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Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy

Precious stones may have put Coober Pedy on the map, but the unique and magnificent landscape attracts tourists from across the globe.

By: Suzette van der Heijden

You are forgiven if you find driving through the Australian outback a bit tedious. Towns are usually few and far between with not much going on. After travelling about 2,000km inland from Sydney, 2,500km east from Perth or 840km north from Adelaide on the Stuart Highway, you will probably think that your eyes are deceiving you when you see a huge truck parked mid-air. But this is not any truck… this truck is fitted with a blower and tunnelling machine and placed on a pedestal to announce your arrival to the town of Coober Pedy.

Don’t be fooled by first impressions. This desert town is not nearly as small and quiet as it seems

More than a century ago, on 1 February 1915, a 14 year old boy named Willie Hutchison discovered the first opal stone in the area. He was a member of a gold prospecting party at the time. Many adventurers followed to seek their fortune in opal and today Coober Pedy boasts a cosmopolitan community with a population of 3,500 of 45 different nationalities. The town produces more than 90% of the global opal output, making it the opal capital of the world.

Coober Pedy was aptly named by the local Aboriginals, as the name means ‘white men in a hole’. Scorching summer temperatures of above 40.0˚C during the day and winter nights of below 2 ˚C persuaded locals to source alternative accommodation. The stony desert plain does not offer much shade, but is ideal to build dugouts. Today eighty per cent of the residents live underground.

There is much to see and do in Coober Pedy, but perhaps your first stop should be Faye’s Underground Home on the Old Water Tank Road. This underground home is still in its original setup, perfectly preserved and rich in history. It tells the inspirational story of a local woman called Faye Nayler. Faye was originally employed to cook for the miners, but was sacked when she refused to cook green meat.

She bought an underground home which was partially built over a period of 60 years as a one room ‘dugout’ for the first mail truck driver. It was a good place to start, but a woman needs a kitchen and a bedroom and so Faye, together with two of her lady friends, set to work with their shovels and picks to transform the house. Faye later added more rooms, which included three bedrooms with walk in robes, a living room, a bar/billiard room, a wine cellar and even an indoor swimming pool. It took her 10 years of backbreaking work in sweltering heat, but the end product is astounding.

The locals of Cooper Pedy do not only live underground, they also worship underground! Saint Peter & Paul’s Catholic Church was the first underground church in town, and possibly the first underground church in the world.

Everyone pitched in to help make the church a reality and it was originally used by all denominations. The church was excavated in the form of a cross and has the Stations of the Cross mounted on the walls surrounding the inner church. It has great historical value with its statue-filled nooks. An additional ambiance is created with soft classical music.

Visit the Underground Art Gallery which is located in the main street of Coober Pedy. The gallery is carved out of solid sandstone and features a selection of some of central Australia’s finest artists. There is an impressive display of opals which reflect iridescent colours back at you.

You can also try your hand at mining by donning a hard hat and getting some mining experience. Aboriginal art and artefacts including items such as nulla nullas, didgeridoos, music sticks, dot paintings, coolamons, boomerangs and hand carved figures from the Dreamtime are on display.

Another not-to-be-missed tourist attraction is the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park, which is reminiscent of the Painted Desert in Arizona.

Magnificently coloured wasteland stretches over almost 15,000 hectares and the rock formation locally named ‘Castle’ or ‘Salt & Pepper’ demands admiration. You may feel lost and overwhelmed by the majestic expanses of arid landscape which stretches as far as the eye can see. Quench your thirst with sunset drinks from the main lookout, where you may even see kangeroos and other wildlife. The view from the top is spectacular, and the $10 vehicle permit fee goes towards environmental maintenance. (Money raised goes towards maintenance)

Driving around the area will undoubtedly bring you to the so-called dog fence, which was erected to protect the sheep from the native dingoes. This 2m high wire barrier stretches for over 5,300km across three States.

A drive of approximately 15km north-east of Coober Pedy will take you to the Moon Plain – a vast expanse of rocky plains with a lunar like landscape. This unique landscape has been used as the set for many movies such as Mad Max beyond the Thunderdome and Priscilla Queen of the Desert among others.

If you do plan to visit this quaint town, try to avoid the hotter summer months which can be extremely hot and uncomfortable. to enjoy the sites. Clear blue skies will welcome you on winter days, with average winter temperatures ranging from 18 ˚C during the day to 6 ˚C at night. February is the wettest month, yet the average annual rainfall is only 175mm per annum.

 

OPALS

Opals have enchanted mankind for thousands of years and are reckoned to be the stuff that myths and dreams are made of.

It was originally believed that opals possessed magical qualities which would enable the wearer to see limitless possibilities. These stones could apparently also bury emotions, desires and inhibitions and promote spontaneity. In the middle ages it was believed that opal, or the ‘eye stone’, was vital for good eyesight. Blonde women wore necklaces of opal to protect their hair from losing colour. The early Greeks even believed that foresight and prophecy would be bestowed upon the owner of the opal. (http://www.opalsdownunder.com.au)

Opal of differing qualities occurs in more than twenty other countries, including Zambia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Poland, Peru, Canada, New Zealand, Indonesia, the USA, Brazil and Mexico.

Click here to see how opals are mined.

 

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