The multitude of drill holes dotted across Coober Pedy’s opal fields are a stark reminder of both fortunes found and dreams unfulfilled.
During the opal rush, Coober Pedy was home to hundreds of miners.
Now it is home to about 70, with many over the age of 60.
Many hopeful miners have been forced out by the increasing costs of fuel and equipment.
But for young miner Justin Lang, the prospect of striking it rich lured him to South Australia’s remote far north seven years ago.
“The freedom and lure of finding a million dollars will attract anyone, and for me it was definitely finding that fortune underground,” Mr Lang said.
The 29-year-old is one of the youngest opal miners in town, bucking the trend in an industry which has struggled to retain diggers.
Despite the challenges, the opportunity to dig for his fortune was undeniable.
“When you’re digging away day after day and not finding anything it sort of tires you out. But eventually, when you do find that opal, it’s a feeling like nothing else,” he said.
“It feels like you’re levitating, the adrenaline’s kicked in, and you see the beautiful crystal opal sitting in this bland sandstone. That’s what really gets me.”
The big gamble
Mr Lang divides his time between the picturesque town of Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills and the stark moonscape of Coober Pedy, pock-marked by well over a million drill holes and mine shafts.
Despite his ‘opal fever’, he said opal mining had plenty of challenges and risks.
“The hardest thing is leaving the 9-5 job to come up here and spend all your money on digging holes — which seems crazy to a lot of people,” he said.
“But if you have a few dollars behind you and you can subsidise your income somehow and give it a go for a little while, it might just turn out.”
He said the industry could be both physically and emotionally draining.
“Opal mining will take you on a roller-coaster of highs and lows, and there’s probably more lows than highs,” he said.
“It’ll suck your bank account dry. It will make you work harder than you’ve ever worked before. But that feeling when you hit opal is a feeling that gives you goosebumps and a feeling like nothing else.
“It’s definitely a gamble, but if you strike big opal your grandkids wouldn’t spend it.”
Despite the clear goal of finding opal, he said mining for it was not an exact science.
“It’s absolutely a gamble,” he said.
“Every morning, if you get caught at a café chatting for too long, opal doesn’t dig itself out.
“You have to keep motivated and stay positive.
“Everyone has that common goal of finding opal, and every morning everyone wishes each other good luck like nowhere else in the world.”
‘It’s luck, anyone can find opal’
The vice president of the Coober Pedy Miners Association, John Dunstan, has been an opal miner for 53 years, following in the footsteps of his father in the town he grew up in.
Even he was a little surprised that he managed to turn an often fickle industry into a career.
He found opal while digging out his underground home.
“It’s luck, anyone can find opal. You just have to peg your claim and start digging,” Mr Dunstan said.
He said an industry renaissance showed early signs of taking place, with Coober Pedy set to benefit.
“We’ve had some new guys come up here, but unfortunately they came up a few months ago when it was still too hot so I told them to go away and come back when the weather was a bit cooler,” he said.
“We’ve had probably 20 or 30 people take out new prospecting permits. It might even be more than that.”
He put the renewed interest in the industry down to the Foxtel series Outback Opal Hunters, which has been broadcast internationally.
Outback Opal Hunters showcases the industry in key towns including Lightning Ridge in New South Wales and Opalton in Queensland.
Justin Lang’s journey in Coober Pedy is also featured.
“If someone could find another opal field around Coober Pedy we could have 50 to 100 new opal miners, and that’s what we want,” he said.
He said Coober Pedy was looking to the next generation to secure the industry.
“We need a whole lot of new, young opal miners. Young ones. Most of the opal miners are my age or older and I’m getting a bit long in the tooth,” he said.
“With new people coming to town they’ll rent a house, buy food and whatever else they need to go opal mining.”
He said the town had already benefited from a boost in visitor numbers.
“We’ve had a lot of tourists from England, Germany, Holland and some other countries already here, and they’re buying,” he said.
Bumper tourist season predicted
Businesses are expecting a busier tourist season than normal following the worldwide exposure.
Treasurer of the Coober Pedy Business and Tourism Association Debby Clee said the town was ready to embrace those with a fascination with digging for a fortune.
“We always love to have visitors,” Ms Clee said.
“We don’t have to talk to each other all the time. We can actually speak with people from all around the world, which is interesting and great.”
But the increase in visitors comes with complications for the small community of about 1,500.
“There’s water and power issues,” she said.
But Ms Clee said Coober Pedy would always attract those looking to find their fortune.
“There’s always that wanderlust and the gambler’s addiction of finding opal,” she said.