The best opals in the world are mined in the central part of South Australia. For some 100 years here exists Coober Pedy – remote and rough town of opal miners. It has one special peculiarity – due to the extreme heat many offices and dwellings here are built under the ground.

Capital of opals

One of the most beautiful gemstones of the world is precious opal (precious, not the common one). This semitransparent variety of silica diffracts light: the stone has many internal surfaces which refract part of the visible light. These refractions have clear, intense colors, the stone is shimmering in various bright colors. I myself have experienced the slight dizziness in the head and a bit wobbly legs – this stone in my hand was radiating a very special, otherworldy beauty.

Precious opals are very rare. There are only few places in the world where high quality stones are found – South Sudan and Ethiopia, Nevada (USA) and Australia. High quality opal is found in several locations of Australia but by far the largest find is in the central part of South Australia. It is hard to assess the total volume of opal in the world market but some calculations show that around Coober Pedy are mined up to 70% of world’s precious opals.

Opalised belemnite from Coober Pedy
Opalised belemnite from Coober Pedy / Vassil, / CC BY-SA 3.0

History of Coober Pedy

The beautiful opals of Coober Pedy were discovered by a 14 years old boy – Willie Hutchinson on the 1st February 1915. He together with his father and his companions came here to look for gold. While adults were digging for gold, boy went to look for water and disappeared until the late night, when he returned with a bag full with gorgeous stones – opals. Even more – he found also the source of water, thus men could stay here and continue their explorations.

This discovery was heard far away and one by one opal miners arrived here. By 1917 here existed a permanent settlement which was named Coober Pedy – transformed local Aboriginal "Kupa Piti" whose meaning is approximately "boy’s waterhole".

One of the symbols of Coober Pedy - opal mining machine
One of the symbols of Coober Pedy – opal mining machine / Graeme Churchard, / CC BY 2.0

Even more people came here after the World War I ended when soldiers returned to Australia and looked for new work opportunities.

After initial boom the town went out of luck during the late 1930ies and early 1940ies but then an Aboriginal woman named Tottie Bryant found beautiful opals in a new site in 1946 and since then the things in Coober Pedy went upwards. More and more families started to live here and in 1960 a school was opened but in 1987 a local government started to work and improve the town.

Now some 10% of the estimated stock of opal have been mined. The town is flourishing and increasingly popular tourist destination or rather – pleasant stopover during the journey across the continent.

Underground apartments in Coober Pedy
Underground apartments in Coober Pedy / Nachoman-au, / CC BY-SA 3.0


Coober Pedy is located in harsh desert environment. Average temperature in January reaches here 36.7 °C but 45 – 47 ° and fierce dust storms are not a rarity either. Here is almost no plant life except for the few plantations by man.

It was the former World War I soldiers who came up with a fine idea – at first to sleep in the opal mines and then gradually turn them into houses. It was fairly easy to cut the desired voids in the local sandstone and siltstone. Locals are making fun – if you need a new shelf for dishes – just cut it in the wall!

More than half of the inhabitants of Coober Pedy live now in these underground premises – "dugouts". This may sound like a pretty rude structure but the reality is much better: many of these structures are very spatious and cosy, have fine interiors and are well lighted. Sandstone here has warm maroon and rose color. For most part the entrances in these structures lead into the hillsides – one should not descend into the underworld. Stay might be a bit unusual though – it is very silent here.

These "buildings" require a lot less time and costs than the traditional buildings – and there is always a possibility to find a nice opal or two during the process.

Some of the most interesting structures here are:

Coober Pedy Catholic Church, Australia
Coober Pedy Catholic Church, / Simon Brown, / CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Coober Pedy St Peter And Paul Catholic Church and Presbitery – comparatively early structure which is rather narrow.
  • Serbian Orthodox Church – among other things it reminds that many of the settlers in this remote town came from the Southern and Eastern Europe.
  • Faye’s Underground House is mostly built by three women and includes an underground swimming pool and other luxurious amenities. This house now serves as a kind of living museum.
  • Several hotels and motels – quite a few people are happy to stay in these luxurious conditions during their way across Australia.
  • Casinos, museums, shops, pubs – diverse public structures are located underground.


  1. District Council of Coober Pedy. Welcome to the Opal Capital of the World. Accessed in 17.september 2016.
Coober Pedy dugouts on the map
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Location, GPS coordinates: 29.0135 S 134.7544 E
Categories: Cities and towns, Rock cut architecture and sculptures
Values: Architecture, Visual
Rating: 4
Where is located? Australia and Oceania, Australia, in the central part of South Australia, on the Stuart Highway approximately halfway between Adelaide (some 850 km north from it) and Alice Springs
Founded: ˜ 1917
Number of inhabitants: approximately 3,500
Area: approximately 600 ha

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Opal Town

People from around the world travel to Coober Pedy, Australia, with hopes of getting rich. This town is full of valuable stones called ‘opals’. Some opals are worth millions, but they are extremely hard to find. What influences the value of an opal? What does it take to find them?

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