Australia's Coober Pedy: A Gemstone in the Desert
In a land as rich with eccentricities as the Australian Outback, Coober Pedy manages to stand out.
A small town in South Australia plopped down in a nearly uninhabitable desert, it is dry and sterile, grassless and unpretty. The rock-strewn ground, lumpy with great mounds of dirt, coats sneakers in an orangey-pink dust that takes weeks to come off.
An inexplicable amount of junk — rusty street signs, abandoned tires, plastic doll heads — dots the moonscape terrain. There is little vegetation except where determined residents make watering efforts, for the climate is extreme and water expensive in this strangely apocalyptic land.
Actually, there’s little hint of life in Coober Pedy besides the locals, the black flies that swarm the air, and the camouflaged grasshoppers that leap from the dust.
But beauty, as it turns out, is not skin-deep.
The existence and lifeblood of this town just had to be owed to something magical and precious, something capable of fueling the human imagination so completely with dreams of prosperity as to entice them to such a no-man’s-land. And that’s where opal comes in.
A rich history
In 1915, a teenager named Willie Hutchison was looking for water in the area following an unsuccessful search for gold with his father, when he happened upon opal, a hydrated form of silica similar to quartz but softer and often iridescently colorful when precious.
Opal has since transformed Coober Pedy into a bona fide mining town of close to 3,500 residents, and a fascinating stopover for Outback visitors.
Less than a century old, the town’s history is short but remarkable, and marked by a number of novel developments that have made living and visiting there both possible and enjoyable — like underground businesses and a grassless golf course with “greens” of oiled sand.
Construction workers from the country’s Transcontinental Railway and soldiers returning from World War I were among the first to populate Coober Pedy in 1917, back when it was called the Stuart Range Opal Field.
To escape the heat of summer, the cold nights, and occasional dust storms, these settlers lived in underground “dugout” homes, a concept that turned worked-out mines into practical shelters.
Fittingly, the town’s name was changed in 1920 to Coober Pedy from the Aboriginal words kupa piti, which loosely translates as “white man in a hole.”
Modern dugout homes are, like the opals, hidden riches of the land. Half of the residents live underground today, and, as I discovered on my visit to Coober Pedy, it’s impossible to imagine the luxury concealed within the unassuming orange sandstone hills scattered around town. No two dugouts are ever the same, but they often begin on ground level with doors and garages, and descend deeply into endless cool spaces of utmost comfort and modernity.
Even the persistent flies, which spent most of their time hitching free rides on my tank top, were somehow, magically repelled by the houses’ cave-like, stone-sculpted interiors. Most unbelievable, however, is how inexpensive it is to build and buy these very large homes: According to the District Council, the average value of a dugout today is approximately US$70,000.
Making the most of it
Dugouts are featured in many of the tours offered in town, including the one I booked with Radeka’s Downunder, an underground motel, which takes participants around both Coober Pedy and the starkly beautiful landscape surrounding it.
The tour guide explained that residents often discover opal in the process of building their homes, which results in new extensions to the original property layout — so the houses get bigger and bigger.
It’s taken a while for the townspeople to become so remarkably adapted to their environs: In a typical boom-and-bust pattern, the years following the first opal discoveries were plagued by plummeting profits and difficulty obtaining water and provisions.
It wasn’t until the influx of European migrants in the 1960s and ’70s that opal mining expanded into a multimillion-dollar industry, and Coober Pedy truly became a modern mining town, and a culturally diverse one at that, with approximately 42 nationalities represented in the population today.
During happy hour at the Italo-Australian Miners Club, a popular pub in town, I sat at the bar between a miner-turned-house painter named Frank, who had come from Rome nearly 30 years ago and boasted of his magnificent dugout home, and an aging Bosnian who’d lost a few fingers in pursuit of his fortune.
The bar was dense with them — wizened old men speaking in thick accents from around the globe, bellies bulging from years of sharing stories over beer, fried fish, and cheap steaks, as they were that night. Some had been in Coober Pedy for decades, and will likely never leave.
The addiction is understandable. There’s undeniable power in the idea that it’s possible to kick over a rock and become rich in the mines of Coober Pedy. In fact, young Willie had reportedly found that first piece of opal lying exposed on the ground’s surface back in 1915.
This is an increasingly rare occurrence these days, but the process of “noodling,” or fossicking — searching through piles of discarded waste for overlooked opal pieces — still provides enough income for some non-miner residents to live on.
The lure of the hunt
Tourists can give it a go as well, in supervised fields away from the danger presented by the roughly one million mine shafts around town. I visited one such field on Radeka’s tour, and spent 15 minutes in the field.
Donning my netted bushman’s hat to keep the flies out of my face, I pored over the loose rubble and kicked through piles of dirt and rocks, squinting, as so many had before me, for a gem in the rough — a glassy rock, sometimes clear or whitish-gray, sometimes toffee-colored and sparkly.
(Actual instructions from the tour guide were to lick potential finds in order to reveal colors beyond the dust, but to avoid the black ones, which were simply “what the kangaroos left behind.”)
When that didn’t work, I lightly ran my fingertips through the chalky dirt piles, scattering the rocks about as the orange dust attached itself to my skin and clothes. Anything that I or the others on the tour deemed remotely opal-like was presented to the tour guide for a quick appraisal, but none of us had any luck, and that’s often what it boils down to.
There’s no shortage of stores selling opal jewelry or even just non-precious (common) opal pieces, so, having admitted defeat in the mines, I picked up a little souvenir before heading to one of Coober Pedy’s more recent tourist draws — Underground Potteries, family-run since 1982. The gallery, a pretty display of finished pottery and local photographs for sale, offers instant respite from the uncomfortable outdoors.
Inside, I was invited further underground by the owner’s son, Derek, who sat alone at a workstation shaping a vase in the quiet, spacious studio. While we chatted, I rolled the soft, earthy scraps of clay he wasn’t using through my fingers, enjoying the cool, smooth texture on my skin. It soothed my hands, still dry and dusty from the opal hunt.
Strangely comforted, I considered for a moment the wild idea of abandoning my hectic New York City existence for a radically different one in Coober Pedy. How would that feel, working like Derek in the stress-free confines of a cool underground studio, deep within the sunburned Outback? Might it be peaceful, rewarding even?
The thought passed quickly, however, when I considered my grubby clothes and the bushman’s hat still hanging from my neck. I thanked Derek and walked out, leaving Coober Pedy’s myriad treasures to the intrepid pioneers of the past, the resourceful builders of the present, and the wistful dreamers of the future.
IF YOU GO
For a much shorter, albeit less interesting, journey, Regional Express Airlines offers two-hour flights from Adelaide most weekdays, from $153 each way.
The best time to visit Coober Pedy is during Australia’s cooler months, April through October. Be aware that while days are generally sunny and mild to warm, nights can be quite cold.
WHERE TO STAY
Radekas Downunder, at 1 Oliver Street, (+61 8 8672 5223), is a centrally located backpackers inn and motel with both underground and above ground lodging. Bunk beds in the dormitory run about US$20; private budget doubles are $50; private double rooms with bathrooms cost $96. Radekas offers several tours, including the four-hour Desert Breakaways tour I booked ($46).
For something closer to luxury, the Desert Cave Hotel on Hutchison Street +61 8 8672 5688) also has above and underground suites, with the usual room amenities plus a pool, gym and sauna, an upmarket restaurant, and an “underground bar and gaming room.” Doubles are $182; several tours are also on hand here.
WHERE TO EAT
Italo-Australian Miners Club, on Italian Club Road (+61 8 8672 5101), only serves food certain nights of the week, but its popular happy hour is far superior to anything the kitchen might produce. At other times, it’s still worth popping into this Coober Pedy institution for a beer and chat with the locals.
Traces on Hutchison Street (+61 8 8672 5147) is one of surprisingly many Greek restaurants in town. Centrally located, they specialize in gyros and mezes, mixed platters of meat and/or seafood, and pride themselves on cheap “backpacker specials.”
Umberto’s, in the Desert Cave Hotel, offers creative Australian cuisine (think kangaroo, fish, and regional beef) and a largely Australian wine list, in more upscale environs. Dinner for two with a bottle of wine runs about $80.
For more information, visit opalcapitaloftheworld.com.au.
Laura Siciliano-Rosen has written for New York magazine (and
nymag.com), US Airways Magazine, Draft, The New York Sun, and Rough
Guides, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her
husband, photographer Scott Rosen.
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