Gem junkies come out and play

Christina Pfeiffer gets down and dirty at Coober Pedy's annual opal celebrations

Thousands of people are standing in Coober Pedy's main drag, Hutchison Street, watching the parade of colourfully decorated utes crawl past. A truck painted in opal colours - a mosaic of orange, green, gold and red - rolls past; another carries a mining rig; children wave banners to remind us of the movies filmed in Coober Pedy, most notably Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.

We tag along behind the motorcade onto the football field, the only patch of green in this dusty South Australian town, 850 kilometres north of Adelaide. A country music band twangs on stage as people mill about the oval, browsing through craft and food stalls.

The babble of voices reveals the town's multiculturalism, with snatches of Greek, German and Eastern European accents heard mingling with outback Aussie vernacular.

In the children's section, the kids are digging furiously for opals in a funfair sand pit. It's one of the activities at the annual Opal Festival in the opal capital of the world.

I follow my nose to the Greek stall where a whole lamb is roasting on a spit. With a can of beer in one hand and yeeros in the other, I find a seat between two opal miners. Branko is from Serbia and John comes from Bosnia. They were among the hundreds of eager young men from Europe who flocked to Coober Pedy to purchase mining rights to small parcels of land in the 1960s and '70s.

Coober Pedy, along with nearby Andamooka and Mintabie, produces more than 90 per cent of the world's opals. And back then, opal mining was a multimillion-dollar industry. After decades of mining, Coober Pedy's opal fields are covered in mounds of debris from shafts and the hills are a honeycomb of underground dwellings.

I give Branko and John the slip and make a beeline for the opal shops where, due to the festival, the town's most expensive opals are on display. The Umoona Opal Mine and Museum is a crush, with busloads of visitors wandering through the underground tunnels and scouring the showroom for rings, earrings and necklaces.

Next door, the shop in the Desert Cave Hotel has an enormous opal with a $120,000 price tag.

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Down the road at John and Yoka's Opal and Art is the Virgin Rainbow, 72 carats of priceless opal. A few years ago, John Dunstan turned down an offer to exchange the opal for a rural property in South Australia. For the transaction, the Virgin Rainbow was valued at $1.5 million. At Coober Pedy Black Opal, the Atlantis opal carries a price tag of $67,000.

"When I first came here, opals were falling out of the ground," says Peter Rowe, who operates a bi-weekly, 644-kilometre outback mail run. "One time, I found enough in 20 minutes to buy two houses in Melbourne."

Those were the days when the lobster and champagne flowed. And many miners made fortunes by investing the wealth dug out of the ground into property around Sydney Harbour.

These days, it's not so easy to become rich through opal mining. But many families who have spent a lifetime digging view this desert town as their home.

Most of the 3500-plus residents live underground in dugout homes that keep them cool in summer and warm in winter.

At the Old Timers Mine, I wander through the dimly lit tunnels past life-sized mannequins arranged in different poses - crouching in tiny grottos, gouging out opals, climbing shafts using rough foot holes hand-picked into the walls and pushing heavy barrows of dirt.

The next day, armed with a hard hat, torch and pick, I join the Down 'n' Dirty opal digging tour at the Opal Quest Mine. We hack away at the mine's walls and later sift through discarded mullock in an open area known as the jeweller's shop. But the pickings are slim. Our guide boosts our enthusiasm with a story about a recent find by a lucky visitor who, only a few years ago, unearthed an opal worth $50,000. I'm not sure I believe that story but it all adds to the eccentricity of the experience.

The writer was a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Blue fly to Adelaide. Regional Express (Rex) operates flights between Adelaide and Coober Pedy. See regionalexpress.com.au.

Staying there

Desert Cave Hotel, rooms from $218, phone 1800 088 521, see desertcave.com.au. Mud Hut Motel has fully self-contained, two-bedroom units from $180 and motel rooms with ensuites from $110, phone (08) 8672 3003, see mudhutmotel.com.au.

Playing there

The Coober Pedy Opal Festival is being held on April 11. Performers include comedians Hamish and Andy and aerobatic pilot Chris Sperou. Events include sumo wrestling and tandem skydiving. See opalfestival.com.au.

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