History of Coober Pedy

The Discovery of Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy was discovered early in 1915 by a 14-year-old boy. Coober Pedy is the world’s largest opal bearing region and produces over 80% of Australia’s opal. It was originally named the “Stuart Range Opal Mines” after the explorer John McDouall Stuart, who narrowly missed the area in 1858 when he circled the present site of Coober Pedy and named the range after himself.

Coober Pedy is a combination of two Aboriginal words, Kupaka and Piti, which, when combined, mean a white man in a hole. Kupaka is a Mutuntjarra word for white man, and Piti an Antakirinja word for hole. The name Coober Pedy was selected on 26 June 1920, from four proposed names by a newly formed progress committee

Coober Pedy Early Years

Barry Lindner, President of the Mintabie Progress Association, and later the South Australia Opal Miners’ Association (SAOMA) and former Department of Minerals and Energy Resources, became guarantors for rehabilitation of ‘diggings’, with funds collected from a bond levied on each miner taking out a lease near Lambina. This streamlined the process, but there was still a large amount of paperwork involved.

The discovery of opal within 20 centimetres of the surface at the Eight Mile in 1945 by Toddy Bryant, an Aboriginal woman, caused a great sensation and was a turning point in the field’s history. It went a long way towards establishing Coober Pedy’s future prosperity.

Toddy and her white husband, Charlie, could keep their find concealed until January 1946, when they struck their first big patch. Before word leaked out and the rush was on, they had been able to secretly sell five parcels of magnificent opal to Jack Kemp, Ernie Sherman’s field agent. Within days of receiving the last parcel, Ernie and Greg Sherman arrived on the field and bought the balance of Toddy’s opal for £2,000.

With the discovery of the adjoining Boomerang Shallows, the Eight Mile proved to be an exceptional field, producing extraordinary quantities of opal over several claims. In 1956, the field spread up the hill after the discovery of the “Olympic Australis” by Frank Tethridge and Bert Wilson, a gem that weighed 143 ounces which they sold to Greg Sherman 

Beginning the Adventure

During a taped interview with Frank Tethridge, he told me how they discovered the famous opal. He said: “Bert Wilson was an experienced miner from Andamooka and Coober Pedy who had been involved in Toddy Bryant’s Eight Mile rush. An elderly man lived in a dugout next to me and was known locally as the King of Opal and could almost smell opal in the ground. At the time, I knew little about the game, as I had been on the field only a few months when we teamed up to work together. He took me out to the Eight Mile where two of his teenage sons had been working some 20-foot ground seven years earlier but had pulled out after they discovered a large brown snake in the mine.”

Snakes and Opal At Coober Pedy

It wasn’t until I was about to go down the old shaft that he warned me of the snake. I said, ‘Surely it couldn’t be still alive after seven years, but it was.

I have never seen such a skinny snake in all my life. Well over six feet in length, it was coiled up so peacefully, looking at me in surprise. But there was no room for both of us down there. I quickly came up, got the gun and shot it, only wounding it in the neck. It came straight at me and was almost at the end of the gun barrel before I killed it.”

Sinking a Shaft

“Bert was well past his mining days, so I had to do all the digging. This didn’t bother me, as he stayed on top to wind the windlass whenever I needed him. I gave the hole a fair trial, finding only a few traces before I said to him, I’m tired of working this hole. I would like to sink a new one’. He suggested an area near where old Victor Wilson had found a large patch of potch and colour during the original rush.

He said he had been getting the opal off a large slide which he thought was still running, so why don’t we go out about 50 yards in front of where Victor finished and sink there, which we did.”

“Looking around, I saw a depression in the ground, about a foot deep, filled with saltbush, and I said,’ What about here?’ and he said,’ Ha, we might as well, it’s near enough. Picking up a shovel, he jumped in and began scraping out the saltbush. He threw out six or eight small snakes in the first few shovels and jumped out quick. We set fire to the rest of the saltbush to make sure there were no more snakes hiding there.”

A Surprising result

“I started sinking, and at 28 feet, I bottomed right on top of the ‘Olympic Australis’ in the soft level, yes, right on top of it. There was no sign of the usual traces associated with opal, no, not one little bit. It was all by itself sitting on top of two other 80 ounces and four 60 ounce stones, besides a few other stones all within a square yard. It’s hard to believe, but after a lot of work, that’s all we got out of the whole claim, just one rich pocket without any traces.”

First Opal Buyer To Coober Pedy

Both Sherman and Brady claimed to be the first buyer to visit Coober Pedy. According to Ernie Sherman, his first visit was in 1919. He left a record of his trip; Brady never did. The following story was written by Greg Sherman from his father’s records of the event and gave an insight into life on the field.


‘Journeying to the Stuart Range Opal Field by my father Ernie from Sydney in 1919 entailed a considerable amount of time and rough living. Leaving Sydney on the Melbourne Express at 7.30 in the evening and arriving the following day at 2 p.m. left little time to relax before boarding the train again at 4 p.m. for Adelaide, arriving there at 11 o’clock the following morning.”

“From there, he took the Northern Territory train to Quorn, arriving there that same evening, where the train stayed for the night. There was no nightly service due to line failure, and the train only ran three times a week. Dust storms were a common occurrence, and the rails often disappeared under shifting sands. This meant all hands, including passengers, getting to work with shovels conveniently carried on the train so it could proceed.”


Luxuriating in heat

“Leaving Quorn about eight in the morning and travelling at no more than 20 miles per hour with a summer heat of 110 in the shade, Ernie was glad to reach Hergott Springs the following evening, where he could have a comfortable sleep in the hotel. It was a rather superior hotel to that usually encountered those days in the outback, and he always looked forward to staying there on his many trips.’

“After breakfast the following morning, they left for William Creek, but the trip was not without its mishaps. The engine left the tracks, which meant a three-hour delay while all hands got to work with lifting jacks and sleepers. Only then to be greeted on arrival at William Creek with a violent dust storm billowing across the plains, picking up whatever happened to be in its path. Hardly knowing what to do, Ernie debated whether to remain in the carriage or perhaps take the risk and make a dash for it and be hit by flying debris or, even worse, become lost in the dust. He decided to try his luck and make a dash for it and, to his surprise, reached the galvanised iron shed in one piece, which was William Creek Station, 100 yards away.”

A New Day

“The name above the door, ‘Dewdrop Inn’, could be seen once in a while through the choking dust and was a thankful sight. Grateful to be inside, he unrolled his swag on the earthen floor next to the bar for the night. After boiling the billy early next morning and refreshing himself with food from his tucker bag, which he had repurchased at the Quorn store, he now left the train for a five-day journey of 110 miles over sandhills and stony plains for the opal field. Fortunately, at William Creek, he was able to join a camel team of 12 with a wagon of supplies for the field.”

Trains And Camels Transport To Coober Pedy

“The first 50 miles were heavy going for the camels as they struggled to pull the wagon up and across the sandhills. He also found that sandhills made a comfortable and warm bed at night to sleep on. The remaining 60 miles consisted of wide plains covered with loose weatherworn gibbers in places as closely packed as cobblestone roads. Wherever possible, stunted saltbush had put down roots in crevices, making a pleasant break to the scenery.”

“Ernie was just as pleased to have reached his destination as were the 20 or so diggers to see someone from the outside world, especially when they could replenish their stores from the team as supplies were running short. Having previously met many of the miners on other opal and goldfields, he was soon invited to share a dugout with two of them. It was too hot for tents, and there was no bush to build a shelter from. Much of the mining had been done by tunnelling into low hills, which also made good living quarters which kept the hot outside temperature down.”

Coober Pedy Dugouts

“The dugout which Ernie shared went in 15 feet before opening out into three chambers; it was the best on the field, whereas most of the diggers were content with just one room for sleeping, the cooking being done outside in the open. This was not a problem as much of their diet consisted of tinned food, although they had been able to procure fresh meat during the winter months. It had come about when one of the diggers expressed his willingness to supply them with meat for 1/2 a pound from the nearest cattle station, almost 100 miles away, provided they loaned him a couple of their camels to carry the meat on. Most of them owned two or more of these beasts.”

A delicious treat?

“Being winter and moving the camels along, the meat kept sufficiently long enough to enable him to reach camp, where the men salted it down and then hung it out in their dugouts. It was a pleasant change from the ordinary fare of tinned meat. Of course, having been packed and unpacked and carried on the camels for three or four days, it meant that when the meat did arrive, it was hard to say what type it exactly was. 

Ernie was fortunate enough to arrive before the butcher had made his last trip for the winter, and all remarked on the tenderness of the meat. However, an elderly digger, who used to spend his Sundays mending and washing his shirt whenever he could spare the water, tried his hand at cooking a brownie, [a bushman’s cake], but happened to mention to some of the diggers that although he had melted down some fat from the meat to make dripping for the brownie, it wouldn’t set. Whereupon one of the miners burst out laughing. After recovering, he said he had always had his doubts about the meat, but now he was convinced horse fat would never set!”

The cost of Living

Instead of going to the station and paying £8 to £10 a head for a beast, he was shooting brumbies, [wild horses] in the station’s vicinity. Naturally, this paid him handsomely until the cat was let out of the bag, giving Coober Pedy’s first butcher a short business life.’

“The cost of living was expensive. Water and food had to be carried over long distances. Ernie stayed on the field for several months, during which time there was no rain. The nearest waterhole was 42 miles away and water, costing £4 per 100 gallons, had to be carted from there by camels. Clothing was a small part of the miner’s budget, which helped compensate for the high cost of everything else. The average wardrobe consisted of a well-patched pair of dungaree trousers, boots, a hat and a couple of singlets, which would get an occasional dry wash by hanging them out overnight to air.

The clean shirt, when needed, would be brought out from under the pillow, which usually consisted of stuffed leaves and herbage gathered from around the camp. Before being put on, it was given a good shake to remove last week’s dust and replaced under the pillow by the shirt he was wearing, which would remain there until the following Sunday, the usual washing day when the same routine would be repeated. Of course, if it happened to rain sufficiently to fill all their water containers and utensils within reach, then there would be a real washing day.”

How much opal he bought during his first trip apparently has not been recorded, but it was the beginning of big business from the new field for his firm. He was also the first buyer to visit Andamooka.

Written By: Len Cram