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A Search for Opals in the Australian Underground

March 08, 1987|MARGE KANTOR and KEN KANTOR | Marge Kantor is a former librarian, Ken is communications chief at Hope Enterprises. and

COOBER PEDY, Australia — We went underground here in the outback. It's the normal thing to do. Half the people in Coober Pedy, isolated hundreds of miles from other villages, live underground.

Most visitors to this continent fly to such better-known attractions as Ayers Rock, the world's largest monolith, and Alice Springs in Australia's center, but a few travel overland, stopping here to discover an underground world unknown even to many Australians.

About 2,000 Coober Pedy residents live in underground homes they've burrowed into the sides of hills to escape the tremendous desert summer heat, winter cold, dust and insects.

Shops, offices, a book shop, pottery maker, jewelry stores, two of the town's three churches, even motels and a camping area are below ground.

As in the deeper opal mines, which are the reason for Coober Pedy's existence, walls and ceilings of the homes and apartments require no support. Beneath the surface sand and dirt, the soil is hard gypsum silica sandstone. Some residents varnish their subterranean rock walls but most do not bother, as the natural sandstone is sturdy and handsome.

But folks here have reached an impasse: Although the town has been extended three times, they've run out of hills. So part of Coober is now above ground, including its school for nearly 400 pupils, a technical college, two service stations, a 20-bed hospital, general store, two markets, a miners' store, restaurants and some motels.

With its dirt roads and ramshackle buildings, Coober Pedy, which is aborigine for "white man in a hole" (a reference to the cave houses and mines that dot the landscape), looks like a town from California's Gold Rush days. Except instead of gold, opals are the magnet.

Individual Prospectors

Eighty percent of the world's opals come from this settlement in South Australia's desert. The little fellow can still make it big here, for the government has maintained laws regulating the size of a single mining claim. This keeps out the big corporations and draws individual prospectors.

Partnerships continue to be formed by a handshake, providing a claim twice as large for two miners to seek their fortunes. Some old-timers still use divining rods and discover opals at the top of a slide or fault.

Unlike California's 49ers, many miners bring their wives and families. The "saloons" here consist of pubs in the town's motels. And instead of bawdy houses there's a snack bar, Greek pizza house and three restaurants, plus clubs formed by the Italian, Greek and Yugoslav immigrants who make up most of the populace.

Midway to Alice Springs we arrived at the Coober depot aboard a Greyhound bus at an unholy 2:25 a.m. The driver handed us keys and directed the half-dozen of us on the so-called "Greyhound Tour" across the road to the Opal Inn Motel.

We'd traveled 600 miles north from Adelaide for 12 hours over Stuart Highway, the mostly asphalt, two-lane strip that bisects Australia from north to south. In "downtown" Coober the roads turn to dirt, winding off the paved central three blocks lined by the haphazard sites of above-ground and underground buildings.

The world's opal capital is no Club Med. Set among low hills, without trees or other greenery, shacks and block houses share the barren landscape with underground houses and power poles that wander off into gullies.

Like Giant Ant Hills

From the mulga scrub on the edges of town, the opal fields spread 30 miles in all directions, marked by tunneling machines and mine tailings that look like giant ant hills.

Coober Pedy is one of the earth's most unusual places, intriguing to travelers curious about a life style unlike that of any other place on the planet. The moon-like terrain attracted the producers of "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" in their search for the movie's near-end-of-the-world setting.

The town does have a golf course, but no grass--it's all sand. Also a race track, with a football field in the middle of it, and a drive-in theater that's been closed since 1984. A TV channel is picked up via satellite.

Most important, Coober has plenty of water, thanks to a year-old desalination plant that makes the salty moistures below the parched surface drinkable.

The apparent chimneys protruding from the hills are air shafts for the underground dwellings. The dugouts, as these homes are called by the locals, maintain warmth during the cold winter nights and hold the temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees in the summer when outside it may soar to 135. "The summer of '84," guide Tom Campagna told us, "we had 21 straight days between 110 and 120."

Campagna, who with his family has lived in Coober for 17 years, operates three tour buses, two taxis, a rent-a-car business, an aviation fuel distributorship and an opal mine, and acts as weatherman and owns two underground rental apartments. He cuts, polishes and sells opals in one apartment, part of which is rented to a Chinese family.

The Opal Market

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