Coober Pedy from a wombat shelter.

To: Birding-Aus <>
Subject: Coober Pedy from a wombat shelter.
From: John Gamblin <>
Date: Tue, 7 Nov 2000 23:25:11 -0800 (PST)
A forward from those in the wombat shelter.

Sid and Sharon Genaux <> wrote:
Subject: Coober Pedy
Date: Tue, 07 Nov 2000 06:47:31 GMT

Hi everyone,

We send greetings on a very important day--no not the
US Presidential election--The MELBOURNE CUP RACE DAY. 
All of Australia stops to listen to the race. Stores
close, pubs fill, betting shops go mad--it is the
Kentucky Derby to the 10th power! Government even
stops. Actually, it's over now and the favorite
finished well back in the pack. Very exciting for the
punters (bettors). We spent a couple of days in one of
the most unusual towns in the world on our way north
from Port Augusta to Alice Springs. It is called
Coober Pedy which is an approximation of an aboriginal
phrase meaning "white fella's burrow". It is a center
for opal
mining. Most of the world's opals are mined there.  

Coober Pedy began in 1915 when a 14 year old boy
discovered the first opal bearing rock. His father and
uncle were gold prospectors traveling through the area
and the boy showed the colored rock he found to them.

Before long, the area was the center of an "opal
rush". Coober Pedy is located in an arid, desolate
area of sandstone and rock called a "gibber plain".
There is no surface water in the area and the bore
water is 3 times saltier than sea water. The
temperature in summer reaches 50 degrees Centigrade
(about 122 degrees Fahrenheit) and in winter, it is
often below freezing. There is no wood for building
within many miles. Even today, mining opal is rough,
labor-intensive work.  People who could handle those
conditions tend to be rugged individualists, to put it
mildly. Many of them were a bit eccentric; some were
downright nuts!

After the end of the First World War, many of the
miners were returned "Diggers" (Australian soldiers). 
They hit upon the idea of making dugouts to live in. 
They were digging into the sandstone, looking for
veins of opal anyway, and they soon realized that the
were cool in summer and warm in winter. The town post
office, store, and pub were dugouts and many of the
men dug out quarters to live in underground. Even
today, with modern air conditioning available, many of
occupants of Coober Pedy live in dugouts. Lest you
think that this means that they live in primitive
conditions, be informed that some of the dugouts are
luxurious and almost palatial. One dugout has 4
bedrooms, each with its own bath; a billiard room; a
large bar; and a sauna! Most of the town's churches
underground buildings as well. The Roman Catholic
Church is open to the public. We visited it and it is
really quite beautiful. The local sandstone is a warm
pinkish brown color and makes lovely walls and
ceilings. The holy water font is carved directly in
the wall and there are small shrines in niches on
either side of the sanctuary. There is a Serbian
church there which is supposed to have lovely wooden
carvings in it, but it wasn't open when we were there.
Above ground, however, Coober Pedy is truly ugly. Opal
mining is done on a small scale, by individuals or
partnerships. Each claim is about 50 meters by 100
meters surface area. Each of these is dug out with
jackhammers, electric drills, and explosives. The
walls are removed one meter at a time and the spoil is
examined for opals. Only one of a hundred mines
produces any opal bearing rock. Most of that is
"potch", a white opaline material which does not have
any "color". Opals are made up of silica. In order for
them to be gem quality opals, they must have been
under continuous, even, pressure for millions of
years. If they have been in these conditions, the
silica will be arranged in even rows which will split
white light into its component colors. The size of the
particles will determine the colors of the opal. Red
is the rarest color and blue the commonest. Only 7
percent of all the potch contains gem quality opal.
All these individual mines are topped with piles of
"mullock", waste material which has been checked for
opals and dumped on the surface of the claim. The
gibber plain around Coober Pedy is pocked with
abandoned shafts and piled with giant "ant hills" of
mullock. It is no wonder that Mad Max 3 was filmed
here; it really does look like a post-apocalyptic
landscape. On the evening we left Coober Pedy, we
camped at a rest area right on
the South Australia-Northern Territory Border. That
evening and night we experienced a rare Red Centre
storm. We watched the dark clouds approach, filled
with vivid lightening. Then the wind started. We put
up our camper in the teeth of the wind and just got it
set up
before the rain came--in buckets. The wind continued,
so strong that it stretched the elastic cords that
hold the canvas to the fiberglass body of the camper.
When the wind lessened a little, the cords would snap
back against the camper with a loud slapping sound.
The storm continued about half the night. In the
the whole world seemed washed clean. Everything
smelled good, the birds were singing and bathing in
the puddles before they evaporated, and the vegetation
was green and fresh. It was quite a wonderful
experience. We are in Alice Springs now. It has been a
good season here they have had quite a lot of rain
this year and both
human and animal inhabitants have been enjoying the
moisture. We'll tell you more about the area and it's
birds plus one particular local hero next time.  

Thanks for the e-mails you have sent us. We are
looking forward to hearing who won the election. We
won't know until sometime tomorrow here because of the
time difference. Remember vote early and often!

Sid and Sharon

John, we've nearly done the complete Australian bird
census for you would anyone be interested in it?

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