Opal dreaming

Sophia Darzanos takes a look at the Greek influence on the opal mining town of Coober Pedy

They migrated to Coober Pedy in large numbers, leaving their homes and families in Greece for one purpose: to strike it rich. Many Greek migrants risked everything they had – even their lives – all to find valuable opals. Some were lucky; others not so much.

Coober Pedy known as the ‘Opal Capital of the World’ is located in South Australia, 846 kilometres north of Adelaide on the Stuart Highway. ‘Kupa Piti’ comes from the Aboriginal words meaning ‘White Man in a Hole’ in the language of the Kokatha people, the traditional owners of the area. Some of the largest opal mines can be found there. And in the ’60s and ’70s, everyone had opal fever.

The dry and hot conditions of Coober Pedy make it almost unbearable in the summer time, let alone work in the sun all day, however, for most people the single thing on their mind was mining for opals. Opal mining expanded rapidly due to the many European migrants who came to seek their fortunes. The ’60s and ’70s saw opal mining develop into a multi-million dollar industry with Coober Pedy developing into a modern mining town.

Between 1960 and 1970 Greek migration to Coober Pedy was at its peak, boasting the strongest community at the time with over 1000 Greeks. Many of the migrants had heard of Coober Pedy from relatives who went back to Greece after living there or from friends who had tried their luck mining and were somewhat successful.

Yianni Athanasiadis, owner of Umoona Opal Mine and Museum in Coober Pedy remembers when he first heard of the mining town. His uncle was visiting family in Greece, which included a young Athanasiadis. He had lived in Coober Pedy for four years and was lucky to have made some money out of mining opals.

“Upon visiting he had told me about Coober Pedy and how if you were lucky you could find a lot of opal and become quite rich once returning back to Greece, as back then it was still the drachma so the exchange between the currencies was big,” Athanasiadis tells Neos Kosmos.

One major draw card for Greeks migrating to Coober Pedy was the thought that one day they would find opals worth a lot of money. The chance of a big find was rare but true, many recall the stories of the well known Christianos find and that was what kept them coming. Although the work was hard and little income was made, these men kept at it hoping to find that large and elusive opal deposit. Keeping in mind that once these migrants arrived to Australia they had little money to spare, partnership was the best way for them to succeed. They would then do what ever they could for that extra bit of money.

“There were three of us in partnership, Big Steve Smirnios, Jim Voliotis and myself. We used whatever savings we had to start us off by purchasing equipment to be able to mine,” Nick ‘Tarzan’ Darzanos tells Neos Kosmos of his early start in opal mining.

“Back in those days big machinery for this sort of mining was too expensive to purchase, so we used hand held winches, explosives and jack hammers to create the underground mines. “We had enough money to last us about seven to eight years, we used to find some money in opals $500 one day, $1000 the next week, it kept us going but it was nothing much. When we did find some opals we cleaned, priced and sold them for what we thought they were worth, the price depended on the opal and its quality. We never really found anything worth big money but we kept hoping for that one major find,” said Darzanos.

“The only way I made some money was from mining and selling opals worth something; otherwise in the summer time I would go back to Melbourne for two or three months and find work there anywhere I could and then head back to Coober Pedy. A lot of us used to go pick seasonal fruits and tomatoes for farmers for extra money, in those days it was very hard, but we kept at it for as long as we could,” says Jordan ‘Moutso’ Agelidis.

“We never had proper houses, we lived in shacks; water was stored in large drums that we had to drive to collect and there was no electricity connected, but we still enjoyed the life. Miners around us would find some good opals, so we all hoped that one day we would get lucky in finding some as well,” said Mr Angelidis.

Mr Darzanos recalls the life for the Greeks in Coober Pedy: “Back in the ’70s when I was in Coober Pedy, the Greeks stuck together and did as much as we could to keep our culture and traditions alive. We had a kafenio and a Greek restaurant amongst other Greek businesses. The Greek style of living came with all of us who migrated to Coober Pedy. Our first Greek Glendi held at the Greek hall saw over 1000 people attend the event. The women were working in the kitchens along with the men that were cooking, we had our local Greek band entertaining us and we even formed a dance group and wore our traditional costumes to dance in.”

Mr Athanasiadis said he “never did leave from Coober Pedy straight away because of all the Greeks that were there. “We were all young, 20’s to mid 30’s, everywhere we went it was all Greeks. We had our friends and they were great company. There were two Greek restaurants that never closed, we would eat at the Acropolis restaurant and pass our time together, which until today it still running. We had two Greek supermarkets that had everything we needed, to this day most of the opal shops are still run by Greeks.”

“We were all working together to support each other,” adds Mr Angelidis. “We built a Greek community hall; we even had a Greek school for the kids and a Greek Church. We all put in money to build these venues but as a community we also volunteered to build them ourselves. This is what kept us unified and kept the Greek spirit alive.”

After many years of trying their luck in opal mining people started to leave, for various reasons. Some simply had no luck in finding that elusive opal. There were those that didn’t want to raise their children in the desert, and in some instances their children needed to further their studies. There were many reasons as to why the 1000 strong numbers started to decline and fast. The Greek community in Coober Pedy today is made up of no more than 100 people.

“I went with the hope to make money, I spent 10 years in Coober Pedy. I made little money, so it wasn’t worth continuing. Many of us left after a while, the mining ways had started to change and the big boys with their machines came in so I packed it all up and moved to Adelaide and started my family and that was the end of my Coober Pedy era,” said Mr Darzanos.

Mr Athanasiadis said the Greek community today does very little. “We no longer have the numbers nor the physical strength or time to put big events on. We have a BBQ every Thursday and bingo on Fridays that the Greek community puts on that is attended by 50 to 60 people from Coober Pedy, not only Greeks. It would be great and I would love to see another Glendi happen just like the old days with all those who left come back for a weekend. We had put on a few Glendi events few years back with dancing groups and bands from Adelaide coming to entertain, however that soon stopped as well.”

“We never forgot our traditions or our culture, on festive days we would attend church and hold ceremonies for 25th March and 28th October, however the Greek kids here in Coober Pedy have grown up differently to how we did so it is unfortunate to say we no longer do this and the lack of numbers makes it even harder. As long as there is a Coober Pedy there will always be Greeks,” said Mr Athanasiadis.

Coober Pedy may be further than a quick road trip, however, its unique beauty and potential riches are like nowhere else in the world. Underground living, a large multicultural community and prized colourful gems make it a remote red paradise. Although this dry desert town may be tough at times it was home to many migrants and still remains their home today. Unlike those who left, others decided never to leave and still call Coober Pedy home.

“I had the best time of my life with all the boys in the mines and the way of living, it was simple and challenging that’s what made it worth going on. 40 years later and I am still living in Coober Pedy. I am happily retired, I figured wherever I move it will be the same for me however, I have been calling Coober Pedy home for this long why leave now,” said Mr Angelidis.

Umoona Opal Mine and Underground Museum is one of the busiest businesses in Coober Pedy, with tour groups booking years in advance to visit. Owner Yianni Athanasiadis said “the only job I know is working with opals, I can’t just leave my business and friends and go. After 40 years of living in Coober Pedy I find it very hard to leave, it has its own beauty that I appreciate, I’m happy when I go for holidays around Australia but I get excited knowing I’m coming home.”