Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

14 September 2009

Coober Pedy: South Australia

White fellow’s hole in the ground’. 

(English translation of Coober Pedy)

Remember the old joke?

Question: ‘What do you get when you cross an elephant with a kangaroo? Answer: ‘Holes all over Australia’.
You could be forgiven for thinking that that’s what’s happened at Coober Pedy for the desert surrounding this arid outpost in outback South Australia is a lunar landscape of craters. But they weren’t made by fantastic monsters, they are vertical shafts or large, open trenches formed by miners searching the land for opals, Australia’s national gemstones. You see, the infuriating thing about opal mining is that unlike gold or silver where you follow a lead until it’s worked out, there are no wide seams. So you try and try again, leaving holes wherever you go!
Drilling for Opal

Coober Pedy would not exist were it not for opals. It’s apparent that not even the local aboriginal tribes had a name for the place for it was only after the opal field was discovered in 1911 by a fourteen year old boy, Will Hutchinson, that they called it Coober Pedy - ‘white fellow’s hole-in-the-ground’. It is an inhospitable place where little grows naturally and where, without human modification, all that would move upon the land would be snakes, lizards, the odd slinking dingo or soot-black emu, and ubiquitous carrion birds - nature’s undertakers.

Here where summer temperatures often greatly exceed 45 degrees Celsius and winter nights can be bitterly cold, men work underground because they must: but they live underground because they choose to. Sometime early in the history of Coober Pedy, long before the invention of air-conditioners, somebody discovered that, underground, the average year-round temperature is about 23 degrees and that if you carve man-made caves into the low hills and fill them with furniture, home appliances, carpets, books and paintings you can have a home fit for a king.

So, over the years, as happens with all frontier or industrial towns (especially those which turn also into tourist attractions) comfort and civilization have been added to make life not only tolerable but positively luxurious and Coober Pedy now boasts (both terrestrial and subterranean) several hotels and motels, some excellent restaurants many of which specialize in local cuisine such as emu and kangaroo steak; art galleries, opal shops and displays, supermarkets, banks, an underground bookshop and variety shops.

When I visited Coober Pedy on a photographic trip with an old friend we had approached from the north, from Ayers Rock, along the 3000km Stuart Highway that connects Darwin with Adelaide. Passing through the conical heaps of mining tailings that border the highway, we arrived in a golden twilight, and booked into the town’s famous underground motel. Not liking the idea of early interment I was pleased to find that they offered above-ground rooms but I was grateful that they were air-conditioned. The proprietor proudly showed us his diplays of opals and I marvelled at their range of colours and their sparkling lustre. He explained that they are formed of solidified silica gel whose spherical particles, when perfectly aligned within the stone, will refract the brilliant spectral colours that make opal so unique and distinctive.

Rough opal: $250 000 worth
Next day we took an hour’s flight over the town and its surrounds in a light aircraft. From above it’s almost surreal, the opal workings and their ‘heaps’ not unlike the casts of burrowing insects. The surface seemed deserted apart from the odd ‘blower’ blasting loose spoil from drilled shafts but I knew that there were people working below the surface as I’d been told that opals work a spell, leading miners on, always in the expectation of a big find under the next rock. To the north of the town I could see The Breakaways, a series of beautiful ochreous hills which we later visited by Jeep and photographed: some of the scenes from ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ were shot among their broad scrub-filled valleys, crumbling ridges and coronet crested hills.

Later we visited our pilot’s opal claim where he and his brother, having so far had a bad day, thrust two copper rods into my hands and invited me to walk back and forth to see if I had any gifts as a diviner. Alas, nothing happened, but nevertheless, as if I were a visiting magician, they asked me where they should drill and I pointed to a spot somewhere in the stone strewn middle distance. The brothers painstakingly lowered their rig, shifted it to the new place, stabilized the platform, threw the drill motor into gear and sent the one metre diameter cylindrical bit screaming into the earth. We left them drilling, oblivious to everything except their hole - great expectations.

Underground Serb Orthodox church
Wherever they come from miners are almost a race in themselves - but one apart from ordinary people; Australian, Irish, Chinese, Californian, Scots, whatever, they equally share the perils and, unequally, the rewards of riches they may or may not win from the earth. Because their lives, especially in the early days, were so hazardous they often craved spiritual support and so it’s not uncommon to find churches of various denominations in mining towns - many of them richly endowed. Coober Pedy is no exception: it has four underground churches one of the most impressive of which is the Serb Orthodox Church of the Holy Prophet Elijas. By chance the augurs which drilled the roof of the nave out of the rock left it appropriately vaulted, and the subtle illumination of the altar screen contrasts superbly with the brilliant colours of the stained ‘glass’ window - the only source of natural light.

A typical dugout house. It’s under that hill.
Before we left Coober Pedy we were invited, by our pilot/miner and his wife to see the new home they were excavating south of the town. It’s in a ‘sub-division’, but where you’d expect to find streets formed and bordered by green lawns and shade trees there’s apparently nothing until you notice windows and doors let into the sides of low hills above which sprout television aerials, air ventilation pipes and radio masts.
Our hosts’ ‘dugout’, a series of rectangular burrowings, will eventually be a sumptuous subterranean ‘mansion’ of 460 square metres equipped with every modern convenience cool in the searing summer and warm under cloudless chilly desert nights.

I asked the pilot’s wife whether anybody had ever drilled a hole into somebody else’s house from the other side of a hill.

‘Oh - it happens quite often,’ she said, ‘but when it does they just apologise, back off, and fill in the hole!’
I wonder whether the opal miners are equally tolerant if somebody drills into their claim?
Clearly everything that’s worth anything is underground in Coober Pedy.


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By Don Donovan