Sometimes the most stunning treasures can be pulled out of the Earth from some pretty desolate areas. Those prizes are usually remnants created by the conditions at those places a long, long time ago. And so it was, that a long, long time ago, the sea and the land in what we today call Australia went through a dance that produced some crazy beautiful rocks. In the eastern half of the island continent, a huge depression called the Great Artesian Basin was formed, well over half a million square miles in size. This floodplain collected vast amounts of sediment from rivers flowing into it. These sediments would later form into sandstones after being buried under even more sediment carried in by a rising sea that filled the basin for a time. That’s a lot of water and sediment, and the mechanics, timing, and geochemistry get rather complicated, but suffice it to say there was an abundance of silica in the deposits, and plenty of water trickling through it. Rainwater seems like a pretty mellow thing, but it actually dissolves rock, a little at a time. The silica-rich water seeping through beds in the Great Artesian Basin collected in little veins and void spaces and when conditions were just right, would form into microscopic molecular balls which congealed into rock. Light could reflect off the different-sized silica balls in different colors, for a most wondrous display. Eons later the rock had to be dug up or weathered out of uplifted ground for light to reach them, but when it did, they were stunning. They were opals.
In 1915, a man and his son were out in the Australian boonies in search of gold. It wasn’t going so well. But their fortunes turned when the young boy, in search of water one day, found a piece of opal. It was the beginning of a mining boom, once word got out. People had to make their way hundreds of miles into Australia’s dry, harsh interior to have a go at digging up the colorful and valuable rock. Living was hard on the open desert where temperatures could go to the hundred-and-teens in summers and also drop to a deep chill on winter nights. The digging wasn’t easy either, but many of the prospectors were veterans of World War I, a conflict that involved a great deal of trench warfare. These guys knew from digging. Working underground was a lot more comfortable temperature-wise than being on the surface, so in seeking to establish shelter from the elements, they dug themselves underground houses. With a scarcity of trees, there wasn’t much else around to build with anyway, and an even 75 degrees underground year-round made for liveable conditions in this wild land. For a while, people referenced this out-of-the-way place by a name that simply noted it as a mining area: Stuart Range Opal Field. By 1920 though, the town had developed the name Coober Pedy. Like many place names in Australia, it’s an anglicization of an Aboriginal language name. In this case, it was the words, “kupa piti,” which reportedly meant “white man in a hole.”
The size and population of Coober Pedy grew steadily, aided by the completion of the Trans Continental Railway in 1917. That helped to bring all the materials needed by a growing town, but the area’s lack of water limited expansion. Water tanks were eventually brought in, though the precious liquid was still doled out to each citizen in meager amounts—24 gallons per week. Even today, when water is piped in from a few miles out of town, the purification required keeps the price high. But while water is scarce, the opal deposits are rich. They’re not easily found, but still, an estimated 70 percent of all the opals in the world come from Coober Pedy, known as the Opal Capital of the World. The fortunes of the mines have risen and fallen over the decades thanks to varied economies. Since the ‘60s, mining has become industrialized, but the town is still a modest outpost of some 3,500 residents, most of whom work in mining and more than half of whom live underground.
Besides the mining, there is a tourist draw in the many underground structures that have been made over the years. The Desert Cave Hotel has several rooms below the surface, and the local Serbian Orthodox Church was artfully hewn out of the sandstone. Private “dugout” homes are not open for viewing, but some have surprising numbers of rooms, and one even has an indoor pool excavated in the cooler depths. There are of course many above-ground buildings in Coober Pedy now, cooled with modern devices. However, the desert where the town sits is as stark as ever. Dotting the land are ample mounds of mine tailings, so the barren, dry scene is something of an apocalyptic vision, like something out of a Mad Max movie. In fact, that’s where one of that series was filmed! Other science fiction stories have been shot in the vicinity to evoke either post-industrial desolation or the image of another planet. Interior Australia has been described as the earthscape most like the surface of Mars. The lack of vegetation around Coober Pedy extends to the local golf course, which is bare dirt. There’s just not enough water to support golfing’s customary lush setting. As a small concession, golfers are set up with a stage of artificial turf from which to tee off, and a portable mat of it for fairway shots. Many play at night with glow-in-the-dark balls in order to beat the heat. You do what you have to in the extreme conditions of Outback Australia.
Coober Pedy is a rare location, a culmination of unusual geologic and chemical processes. It seems fitting that the town remains a place of uncommon activity and habitation, and one of Australia’s quirkier communities.
Have those Coober Pedy opals got you thinking of ditching your job to go make a fortune in Australia? Get a feel for the land with the Australia Continental Odyssey Map—a satellite image wall map of the Land Down Under. She’s beauty! Available now from Maps.com.
caption: What they came for. These opals can bring impressive paydays.
source: Flickr: James St. John (CC by 2.0)
caption: Mine tailings dot the harsh landscape around Coober Pedy.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Thomas Schoch (CC by SA 2.5 Generic)
caption: Living underground in solid rock can be clean and comfortable.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Nachoman-au (CC by 2.0)
caption: Coober Pedy’s Serbian Orthodox Church is a work of art.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Robert Link (CC by SA 2.0)
caption: The town has a sense of humor about its all-dirt golf course. The greens are treated…with motor oil.
source: Flickr: Prince Roy (CC by 2.0)