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Opal Fever: find unexpected treasures in Australia’s famous outback opal towns

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Lee Atkinson 02 August 2017

Everyone has a story to tell about how they came to be in Coober Pedy. Take Yani Athanasiadis. He came to Coober Pedy in 1972 as a hopeful 21 year-old with dreams of getting rich quick. His uncle in Greece had told him he could make, or more precisely, find his fortune in Coober Pedy, so he committed to a year. Almost half a century later, he’s still here. As for his fortune, he may not be the richest man in Australia, but this opal miner turned opal dealer and owner of Umoona Opal Mine and Museum has done okay for himself. And it looks as if Coober Pedy is now his home for good.

If you’re not in Coober Pedy looking for opal, then you’re probably here, like me, to buy some – same thing really. And there’s lots of it.

Coober Pedy2 © Lee Atkinson

Coober Pedy – roughly halfway between Adelaide and Alice Springs – might only be home to around 3500 people, but it’s the largest opal mining town in the world – more than 90% of the world’s opal is found around here and almost every building in town is home to an opal shop or showroom, although you can’t see them from the street.

Coober Pedy is Australia’s largest subterranean town – even our hotel, the four-star Desert Cave Hotel, is underground. It makes sense in a place like Coober Pedy – where the locals are pretty handy at digging – because in summer when outside temperatures can reach a sizzling 50˚C, underground homes (called dugouts) are a cool 22–26˚C. Interior walls are painted white, and rooms feel well ventilated, although there is no natural light – a bonus if you like sleeping in a very dark room.

There are five underground churches in town you can visit, and a golf course with green plastic ‘grass’, crushed rock fairways and no water hazards – although the dry creek beds make great sand traps.

Coober Pedy_Catholic Church © Shutterstock/Lee Atkinson

But we’re here for the opal. Noodling, or fossicking for opal amongst the discarded rock heaps, is free. Occasionally visitors do find good-sized opals, but all we find is a pocket’s worth of pretty opal chips, which we admire while watching the sun paint the sandstone pillars and pinnacles of The Breakaways – a range of flat-topped hills a short drive from town – pink, red and purple as it sinks into the desert sand.

Opal fever is contagious though, and so we also spend a night in White Cliffs in the northwestern corner of NSW on our way home. It’s another opal mining town where almost everyone lives underground. The rooms at the Underground Motel have shared bathrooms, but all are comfortable and clean.

White Cliffs Underground Motel2 © Lee Atkinson

By chance our visit coincides with the annual White Cliffs Music Festival (held in May), and so we join the locals in the local hall for a night of toe-tapping fun, and try to pin them down on where to find the best gems. But opal miners are a cagey lot. No one admits to striking it rich, but everyone knows plenty of people who have. We spend a few hours noodling the mullock heaps and then hit the road east for Lightning Ridge – the self proclaimed ‘Black Opal Capital of the World’. It’s around 800km up the road.

Like Coober Pedy and White Cliffs, the tales of fortune found in Lightning Ridge are the stuff of legends – and seem to get bigger with each beer. We hear about the tourist who picked up a $20,000 stone in the mullock heap outside the Visitors Centre and ‘one-bucket Bob’, who found a million dollars worth of opal in the very first bucket of dirt he got out of his mine. There’s even a bloke who used to wear opalised false teeth.

The locals in Lightning Ridge live above ground, although conventional it is not. There are houses made of beer cans and bottles, and grand gardens full of plants you can’t touch – there’s plenty of cactus out this way. The owners of the Cactus Garden proudly boast that they have the largest display of old and rare cactus in the southern hemisphere, a crenulated concrete monument to dead astronomers, a magnificent roofless castle, and ‘the Chambers of the Black Hand’ – a bizarre complex of underground caverns decorated with 400 or so carvings of everyone from Spiderman to Nefertiti.

Lightning Ridge_Astronomers Monument © Lee Atkinson

There are almost 20 opal shops around town and dozens of miners selling opals at the Sunday morning markets. There’s a walk-in mine you can visit, and a famous mullock heap beside the information centre where you can fossick for free. After asking for directions, we’re told to take a turn just past “Car door number 7”. There are no street signs on the opal field, so painted car doors do the job.

Opals © Lee Atkinson

On our last night in Lightning Ridge, we take a dip in the outdoor hot artesian bore baths, a circular pool on the edge of town where the water is a constant 41.5ºC. It’s open 24 hours and it’s free. The water’s meant to relieve all sorts of aches and pains, but curing opal fever is another thing altogether.