The over-riding thing you'll see at Coober Pedy is piles of dirt. Lots of piles of dirt. More than you could ever imagine. In fact you'll see them before you get there and, if you're heading north, for over 40kms after the town.
They're known as mullock heaps and "noodlers" used to get amongst them and seek the opals that the miners might have overlooked. However, these days there's a process whereby they use a darkroom and ultraviolet light to scan the entire load that comes from the mine. This virtually eliminates any possibility that good opal will escape the miner's notice.
You'll also see lots of funny looking things attached to trucks (pics 2,3 & 4). They're like a big vacuum cleaner and used to remove the quarried mineral from the mine.
I got to know one of the traders called Bill and, after a long conversation, he offered to take me out to his mine. Unfortunately, on the appointed day, his two co-workers were away at funerals so we ended up going to another mine.
Initially Tellos wasn't home but he turned up just when we were about to leave so I got to look in the mine that you could drive in. It's never been a really successful mine, just a small pocket here and there and they both rued the nearby mine that unearthed over $3,000,000 worth of opal. That's the way it goes here which makes it unlike a lot of other mining, there's no certainty.
Cemeteries everywhere are a repository of history and information. One thing you'll learn here is that many of the original miners came from Greece, Croatia and Serbia, although the latter two were part of Yugoslavia at the time the emigrants left.
Their efforts to leave their country behind had taken them to just about as far as you could get from war torn Europe.
You'll also note that generally they spend more money on memorials and headstones than do other nationalities in this area.
The opening pic is something of an iconic Aussie effort. You can't help but smile when you see it.
The most attractive is undoubtedly the one with the carved porpoises though and it marks the demise of a 29 year old lass which adds to the sadness of it all.
It's located slightly to the south of town just off the Stuart Highway.
This attraction was recommended to me by....another attraction (see Riba's). Though it costs I found it well worthwhile and definitely something to put on your itinerary.
What's good about it is that it covers just about every aspect of mining life at Coober Pedy. It also has, uniquely, some genuine pockets of quality opal still in the mine (pic 2).
There are a couple of neat sculptures as shown in the opening pic (the other one is a camel).
It shows how mining was conducted and still is in some places. It illustrates via dummies and real furniture just how life can be underground (pic 3). It's a viable option for so many because the temperature outside in summer can be blindlingly hot.
There's a fascinating collection of historical articles and pictures that kept me interested for half an hour and, at the end of it all, there's the well stocked gift shop.
It's located close to the centre of town alongside some other attractions.
So, if you went there in your car and didn't walk, the following pictures will give you and idea of what you missed. Walking will give 3 to 4 times the pleasure, I can't recommend it highly enough.
To stand beside those buttes is a special feeling. The colours will astound. Here's what I wrote at the time.
"In the distance you can see the range of hills that you have to pay $2.20 each to view; a worn plateau that beckons you onward such is its contrast to the surrounding land. I imagined it would just be that. How wrong was I.
Even the first set have colour but it’s merely the overture to main symphony. The stark hues are staggering. From chalky whites to sulphur yellows to iron oxide reds the colours blaze in the midday sun. It’s a photographer’s wet dream. My hour became all morning and then I downloaded the panoramas at the main lookout and emailed them off. Just as well really because in the afternoon I went to another spot, plunged off the cliff into the valley floor and took twice as many.
Every 20 metres the vista was magically different, the shapes seen from another entrancing angle, the colours changing in intensity. I realised then why I had never heard of the place; because if you never left the road it is “worth a look” and that’s about it, but if you walk among it it’s something else again. Other than Italy in autumn I’ve never seen so much colour in such a small area.
The Breakaways – put it alongside the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru; just make sure you get out of your car!"
Man sent a rocket to Mars. Astronomers were agog with the possibilities, scientists couldn't get to sleep wondering what it would be like on the surface.
Thus it was that the pictures came back and everyone wanted to see them.
However, people at Coober Pedy thought it was all ho-hum as they'd seen it all before; in fact, just out of town.
At some places in town they've even put up pictures side by side of Mars and eastern Coober Pedy. I haven't got access to the Mars pictures, but here's what it's like at Coober Pedy.
There are those who might lead you to believe that Coober Pedy produces over 90 percent of all opal. This is more than slightly erroneous. In fact, the entire state of South Australia only produces 33%. New South Wales with places like Lightning Ridge dominate production in Australia.
Australia dominates the world's supply of opal, producing over 90 per cent of natural opal. Opal also occurs in Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, Hungary, Canada and the western United States of America. With the exception of Brazilian opal, these occurrences are in nearly every case volcanic in origin. They are generally of inferior quality compared with the Australian sedimentary opal. Nearly 100% of the world's top quality opal comes from Australia.
Australian opal is produced commercially in the states of New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland. It was estimated that the value of the total Australian opal production was $120 million for 1996-97. Of this, $82 million was from New South Wales, $40.6 million from South Australia, and $1.036 million from Queensland
Just two days before I arrived in Coober Pedy a friend rang up and told me to visit The Breakaways. I'd never heard of them but, on his recommendation, I went out.
Frankly, whenever I think of Coober Pedy now, The Breakaways immediately come to mind. It's a fairly well know tourist attraction of odd rock formations and the large majority of people drive through and think it's neat.
The discoverer of opal in the area was someone called Will Hutchinson. Will was only 14 at the time and was along with his dad and others on a gold prospecting trip. He was looking for water and discovered both a few kilometres south of Coober Pedy.
Tragically he never got any benefit from his discovery as he drowned in the Georgina River while droving cattle just five years later.
Today on the side of the Stuart or Explorer Highway (take your pick, same road), there's a plaque detailing the story.
Mining started in 1915, though on an amateur scale, and is still going on now, in a much more professional manner. If you'd like to give fossicking a try then head down to the Jeweller's Shop opal field or one of the others that offer such services.
Even if you aren't lucky you can always buy one as a souvenir from the numerous opal shops (over 20 when I visited) and pretend that you found it.
There is also an interesting display within the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum which is in the town centre, and an underground home in the Old Timers Mine.
These hills are about 35 km north of Coober Pedy, you'll have to buy a permit. One of the formations is called The Castle and it featured in Mad Max III and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. There's a road going in a loop past The Castle, The Dog Fence and The Moon Plain.
When you're in Coober Pedy you should definetly visit a dugout home. They are well pointed out, or you can ask at the tourist information. It's really special to see a house build into the hills, people would actually find opals while they were digging their home.
Go on Radeka's Breakaway Tour! For less than $20 you can visit everything that makes this place unique. See a part of the Longest Fence in the world, (The famous Dingo Fence), and the Moon Plain ( where Hollywood films most of its mars movies). Visit an underground church, and meet Crocodile Harry, the original persona for Crocodile Dundee. He was drunk when we arrived, but we still had a look about the place - a six room cave he dug himself. At the end of the tour, they even let you noodle for your own opals.
The last place we went on our tour around Coober Pedy was the opal fields. You are allowed to fossick/noodle through the piles of dirt. And you can be lucky and fine some small pieces of quite good opal.
First time I was there I only found pieces of the milky kind of opal. They are worthless but I brought them home anyway. After all it WAS opal. Second time we were just about to leave when I saw something glinting in the sunshine in the middle of the road.
It was a small thin piece of rock, dirt on the top and bottom, but in the sides you could see the most beautiful white opal. And some red and white firery bits.
When we got back to the hostel the manager's son cut it for me, rounded the edges and made it really pretty. They said I could about 20AU$ (or about 100AU$ back home in Denmark). But of course I didn't sell it. And I still have it now. And the best thing; I found it myself!
This fence is the longest man-made barrier in the world. It's 1.4-2.4m high and about 5400km long. It runs from the Gold Coast in Queensland to Ceduna in South Australia.
There are more dingoes north and west of the fence, which was put up to keep the dingoes from the sheep in the south. Dingoes south of the fence are shot, poisoned, killed!