Coober Pedy – Opal Capital of the World
Coober Pedy is the Opal capital of the world, producing 95% of the worlds commercial supply of opal. From a distance vast mounds of waste sandstone dumps are strewn across the surface from 100 years of mining. All the underground area is sandstone, a result of the vast inland ocean that once existed here 150 million years ago. When the sea’s dried up water worked its way down through the sands dissolving silica, which would accumulate in spaces in the sandstone such as created by shells, bones, and other matter which had been buried in the ancient sea bed. This silica solutions eventually formed opal.
Not all opal is created equal. Unless it contains colour it is worthless. Plenty of grey opal known as potch is discarded in the dumps above surface. I did 3 underground mine tours while I was in town to see how opal occurs and is mined.
The first was the Old Timers Mine. This was one of the first mines hand dug in 1916. There was still plenty of valuable opal left behind when the mine was discovered and cleaned of backfill by the owners to open the old mine as a tourist attraction. At one point ancient fossilised shells are visible in the roof of the mine.
The Umoona mine was the second I visited. This has quite a large underground museum including various fossilised animal bones that have been uncovered in the surrounding mines.
The third was Tom’s Working Opal Mine. This mine is still active with new tunnels being drilled. The machinery they use today is far faster and superior to the old hand digging method, however the costs of purchase with all the additional generators and fuel to run them can start around $120000 or so, with no guarantee you’ll find opal to recover the costs. All the weird attachments on the end of the trucks are blowers. They are a giant vacuum cleaner which suck spoil from underground and blow it on the surface into piles. Before they were invented locally, the spoil had to be carted out in buckets.
The town centre is loaded with dozens of opal shops selling jewellery and opal in one form or another, so if you’re in the market, shop around.
All the underground mines, homes and businesses in Coober Pedy remain a comfortable 23-25 degrees Celsius year round.
On the drive out of town towards Oodnadatta I visited the Breakaways, a must see if you’re in the area, 33km from Coober Pedy. They feature mesas and low hills which offer pretty great views from up on a lookout.
From Coober Pedy I headed out to Oodnadatta. The track was a little corrugated in places but otherwise ok.