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Coober Pedy: a gem of a place in South Australia

The Guardian logo The Guardian 1/11/2016 DBC Pierre

The opal mining town of Coober Pedy isn’t the first place you’d think of visiting in South Australia, but with its endless desert views and sense of freedom it’s the perfect antidote to modern-day life for DBC Pierre.

Tourists fossicking for opals.: Visitors ‘noodling’ or fossicking for opals. © Alamy Visitors ‘noodling’ or fossicking for opals.

There is such a thing as too many dappled piazzas. Too much tapenade. Such a thing as too much everything. Look around, see how many things there are. Too damned many. It’s an experiment for rats. But we see no irony in trading it for another ruckus abroad and calling it a holiday. The essential test of freedom asks how far in any direction we can move from where we now sit without deviating or meeting obstacles. I’m going to say 20 metres, tops. And the masterpiece of our containment, if we ponder it? We think it flows from free choices.

This year marked the centenary of a favourite antidote of mine. A dreamer’s place in the middle of nowhere, it’s easy enough to get to these days – although bear in mind that every resident I know is a visitor who never went home. When I ask what keeps them around, they say freedom, and I get it. But I also know what made them stop in the first place – apart from 360° horizons, a camaraderie peculiar to outposts, and clouds of galaxies in the night sky – and it was a chance, with no more than their hands and some luck, to get suddenly, stupidly rich.

Coober Pedy – Kupa Piti in the indigenous Arabana language, meaning “White man in a hole” – lies in the state of South Australia to the south-east of a desert the size of France and Germany put together. White men started digging holes here after 14-year-old Willie Hutchison, minding a gold-prospectors’ campsite one Monday in February 1915, wandered off and found opals. It’s still the biggest opal find in the world by a huge margin: some gems are as close as eight inches below ground, and some are even found lying on the surface.

The only issue for prospectors was desert heat and cold, so they built dwellings underground as well, where sandstone holds the temperature at about 24C year-round. The town now also has underground hotels and even churches. The only issue left for builders looking to extend their premises is opal: one miner who set out to dig a spare bedroom saw colour glinting from the walls of his first attempt so decided to mine it and try again, but hit opal on his next try, and his next, till he ended up with 10 rooms.

Coober Pedy isn’t the first place you’d think of to visit in South Australia, given the state’s thousands of miles of beaches, vineyards and ocean-front capital, Adelaide. But it’s a modern tonic, an elastic snap back to a reality where labels can’t help you, where you’re alone with the sum of your foibles on a curious planet. Plus this is real Australia, the netherworld we hoped for, one that no amount of sushi on Sydney harbour can explain.

On my Regional Express flight to the outback there are no geologists or suits among the handful of passengers. Unlike gold or diamonds, nothing can help pinpoint precious opal. “It’s either there or it’s not,” said one miner. So as the plane descends, a woodworm colony grows beneath it of human-sized holes beside piles of excavated rubble. Opal is a democratic gem. There’s no industrial mining here; you have as much chance as anyone.

A man comes out to meet the turboprop. Shamil, from India, also turns out to be the driver for the Desert Cave Hotel – a fail-safe airport shuttle. Of the places to stay here, chosen according to how much like a prospector you want to feel, the Desert Cave is the sort of place where you might imagine you are an international gem buyer. From a varnished sandstone room, I set off to see what’s new in town. For one thing, the 4,000-strong population of more than 40 nationalities now has a council. A road has been paved. But John’s Pizza Bar still makes pizza the way it was made back when pizza was pizza and rocket was something you fired into space. The drive-in movies are enjoying their 50th year, and still screen the warning: “Patrons: explosives are not to be brought into this theatre.”

I also see that “noodling” has been on the rise. The town is an ant-farm of mounds caused by digging or blasting, and because the serious prospector is after whole seams, he sacrifices lone gems. Noodling is the Zen pursuit of “fossicking” through that rubble for flashes of brilliance. Easy enough to spot, opals are the only gems with more than one colour, and their unearthly sparkle shows in the rough. Noodling is no idle game, though: bright opals fetch more per carat than diamonds. One tip I hear is to watch where local indigenous women noodle – they have a sense.

As for a sense of where this whole Priscilla-Queen-of-the-Desert-meets-Mad-Max caboodle started – both films were shot around here – there are glimpses. While digging an extension in the 1960s, someone broke through the wall of a sealed underground complex dating from 1916. Part mine, part home, the network is now a walk-through exhibit, intact right down to the opal shining from the walls.

Trevor Berry, a one-time psychiatric nurse still on holiday from the 1990s, now runs the Old Timers Mine like an enthusiast, and soon reminds me that opal isn’t the main story here, just a damn good excuse. Among the artefacts proudly displayed in his cave is a letter from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, confirming reciprocal rights with the Coober Pedy Golf Club – the only such rights in the world. Berry sells tees packaged with squares of turf, the course here being desert; and glowing balls can be used at night when temperatures and flies are more agreeable. This might seem very odd, but not when you consider that there is an 850-mile-long, 18-hole golf course on the Nullarbor Plain, south-west of here.

Nothing here seems plausible or implausible. Without reference to a conforming standard, whatever could happen can happen, and does. Everyone’s laws of probability have abandoned the main flock; or there’s just not a main flock to follow. Then add opal fever. Berry keeps a noodling pit: watch kids’ eyes focus like puppies who’ve spotted bones.

Still, I’m not here for opals. Desert fever strikes me harder: the place is a gateway to relentless space. Lit corner-to-corner like a studio, the outback isn’t isolating but strangely intimate and close. You feel you can touch distant views with your hands, stand like the Petit Prince on an empty planet. Daesh can sod off, the government can sod off, the news can sod off.

But it’s best if your wingman doesn’t sod off, and the place offers a logical if unexpected companion for desert roaming – the outback postman. Peter Rowe arrived in 1967 on his way to Alice Springs and, like everyone else, is still here. You can ride with his mail run to cattle stations and food stops at William Creek and Oodnadatta. With ranches the size of Slovenia, it’s a 12-hour run; but on top of expert knowledge, Rowe is smart, easy company. “Know how to make a million mining opal?” he gibes. “Start with two million and stop when you get to one.”

There’s a theme-park vibe to the outback here, Desert 101, with some moonscape, some red dust, desert scrub, and gibber plains to infinity. The world’s longest manmade structure passes here too, the 3,448-mile Dog Fence, built to keep dingoes out of the south-east. As you stand scanning for crestfallen dingoes, two things begin to dawn: one is that your phone still has a signal. Then you notice that some of those things on the ground are seashells. The terrain makes sudden sense: it’s an ocean bed. Not only that, as Rowe explains, the evenly spaced stones around here were dropped by melting glaciers. Every footfall you make could be the first human footfall. Every shell you lift was left by the sea. And some are opalised, as are some marine fossils. A beachcomber’s party, 120 million years from the beach.

Before flying back to the rat experiment, I glean one final angle on the “queen of all gemstones”. The Desert Cave Hotel turns out to have a fine dining eatery, Umberto’s, like something from a David Lynch movie, 56 steps up into a sandstone hill, with muzak. There’s premium whisky at the bar, the wine list has legs, and I spot Yanni Athanasiadis, the go-to man for serious opals. He owns the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum under the ground next door, by far the slickest such complex I’ve seen: it’s a museum not only covering mining but outback and indigenous Australian life and art, too, with what must be 50 metres of rough and polished opals and jewellery for sale.

Athanasiadis, who left his Greek hometown of Thessaloniki in 1972, is organising a banquet to meet the Adelaide-Darwin train in the desert. It’s another way to arrive: the Ghan is one of the world’s great train journeys, 54 hours from the Southern Ocean to the Timor Sea, with suites and even whole carriage apartments. The Desert Cave will send a Land Cruiser the 70-odd miles to Manguri Siding to collect guests from the train.

Over barramundi (Asian sea bass) and wine, Athanasiadis outlines his plan to lure visitors to remote Manguri. Then we drift back to opal fever – two flights a week full of banknotes for the town’s only bank, one man’s £18m find – and as he speaks, still wearing the boyish smile he must have landed with, I pick up a nostalgia more common to 1990s East Berlin. It seems there were good old days here. He remembers them as an extension of his family’s table in Thessaloniki, 15 people eating, drinking, cavorting and mining day and night, throwing the dice of their lives.

Now he feels like one of the last of a breed: “I’m amazed, but it seems young people today would prefer to get a big mining job, without risk, than try their luck.”

But is there still plenty of opal around?

“Nobody can say that the biggest find isn’t still out there,” he says. “If a few people turned up here who didn’t know a thing and asked where should they dig, I’d leave my job and show them. That’s what this town was all about.”

The cost of a Precious Stones Prospecting Permit in the opal fields is less than £40. According to Trevor Berry, foreigners with a work visa are entitled to try their luck.

So you in your gap year, you with a sticky divorce, you with urban fatigue … bye-bye. Shout the boys a drink for me.

Way to go

DBC Pierre’s trip was provided by the South Australian Tourism Commission, for further information visit southaustralia.com. REX (Regional Express) Airlines flies from Adelaide to Coober Pedy from about $300 return. Accommodation was provided by the Desert Cave Hotel (doubles from $150 B&B).

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