has attracted over 40 nationalities, creating an abnormally multicultural place for such a small and isolated part of the world.

Due to Coober’s harsh climate it possesses a lunar-like landscape, with the streets and houses all surrounded by piles of dirt that, from a distance, almost appear as freshly plowed snow. With temperatures recorded in excess of 50 degrees Celsius however, it’s obvious that no snow frequents Coober’s streets.

It is for this reason that the majority of Coober’s residents dwell in underground dugouts. Coober Pedy is actually an Aboriginal word meaning “White man’s hole in the ground”.

On a museum tour our energetic guide proudly stated that a three-bedroom “cave” home could be purchased for around $70,000 AUD. Her enthusiasm grew as she asked us to consider the benefits of living in a cave. She pointed out that heating and air conditioning were not required, as the subterranean temperature remained constant year round. If that wasn’t enough of a selling point, she also informed us that it took four adults several years to fill the bored out shaft that serves as a toilet. Best of all, Coober was in the midst of a buyer’s market.

I decided to check out the neighbourhood while I considered this real estate opportunity. Signs around town such as “No explosives in the movie theater” continue to capture the lawless atmosphere of the early days. In the past mining was permitted almost anywhere and it wasn’t uncommon for someone to accidentally bore through into their neighbour’s home or mine.

Rules have changed with the times and mining is no longer permitted in the town limits. The industrious locals have found a way around this, however, and are still able to put an “extension” on their existing homes. Our guide explained that one resident currently had over 20 rooms in his underground dwelling and was in the process of adding a billiards room. With his never-ending extensions being questionable it seemed that he was on to the very opal that has made this town what it is.

Coober offers a wide range of both subterranean and above-ground accommodation. The best way to have a good look around is to take in one of the tours that will show you underground dwellings and take you down into an opal mine. With over 250,000 mineshafts scarring the landscape it is not advisable to explore the town limits on your own.

With plenty of characters calling this place home you are guaranteed a unique experience that will stand out in your mind for years to come. Who knows, you might even catch some of that “opal fever”.