|Coober Pedy opal|
I sensed that this was going to be a travel experience with a difference when the passenger in the front seat of our tiny plane leaned forward and pulled the life belt whistle from behind the pilot’s neck as he fumbled to find it during the delivery of his mandatory safety instructions prior to take-off.
Our 18-seat aircraft was wide enough for one seat on each side of a narrow aisle with a ceiling high enough to accommodate a 5 foot tall adult. Boarding with my small cardboard cup of water and two cookies courtesy of the airline - sufficient to keep us hydrated and food satisfied for the 3 hour trip to Australia's Outback - I had to imitate a hunched hobble with my head tucked onto my chest to reach my sheepskin covered seat towards the back of the plane.
We were headed 846 kilometres north of Adelaide to Coober Pedy, a town much like you would expect to find in the old American Wild West or at the forefront of a Gold Rush. Coober Pedy’s treasure is not gold but an equally beautiful precious gem; the opal. Arriving at Coober Pedy we put down on a landscape that was much like that of the moon.
In a land immense, ancient, hotter than one can imagine and dry beyond belief, where sometimes the soil does not experience the relief of even a single raindrop for years, a certain breed of person has settled and thrived. They are the opal miners and their habitat must surely be the place most mysterious, most utterly fascinating in all of Australia.
150 million years ago the area where Coober Pedy now stands was a turbulent ocean. With climatic change the ocean disappeared and the silica left behind seeped into cracks and crevices in the rock beneath the dry sea bed. It settled wherever there was a cavity and over time formed what we now call opal.
Small dusty Coober Pedy is a thriving bustling center. As we drove into town with the hotel tour guide who also served as the airport agent – checking in the luggage and such – we passed small utes (trucks) scurrying about the town like ants on a mission. Each sported an over-size sign reading EXPLOSIVES. An expensive and vital part of the industry, they sell the means to speed up a once tedious operation where progress was slow and tunnels were excavated with pick and shovel.
In a small shop on the main street in Coober Pedy I struck up a conversation with a miner who had arrived in Coober Pedy from Greece at the age of 16. Yannis Pappadoupolis owns a shop selling opals to tourists but swears that money is not important to him. His love he says is the opal. On sale for A$67,000 in his shop was the biggest opal I’d ever seen. Laying it on a piece of red velvet, the 120 carat gem glittered like something born of the moon. It was absolutely stunning. Opalescent with fire shooting from its heart in every colour of the rainbow, it nestled in a circle of diamonds. “And what is the value of the smaller red opal you call “Desert Fire” I asked. “Priceless,” he said. “I’ll never sell it.”
At night we discovered that the bars are crowded with men who may spend the better part of their lives searching the underworld for glittering streaks of opalized silica in their diggings. Most are small-time operators who have a claim, work in the morning or maybe the afternoon, make the occasional find and lament that the rich pickings in opal mining are a thing of the past. “What can they expect,” was the cynical comment of one Coober Pedy matron with whom I spoke. “They only work a few hours a day!”
Opal fields are spread over an area of approximately 40 kilometres around the town and it is here that most of the world’s supply of opals are to be found. For those with a strong work ethic there is still money to be made.
Photos copyright Anne Gordon
Posted by Anne Gordon on Saturday, 1st January, 2011