The Upside Down Under
Coober Pedy


Coober Pedy is a town in northern South Australia, 846 km (526 mi) north of Adelaide on the Stuart Highway.

For thousands of years Aboriginal people walked across the Coober Pedy area. Because of the desert environment, these people were nomadic hunters and gatherers who travelled constantly in search of food and water supplies as well as to attend traditional ceremonies.

Now, Coober Pedy has evolved into one of the most unique places in Australia and perhaps the world. It's a cosmopolitan town with a population of 3,500 and over 45 different nationalities.

The town is sometimes referred to as the "opal capital of the world" because of the quantity of precious opals that are mined there. Coober Pedy is renowned for its below-ground residences, called "dugouts", which are built in this fashion due to the scorching daytime heat.

Coober Pedy dugout
Coober Pedy is renowned for it's "dugouts"

Coober Pedy was once covered by ocean - and when the water receded, the sandy silica minerals from the seabed flowed into the rocky cracks and cavities and solidified over time into multi-coloured gem-stone - opal.

In January 1915, the New Colorado Prospecting Syndicate, consisting of Jim Hutchison and his 14 year old son William, PJ Winch and M McKenzie had unsuccessfully been searching for gold south of Coober Pedy. The men had set up camp and were searching for water when young Willie found pieces of opal on the surface of the ground. This was on the 1st February 1915 and 8 days later the first opal claim was pegged.

Coober Pedy opal
An amazing Coober Pedy opal

Coober Pedy was originally known as the Stuart Range Opal Field, named after John McDouall Stuart, who in 1858 was the first European explorer in the area. In 1920 it was re-named Coober Pedy, an anglicised version of Aboriginal words "kupa piti", commonly assumed to mean "white man in a hole".

Miners first moved in about 1916. By 1999, there were more than 250,000 mine shaft entrances in the area and a law discouraged large-scale mining by allowing each prospector a 15.3-square-meter (165-square-foot) claim.

Coober Pedy mine shafts
By 1999, there were more than 250,000 mine shaft entrances in the area

In 1917 the Trans Continental Railway was completed. A number of construction workers followed by soldiers returning from World War 1 came to the opal fields, introducing the unique method of living underground in "dugouts". Conditions were harsh and the environment did not lend itself to easy living. Water and provisions had to be carted great distances and under very trying conditions. Even with the introduction of very large underground water tanks things improved only marginally, the entitlement of water being only 60 litres (24 gallons) per week.

Today the town water supply comes from an underground source 24 kilometres (15 miles) north of the town, then pumped through an underground pipeline to the water works where it is treated by reverse osmosis and pumped through a reticulated town water supply system. The treatment process is expensive consequently water costs $5 for 1,000 litres (264 gallons). The water quality is excellent and people hold no fears about drinking it.

Coober Pedy water supply
Coober Pedy water supply

During the Great Depression of the late 1930's and 1940's, opal prices plummeted and production almost came to a standstill.

Typical of Coober Pedy's history of boom and bust, an Aboriginal woman named Tottie Bryant made a sensational opal find at the Eight Mile field in 1946, starting a new rush to the fields.

During the 1960s and 70s, the opal industry boomed as Euro­pean migrants came to seek their fortunes and Coober Pedy became the hub of a multi-million-dollar industry, with its heyday in the 1980s.

Umoona Opal Mine, Coober Pedy
Umoona Opal Mine, Coober Pedy

The resources boom that ­started in 2003 saw large companies and hundreds of workers abandon the hit-or-miss nature of opal mining, leaving the fields to small family enterprises or increasingly to sole operators.

The Olympic Australis Opal

The "Olympic Australis" is reported to be the largest and most valuable gem opal ever found. It was found in 1956 at the famous "Eight Mile" opal field in Coober Pedy, South Australia. A miner working his claim found the opal at a depth of 9.1 metres (30 feet). It was named in honor of the Olympic Games, which were being held in Melbourne at the time.

The Olympic Australis Opal
The Olympic Australis Opal

This extraordinary opal consists of 99% gem opal with an even colour throughout the stone, and is one of the largest and most valuable opals ever found. The balance of 1% is the remaining soil still adhering to the stone. It weighs 17,000 carats (3450 grams) and is 280mm (11 inches long), with a height of 120mm (4¾ inches) and a width of 115mm (4½ inches).

It was valued at AUD$2,500,000 in 2005. Due to the purity of the opal it is anticipated that upwards of 7000 carats could be cut from the piece.  However owing to it's uniqueness, the opal will remain exactly as found.

The Dugout

A dugout or dug-out, also known as a pit-house, earth lodge, is a shelter for humans or domesticated animals and livestock based on a hole or depression dug into the ground. Dugouts can be fully recessed into the earth, with a flat roof covered by ground, or dug into a hillside. They can also be semi-recessed, with a constructed wood or sod roof standing out. These structures are one of the most ancient types of human housing known to archeologists.

Most residents in Coober Pedy live in caves or dugouts excavated into the hillsides to avoid the harsh summer temperatures.

The early Coober Pedy dugouts were indeed the holes that had been dug in search for opal.

In Coober Pedy's heyday opal mining was back breaking manual labour, so the earliest Coober Pedy homes were no bigger than they absolutely needed to be. Neither were the churches. The image below shows the hand dug St Peter And Paul Catholic Underground Church

St Peter And Paul Catholic Underground Church
St Peter and Paul Catholic Underground Church excavated in hard sandstoneow

But people kept digging, always in search for the next big opal find, and the homes were constantly expanded.

A wonderful example of an early dugout that has been expanded into an impressive underground residence is Faye's Underground Home.

It started out over 60 years ago, as a one room dugout, used by the mail truck driver. Faye Nayler bought it of him, and that original room is now the kitchen.

The home you see today was built over ten years, by hand, using only picks and shovels, by Faye and two of her lady friends.

Faye's Underground Home
Faye's Underground Home

And they did at an excellent job.

Three bedrooms with walk in robes, living room, bar, wine cellar... What else could you want?

Billiard room and swimming pool? Believe it or not, she added it!

Faye's Underground Home Swimming Pool
Faye's Underground Home Swimming Pool

Fay's dugout is now a time-warp museum and a window into life in Coober Pedy last century.

Popular Culture

Both the town and its hinterland, for different reasons, are very photogenic and have therefore attracted film makers. The town itself was the setting for the 2006 film Opal Dream and is a pivotal location in Wim Wenders' 1991 film Until the End of the World.

Its environment also attracted movie producers, with parts of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Science Fiction Volume One: The Osiris Child and Pitch Black having been filmed in the area.

  • An episode of Dirty Jobs: Down Under with Mike Rowe visited Coober Pedy.
  • The town was featured in an episode of House Hunters Off the Grid called "Cave Me, Maybe in Coober Pedy, Australia" on HGTV.
  • Coober Pedy was also featured in Top Gear Australia, where Steve and Warren put two city cars on the mail run from Coober Pedy to William Creek via the Oodnadatta Track.
  • Coober Pedy is also a part of the open world environment of the 2016 racing video game Forza Horizon 3.


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