Coober Pedy opal refers to light, clear or white opal found mostly in the Coober Pedy fields of South Australia.
Discovered 1 February 1915 by a 14-year-old boy, Coober Pedy is the world’s largest opal field and responsible for 80% of Australia’s production. The field was originally known s the ‘Stuart Range Opal Mines’. The explorer John McDouall Stuart narrowly missed the opal when he passed by the area in 1858, naming the present site of Coober Pedy after himself.
The name Coober Pedy comes from the Aboriginal language and, when loosely translated, means a ‘White man in a hole .’ It was selected from four proposed names by a newly formed progress committee in June 1920.
Willie Hutchison, the youngest member of an Adelaide gold prospecting syndicate, discovered opal while searching for water . The first claim was pegged eight days later on 9 February . It was during the worst draught in the State’s history, forcing members of the party to search for water in different directions, leaving young Willie to look after the camp.
Camped near the foothills of the nearby range, Willie disobeyed orders and wandered off in search of water . There was apprehension among the members when he failed to return by dark . Finally, he strolled into camp with a grin on his face and half a sugar bag of opal slung over his shoulder . Not only had he found opal, but a fortnight’s supply of water . The full story is told by his father, James Hutchison, the leader of the expedition, in the Adelaide Chronicle on 7 April 1938.
Word of the ne w find spread quickly . By the middle of the year, the O’Neill brothers, Jim and Dick, experienced opal miners from White Cliff, were on the field . They had heard the news whilst working on the Tarcoola gold field 240 kilometres to the south.
Cutting across country with four horses, a dray, and 450 litres of water, they arrived where young Hutchison had found the opal . Not impressed with the area, they pushed on further to the North-West, discovering what was eventually to become known as the Big Flat . They pegged a number of areas and within a few months had produced a considerable amount of good opal.
During an interview, Phillip Wollaston, recalled that, in 1915, Jim O’Neill came into his father’s office with an extremely large parcel of opal from the Stuart Ranges . He said his father was very excited because he had never seen such ‘chunky’ opal before . It was a little like White Cliffs opal, but much larger, with a base colour of dark grey to off-white . Tullie Wollatson paid €10,000 for the parcel and asked Phillip to write out the cheque . Phillip said the opal took several days to grade . Not only was it a large parcel, but it was the first from Coober Pedy.
Due to its remoteness, only a handful of miners worked the field for the first few years, with no visiting buyers before 1920 . The first rush took place in 1919, swelling the population to a few hundred . During this period, massive amounts of opal were produced, eventually causing a slump in the market . Except for copper, the value of opal outstripped all other minerals in the state.
The harsh environment did not make for easy living . Lack of water, which often had to be recycled many times before being discarded, was always a problem . The situation was so critical that the Government in 1924 built a 2,000,000-litre tank which partly solved the problem, allowing water to be rationed at 110 litres per person per week . Today, Coober Pedy has an excellent water supply from a distant bore.
The field virtually came to a standstill during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the average price of opal fell to half a kilo, forcing many to leave.
The discovery of the Eight Mile in 1945 by Toddy Bryant, an Aboriginal woman, caused a great sensation . Her discovery of opal within 20 centimetres of the surface was a turning point in the history of the field and went a long way towards establishing Coober Pedy’s future prosperity.
Trying to keep their find secret, Toddy and her white husband, Charlie, were able to keep their find concealed until January 1946 when they struck their first big patch . They were able to sell five parcels of magnificent opal to Jack Kemp, Ernie Sherman’s field agent, before word leaked out and the rush was on . Within days Ernie and Greg Sherman arrived, purchasing Bryant’s opal for €2,000.
With the discovery of the adjoining Boomerang Shallows, the Eight Mile proved to be an exceptional field, producing extraordinary opal over several claims . In 1956, the field spread up the hill when Bert Wilson and Frank Tethridge found the ‘Olympic Australis’, which they sold to Greg Sherman.
Today, Coober Pedy is a thriving modern mining town, situated on the Stuart Highway between Adelaide and Darwin . Not only does it benefit from the production of opal, but it has a healthy tourist trade with hundreds of coaches passing through every year.
Travellers are well catered for, from five-star accommodation to backpacker’s hostels and caravan parks . For that lovely opal you have always wanted, there are many shops from which to choose . A trip to Coober Pedy will be a memorable experience, one you will more than likely repeat many times.
Article Source: Beautiful Opals - Australia's National Gem by Len Cram ©1999
For more information on the South Australian Opal fields follow the link.