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  • Writer's picturejack kelly

Coober Pedy Opal fields

Coober Pedy

In the early 1900’s, a young boy whose father was gold prospecting discovered opal in Coober Pedy. but it took until after WW1 for opal mining to really kick off in Coober Pedy, after WW2 opal was starting to gain traction in the world with immigrants flooding the opal fields from all over the world Coober Pedy experienced a rapid population growth. As a result, sixty percent of the miners living at Coober Pedy today have Southern or Eastern European ancestry. By the 1970s, the opal rush was in full swing.

Roughly 1,700 people live in town full-time, working at mining-related jobs. In order to avoid the punishing desert heat, many live in underground dugouts. Carved into hills, these houses require ceilings a minimum of 4 meters high and correctly proportioned to prevent collapse. Not surprisingly, many homeowners find opal while excavating.

In the past, grocery stores sold explosives, and homeowners blasted the sides of their houses to find opal. Sometimes, they even blasted into a neighbour's home. Mining in residential areas is now banned. However, many miners get around this loophole by “expanding” their houses to build additional guest rooms. For the most part, a small number of miners worked together on opal-mining ventures, rather than large corporations. The earliest miners dug their 3 to 10-meter shafts by hand. In order to prevent the dusty, sun-baked soil from collapsing, they reinforced the walls with timber. They lowered themselves into the shafts with windlasses, then removed the waste soil or mullock via buckets lifted by the windlasses. Miners dug tunnels the old-fashioned way, with shovels, pickaxes, and sometimes with homemade explosives buried in pockets of soil. With any luck, miners found veins of common opal that twisted and turned throughout the rocks. They followed these veins in hopes that some might become precious opal. More often than not, the veins either disappeared or plunged into untraceable depths. Beginning in the 1970s, mechanized opal mining became prevalent. It usually involves advanced equipment such as caldwell drills for shaft digging and tunneling machines or front-end loaders for horizontal tunneling. Automatic bucket tippers or gigantic pipe vacuums transport the mullock excavated by machine or explosives. This soil is then either transported to a drum mounted on a truck (like the one atop the Coober Pedy town sign) to be emptied later or shot out by the vacuum into a pile close to the shaft.

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