Mounds of dirt covered the flat and desolate landscape and dust swirled over the road as we made our way into opal country and the scruffy yet welcoming town of Coober Pedy. Mounds of tyres lay on the manmade hills, preventing erosion and protecting the underground houses beneath. Our visit coincided with some of the worst winds imaginable, the sand whipped our skin and we covered our eyes, struggling to see in the dust.
The boys were desperate to sleep underground so had I booked a room in an old opal mine which has been converted into a motel. I was thankful I booked in advance as nearly all the accommodation in town had sold out and there was no way we could have camped in such crazy conditions. Many sci-fi/apocalypse movies have been filmed on the flat, moon-like surface of Coober Pedy and we felt like we were on Mars as we wondered around the dusty, red expanse.
The dust storms kept us inside but we were in the perfect place for indoor activities as most of the action in Coober Pedy happens underground. We wondered through the Old Timers Mine and learnt how difficult it would have been for the early opal miners. We spent a little time in the pit ‘noodling’ for opals, which is searching through the dirt looking for stones. We found a lot of potch, worthless opal devoid of colour but we could no longer stand the dust and returned to our very unique and comfortable lodgings. It was interesting exploring the many corridors and rooms of the hotel which display old bottles, ladders, lanterns and remnants of the opal mining days.
It was my Dad’s 70th birthday and we enjoyed a great meal at the Underground BBQ & Grill, certainly a unique way to celebrate such a special occasion. The next day, all the kids wanted to do was go noodling for opals and we were given a tip on where to explore. Full of excitement, we got out of the car but could hardly stand the wind and dust, which was felt like gale force conditions. We were wearing our sunglasses, trying to keep the dust out of our eyes but it was useless in the harsh conditions. We found a couple of small pieces our underground accommodation.
The kids still had opal fever and we went to investigate how it was done at Old Tom’s Working Mine. We were impressed with our 14-year-old guide, who is already an accomplished opal miner but we were slightly disturbed by the lack of safety gear and the high level of machinery noise and dust in the underground tunnels. The kids had fun going up and down on the ‘electric swing’ which in fact was a bucket hoist, jack hammering for opal and the adults tried their hand with the divining rods looking for slips and slides, which is an indication of opal.
Our next destination was William Creek, to see Lake Eyre but our final morning in Coober Pedy was such a glorious day, we had one more noodling effort. With the sun shining, we soon found colour on the surface, doing the ‘opal dance’ as we pocketed what we thought were some pretty fine opals. Off to the shop we went to see if we could get our stones cut and polished but our enthusiasm soon dissipated as most of our stones were cracked. Opals hold water and when they sit on the surface, the water evaporates out of the stone and cracks it in the process. My prize find was in fact a $500 stone but it was cracked so it couldn’t be cut. Nevertheless, we all left town with some pretty nice stones and some great memories from this extremely unique mining town.