Come to the end of the world, dig tons of rock at the mine, find your treasured stone and become a millionaire… The plot of a 150-year-old adventure novel? But no!
In Australia these days, anyone can become a prospector for a license fee of about 90 local dollars. Around the World also tried its luck in the opal capital of the world, the mining city of Coober Pedy.
Australian desert, infinitely monotonous and wild… Red, heat-cracked earth, bristling with thorns of stunted shrubs. It seems that all living things have been incinerated, melted away in a trembling haze of hot air. But here on a flat surface there are neat mounds as high as a person. Next to each is a round hole. It seems that I found myself in the domain of giant moles.
Coober Pedy is an English corruption of the phrase “koopa piti”, which in translation from the Aboriginal language means “white man in a hole.” This name was given to the town not by chance: in the mines-burrows here they not only look for opals, but also live like in ordinary houses. The shafts converted into “apartments” bristle with a palisade of ventilation pipes. You can hear the noise of pumps pumping used water upstairs.
The first European to visit these places in 1858 was the Scot John McDuel Stuart, the famous explorer of Australia. And opals were discovered here half a century later. In December 1914, a group of gold diggers led by James Hutchison set off from the town of Murray in eastern South Australia on an expedition. Their unsuccessful search continued for more than two months.
On a hot February day, the prospectors set up camp in the desert and left to explore the area, leaving the farm to Billy, Hutchison's 14-year-old son. The teenager could not sit still, and he decided to wander around. The boy was lucky: he came across a scattering of “float opals” lying right on the ground. The news of the new Klondike quickly spread throughout the continent, and within a few months, active development began here. At first, the place was called Stuart Range Opal Field (Stuart Range Opal Field), and in 1920 it was decided to give the town the name given to it by the natives – Coober Pedy.
He told all this Jim Mugris, a local old-timer, sat down with beer at John's Pizza Bar, a popular Coober Pedy place that stopped for lunch on the road.
< p>“It wasn't easy to survive here in the beginning,” Jim says. Or, if they were lucky, they bought water at exorbitant prices from passing camel drivers. There was not enough food, they ate quinoa and rabbit meat. The scorching sun, unbearable heat – and not a bush that casts a shadow … But the atmosphere has long been friendly. It happened that the most motley audience would gather in a bar, almost all of them were emigrants, they spoke English somehow. And they understand each other without problems, because the interest is common & nbsp; – disgrace.
The Mugris family emigrated to Australia from Greece in 1953, when Jim was still a baby. His parents decided to try their luck at Coober Pedy. Then there were only 250 miners here. And when Jim grew up and got involved in the profession, the mine was already flourishing: about a thousand people worked in Coober Pedy.
— The life of a prospector is an everyday intrigue. Today you are a beggar, and tomorrow you can become a millionaire. And this is not a ghostly dream, but a reality that gives you the strength to climb into the hole again and again with a tool in your hands,” Jim says. “In 1981, I cut out a hefty block of rock, completely covered with precious opals. Having sold it, I bought mining equipment, a house and an airplane. And I respected my work even more, because it was opals that gave me the opportunity to fly. And in general, they gave me everything that I didn’t even dare to dream about.
— Wasn’t it dangerous to suddenly get rich like that? Surely there were envious people …
“Anything happened then at the mine – both robberies and murders. In the middle of the last century, dynamite was in use. And it was used not only for the extraction of opals, but also in neighboring disassemblies. Arranging an “accidental” collapse in the mine was not a problem.
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Children of the Dungeon
Right now, Coober Pedy is relatively quiet. A police car, a patrol, leisurely runs along the dusty deserted streets. Ordinary town, ordinary life: you can check into a hotel, chat with locals in a bar, go shopping, visit a museum. There is a 19-bed hospital in Coober Pedy, and a rescue service, and a pharmacy, and a twelve-year-old school, and three churches. Only, unlike the ones we are used to, all these establishments are underground.
The entrance to most of them is located right in the hill dug out of the mine. Inside there is a hall, which can serve as both a reception and just an entrance hall – depending on the purpose of the room. From the hall, a staircase or ramp leads down, underground.
Intending to stop at a hotel called the Comfort Inn Coober Pedy Experience, I was afraid to see a gloomy cave, but unexpectedly ended up in a palace: rather high (at least 260 cm) vaults, exquisite red and white ornaments created by nature itself. “We apply a special adhesive solution to the walls, which prevents the rock from shedding. So don’t worry, there won’t be any chalk marks on your clothes,” & nbsp; — the owner of the hotel, Debbie Klee, reassures me.
Under the ventilation hole in the ceiling of the room, an umbrella is suspended by the handle, into which pebbles fall from time to time with a quiet rustling. “The air enters through the ventilation pipe, the outside of its opening is protected by a mesh: so that the snakes will not crawl towards you!” Debbie smiles. Each house has a dry closet (septic tank), but now they also have a centralized sewage system. Back in 1985, a groundwater desalination plant was built 23 km from the city. After repeated filtration, water from 60-meter artesian wells is delivered through pipes to Coober Pedy.
“You'll get a good night's sleep, it's very quiet underground,” Debbie promises. Nevertheless, at the moment of awakening, I do not experience the most positive emotions. No wonder they say here: if you have not spent the night in Coober Pedy, you do not know what darkness is.
In the morning, Debbie makes coffee on an electric stove. Electricity is generated at an autonomous hybrid station using solar energy and wind, and in case of their absence, a diesel generator is turned on.
Electricity is expensive, so many in Coober Pedy prefer to cook with bottled LPG. “A fire is the worst thing that can happen here – admits our hostess. – The underground dwelling quickly fills with smoke. In addition, each such house is an unpredictable labyrinth, which greatly complicates the work of firefighters.
— How it happened that the people of the town have “gone underground”? I ask Debbie.
– It's simple. In January, Coober Pedy's heat reaches 50°C, and in the coldest month of the year, July, the temperature sometimes drops to 6°C at night. In the mines, the temperature is comfortable 23 °C throughout the year. And the dungeon is a safe haven from dust storms.
The first underground house that defined Coober Pedy for a century was dug by hand by prospectors Fred Blakely and Dick O'Neill in December 1915. However, they were looking for salvation not so much from heat and storms, but from countless flies. These three misfortunes and today largely determine the local way of life. Of course, those who can afford a constantly running air conditioner already own ordinary above-ground houses, but, as a rule, new houses on the mine are still not built, but digged.
The main local rock, sandstone, is relatively soft, but at the same time stable and durable. It is hard to resist the temptation to dig one or two extra rooms for oneself. In addition, there is always the hope of getting a nice bonus in the form of an opal vein for work. Perhaps Coober Pedy is the only place on the planet where the decision to expand your own living space entails not spending, but the possibility of financial gain.
This happened, for example, with local celebrity John Dunstan.
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Caring about living space for his family, John Dunstan dug out a total of 21 rooms with his own hands.
– The wife asks: “Is the pantry for food ready?” And I told her: “I'll do it tomorrow, I promise.” The next day I started digging – and came across a scattering of opals, for which I got more than 70 thousand dollars …
John became richer by another 10 thousand Australian dollars by finding opals while leveling the floors. And digging a playhouse for a little daughter, dug up another $ 9,000.
The good-natured hero John and his wife Yoko run a jewelry store full of all sorts of things. Here are penny trinkets, and jewelry with opals worth several thousand dollars. Every day, returning from the mine, John stands behind the counter.
– Probably, the miners are very rich people? Especially if they are lucky? I ask John.
– It is not that simple. First, you need equipment: these days, few people get by with hand tools. Since equipment rental is very expensive, up to $1,000 a day, it is more profitable to buy your own, usually used, because the price of a new one exceeds a million! And secondly, really large finds happen infrequently, once every few years. With the money you make, you and your family live in between…
To show the opals in natural light, John takes me outside. I freeze, amazed: in the bright sunlight, the stones seem to come to life, flashing with all the colors of the spectrum.
— No photography meaning —the picture of this game will not convey, — John warns.
The famous Virgin Rainbow(“Virgin Rainbow”) Dunsten found with companions Tanya Burke and Dale Price in 2003. This 6 cm long opal weighing 72 carats is one of the most beautiful and expensive on the planet (was valued at over a million Australian dollars). The entire world press wrote about the find.
– It literally glows in the dark, – says John. – Before the “Rainbow” I dug for 39 years and had never seen anything like it before!
John sold the Virgin Rainbow to the South Australian Museum in Adelaide for below market value and is proud that the opal has stayed in Australia and can now be seen by hundreds of thousands of people.
Beginner Prospector's Step by Step Guide
Buy a Gem Mining Permit (PSPP, precious stones prospecting permit) for 89.5 AUD.
Stake out the plot with special pegs, determine its exact GPS-coordinates .
Register an application for the selected site for three months (with the possibility of a subsequent extension for a year for an additional fee). The cost of registering a plot of up to 2500 m² – 52.50 AUD; up to 5000 m² – 105 AUD; over 5000 m² – 158 AUD.
Dig at least 20 hours a week (except during the hot season), otherwise the site will be taken away.
If no opals are found, you can officially refuse the site and register a new one (one person – one site).If opals are found, sell them at your own discretion: after processing or without it, as individual minerals or in jewelry, putting them up for an online auction or selling them to the state for display in a museum. Wholesale buyers of opals from all over the world regularly come to Coober Pedy; the festival of opals held here annually also attracts many buyers.
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Coober Pedy, of course, is far from the state capital, with its museums, and there are not very many tourists here. However, the Old Timers Mine, telling about the history of the mine, is a pleasant surprise: in the former mine, the underground dwellings of opal miners of the beginning and middle of the last century, with all the details of their simple life, were recreated.
It can be seen how, as the mine grew, the depressing poverty of the first years gave way quite comfortable interiors. The director of the museum, Niko Farantouris, with apparent pleasure, initiates me into amazing stories from the life of the town, but I involuntarily begin to fantasize out loud:
— Maybe I should quit my usual life, move here, find a super-opal and become a millionaire?
“Do you know how to quickly become the owner of a million dollars in Coober Pedy?” The director smiles slyly. “Come here with two million and stop digging when you spend the first one. This is how we joke.
Nevertheless, Niko himself also digs slowly, but only in the cool season, from May to September. The rest of the time he works in a museum and a store attached to it.
– Only about ten percent of prospectors earn normal money. Half go broke, and only one in a hundred finds something truly significant. Opal mining is a difficult business.
– Probably also dangerous …
– It is not dangerous in our mines. The breed is stable. If anyone dies, it is most often tourists: they fall into the old “holes”, despite the warning signs. And it happens that prospectors, out of thoughtlessness, “lay a pig”: a sort of smart guy finds an opal vein and masks the entrance to the mine with turf or a piece of tin, sprinkled with earth on top. If you step on such a “trap” – and you’re done… A lot of animals die, especially kangaroos: they don’t look at their feet when they jump.
The Australian authorities are considering obliging miners to dig in exhausted mines, but this is very expensive and, according to Niko, could stifle a business that is already going through hard times. Therefore, prospectors are trying to earn extra money on tourists. One of the museums – Tom's Working Opal Mine (“Tom's Working Opal Mine”) – was created just on the mined-out section of the active mine. Here, tourists are shown the process of mining opals.
Putting on protective helmets, we go down into the mine with a guide, Jason Wright. LED-a flashlight in his hands picks out opal veins from the darkness.
“Industrial mining of opals is prohibited in Australia, and this gives anyone a chance,” says Jason. “But even individuals today rarely dig the old fashioned way, with a pick and shovel. Excavators, drills, tunnel boring machines are used. But geological science is useless in our business: opals do not make themselves felt. Pure lottery.
— And what, there are no secret signs, will it take?
– Intuition sometimes tells an experienced miner. If he hears, for example, that an earth-moving machine sounds somehow different, he immediately stops the equipment and starts digging by hand, slowly, so as not to damage the fragile minerals.
Opal is an amorphous (no crystalline structure) silica composed of silica and water. The water content of opal ranges from 0.4 to 32%. The properties of the stone and its jewelry qualities mainly depend on its quantity. The more water, the more transparent the opal.
There are many varieties of opals, but all of them can be divided into ordinary and noble ones. Potch is an ordinary opal of no value. It is a white, gray or black mineraloid – the basis on which noble, or precious, opal is sometimes formed.
Noble opals are characterized by a play of color. The color palette includes the entire spectrum depending on the impurities. The water content in noble opal is in the range of 6–10%. If water is less than 6% and more than 10%, then this is potch. One of the most valuable varieties of opal is black (named for the brightness of the color, enhanced by a dark background).
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Dancing with a drill
Jason hands me a puncher and lets me try out as a miner. It's much harder than I thought: deafeningly loud and dusty, hands barely holding the heavy instrument. But there are women prospectors in Coober Pedy! A minute later I give up, but then I find my first opal: a white shard. Unfortunately, it has no value: it is an ordinary opal, the so-called potch. They are usually thrown away. Only 10–15% of the opals found are colored.
However, even this small find gives rise to the temptation to buy a patent and start digging in earnest. A few years ago, Jason Wright did just that, and he was once – hard to believe – a ballet dancer and was preparing to perform on the stage of the Sydney Opera. A serious injury prevented his plans from being realized.
Smiling and outgoing, Jason went to work as a guide on a tourist bus from Adelaide to the sacred Aboriginal mountain Uluru in the center of the continent. We stopped at Coober Pedy for the night. Tourists bought opals, and Wright traditionally went to a local bar and chatted with prospectors over a glass of beer. In the end, they persuaded him to try his luck. And on one of his vacations, the former dancer armed himself with a pick and literally on the second day found a “pocket” of opals worth about 20 thousand dollars. So I stayed in Coober Pedy. True, since then such “jackpots” have not fallen out to him.
A couple of years ago Jason convinced his young Canadian wife to move to Coober Pedy permanently. Along with two kids. Their third child was born here.
Jason can't afford to rent expensive equipment yet. He works as a small puncher in abandoned mines. Or he hires someone to drill a “starting” well (it costs about $30 per linear meter), and from there it slowly bites into the ground.
— In fact, we are all lone wolves here, unfortunately. If you find a vein in your area, it is better to keep quiet. If you blather to someone, you will not end up with problems. We'll have to stand up for the night guard, guard the entrance to the mine. We don't even tell our friends. We have a saying: “Found an opal – say goodbye to friendship.”
The formation of opals in Australia about 100 million years ago was initiated by the inland sea. When the sea receded as a result of tectonic processes, silica from the aqueous solution, slowly settling, filled the cracks and crevices of volcanic rocks.
In the process of hardening of these silicas, which took millennia, and unique multi-colored stones were formed. Australia accounts for 95% of the world's opal mining, with 70% from Coober Pedy. The second famous large field in the country is Lightning Ridge.
According to the mythology of the Australian aborigines, the Creator descended from heaven on a rainbow with the message of the world. Where the Creator's feet touched the ground, stones woke up and shone with iridescent colors. The natives call opal “the flame of the desert”. In 1993, the opal was officially proclaimed Australia's National Gemstone, a symbol of a vibrant and vibrant nation, strong in its ethnic diversity.
See also history stones
Looking at the patrons of Outback Bar and Grill, a popular downtown gas station, it's hard to believe the friction between the miners. Large noisy companies at long tables have fun from the heart. And acquaintances are made instantly.
A middle-aged Ozzy sitting across from me advises me to try the signature lamb salad. Mark Jackson is now retired and came to Coober Pedy in the early 1980s. He, a 17-year-old street kid from Sydney, didn't even have proper shoes. But on the very first day, the guy was lucky: he found a piece of rock with an opal inclusion and sold it for $280.
And in 1989, Mark accidentally discovered in Coober Pedy a relict field of opalized fossils – animal and woody remains, in which opal became a replacement mineral. For 22 years, Mark managed to find more than 700 such copies. This is not surprising: about 140 million years ago, the sea splashed in the center of the continent. Mark's collection includes opalized mollusk shells and even teeth and bones of dinosaurs.
— When you suddenly suddenly find something that millions of years ago was a living organism, you are seized with real euphoria, – says Mark. — Here in Coober Pedy I have lived a really happy life. And money has nothing to do with it.
Among the finds of the famous John Dunstan, there are also opalized fish fossils. Because of this, he was given the nickname Fisherman. However, more often he is called the Godfather – for half a century of experience in business and for the fact that he takes care of the youth. Nicknames are often used in Coober Pedy instead of last names. The inhabitants of the town do not like increased attention to their person: people run away here from annoying spouses, or entangled in debt, or even from war zones. And sometimes, from problems with the law.
For the most part people really come to Coober Pedy not for money, but for a different life. Especially if something didn’t work out in the previous one and you want to start from scratch. But these days, new prospectors appear here less and less.
During the 1970s and 1980s, which was the peak of the opal rush, the combined income of local miners was $40–60 million annually. Everyone had enough money for a comfortable existence. Restaurants and bars worked around the clock, life was in full swing. How much Coober Pedy earns today, no one knows for sure, but these figures are much more modest.
It is believed that the mine is depleted. The population is aging, its numbers are decreasing: young people are leaving in search of permanent employment and a more stable income. And those who stay can only afford to continue digging if another family member has a non-opal-related income. This is at least some guarantee that the family will not starve.
However, they say that recently another opal deposit was discovered near Coober Pedy. And that means that the adventure continues!
GEARING THE TERRAIN
Coober Pedy, Australia
Area of Coober Pedy ~ 30.5 km²
Population~ 1850 people
Population density 60 people/km²
Area of Australia 7,692,024 km² (6th largest in the world)
Population ~ 26,056,000 people (53rd)
Population density 3.4 people/km²
ATTRACTIONS Harry the Crocodile House (an eccentric museum with paintings, sculptures, graffiti, etc.); underground churches: Serbian Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic St. Peter and Paul; old (centenary) cemetery; Gallery and Josephine Kangaroo Orphanage.
TRADITIONAL DISHES kangaroo steak, ostrich meat burger.
TRADITIONAL DRINK ginger beer.
SOUVENIRSjewelry and bijouterie with opals.
DISTANCEfrom Moscow to Cooper Pedy ~ 13,070 km (from 19 hours in flight excluding transfers)
TIMEis ahead of Moscow by 6.5 hours in summer, by 7.5 hours in winter
VISAis issued in advance
CURRENCY Australian dollar ( 10 AUD ~ 6.7 USD)
Photo: HEMIS (X9), NPL/LEGION-MEDIA, Natasha Bryson (X2)
Material published in the magazine “Around the World” No. 6, June-July-August 2020, partially updated in February 2023