Opal Capital of the World
Coober Pedy, originally known as Stuart's Range field, is the largest supplier of opal in the world. Situated some thousand kilometres north of Adelaide it is home to about 5000 people who directly or indirectly make a living from the success of the town's opal miners, and the nearly 100,000 tourists who call in each year to marvel at what is still regarded as the last frontier of Australia's wild outback.
The opal was first discovered by fourteen year old Willie Huchison from Mount Gambier in February 1915. As a member of his father's prospecting party, he and the others left Marree in December 1914 in search of gold. In temperatures often exceeding 45 degrees the party looked for gold while Willie was assigned camp duties. Being finished with his duties and rather bored Willie went exploring himself. He did not find any gold,.... just the richest opal field in the world.
The first opal claims were pegged out but, as a result of the unbearable heat and the lack of water, work was abandoned within three weeks. Willie did not live long enough to see the fruits of his find. He drowned five years later while driving cattle from Clifton Hills, on the Birdsville Track, across the Georgina River.
During the winter of 1915 the O'Neill brothers began working the opal field, followed in 1917 by several returned soldiers who had served in the trenches during the war. Legend has it that it were these soldiers, who had fought in France and lived in the trenches for many months, introduced the idea of living underground in 'dugouts' as a means of escaping the immense heath. However dugouts had already been used in the 1850's in Burra and later in Sliding Rock and Yudanamutana.
As a result of the first world war, it was hard to find a market for the opal and most miners were left with much opal but no money. Needless to say that most left and the field was almost deserted by the end of the war. With the return of peace, selling opal improved and the field attracted once again many miners and buyers.
Several major discoveries were made on the field and in 1920 it was decided by the local Progress Committee that the field should have a proper name. After much deliberation the choice fell on Coober Pedy. The town, and its miners had to put up with many problems. For most the heat and isolation were only small compared with the lack of water, cave-ins, explosions which went wrong and visits from the tax man.
In 1922 an attempt was made to solve the scarcity of water by building a two million litre water tank. Unfortunately there was not enough rain until 1925 to enable the tank to be filled. Living conditions improved rapidly and by the mid 1920s the field had two stores, a post office, firewood was available for $2 per dray load, and a Miner's Right could be obtained for fifty cent per year giving the right to peg out an area of fifty metres by fifty metres.
Poor results on the opal field during the depression of the 1930s and drought conditions in general resulted in the area once again being almost deserted until 1946 when a large find was made by an Aboriginal woman. The miners have never looked back since.
Some interesting observations have been made about the miners and townies who settled there after the second world war. Most were 'New Australians', predominantly from Southern Europe with little formal education and a poor command of English. There are still more than forty different nationalities working the field today. For them and later arrivals, independence was most important, freedom from government control, no paper work and most certainly no bookkeeping.
Most work when they feel like it and few keep 'regular hours'. They prefer their cash economy, hate taxes, licences and rates. Few legal contracts are made between the miners and opal buyers, their word or handshake is good enough. Maximum profit is not important and many see life, and mining as a gamble and therefore use a large part of their income for gambling and drinking.
Most of them have a strong dislike, or at best a feeling of uneasyness, of white collor workers such as public servants, police, teachers, mines department officials and the like. This can also be seen from the low census returns, low voting turn out for elections, high tax avoidance and the slow or non-payment of government debts.
In 1985 Opal became South Australia's mineral emblem. In 1993 it was proclaimed Australia's national gemstone.