The Last Claim
I had just finished the exhilarating task of digging out a large pocket of exquisite opal from our Prize Fighter claim. It was towards the end of the year and I was on an absolute high.
Not all those at Mintabie were feeling the same. There had been no new fields discovered for some time and the extremities of the known fields were reaching the point where a lot of claims on the edges were unprofitable.
There was a sense that unless new ground was found soon, many miners would be forced to look elsewhere, or even more daunting, get “a normal job”.
Opal miners are an optimistic mob. They have to be to last the distance between pockets and Mintabie had been kind to them for more than a decade. Many thought the good times would never end. Now the gaps were not only becoming longer but many miners were exhausting their claims and were unsure of the future with no new rushes to accommodate their dreams.
My next door neighbour, who owned a large expensive bulldozer, had finished three claims in a row, taking an entire year and barely finding enough opal to cover the diesel. At a barbeque before we left for the Christmas break he was agonising whether to finish mining or mortgage his house to continue. Not in a position to advise I was quietly thinking there is no point agonising and no choice… keep the house! It was with this underlying current in the community we left for Canberra for the break and the arrival of our second child due early in the New Year.
Back to my second life and Mineshaft was gearing up for the Christmas trade. There is always a backlog of pressing issues and endless queries with customer requests for those special gifts. Our shop always stocked a great variety of gems, crystals, carvings and countless collectables all cut from gemstones. We are asked for all types of items for that special gift. We try hard to find whatever item is needed but it takes time and a lot of work after shop hours. All this was fine except I really, REALLY wanted to cut some of our prize fighter Opal. I think I managed to finish a couple before Christmas and they were so special I found it hard to spend time tracking down things like a tiger eye tiger or a matched pair of rectangular lapis for cufflinks. I knew when our new baby arrived I would be preoccupied for some time.
Christmas came and went and on the 25/1/92 our second child was born. Sam, of course was the most beautiful baby born in Canberra for many years. We all fell immediately in love with him and with an elder brother and two doting sisters to spoil him he settled in quickly. Peppa the mining dog would sit as close to whoever was holding the new baby and steal a quick lick when no one was looking. Goes to show even the toughest out there loves a baby.
After Easter the car was loaded with enough disposable nappies and supplies to last our next period at Mintabie. Not enough room to swing a dead cat and even Peppa had to resort to three point turns if she needed to move. It is a long 3000 kilometres with a packed car and a small baby but eventually we arrived. Peppa took off in her customary thousand different directions with her nose working overtime to check her territory and chase any lizard or undesirable off it. After her obligatory inspection she would settle down beside the crib to protect her new baby. From then on the first thing Peppa would do each time she came back to camp was search the house, find Sam and settle down as close as she could.
I had no idea where l would be mining. The Bits and Pieces claim was exhausted and I didn’t know if Stafford had any other adventures hidden in his achieves. So with a little trepidation I went around to his camp for a chat. It had been quite a few months since we were here and in my absence Stafford had loaned his bobcat to a group of miners who were working a good claim and were giving him a fair percentage. It was working out well for both parties so I would be back to hand mining. He had just one claim with a chance. Located in Crystal Valley it was off to the side of the main run. There had been Opal found a couple of claims away but nothing else much to go on. Stafford’s prospecting drill had drilled a little potch but you wouldn’t write home about it. There was a shaft in the middle of the claim and it would be easy to set up my Self tipping hoist.
Self tipping hoists were invented in the early 1960’s in Lightning Ridge and became really popular as it made small scale opal miners self sufficient and able to control the dumping of the dirt automatically from a switch underground. Each time the hoist is activated the bucket travels up the shaft using the outside of the steel ladders as “railway lines”. When it reaches the surface it travels up a curved frame which inverts the bucket emptying it and returns to the bottom of the shaft ready for the next trip. The dirt from the face of the drive is wheel barrowed and tipped in to the bucket.
I purchased my tipper from Ray, a local miner/mechanic. Ray had worked with Robert and I a few years ago and we got on well. Everything he made was slightly “over the top” in that it was always better made, heavy duty and calibrated perfectly. As far as I know his tipper is still working, thirty years after purchasing it.
This was the first time I would be mining alone underground with an automatic hoist. The main danger when you have only one shaft is if the bucket gets stuck on the journey to the surface. There is only one ladder and it is impossible to get past a stuck bucket and dangerous if it frees itself and comes back down with you underneath. I organised with another miner a few hundred meters away to keep an eye on the hoist and if he didn’t see the bucket going up and down to come and check. It took a couple of days to set the hoist up and very quickly I could see the ground was not really enticing. It was too uniform; there were no hard bands and no ‘change’ of ground to facilitate the formation of a pocket. But still, I did a couple of long drives beside two anaemic looking slips in the hope something would change. The total result was a few pieces of a millimetre thick sick looking “sugary” potch.
I do recall working the hoist and needing to go to the toilet urgently. So as not to smell out the mine I carefully squatted on top of the almost full bucket and deposited an extra load on top. Pressing the button to send the bucket to the top I casually sauntered back to the face when I heard from up top a very loud “Bloody $#%@* SHIT.” I had startled a noodler checking my dirt up top. Perhaps he picked up a nugget instead of the crystal gem he was hoping to find but at least I gave him something to think about. I had no idea I had anyone up top because the ground was worse than miserable and didn’t even look like hosting any opal.
I was not going to waste any more time so Stafford and I decided our initial agreement had been accomplished and so it was time to make a new start like so many other miners at this time.
I liked the ground at the Bits and Pieces claim and the fault running through it was very strong. There had been a large pocket of brilliant opal found along it by a previous miner and I had found several very small pockets along adjacent faults. I believed there could still be a chance further along the main fault. Stafford had cut the claim directly in front of it. The main fault continued under the ramp of Stafford’s cut and under the sand dune to the north.
I borrowed an old Bobcat from another miner who was not using it and he demanded forty percent which I felt was a little tilted in his favour. I had no choice as I would need to move dirt a long way and the area could not be mined by shaft because of the sand dune on top.
I started work and it wasn’t long before I was over forty meters in and finding single pieces of opal but not much of value. I was dumping a load outside when I ran over a bump and sparks started coming from the wiring on the bobcat. Not being a mechanic I could only watch as the short circuit simply burnt out the wiring in front of me. The owner was not concerned and said he had a good run out of it and came and picked it up. He said he would fix it “some time” but was not in a hurry. So that was the end of that adventure and I began to think of any other areas I could try.
I did have a long standing claim I had not worked. I paid an incredible amount of money to renew it every year for many years. It was a claim pegged on a dream and not with solid geological reasoning. It was right at the end of crystal valley and there had been no big finds nearby. I originally pegged it on the strength of some paper thin trace found on two prospecting holes. The trace was vibrant multi-colour “knock your eye out colour”. The dream of thick material like that sent my emotional imagination in to a cartwheel so I had kept the claim for many years hoping the game of “Opal chess” would entice more claims down that end of the field to check out the surrounding ground and help me to determine if, in fact, there was a good chance of opal before spending a lot of my own money. Unfortunately the main run of Opal never made it down that far so it would be a claim with a gamble.
I decided to invest in two shafts some distance apart and check the claim out in two main areas. I could only work the top level because the water table in this area was quite high and was currently settling just under the floor of the first level. In years to come it dropped several meters and it was possible to mine the lower levels but I was long gone by then.
The ground was interesting with lots of slips and scattered hard bands. The only trouble was there was no keepable opal. I kept coming across sandstone literally painted with bright, extremely thin opal. It all crumbled in to dust and I found nothing I could keep. I continued with cross drives and connected with the other shaft. When I had completed this I was pretty sure there would not be any sizeable pockets to be found (At least on this level).
It was decision time and it was made quickly and without much emotion.
Mintabie had been good to me and provided memories and experiences to last a lifetime.
I had lived almost twelve years there, mined on all the main fields and made some incredible finds. We had been members of a vibrant, optimistic community of individuals who all shared the same passion. I could tell it was time to leave. I didn’t want to endure the inevitable down turn in opal production and the decline of a town that had given us so much. I did return to Mintabie to enter a lottery for new claims when the airport was finally relocated. I did not win a claim but felt my decision to leave when I did was validated.
All good things have to come to an end and this was one of the the best.
Opal mining is a disease and relapses occur frequently but more of that in the future.
1/ Peter Noakes took over our claim and camp.
2/ The watch belonged to my dad and I purchased the actual watch centre piece from Peter Noakes. It is faced with opal from my last claim…..the one I found no opal in. Every time I look at it I remember my dad and my passion for opal.
3/ The Bits and Pieces extention remained unworked.