The underground houses and opal mines of central Australia have always had a fascination for me. How could a place be lived in that was so hot you had to live underground? And how does one mine opals anyway?
Before we left Canada for our trip to Australia we had booked a three-day-four night excursion to Coober Pedy, the main opal town in central Australia. We turned in our rental car and took a quick one-hour flight from Adelaide to Coober Pedy in the northern part of the state of South Australia. You can drive to Coober Pedy. There is a road that goes north right through the middle of Australia from Adelaide up to Darwin but there are almost no towns, nor services, nor water. Coober Pedy is only a nine hour drive north, just under 850 km (526 miles) but unless you are really well outfitted with gear and supplies, flying is best.
The red desert of the middle of Australia is something I have wanted to see since I was a child. Unfortunately for me, after 10 years of drought, Australia had a very rainy year. There was flooded areas the size of France in the north east and enough rain came down in Coober Pedy to turn my red desert green and have such slick mud puddles that the driver who picked us up at the airport had to put the jeep in 4WD to navigate them. He said we were so fortunate to be there that year when everything was so green as it is never like that. (Locals that have lived there since the 1930’s had never seen so much green grass). I wanted him to go pull up all the green grass so I could see the miles and miles of red dirt that I was hoping to see. But, even though it was not what I really wanted to see it was still hot and still lovely in a different way and I was totally stoked to be in Coober Pedy. As you fly over the area surrounding Coober Pedy all you see for as far as you can see are holes in the ground with piles of dirt beside them. Hundreds, thousands, of bore holes – many as deep as 100′. We learned later that miners drill a bore hole that is about a meter across – average shoulder width -then a fellow is lowered by rope down the hole sitting on a wood plank. As he descends he checks for the telltale opal layer in the sandstone. If he doesn’t find anything they bore deeper; if he does see an opal line they start to drill horizontally following the layer, blasting out rock and chipping out opals. The holes are never filled in even when the opals have all been removed because it is necessary for miners to know where any drilling has taken place. If the holes were filled someone may begin to drill horizontally following an opal layer thinking it was hard sandstone ground above and suddeny everything caves in because it is loose fill. It is also impossible to put back all the rock and dirt you have taken out since it cannot be compressed as hard as it originally was. The ratio of mullet (what they call the stuff removed from the bore hole) is 3:1 so you would still have piles of dirt sitting all over anyway.We checked into the Desert Cave Underground Hotel which is cut deep into the side of a sandstone hill. Our room had direct access to the outside but many other rooms were down long corridors, obviously with no windows, so they would have no idea what the weather was outside unless they got dressed and walked to an exit to look out. Normally knowing the weather is not an issue as it is always hot and sunny, but in 2011 the weather regularly went from sun to rain to cloud to sun to rain again in an hour. Our Coober Pedy excursion package included two tours. We did one the first day and one the second. The first tour included a ride around town before going out to the Breakaways (a rock formation) and then a drive out to the Dog Fence (5,500 km of fencing to keep the dingos away from the cattle and sheep). Unfortunately the access road was flooded so instead our guide Gunter took us to a few extra places around town.
We saw the golf course that has black ashpalt ‘greens’ and no definitive fairways. A group of golfers from St. Andrew’s, Scotland came to play the course and they deemed it one of the world’s toughest and gave it an official grade. As a result members of the Coober Pedy Golf Club are entitled to play the famous old St. Andrew’s course if they are visiting Scotland.We toured two underground churches. The first was the Catacomb Church, an Anglican church. We were driven by the local cemetery and told some stories of the colourful characters buried there. Like the fellow that ordered a beer keg – full – to be his tombstone so when he was buried his buddies could have drink ‘on’ him. Or the fellow that was terminally ill who spent all his money plus he borrowed $5,000 from the bank and threw a long, big party for all his buddies. After he died, his ex-wife came up to Coober Pedy to try get his opal mine for her inheritance. She was told it was very nice of her to want to settle his estate and there was a $5,000 debt owed to the bank. She flew back to Adelaide.The second church was built much deeper into the rock and we descended a lengthy corridor before entering the sanctuary, an impressively large two-story room. Gunter next took us to a display of an early miner’s house, and a 1970’s underground house and an opal mine exhibit. He was a very entertaining guy with lots of funny stories. He had come to Coober Pedy in the 1960s and never left so he had 50 years of stories to tell. On the way back to the hotel we passed working mines and deserted mines. And lots and lots and lots of holes in the ground. It was a fascinating place to visit and I had a great time. We still had one more full day and a morning before our flight back to Adelaide.This is not my photo. It is a photo of a postcard I bought. We would have seen sunsets like this if 2011 had been a normal year, however all the rain Australia had that year caused a lot of cloud and fog while we visited, so no lovely sunsets.