The Town Underground: A History of Coober Pedy

For some,opals are a far away dream swirling in a hazy spectrum of colors.For some Opals are not even on the spectrum of familiar.Luckily,for many others it is a large presence in their entire lives.For the residents of Coober Pedy,they live in tightly knitted in a region of northern south Australia that is proudly known as the "Opal Capital of the World".Australia,at a staggering 95%,is the leading producer of a wide variety of stunning opals and Coober Pedy itself produces 75% of the opals coming out of Australia.

Coober Pedy is a very small town, about halfway between Adelaide and Alice Springs. It has become a popular stopover point and tourist destination, especially since 1987, when the sealing of the Stuart Highway was completed.With the population (2016 Census) at 1,762,the amount of opal mines actually outweigh the amount of residents nestled in the dusty region. Coober Pedy is renowned for its below-ground residences, called "dugouts", which are built in this fashion due to the scorching daytime heat.The name "Coober Pedy" comes from the local Aboriginal term "kupa-piti", which means "boys’ waterhole".The climate in this fierce little town is just as fierce as it's residents and the local opal mining industry. According to Wikipedia the climate has a vast range and intense heat :

"Typical of a desert climate, diurnal ranges are wider than in most places, with an annual average high of 27.5 °C (81.5 °F) and an annual average low of just 14.1 °C (57.4 °F). From December to February, the weather warms up and summer temperatures range from 35 °C (95 °F) in the shade, with occasional dust storms. The annual rainfall in the area is low and among the lowest in Australia, at around 130 millimeters (5.1 in).[18][19] Precipitation is well-distributed through the year, although the lowest amounts are recorded in the winter months (although precipitation is very low in all months)."

With the harsh climate comes harsh living conditions and the residents of Coober Peady have adapted and handled it with the resources at their finger tips by living underground in what are known as "dugouts". Some dugouts are hand dug while others are older and abandoned dugouts or entrances of opal mines of the past.The dugouts remain at a even temperature of about 74 degrees,while the surface buildings need air conditioning units.

The Early Days of Opal Mining

cited : Flinders Range Reasearch

The opal was first discovered by fourteen year old Willie Huchison from Mount Gambier in February 1915. As a member of his father's prospecting party, he and the others left Marree in December 1914 in search of gold. In temperatures often exceeding 45(C) degrees the party looked for gold while Willie was assigned camp duties. Being finished with his duties and rather bored Willie went exploring himself.

Of course he didn't find any gold,but one of the richest areas of opal in the world.The first opal claims were pegged out but, as a result of the unbearable heat and the lack of water, work was abandoned within three weeks. Willie did not live long enough to see the fruits of his find. He drowned five years later while driving cattle from Clifton Hills, on the Birdsville Track, across the Georgina River.

As a result of the first world war, it was hard to find a market for the opal and most miners were left with much opal but no money. Needless to say that most left and the field was almost deserted by the end of the war. With the return of peace, selling opal improved and the field attracted once again many miners and buyers.

Several major discoveries were made on the field and in 1920 it was decided by the local Progress Committee that the field should have a proper name. After much deliberation the choice fell on Coober Pedy. The town, and its miners had to put up with many problems. For most the heat and isolation were only small compared with the lack of water, cave-ins, explosions which went wrong and visits from the tax man.

In 1922 an attempt was made to solve the scarcity of water by building a two million liter water tank. Unfortunately there was not enough rain until 1925 to enable the tank to be filled. Living conditions improved rapidly and by the mid 1920's the field had two stores, a post office, firewood was available for $2 per dray load, and a Miner's Right could be obtained for fifty cent per year giving the right to peg out an area of fifty meters by fifty meters.

Poor results on the opal field during the depression of the 1930's and drought conditions in general resulted in the area once again being almost deserted until 1946 when a large find was made by an Aboriginal woman. The miners have never looked back since.

These days,there are more than 40 nationalities in Coober Pedy alone

For them and later arrivals, independence was most important, freedom from government control, no paper work and most certainly no bookkeeping.

Most work when they feel like it and few keep 'regular hours'. They prefer their cash economy, hate taxes, licences and rates. Few legal contracts are made between the miners and opal buyers, their word or handshake is good enough. Maximum profit is not important and many see life, and mining as a gamble and therefore use a large part of their income for gambling and drinking.

Most of them have a strong dislike, or at best a uneasy feeling,of white collar workers such as public servants, police, teachers,mine department officials and the like. This can also be seen from the low census returns, low voting turn out for elections, high tax avoidance and the slow or non-payment of government debts.

In 1985 Opal became South Australia's mineral emblem. In 1993 it was proclaimed Australia's national gemstone.

Many of the early settlers found their final place of rest at the Coober Pedy Cemetery.

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