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.
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.
Become a millionaire.
How to become a millionaire
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).
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