A New Kind look at Australia

“Australia’s Coober Pedy: A Gemstone in the Desert,” by Laura Sicilano-Rosen, characterizes what you don’t picture of Australia. Cooper Pedy is a small town in Southern Australia, a very dry dessert land not depicted as that lovely from first sight. However, as Sicilano-Rosen continues, as she states herself, Cooper Pedy is in example of how beauty is “not skin-deep.”

An inexplicable amount of junk — rusty street signs, abandoned tires, plastic doll heads — dots the moonscape terrain. There is little vegetation except where determined residents make watering efforts, for the climate is extreme and water expensive in this strangely apocalyptic land. Actually, there’s little hint of life in Coober Pedy besides the locals, the black flies that swarm the air, and the camouflaged grasshoppers that leap from the dust.

Less than a century old, the town’s history is short but remarkable, and marked by a number of novel developments that have made living and visiting there both possible and enjoyable — like underground businesses and a grassless golf course with “greens” of oiled sand.Construction workers from the country’s Transcontinental Railway and soldiers returning from World War I were among the first to populate Coober Pedy in 1917, back when it was called the Stuart Range Opal Field.

Modern dugout homes are, like the opals, hidden riches of the land. Half of the residents live underground today, and, as I discovered on my visit to Coober Pedy, it’s impossible to imagine the luxury concealed within the unassuming orange sandstone hills scattered around town. No two dugouts are ever the same, but they often begin on ground level with doors and garages, and descend deeply into endless cool spaces of utmost comfort and modernity.

There’s no shortage of stores selling opal jewelry or even just non-precious (common) opal pieces, so, having admitted defeat in the mines, I picked up a little souvenir before heading to one of Coober Pedy’s more recent tourist draws — Underground Potteries, family-run since 1982. The gallery, a pretty display of finished pottery and local photographs for sale, offers instant respite from the uncomfortable outdoors.