We humans are obsessed with shiny, sparkly things, going to phenomenal lengths and expense to get our grubby little hands on gems like gold, rubies, diamonds and emeralds. Wars have been started, lives have been cut short, and enormous fortunes have been won and lost scouring the earth in the hope of finding that unmistakeable glint of buried treasure.
These days, the hunt for such jewels is almost entirely monopolised by big industry. You or I can’t just wander into a goldfield or a diamond mining area and hope to strike it rich, like some 19th century adventurer. The giant mining companies would you have you arrested and carted off before you’d even scratched the surface. You’d be far better off staying at home and buying a lottery ticket.
But there is one type of gemstone that still offers hope for the amateur prospector. One small chance left to make your fortune armed with nothing but your bare hands and a truckload of determination. That gemstone is opal. And the place to find it? The weird and wonderful Coober Pedy, the largest producer of opals in the world, in the heart of the Australian Outback.
The name Coober Pedy comes from the Aboriginal words Kupa Piti – said to mean “white man in a hole” – and when you see the opal fields you’ll understand why.
White men have been digging holes here since 1915, when a 14-year-old boy named Willie, who was working for a team of gold-prospectors at the time, wandered off and found opals. Since then people have come from all over the world to try their luck. And they can, because unlike with gold and diamonds, there is no scientific way to track opals: finding them is entirely pot luck, hit and (usually) miss. So big corporations don’t bother: it’s not worth the investment. Which means that any Tom, Dick or Harriet can simply turn up and give it a go.
So if you want to risk everything for the chance to win big – or if you just want to have an adventure in a really awesome place that none of your friends will have visited – here’s what to do.
1/ Get there
I was lucky enough to visit Coober Pedy while working for the BBC on a science series called The Treasure Hunters. The episode I worked on looked at how a variety of natural treasures are formed, and the lengths to which people go to get them out of the ground. And there are few treasures more elusive, and few places more personally challenging, than the remote and inhospitable landscape of the Australian Outback.
We arrived in Coober Pedy on a small plane from Adelaide (you can also travel by road and rail, but the town is hundreds of kilometres from anywhere, so it’d be a long old journey). As the plane made its approach, we could see the weird landscape stretching out below us, pockmarked with holes and spoil heaps like some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland. These are the opal fields, and it’s here that brave and possibly foolish men (and some women, though it’s mostly men) come to find their fortunes.
Coober Pedy is hardly a buzzing metropolis, as you can probably tell from the airport terminal building. The town has a population of just a few thousand, and almost everyone is there either to dig for opals, or to supply services to the mining community.
Once you’ve been given your bag back (there’s no luggage carousel here), you’ll need a place to stay, and at first you might wonder where all the hotels are. Until you realise that the reason why you can’t see them is because they’re all underground. With its desert climate Coober Pedy is so inhospitable – sometimes reaching a scorching 45 degrees C in the shade – that residents decided the best way to cope was to build their homes beneath the surface, where the sandstone keeps the temperature at a much more amenable 24 degrees all year round. A few phenomenally lucky ones even hit seams of opal while they were digging rooms out – which sounds like a pretty awesome way to pay for the building work and probably even afford a nice new sofa while you’re about it.
2/ Be prepared to put up with a few challenges
So yes, it’s hot hot hot in Coober Pedy. And that heat brings on two other unwelcome guests: dust, and flies.
We discovered the flies as soon as we arrived. The little buggers are everywhere, and they just won’t leave you alone.
We were told they’re not always THIS bad; we’d just come at a particularly buzzy time, but even so, you’d better be prepared. We had to rush out pretty damn quick and buy fly nets to keep them off our faces – I ended up looking a bit some sort of weird Australian Outback bride!
But don’t even think of getting married here – at least, not in a big white dress. Because of the heat, Coober Pedy is also incredibly dry and dusty, and all your clothes will end up orange pretty much the second you step outdoors.
3/ Head to the opal fields
The main opal fields are situated just a short drive out of town. If you’re a serious opal-hunter, you’ll need to invest in a 4WD vehicle – but if you’re there as a tourist (which, admittedly, is probably what you’ll be), you can book a tour or try to persuade a friendly local miner to take you on a drive.
Once you’re outside the built-up area of the town, you really start to appreciate the weird beauty of the place. It’s like a lunar landscape, pockmarked all over with holes from which you half expect some kind of giant burrowing animal or alien creature to pop up.
In fact, so weird is the landscape that many Hollywood filmmakers have used it as a movie set. Vin Diesel was a marooned space traveller here in Pitch Black, Guy Pearce took a trip through the area in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and a space ship left over from Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome, lies abandoned in the town centre.
This piece of movie memorabilia is not the only abandoned piece of equipment lying around. Sometimes, the heat and the dust storms get the better of the hard-worked vehicles; others lie discarded after their owners bankrupted themselves and went back to where they came from, leaving their hopes, dreams, and earth-moving machinery in the dust behind them.
It makes for a very eerie and strangely beautiful landscape.
4/ Stake your claim (literally)
Opal is formed from silica – the same stuff as sand – and when you learn that the entire Coober Pedy area used to be a vast sea bed, it makes sense that this should be an opal hotspot. In fact some seams are no more than eight inches below ground, and if you’re very lucky you might even find a stone just lying on the surface.
There have been some spectacular finds – one worth over a million dollars – but plenty of locals still believe there are more rich pickings to be had. All you need is Australian citizenship or a work visa, a permit costing just AUS $71, and a wooden stake. All you then need to do is pick a likely-looking bit that isn’t currently claimed by anyone else, hammer your stake into the ground, and get stuck in.
5/ Drill your hole
Once you’ve staked your claim, you need to start digging. The easiest way to do this is with a giant drilling machine like this one.
When you see one of these, suddenly all the little holes and piles of dirt make sense. For over a hundred years, miners have been doing just this – digging holes, checking to see if they’ve hit a seam of opal, and when they find they haven’t, moving on to the next spot. The holes remain unfilled with the spoil heaps next to them, and over the years ten holes became a hundred, and then a thousand – a memorial to the failed attempts and crushed dreams of the miners who’ve been and gone.
Not every attempt is a failure though. This is Justin. He used to work for large-scale mining companies until he decided to quit and become his own boss. He didn’t like to talk about how much money he’s made, but he reckoned that over the years it’s definitely been in the multimillions of dollars. That doesn’t mean he’s a multimillionaire now though – running equipment like this is an expensive business, and many miners who hit paydirt soon blow all their profits in the quest for the next big find.
Justin and his partner use their giant drill to dig a one-meter-diameter hole in the dirt. He told me that the chances of hitting opal straight off are extremely rare – usually he has to drill the hole and then tunnel along horizontally under the ground until he finds something. If he hits opal on the first go it usually means he’s landed on a big pocket of the stuff, and he’s in for an exceedingly good year.
With the hole drilled, the next step is to inspect the walls of the shaft for signs of opal. This involves one person being winched down to take a look. It’s hot, dusty, and very claustrophobic, but I can only imagine the excitement you might feel if you saw that telltale flash of colour winking back at you from the side of your freshly-drilled rabbit-hole.
6/ Dig a tunnel
As Justin points out, you’d have to be insanely lucky to hit a patch of opal on your first attempt. Far more likely is that you’ll need to start tunnelling sideways under the ground, hoping to hit a seam before you come to the edge of your claim and crash into someone else’s tunnel.
But with opal so hard to find, and miners so determined, it doesn’t take all that long before what started out as a single shaft soon develops into a rabbit-warren of tunnels and chambers.
This is Bob, who allowed us to film inside his mine. Bob’s an engineer who’s been in Coober Pedy for nearly 50 years; he came to the town on his way to the Northern Territory but liked the place so much he decided to stay. He loves the freedom of being his own boss, and the excitement of never knowing what might happen from one day to the next.
Bob takes a different approach from many other miners – rather than drilling holes and then tunnelling sideways, he finds cliff edges and cuttings in the rock and digs in from the side. This allows him to get bigger machinery inside and allows for a much more spacious underground experience.
Even so, I did find the mine a little nerve-wracking – hoping that Bob had done his calculations correctly and that the walls and ceilings of the tunnels were structurally sound. It wouldn’t be all much fun to get trapped down there that’s for sure – and it has been known to happen. So it was a relief when we finished filming and were able to emerge into the fresh air again. I was even happy to see those flies!
7/ Sift through someone else’s waste
Of course, if you don’t have the time, money, or energy to dig your own mine, there is another alternative. It’s called noodling or fossicking, and it involves going through the spoil heaps left behind by other miners to see if they’ve missed anything. Many of the large-scale miners focus solely on the big deposits, and don’t waste time on the odd gem or two here and there. For those that can be bothered, there’s good money to be made simply picking up what the big guys have left behind.
This is what miner Dale does. He puts his stake into abandoned claims where he knows there’s been a strike, and looks for what was missed. He’s even developed his own machinery which sifts out the sand and scans the rest under UV light to pick up the opals, which glow white in the dark. With a trained eye and a quick hand he can pick up $2000 worth of opals a day this way.
As a tourist, this is something you can even try for yourself. A couple of the working mines are open to the public, and they’ll let you sift through their spoil heaps and keep anything you find. Though I wouldn’t hold out all that much hope – I’m pretty sure they’ll have given them a good going over before they let anyone else loose on them.
8/ Try not to die
As you might have already gathered, with the potential for great reward comes great risk. Even if you never enter a mine, if you venture out to the opal fields you run the very real risk of falling down one of the hundreds of abandoned shafts that are dotted about here, there and everywhere.
We were repeatedly reminded to be hyper-vigilant about where we were walking, and never to step backwards without looking behind us first. In the era of the selfie, I can imagine the number of accidents is only going to increase.
9/ Soak up the atmosphere
In all seriousness, it’s highly unlikely anyone reading this is really going to become a miner in Coober Pedy. But that absolutely does not mean you shouldn’t go. Quite the opposite, in fact. Coober Pedy is one of the most starkly beautiful, weird, and fascinating places I’ve ever had the fortune to visit, and definitely somewhere that’ll stand out in your memory when all those Italian churches or Thai beaches have merged into one.
For more information and advice on how to plan your trip, visit the Coober Pedy tourist site here.
And if you’d like to see the film we made, it’s here, courtesy of our lovely cameraman Julius.