Built on Opal: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Living and working underground in Australia’s Outback

A rare storm over Coober Pedy, South Australia. © Bronwen Scott

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was filmed in Outback South Australia. So was the Vin Diesel movie Pitch Black. Thomas Engelman, producer of Pitch Black, selected Coober Pedy for the three-sun desert planet because its landscape ‘looked more desolate and dangerous than Mars’.

In South Australia, the Outback starts close to the cities. Past Port Augusta, the houses, factories, and service stations shrink in the rear view mirror. The Stuart Highway cuts north across red dirt dotted with mulga, past gibber plains and salt lakes glittering in the sun. Flocks of green budgerigars swirl across a wide blue sky. Goannas stride across the warm asphalt, unhurried and uncaring.

Gibber plain, Coober Pedy. © Bronwen Scott

The Stuart Highway offers few diversions. At Pimba, the Olympic Dam Highway branches off to Woomera village, Roxby Downs, and the opal fields of Andamooka. It is sealed all the way to Andamooka, but after that the roads are dusty, rugged, and empty.

Coober Pedy is the largest town in Outback South Australia. Approaching from the south, the first indications you are nearing the place are billboards spruiking cheap fuel and accommodation. Closer to town, dirt roads turn off towards hundreds of mullock heaps that rise from the flat land like giant ant mounds. They are made of rock and dirt removed from opal mines, scrutinised by expert eyes, sifted, and discarded.

Private opal mine, Coober Pedy. © Bronwen Scott

Coober Pedy is a town built on opal. In January 1915, at the height of summer, a party of prospectors crossed the desert to search for gold. They encountered drought and ‘a heavy drift of red sand’ that made it ‘very difficult to locate…known reefs’. In place of precious metal, they found ‘a huge deposit of opal’. In a note published in the Adelaide Advertiser (22 February 1915), the prospectors said they had ‘opened a top deposit some 20 ft in length’ and which they had ‘traced some hundreds of feet’. The field they found was huge.

By 1920, the opal discovery had spawned a town. A reporter from the Adelaide Register (19 November 1920) visited the newly minted Coober Pedy:

Although there are no fewer than four general stores, a police station, and a population at present of from 70 to 80 people. with the exception of a galvanized iron structure that does duty as a lockup, there are no buildings in the ordinary sense of the term. The reason is that the inhabitants reside underground in what are termed ‘dugouts,’ and which are, for the most part, very comfortable, consisting in some cases of two or more rooms.

Two problems faced the Coober Pedy opal miners in the town’s early days: a decline in demand for opal, and a shortage of water. The first they could ride out, but the second was a more serious issue. Water had to be carted in from distant waterholes at a great cost. Miners used it sparingly.

With the scarcity of water, one naturally does not see too many shower baths, but a digger has improvised a 2-lb. jamtin so as not to be denied his morning shower. As the water is not allowed to waste, it is drained into a tub and poured back in the jamtin for further use — a sort of perpetual motion shower bath.

Now the town water supply comes from a bore about 25 km out of town, and is desalinated and run through a reverse osmosis system before reticulation.

Room in an underground motel, Coober Pedy. © Bronwen Scott.

A hundred years on, dugouts are still in vogue, although they are more comfortable and extensive than those earlier ones. Visitors can stay in underground motels — Coober Pedy has a selection. Dugout walls are textured with the marks of pick axes. They show the history of the town.

Most of the world’s opal comes from Australia, with about 80% of it mined in the Coober Pedy, Andamooka, and Mintabie areas. Opal is also mined in western New South Wales and Queensland. About 110 million years ago, this whole area was covered by the Eromanga Sea, a shallow sea full of marine life, including plesiosaurs, mussels and belemnites. The sediment that settled on the sea floor contained silica, which became incorporated into the sandstones that formed over millions of years. After the sea dried out and as Australia became increasingly arid, weathering dissolved the silica, and it was carried downwards in ground water and deposited it in cracks and faults in the rocks. This hardened to form opal.

Although most of the opal extraction in Coober Pedy occurs in mines, visitors have the opportunity to noodle for their own precious finds among the mullock heaps at the Jeweller’s Shop public site on the edge of town.

And the name? It was chosen by miners in 1920 from Kukata Language words kupa (white man) and piti (quarry).

From L to R: dirt track; the Serbian Orthodox Church of St Elijah the Prophet; the dog fence. Coober Pedy, South Australia. © Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland.

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