Coober Pedy – Kupa Piti in the indigenous Arabana language – means 'white man in a hole'. It sits in the state of South Australia which is huge – roughly the size of France and Germany put together.
Around 150 million years ago, Coober Pedy was covered by the ocean. As the water diminished, the sandy silica minerals from the seabed cascaded into the rocky cracks and cavities and solidified over time to create the beautiful gemstone, Opal. For thousands of years, Aboriginal people walked across its desert environment. These people were nomadic hunter gatherers, constantly on the move, in search of food and water supplies and to attend traditional ceremonies.
In February 1915, a 14-year-old boy called William Hutchinson and his father had set up a camp in search of gold. One day, while looking for water, William stumbled across a few pieces of Opal. It turned out to be the biggest Opal find in the world, with some gems lying at the surface and some just eight inches under the ground.
In 1917, the first railway track was completed and a number of miners went to Coober Pedy in search of Opal. The main issue for the miners was the extreme temperature and harsh conditions, so many of them built homes underground, called dugouts, where the sandstone holds a temperature of 75°F all year round. The town now has underground homes, shops, hotels and even churches.
Opal is so readily available there that one miner who was building his house underground, started to dig out an extra spare room, only to find Opal shimmering from the walls. He mined this Opal, and tried again, only to find even more Opal! There was so much Opal, he ended up with ten rooms.
Opal prices plummeted during the Great Depression of the 1930s-1940s and mining came to a standstill. However, in 1946 an Aboriginal lady called Tottie Bryant made a phenomenal Opal find at the 'Eight Mile Field' which saw an influx of people rushing to the fields in search of Opal once again.
During the 1960s many European migrants flocked to Coober Pedy to seek their fortune and the mining industry saw a rapid expansion, making Opal mining flourish into a multi-million dollar industry and the town of Coober Pedy develop into a modern mining town.
Roughly 3,500 people now live in Coober Pedy and it has evolved into one of the most unique places in Australia, perhaps the world. This is real outback Australia, worlds apart from the likes of Sydney and Adelaide. Visitors can expect to see ancient mountain ranges, huge outback cattle stations, as well as fascinating Aboriginal culture and wildlife.
There is no industrial mining in Coober Pedy; you have as much chance of finding Opal as the next person. 'Noodling' has been on the increase – the activity of rummaging through the rubble for flashes of Opal.
It's fairly easy to spot as their sparkle shows through the rough. It costs less than £40 to obtain a Precious Stones Prospecting Permit for the Opal fields, and with fine Opals sometimes fetching more than Diamonds, it's easy to see why people flock here to Noodle.
Places To Visit
Fancy paying a visit to the area? Make sure you don't miss these experiences.
THE OLD TIMERS MINE & MUSEUM
This hidden mine was discovered by Ron Gough when he was digging an extension to his underground home and broke through, exposing three seams of Opal. The museum not only shows how miners used to work but also looks at Ron's dugout home and what life was like living underground from the 1920s to the 1990s.
THE BIG WINCH SCENIC LOOKOUT
The view from the Big Winch Scenic Lookout over the pockmarked surroundings gives you a fantastic understanding of the local Opal mining industry. There is an Opal shop next door which has fossilised shells of Opal embedded in its walls. The Big Winch is the best place in the area to watch the sun set over the desert.
FAYE'S UNDERGROUND HOME
The story behind Faye and the two female friends who helped build her home is one of endurance and community spirit. Her house will give you an insight into how the underground homes were built and what it feels like to live in one. One of the many highlights is the swimming pool in her living room!
Want to own this gem? Click here for our range of Coober Pedy Opal pieces.