It seems that the discovery of opal in Australia was often due to chance with many of the discoverers either looking for something else or drilling for water in the outback. When we understand how opal was formed it is not a surprise. Most opal is buried deep beneath the earth and it is only possible to find it on the surface if the earth has been weathered by wind and rain to a level below the opal layer. When this occurs pieces of opal can become exposed. These are called floaters as they also can be washed away by the elements and can end up a long way from where they were originally formed. Finding of these floaters often led to the discovery of a field. If erosion has not reached the opal level there is no way of knowing if opal exists unless a hole is bored. This is expensive and very much a hit and miss method as opal is often scattered in small pieces over extensive areas.
The fields at Coober Pedy were not found by someone specifically looking for opal. The story is quite interesting because it shows the bravery of those men who ventured into the relative unknown of the Australian desert with few provisions and risked their lives in search for minerals.
The story, as told in the book "Opal Men" by P Vin Wake goes as follows:
Jim Hutchison, the owner of Padthaway Station near Naracoorte in South Australia, had previously been a gold prospector. In 1895 he had been on a prospecting trip and noticed some quartz reefs near the low hills of the Stuart's range. He was unable to explore these at that time because of lack of water and had to turn back. If you have ever been in this locality you will understand how dry it can get with no reliable soaks or pools of water for hundreds of miles. Also there were no roads or even tracks for these erly explorers.
In 1914, a company was formed by some Adelaide businessmen to search for gold in this area. Jim was appointed the leader of the party and also took his son,aged 14, and two other men named Winch and McKenzie. They set off in mid summer from what is now known as Marree, which is a town on the old Ghan Railway Line. They had with them two camels carrying 140 gallons (approx 480 litres) of water. The temperatures in mid summer can exceed 40 degrees celsius on a very regular basis. To make matters worse they were in the middle of a drought with no rain having fallen for a very long time.
On 14 January 1915 they reached a place called Long's Creek, where they found a few small water holes and set up camp here and set out on forays in different directions looking for gold.They found a few outcrops of quartz but no gold. Water, or lack thereof, was their greatest concern and more time was now being spent looking for water than gold. Hutchison then decided to see if there were any waterholes in the Stuart Range and so, on 31 January, they found themselves setting up camp among the low foothills of this range. Leaving 14 year old Billy in the camp, the three men set off looking for any other waterholes in the area. Billy had strict orders not to leave the camp.
Fancy telling any 14 year old that. The men returned at dusk to find the camp empty with no sign of Billy. In such a location and in such conditions this was very serious. They were very worried as it was approaching dusk and the ashes in the fire were cold, indicating he had been gone a long time. They quickly set about lighting a fire to guide him home. You can see the flames from a long distance at night.
Just as they were lighting the fire, young Billy walked in and dropped a large bag of opal specimens at his father's feet. His father was very angry for him leaving the camp but was also happy to see the opal specimens and to receive the news that Billy had also found a waterhole nearby. This waterhole provided enough water for them to stay in the area for 8 more days but after that they had to abandon camp and return or face death in the desert.
They returned to Anna Creek and caught the train to Adelaide arriving on 28 March and reported their find.
And that's how Coober Pedy was discovered.
P Vin Wake wrote that Bill Hutchison did not live long after finding opal at Stuart's Range. he went to Queensland and worked as a drover and while droving tried to cross the Georgina River while it was in flood, and was swept from his horse and drowned.
While opal was found in 1915, the first real influx of opal miners did not occurr until 1917 when the Transcontinental Railway was completed. Some of the men working on the railway decided to stay on and try opal gouging. They were used to working in the very harsh conditions of the outback and so felt quite at home. Men from the Armed Forces also came here to try their luck after the 1st World War but most did not last long as opal mining was very much a hit and miss affair with some making a fortune but most slaving away for nothing.
The field was called Stuart's Range at the start but the PMG Department (Postal Service) objected as there was a Stewart's Range in the South east of the state. The name chosen was the name used by the local Aboriginals but was apparently mispelled. It should have been Kupa Piti, but was spelled as Coober Pedy. Many people think it means "White Fella burrow" but according to Vin, The South Australian Museum's descibes its meaning as "boy's waterhole".