Coober Pedy is a town in the dusty and dry outback of South Australia. Arriving via the Stuart highway you’ll see a big sign full of graffiti. Besides that, there is nothing but dust. That, and holes apparently, judging by the signs telling you not to stray from the roads.
All those holes in the ground are no natural phenomenon, but man-made tunnels, dug in search of opal. The opal rich land is what still brings people out to this harsh part of the country where temperatures soar to the fifties in summer. 95 percent of the world’s opals comes from Australia, with Coober Pedy as an unrivaled capital.
Living here is tough though. Besides the extreme temperatures and dry land, the summer months bring huge sandstorms. Warm days and cold nights can be difficult to deal with, but in Coober Pedy they’ve found the answer: living underground. About half of the 3500 inhabitants dug some holes to create their houses. Underground you live in a comfortable and constant 23 degrees.
If you’d like a small taste of life under the earth, you can stay in an underground hotel or hostel. It doesn’t mean sleeping in a cave, but in a room dug out of a rock wall. I stayed in a hostel. It smelled of clay and was pitch black at any time of day. In the town itself you can’t dig for opals anymore, but say you’re digging some extra rooms for your house, it could well be possible that you find the jackpot.
Most of the opal that’s found is actually worthless junk. Only 10% of the opals has the rich colors we want in our jewelry. Black opal is the rarest and if you happen to find a chunk of this, you can consider yourself a millionaire. When buying opal you should check the quality as well. Some jewelry just uses a thin layer of opal on a black material, whereas other uses pure opal. There are solid opals or doublets or triplets. A solid opal is water proof whereas the cheaper doublets and triplets might get damaged by it.
Coober Pedy has many opal shops and I can spend hours wandering around and looking at these gorgeous stones. The prices can be less gorgeous, but for a reasonable price you can find a beautiful piece of jewelry. In Coober Pedy it is cheaper than in other parts of Australia since you are right at the source. It is nice to combine your shopping with a tour through an opal mine. They can explain the differences in opals and how they find and polish it.
If you feel lucky you can have a look for opal yourself. There is a place in town where the leftovers are dumped and where lucky tourists might find a nice piece for that got missed by the miners. It is fun to try to I really hoped I would find the winning piece. Mostly I found white colorless opal and a few tiny bits of the real stuff. If you’re really keen you can get a permit for a piece of land for about $25. Cheap hey! Unfortunately the equipment to start digging costs about $50.000!
Coober Pedy has more than opals though. Being in the outback there are lots of kangaroos and some of them get hurt on the roads. Even if the mum is dead, the baby joey can still be alive. They are brought to the town’s rehabilitation center. On set times the owner brings out the little ones for a feed. Two happy, somewhat unstable, joeys started hopping around. There were a few older roos as well who were lazing in the shade.
Other attractions are the underground chapel and Coober Pedy’s cemetery. No matter how bizarre it is to visit a cemetery, this one is special. There are about 50 nationalities in the town and thus they have different ideas about life and death. Living this isolated might also make you go a little crazy and thus you can find some special and funny graves here. There are also a few nice viewpoints to look out over the town or watch the sun set.