For this issue of VICE we spent a week living in the amazing contradiction of an outback town that is Coober Pedy. We were curious about this particular place for so many reasons that it was hard to know where to start. You see there’s gazillions of dollars worth of natural opal under the ground in CP, which means that people have schlepped there from all over the world to try to find some of it since the first discovery in 1915. Now there are 4,500 (3,500 if you believe the official reports) people of 45 different nationalities living in underground houses trying to escape the almost year-round unbearable heat (and flies) that comes with living in the middle of fucking Nowheresville, aka the South Australian desert.
Absolutely anyone can get a gig mining in CP without a background check, which is great, but it also makes it a natural destination choice for anyone looking for somewhere to escape or hide out. We’re not saying that the place is overrun with gangsters necessarily, but it might start to make sense of the fact that fewer than average vote or hand in their Census forms.
The town was recently named one of Australia’s ten most disadvantaged areas due to its welfare recipients and aged pensioners outnumbering wage-earners by more than two to one. This statistic has a lot to do with CP’s largely welfare dependent indigenous population and the debacle of a situation (we could do a whole issue and only scratch the surface) that exists as a result. It also has something to do with the fact that all the burly miners who arrived in the 70s are now pretty old and ineffective as well as the fact that there is absolutely zero guarantee of finding opal, which means that miners down on their luck often have no choice but to turn to the government.
Throw in skyrocketing fuel prices, high youth unemployment and something of a drug and alcohol problem and you have yourself one interesting town.
All this said, we met so many friendly, proud, happy people in CP who told us that they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world that we’re starting to suspect everything else is bullshit. There’s also a new big ray of hope shining on them in the form of a couple of nearby major mining projects that will ensure ongoing jobs for a lot of the town. What you have in this issue are the stories of everyone we met, from the stupidly unlucky, to the millionaires, and pretty much everyone in between.
Everyone sells opal in Coober Pedy. This is one of the more elaborate stores in town where you can buy opal or have a go at noodling (sifting through ground already dug up from the mines). Noodling is big with tourists and Aborigines, and people have been known to find hundreds of thousands of dollars worth this way.