| Coober Pedy
2004 - By John Boom
Date: - April – 2004
At the time I left Ballarat in Victoria and made my way up through to South Australia
stopping overnight here and there at places of interest along the way.
The road to Coober Pedy was pretty good and sealed all the way.
My first trip there was in 1965 and believe me it was as primitive as it could get in
those days with no sealed roads and the only water available in the town then came
from a distillation plant. Today with sealed roads, town water and a host of stores
and excellent public facilities it’s as good as it gets as far as an isolated part of
Australia is concerned.
You’ll either like Coober Pedy or you wont it’s that sort of place. At best I must say it
has an affinity to some and I’m one of the people whom is continually drawn back
from time to time. It's no metropolis, but it has a feeling about it, which is hard to
explain. I suppose this is why I love it so much.
You can walk out into the desert here and die or you can discover yourself and find
a different style of living that you’ve never experienced before. To experience
Coober Pedy you just have to become part of it. The mixture of nationalities that
makes up the mix here is diverse to say the least. There are permanents, travellers,
people with pasts they like to hide, business people, get rich quick schemers,
people of all different nationalities, tourists that have come and never went away
and the list goes on. I suppose its Australia’s version of a type of Mexico with hidden
treasures that can be found.
Why are they all drawn here? Well it’s the unique Australian opal, which can be
found. The opal comes in many forms here from fossilized shells, prehistoric bones
and in opal seams. Opal has a life of its own in that when it’s moved in the light it
can reflect all colors of the rainbow or its own individual flashes of color.
And the value of opal can make a person rich if they find the lucky strike.
On this particular trip here I did well to find a seam of grey opal potch which I
followed with a pick in the wall of an open cut. It was hard work and I had to team up
with another local so I could blast away to get to the better quality opal.
It wasn’t a rich seam but it paid for my holiday on this occasion which I suppose others
living there would be happy to find at any time. You hear so many hard luck stories
there where wives and families have split up because of the opal fever that strikes
the men. And believe me when you find a seam of color people can change in
seconds. Those seconds could change your life forever, which for some it had. Not
always good for some though.
Coober Pedy can get hot and I mean real hot like 45 degrees in the summer months
so the lesson there is go in the winter months if you want to dig for opal.
Depending on how fit you are and your commitment there are several ways to look
1/. You can just look through the mullock heaps. Good luck with that one because
most of the heaps have been sieved with blowers now and there’s not much to be
found this way anymore.
2/. You can set up your own claim as I did at the time. You can pay someone to
either dig an open cut for you with an excavator or back hoe or have a shaft drilled
straight down 30 feet or so. And dig a horizontal shaft tunnel the rest of the way by
hand with a Kango hammer and winch the mullock up by bucket. All are very hard
work but this is how its all done in most cases there.
3/. You could pay to look through the tourist type claims and see if you find a piece
4/. Let someone else do all the hard work and buy some rough opal direct from the
A word of warning about Coober Pedy in that it can be an extremely dangerous
place if you’re not familiar with mines. There are open shafts everywhere so never
take a step backwards without looking first. And the same goes for driving in that it’s
easy to just drive into a shaft hole and you’d have all sorts of problems if you got
stuck that way. There are many drill test holes, which are all over the place as well.
If you blast you’ll need to have a license to do so. And to get a lease you again
have to pay the various fees and know the regulations, which you can find out about
at the local department of mines in the town.
I’d probably say don’t commit yourself to full-scale mining until you’ve done your
homework first because it can cost you heaps. Many people have gone there and
sold their homes and only ended up going broke so it’s a very big commitment.
People that live here may live underground in dugouts or above ground homes or a
combination of the two. The underground homes can be very beautiful inside with
every comfort the same as any other home. The big advantage with these homes is
that if you need an extra room you just have to dig it out and many have struck opal
in the process of doing so. The temperature also remains at a constant bearable
level underground as well.
Coober Pedy also has plenty of fine quality jasper to find in the desert areas away
from the mines near the town. But be extra careful of trap door spiders as they are
everywhere in this area as well. Various types and forms of Gypsum can also be
found in the mining areas as well as the desert areas. Fibrous, crystals and sheet
type gypsum can make nice specimens to take with you. I found some nice
transparent gypsum on this last trip. If you start walking and fossicking in the desert
areas you’ll find it an advantage to where good solid boot type foot ware as the
rocks can be very sharp underfoot.
There’s various open plains and escarpments to explore some kilometres outside of
the town, which are most beautiful if you like nature. And again keep your eyes
open for the colorful jasper as its everywhere. Always take water with you and
remember mobile phones only work in the town area and a satellite phone is
advisable if you go further a field. The road right into Coober Pedy is sealed but
once you go in between the mining areas they are all dirt and corrugated roads.
You can use a car in most areas around Coober Pedy and the town has a few
caravan parks, hotels and various rental options etc. There is a good supermarket
and prices aren’t too bad. There are hotels, cafes several stores, laundromat, book
store, churches, clubs and just about everything you’ll need to have a really good
holiday there. I stayed at the Oasis Caravan Park on this last trip and made good
use of their pool as well. I’ve supplied some photos of the area. Please excuse the
quality of these photos as they are scans of actual photos as I didn’t have a digital
camera at the time.
Remember that this is desert area and you ALWAYS need to have plenty of
extra water with you!
|Views of my mine.
View of the outside of my open cut mine area.
This was my mine where I found the opal in. The opal seam was about a third
up from the bottom of the picture under the lip of the more solid looking rock.
There’s a blue tinge in the photo but it's hard to see in that area.
The Opal Strike!
When I found the actual opal seam I couldn't believe my luck in that I thought this
may be the big one. But like everything the Opal Fever can get you really hyped up
at the time. It was just a grey potch seam at first but I stuck with it picking and
chipping away in the sandstone rock. A piece of opal flew out of the seam when
I hit it with my pick and made a nice neat slice in my arm at the time. It was long
sleeves after that episode as it was hard to stop the bleeding in my arm as I was on
very strong blood thinning medication at that time so I had to be extra careful. But
you only live once so I persevered.
Anyway it eventually paid off because the potch was starting to show color. I
thought to myself at the time I'll never get this stuff out with just a pick so I went back
into town and started asking around to get someone interested enough to partner
up with. This alone was already taking a big risk because lets face I never knew
anyone in the town and perhaps they could just as easy throw you down a mine
shaft and take the lot for themselves once they new the spot.
As it worked out I found a great guy to team up with and we made a deal to share
half the cost and half of whatever was found. So off we went both pretty excited.
Don't forget that even for a local permanent miner its hard to find good color.
So any chance is a good chance. We dug away shifting heaps of bulk loose rock in
the way and loosing heaps of sweat in the process.
We then started a little hand picking again and we cleaned away much of the loose
rock in the way so we had a good clean area to investigate which direction the
seam was going. The seam was at least around 20 foot square roughly in size all up
but most of it was just plain opal potch which had no value because it had no color.
Some of it was a couple of inches thick in places thinning down to nothing in others.
Once we worked out the best way to tackle things we started drilling with a long drill
a good metre long into the sandstone rock in several locations and angles.
Once that was done we set the charges into each hole and lit the fuses. We headed
out of the way and I had to shift my old van in a hurry because the rocks would fly
when it all blew.
Away it all went, the blasts were deafening and the fumes of the blast even though
outside where still hanging around so we started up a generator and placed an
electric fan there to just assist the fumes out of the way. These fumes are really
toxic and my partner had already spent some time in hospital in the past from such
an episode so he wasn't taking any chances this time. My partner mixed up his own
explosives as this was the cheapest option for most opal miners.
After blasting our excitement was all short lived in that the color found was only a
very small amount after all. And my adventure was cut short after all the hard work.
I still had the best experience though. After this we shared the cost of the explosives
and my partner let me keep the opal as a sign of good faith.
It was all a risk and an adventure at the same time and even though we had lost a
lot of sweat it was one of the best times I've ever had.
I went back a year later and unfortunately my partner had died so I missed out on
ever seeing him again. The previous work he had done over the years breathing in
all that poisonous gas from blasting underground had finally taken its toll on him.
It's a hard and desperate life for many on the Australian Opal fields.
|A small sample of the opal I found in the seam.