Coober Pedy: Gem of the Australian Outback

Very few human beings choose to live in the Australian Outback. With monthly rainfall of less than half an inch, and summer temperatures ranging from a “low” of 95 degrees Fahrenheit to egg-frying highs of 122 degrees, the climate is arid and the landscape is stark. In fact, many say that the Outback and the surface of Mars have a lot in common.

So, why was Coober Pedy the destination for so many new residents in 1915? That’s the year that gem-quality opals were discovered by a man named Willie Hutchison.

A Coober Pedy opal.

A Coober Pedy opal. Photo furnished by

The opal is a unique gemstone, in that it doesn’t have the same kind of crystalline structure you’d find in a diamond or emerald. Instead, the internal structure is composed of microscopic silica spheres. But that isn’t what makes opals special: it’s the fact that these spheres trap water molecules. In fact, opals are composed of up to 20% water by weight. (You could say, they’re one of the few things in the Outback that contain water.) This water content bends and refracts the light passing through an opal, creating the “aurora borealis” light show effect that opals are known for.

By the end of the 20th century, over a quarter of a million mineshafts had been bored into the ground around Coober Pedy by opal miners. Most are abandoned, but sizeable numbers have been turned into surprisingly luxurious underground homes, known by the locals as “dugouts.” In Coober Pedy’s arid climate, these mines have a huge advantage over traditional, aboveground homes: they maintain a steady, comfortable temperature year-round.

Development of the Stuart highway between Adelaide and Alice Springs has made Coober Pedy more accessible as a tourist attraction, but the brutal climate and relative isolation have ensured that Coober Pedy would remain a small Outback town, with a current population of around 2,000 year-round residents. Even so, it is the home of a number of restaurants and attractions, including the “Old Timer’s Mine,” art galleries, an arcade, bookstore, beauty shop and museums (most of which are underground). And opal mining is still the leading industry in Coober Pedy, though tourism also inspires a great deal of economic activity.

So, what does “Coober Pedy” mean? The name was bestowed by Aboriginal peoples who first called the outback home. Kupa-speaking indigenous residents referred to the town as kupa-piti, or “white man’s hole in the ground,” and the name stuck. Now the population of Coober Pedy is much more varied–the town is home to residents of over 45 nationalities, according to the Coober Pedy Visitor Information Centre.

The Coober Pedy Visitor Information Centre is your best source of helpful information if you’re planning a visit to “The Opal Capital of the World.” They publish a “Gems of Coober Pedy” guidebook that features the history of the town, and can provide you with information about car rentals, restaurants, attractions and accommodations. And the visitor center itself offers public restrooms, Internet access, and a gallery of local travel and tourism posters.

By Kathleen Hanover. Contact Kathleen Hanover at Imagine That Creative, Inc. for original SEO web content and SEO copywriting services.



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