Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Australia's National Treasure - Part 2

Fire of the Desert..... What picture does that conjure up? Amazing colours of Red, Orange and Yellow. Imagine the Desert at night, Black as Black, no city lights casting a Silver haze on the horizon.

I've only ever experienced this once and it wasn't in a desert, but on a tiny coral cay off the coast of central Queensland. It was dark, I mean really dark, if it wasn't for a torch I would have been seriously lost till morning. So what does all that have to do with Australia's National Treasure or rather Opal?

I while back I wrote about Opal in the form of Yowah Nuts that I discovered on a trip to the markets on the North Coast. I thought that I might continue as promised and cover some of the interesting Opal mining areas of Australia.

Around 1993 Opal was declared to be Australia's National Gemstone. Makes sense really, we are home to the world's highest quality, precious Opal with the best known found at Lightning Ridge in New South Wales. Lightning Ridge is known for its Black Opal which is almost only found in Australia. Black Opal has a background of black, blue or grey with colour plays of red, green, blue, violet, magenta or yellow. I guess therefore its easy to see why our indigenous people named Opal, Fire of the Desert. Opal which is made up of silica minerals, is rather unique in that it has no true colour of its own. The amazing colours are actually created when light rays hit planes of microscopic spheres contained in the opal.

Other well known opal mining areas in Australia are White Cliffs also in New South Wales and Coober Pedy in South Australia (yes this is where people actually live underground, but more about that later.) The opal found in these areas tends to be white and is the most common of the precious opals.

Australian Opals are known for their brilliance and renowned for their stability, as they don't crack or craze whilst being cut or polished or during hot, dry conditions. Most Opals in Australia are formed in weathered rocks deep underground in very arid areas. A good example of this is Coober Pedy in South Australia.

I've always been rather fascinated by the town of Coober Pedy and hope to visit sometime in the future. It's a bit of a tourist mecca, attracting 100,000 per annum and with a population of around 4,500 from approximately fifty different countries in the world. The locals are described as a colourful lot, quickly making art of many things.

Guided tours to various places of interest are available, as well much of the town and its homes are underground. Where else in the world could you stay in an underground Bed and Breakfast or visit an underground Art Gallery, Pottery, Museum, or Church of which there are a few.

Homes or Dugouts as they're known are located underground too. In summer and winter, they are insulated from the harsh climate, remaining at a pleasant 25 degrees C. There is also an award wining designed shopping complexe and a golf course without a stitch of grass. I expect that most of the course is made up of Overburden dug from mine shafts.

From April to October the weather is pleasant. What is typical of a semi desert climate, the days are cool (16 to 20° C) but the nights are cold. From November to March the weather becomes very warm and summer temperatures range from 35° to 45°C just in the shade. There are also occasional dust storms. Rainfall is minimal at around 175mm per annum and can fall during any time of the year.

North-east of Coober Pedy is the longest continual construction in the world - a Fence. Stretching some 5,300kms, a little less than China's great wall at 6,700kms, it begins south east of Brisbane, Queensland and ends up north of Ceduna in the Great Australian Bite. Originally the fence was built to protect sheep country in the south from Australian native dogs or Dingos. Now days it also keeps out Rabbits, Emus and other wild life.

"Mad Max" and "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" movie fans, can visit "Moon Plain" not far from Coober Pedy. It is a vast rocky plain unlike anywhere else in the world. The lunar like landscape has been the set for many movies, and I thought Mt Wellington in Hobart, Tasmania was eerie.

Photograph taken by Bernie of Mt Wellington - Tasmania
Dept of Natural Resources - Qld Government
Dept of Prime Minister and Cabinet
Rediscover Opals in Australia - Stephen Aracic
South Australian Government Tourism

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