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There are said to be two million spoil heaps from opal mining in and around Coober Pedy, and the same number of holes…

I wanted to hunt for opals. I like rocks and minerals, have years of experience poking around in the dirt as an archaeologist. If anyone can find them, it should be me. True, thousands of other people have hunted for opals over the years and most of them have not become rich. I don’t need riches, but I want to find an opal.

Opal hunting areas are remote, and the annual opal festivals are held in the dead of the austral winter when temperatures subside and we will have left Australia. (Coober Pedy’s daytime temperature can hit well over 100° from October through April.) Taking a day trip from the Ghan to Coober Pedy was the way we could visit this strange mining town where half the population lives underground.

Jonathan emerges from the underground Serbian Orthodox church.

Underground life began as a practical choice. People dug into the soft rock hunting opals and camped beside their works. With a bit of enlarging, the former mining areas became rooms that maintain a constant mild temperature. Occasionally, the opal mined during room construction paid for the digging.

Opal is a fickle material, formed as liquid evaporates from cracks in other rock. Lots of opal is very thin, a sheen on a surface. There are beautiful opalized fossils where opal formed on the fossil’s surfaces in the hairline crack between fossil and parent rock. Unfortunately for jewelry lovers, this means that a gorgeous colorful solid opal is a great rarity. I was told that you cannot get opals wet. Part of the reason was that inexpensive “triplet” opals (a sandwich of backing, opal layer, glass) can peel apart when wet. A salesman said that these days there are excellent waterproof glues used and now opals are watertight. It also means that it is more difficult than ever to tell whether the opal you buy is solid or a composite. Honest dealers clearly mark the differences. Colorful opals run well over $10,000 for an attractive ring with a medium sized stone.

Though the train had a day-long stop in Coober Pedy, the staff didn’t understand that some of us (me) really wanted to hunt for opals, not just spend five minutes poking the rock after a mine tour. Jonathan and I got directions to the “Public noodling” site and set off. We promptly got confused, possibly by the “Waffles and Gems” sign across the street. It took part of our precious time to find the place, but then we got to work. There are acres of crushed pale rock. It’s very soft and you’re immediately covered in dust from the surface. It is possible to rent shovels and sifting screens locally, but we contented ourselves with poking around, which is why it’s called noodling, or fossicking.

My opal

Because opals can be one side of an otherwise plain rock, people are always finding new items in old piles. We found very little, and wished we had more time, but I did find a tiny piece of opal, and that was my goal. We chatted with a mother and daughter who were giving the piles a full day. They had hunted around, gone into town for equipment and were settling down for an afternoon of hunting. The daughter showed us the pieces of pale opal they had collected–more than we found.

Rejoining our group, we visited a mine and looked at the shaft, heard about how you make explosives (alarmingly easy), had lunch along a long table in an old mine tunnel, and did a bit more poking. This time we got to pick the rock out of the cave wall. It could have yielded something. Mining opal is a bit like spending your days scratching lottery tickets. Every strike of the pick is another try, but at the end of the day you are more likely to have nothing than a jackpot.

An opal mining works above ground portion.

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