My first day in Coober Pedy, I met Jimmy the Runner.
Sat on a barstool at the pub, he was lithe, with a tanned, lined face from decades in the sun. Jimmy told me he arrived from Athens as a young man the early 1960s. A time when many Europeans were flocking to this town to make their fortune in opal mining. Men like my father, who lived here for almost 10 years, seeking his fortune. It’s said Coober Pedy is the type of place where you can come with just the shirt on your back and leave a millionaire. I wanted to visit for myself, to understand why my dad loved this life so much.
Jimmy the Runner tells me he spent his first two years living in a tent on an arid opal field. When he first arrived, there were only half a dozen women living in Coober Pedy. A time when you could buy gelignite by the box at the general store.
“I only came for a visit, and I forgot to leave,” he chuckled. I’d been told Jimmy the Runner earned his nickname from running marathons along the dusty, red roads. He’s exactly the kind of character you’d expect to find in Coober Pedy.
North of Adelaide, Coober Pedy is set on the edge of the Simpson Desert. The First Nations name for this land is Kupa Piti, meaning “white man in a hole.” For thousands of years, Australia’s First Peoples walked the land as hunters and gatherers. Then in 1915, 14-year-old Willie Hutchinson found opal. Over 100 years later, Coober Pedy is still the kind of town people come to in the hopes of seeking their fortune.
Around 3,500 people live in Coober Pedy – although no one knows for sure. After all, it’s the type of place people come to for a “fresh start.” But this tiny town is surprisingly cosmopolitan. Earlier, I’d met Ned who arrived in Coober Pedy to mine opals from the former Yugoslavia.
“There’s 48 different nationalities living here now,” he tells me. My server at the hotel is from Sri Lanka, and she tells me she’s getting experience in the tourism industry. The town still has a thriving Italian Club, Croatian Club and Greek Club – which puts on a barbecue each Friday night and is open to anyone.
Here, it doesn’t take long to feel like a local.
Stopping for a cold drink at Waffles and Gems café, I got chatting to my server Roz, and the owner Jimmy, a Scotsman from Edinburgh with an accent as thick as treacle. Jimmy mined opal for four decades until carpal tunnel prevented him for holding a pick underground. The café sells gems and serves up delicious waffles, prepared by Jimmy’s German-born wife. Roz invited me to watch the sunrise with them at 5.30am the next morning.
The promise of coffee was enough to lure me out of bed. The next morning, I rose early to watch the sky turn as pink as candy floss, as the sun slowly rose over the large Coober Pedy sign (like the Hollywood sign), sipping coffee. Roz tells me she first came to Coober Pedy in the 1970s.
“It was full of bulldust holes back then,” she said. Roz lives out at the old Eight Mile opal field, along with a handful of other people. There’s no running water, no electricity. But something tells me she likes it that way.
Roz and Jimmy had plenty of stories about the town, and some of its most colourful characters – like Crocodile Harry. Christened Arvid Blumenthal, rumour is the Latvian-born miner was royalty.
“Crocodile Harry was a gentleman, unless he was drunk,” said Jimmy. “And he was always drunk.” Crocodile Harry’s dugout is open to tourists and made an appearance in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
I discovered Coober Pedy has plenty to keep adventurous travellers busy.
Seek your fortune
Wannabe opal miners can still obtain a land permit and sink a hole deep into the earth. If that sounds too much like hard work (word is: it is), try noodling instead. Noodling—essentially fossicking—is permittable in public areas. It helps to have a small shovel and sieve, as well as clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.
I went to the public noodling area on Jewellers Shop Road, on the edge of town, to see if I inherited my dad’s talent for finding opals. There’s something meditative about sifting through piles of excavated earth (known colloquially as “mullock heaps”). Training my eyes to spot a sign of colour: blue, red, green or orange, my Blundstones developed a layer of red dust as I sifted the earth.
Half an hour later, my effort paid off. I spied a small rock, rusty red in colour, one side the palest blue, like a newborn’s eyes. Opal! If you’re lucky enough to find pieces of opal while noodling, they’re yours to keep.
One of the most unusual—and stunning—things to see in Coober Pedy is the underground Serbian Orthodox Church, built the by the Serbian community in the 1990s. Dedicated to Saint Elijah, the large sandstone church is fitted with stained glass windows at the alter. Because it’s underground, the windows are backlit.
Boots and all
You’ll know your close to the town’s cemetery when you stumble across a white post with an old black boot affixed on top with a sign “Hill Cemetery.” According to the legend, the cemetery was named after all the people who worked so hard opal mining, they’d die – and were buried – with their boots on. Coober Pedy isn’t without a sense of humour. Look for the grave of Karl Bratz, which features a 19-gallon beer keg and the sign “have a drink on me.”
Learn about the history of opal mining
Ned tells me there it’s estimated there are two million holes in and around Coober Pedy; opal mines are not backfilled. The threat of falling into an open mine is very real and it’s prohibited to trespass onto many mining areas. But the Umoona Opal Mine you can experience a former working mine, learn about opal formation and the history of the area.
An underground mansion
If you don’t get a chance to stay in a dugout, the next best thing is touring Fay’s Underground Home. Faye Nayler arrived in the 1960s and was instrumental in welcoming tourists to Coober Pedy. With the help of two friends, Faye spent the next ten years hand digging the three-bedroom dugout. Firmly entrenched in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the flowery dugout boasts a wine cellar, bar and indoor swimming pool. The tour will give you insight into the type of people who helped made Coober Pedy the town it is.
Tempted to visit this unique destination? You can on our 7-day Adelaide to Alice Springs Overland trip.
(Image credits, from top to bottom: Adventure Tours, South Australian Tourism Commission, Amanda Lee x2, South Australian Tourism Commission, Amanda Lee.)