Coober Pedy Australia famous for its opal mines and its houses half (or fully) underground.

Opals, Mines, and Underground Dwellings: Coober Pedy is Offbeat

As our bus approached Coober Pedy towards the end of the afternoon, the setting sun came out, and lit up the red desert sand and the yellow grass. The pinky-white mullock heaps from the opal diggings for which the town is famous glowed ghost-white in the gathering darkness. Coober Pedy, we were told, derived from Aboriginal words meaning roughly white man digging in holes, and what they're digging for is opals. Indeed, it's often called the "opal capital of the world". Since 1915, when the first opals were discovered by Willie Hutchinson, it's been a magnet for prospector and buyer alike. It also makes a great tourist destination.

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The diggings were in a particularly uninhabited parcel of the back-of-beyond, and many miners found it advantageous to actually live in the mines. Since many of the early miners had been soldiers in the First World War, they were used to this kind of underground living, and some of their caves were turned into comfortable homes, which were much cooler than any dwelling on the surface.

Living Underground in Coober Pedy

If you signed up for one of the many tours on offer, you may well be taken to "Crocodile Harry's" (rumored to bethe inspiration for Crocodile Dundee) which is an excellent example of this kind of dwelling. A lot of the "artwork" on the walls was by Harry himself, but countless visitors from overseas also have left their mark on them -- and you can, too, if you make a small contribution.

If you like quirky and off-beat, you'll like Coober Pedy. There's more above ground than I expected, although what we see is actually the frontage of a home, a shop, a restaurant, a mine, or even a hotel or a church, tunnelled into the hillside. We stayed in a hotel which is partly underground, although what lies under the earth is mainly a restaurant and one or two shops, selling mainly opals.

Shopping for Opals, but There's More on Offer

Most of what the restaurants and shops have to offer is boldly advertised with bright, garish signs verging on the primitive, which might, originally, have been hand painted. Most of what they advertise is -- you"ve guessed it -- opals.

It's not just opals on sale, though, although everyone, including possibly the supermarket, sells them. In one souvenir shop, I was captivated by the paintings of Aboriginal folklore and ritual by Harry Newman. Alas, it was well beyond my pocket, but, he seems to have captured the atmosphere so well that I was prompted to ask if he was Aboriginal? (He wasn't)

Everywhere, there's evidence of the mining, including warnings to take care, lest you fall down a pit. There's lots of machinery still hanging about, as well as lots of cars and trucks from a bygone generation, all so dilapidated, it's hard to tell what's still in use and what's abandoned.

Noodling for Opals and the Brownest Golf Course You'll Ever See

Most tour groups get taken to a "noodling" site, that is, allowed to rummage the "potch", or mining waste in the mullock heaps in the hope of finding opal treasure the professionals might have missed. You usually just find valueless chips, though. If you want more substantial stones, you'll probably have to buy them, but there's an outside chance you could get lucky.

A must to visit, even if you don't play golf, is the Coober Pedy Golf Club, with its oiled-sand "browns", and notices sternly exhorting visitors to Keep Off The Grass even though there isn't a single blade for miles around.

Breakaway Hills

The best for me, though, was a little way out of town. The Breakaway Hills is a surreal, multi-hued landscape that some call Little Nevada, because they say it's so like the desert there. Two distinctive hills are called the Salt and Pepper Mountains, which is a good description of their colouring.

And here, we saw something rare. We thought, at first, it was a group of emus, but, as they drew closer, our guide identified them as bustards, and said it was a very long time since he'd seen any.

During our short time in Coober Pedy we visited shops and bought opals. All too soon, it was time to board the bus for Adelaide.

If You Go

Getting to Coober Pedy

It's about 850 km. from Adelaide by a road that paved/sealed all the way, so should be possible for most cars. Greyhound Australia buses operate a daily service between Adelaide and Alice Springs, calling at Coober Pedy. Regional Express Airlines (popularly known as Rex -- a not very fortunate name for an airline) operate a service from Adelaide. The Ghan train (Adelaide-Darwin) will stop at Manguri, about 40 km. away, if prior notice is given. However, arrangements for onward transport MUST be in place, otherwise passengers will not be allowed to get off the train.

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Keith Kellett has been writing as a hobby for many years while serving in the Royal Air Force, and he saw no reason to discontinue his hobby when he retired to a village in the south of England, near Stonehenge. With time on his hands, he produced more work, and found, to his surprise, it 'grew and grew' and was good enough to finance his other hobbies; travelling, photography and computers. He is trying hard to prevent it from becoming a full-time job.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: October 19, 2016

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