Coober Pedy – Opal capital of the world
Coming down to earth, this month’s blog takes a look at the fascinating town of Coober Pedy in South Australia. This town, located in northern South Australia, is some 846 km or 526 miles north of Adelaide on the Stuart Highway. The town is often referred to as the “opal capital of the world” because of the quantity of precious opals that are mined there. The town is also famous for its below-ground dwellings, called dugouts, which are built in this fashion due to the scorching daytime heat.
The name Coober Pedy derives from the Kokatha-Parnkalla term kupa-piti, which means whitefellas’ hole. In 1975 the town adopted the name Umoona, which means “long life” and is also their name for the mulga tree.
In the 2021 Australian census there were 1,566 people in Coober Pedy.
What are Opals?
An opal is a ‘gemstone’ – a mineral valued for its beauty. Gemstones are most often used in jewelry and examples include diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, jade, opals and amethysts. Gems generally get their colour because of certain metals contained in the mineral. For example, purple amethyst is quartz containing tiny amounts of iron. However, opals are unique because they display a rainbow-like display due to their intrinsic microstructure which diffracts white light into all the colours of the spectrum.
The mineral is comprised of tiny silica spheres, formed when silica-rich water seeps into deep cracks and voids in the Earth’s crust. It is a hydrated amorphous form of silica. Its water content is usually between 6 and 10%. Due to its amorphous property, it is classified as a mineraloid, unlike crystalline forms of silica, which are considered minerals. The colours of opals can be varying degrees of black, blue, white, green, pink, red, yellow, purple, grey, orange and brown.
Below ground living
Coober Pedy miners quickly discovered the advantages of living underground to escape the heat of the summer and winter’s cool desert nights.
No matter how harsh the climate, the underground rooms maintain a comfortable, even temperature ranging from 23ºC to 25ºC day and night throughout the year and require no heating or cooling.
It is estimated that over 50% of the population live underground now. Most dugout homes are excavated into hillsides rather than dug from shafts. The soil in the Coober Pedy hillside is stable enough to allow huge ceiling spans in rooms and it is not unusual for a mining family to buy an adjoining property and tunnel to link two dwellings, or even three or four. Some mansion style homes can spread up to 450 square metres underground.
Despite its harsh climate, Coober Pedy is a frequented tourism spot for travellers in South Australia.
The Visitor Information Centre welcomes approximately 150,000 tourists each year and provides an extensive range of information on Coober Pedy and the Outback region, Alice Springs and Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park.
Australia’s opal capital boasts a sunbaked lunar landscape, fascinating history and a unique way of life. You can descend beneath the ground and discover a labyrinth of underground houses, hotels and even shops. Fall asleep tucked beneath the earth’s surface in one of the town’s famous dugouts. You can view this iconic outback town change colour with the famous Outback sunsets, visit one of nature’s most iconic natural wonders, unearth the town’s mining history or fossick for your very own opals.
Coober Pedy attracts a certain kind of people, both as inhabitants and visitors. With its alien landscape and extremes of temperature it is perhaps more like Mars than Earth. It could be referred to as a gem of the outback.
Further Reading and references
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