Mineshaft Blog

Peters Story Part 26

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.

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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.

Bits and pieces claim

Bits and pieces claim

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.

sanddune

Sanddune on the way to the last claim

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.

Opal watch made from opal from my last claim

Opal watch made from opal from my last claim

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.

 

P.S.

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.

 

From Rough Opal Stone to Polished Opal Gem

This page features 5 videos that take you through the process of turning a rough opal stone into four high quality opal gemstones. The five videos cover cutting the rough opal stone, dopping the opal (the sensible and easy way), shaping the opal and the polishing of the finished opal gemstones.

1. Sawing The Rough Opal Stone

Before deciding how to cut your rough opal stone, first take the skin off the so you can get an idea of the location and quality of the colour bars. Once you have removed the skin, and inspect the opal, you will have a better idea on how many and what size the pieces of opal will be. You may even want to go as far as sketching some pencil lines on the rough opal stone to help guide you before making the final decision on how to cut the stone. In the video below, based on over 50 years experience, Peter quickly decides that to get the best value from this stone, he will cut it into four pieces.

When looking at the opal, hold it up to the light and inspect for cracks and imperfections such as sand as you will ideally want to remove these during the cutting stage. You obviously do not want a crack or a grain of sand spoiling and devaluing the finished opal gemstone.

The first rough opal stone in the video is a relatively thin stone, and this also influences Peter in his decision to cut multiple smaller gemstones. If you are cutting rough opal stones for commercial purposes, you also want to get as much yield as possible.

You will notice that Peter checks the opal stone under the light between each cut. This helps confirm or modify his initial thoughts on how and where to cut to get the best finished opal gemstones.

The second stone is thicker but only has a thin colour bar, so at first glance he feels that it would be most suitable for two stones that would form a matching pair rather than leaving it as one large stone. However before deciding on how to cut the stone, he first gives it a rough sand to remove the rubbish and get a better look at the colour bars.

The third stone contains low grade opal that will not produce gemstone quality opals but will cut into 10-15 smaller commercially saleable stones.

Once the saw has been used to cut the rough opal stone to the desired number of pieces, the cut stones are then roughly shaped on the course grinding wheel, then moving to the fine grinding wheel to get it close to the finished shape before dopping the opal for the final sanding.

During this process a decision is made which will be the top and the bottom of the finished gemstone, based on where the best colour bars are.

2. Dopping The Opal Ready For Shaping

Dopping the opal is a process of attaching the rough opal stone to a dopping stick using dopping wax. For this purpose Peter prefers to use three inch (75 mm) bullet headed nails of varying gauges. Although some use small wooden stocks, Peter prefers the nails as they are thin and always even allowing the greatest control of movement and spinning of the opal while sanding and polishing.

It is important to warm both the opals and the nails to maximum safe touch temperature. The wax should be melted but not liquid. A sticky paste consistency is best.

Place all your opal stones on the hotplate base up. Dip the tip of the nail into the hot dopping wax and then push it gently onto the back of the upturned opal stone. Check that the opal stone is firmly affixed and sitting perfectly square on the dopping stick. It is a good idea to wet your fingers before doing this as the wax will be at a temperature high enough to “hurt like hell” as Peter knows from experience.

On a cold day, you may find that the opal falls off the dopping stick occasionally as the adhesive properties of the wax is reduced. The day we filmed this, snow had settled on Peter’s car parked outside his garage. We also had the door open to get enough light to film the dopping process. During the filming of the sanding and polishing, the opals actually came off the sticks several times, but those sections were edited out.

3. Sanding and Shaping The Opal Stones

Once you have the opal stones firmly attached to the dopping sticks, you are now ready for the sanding and shaping of the opal. This is the most time consuming part and needs to be done using a gentle hand. Too much pressure and you could ruin a good opal gemstone. This is especially true if it is a high quality, valuable opal gemstone as you want to keep every carat possible.

The first stage is to remove the bumps and refine the basic shape of the opal. This is done on the fine grinding wheel. You will notice that Peter stops often to check the opal under the light.

Once Peter is happy with the shape, he moves on to the course sander. This process is a final shaping and removal of the grinding marks. It is vital that you keep the stone spinning and moving at all times so you don’t end up with flat spots that will ruin the opal and require you to go back to the grinder. Gentle gentle touch is the important word here.

Then on to the medium sander to remove the sanding marks left by the course sander. At this point you should not be needing to change the shape at all. The last chance you had to get it right was on the course sander. Here the words light and gentle are emphasised once more as it the constant movement.

Next is the fine sander. This is normally the most time consuming part and you need to get rid of all the fine sanding marks left by the medium sander. The more care you take with this final sand, the better the polish will be and the more beautiful the final opal gemstone will appear. You can push harder at this stage because on the find sander you are not going to grind the stone. However it is still important to keep moving.

Stop often and dry the stone before looking under the light. With a dry stone you should be getting a good reflection under the light while you are looking for any remaining scratches.

4. Polishing The Opal Gemstone

Polishing is done on a rotating disk, using a high quality leather pad on a rubber backing pad.

The polishing compound Peter uses is a Tin Oxide, mixed to a slurry with about 70% water and 30% methylated spirits.

There is no skill in this process. You can’t over polish the opal gemstone at this stage. No harm can be done unless you let the polishing compound dry out. You MUST keep it wet. Keep a spray bottle beside you at all times and constantly spray the polishing wheel to keep the compound and pad wet.

Once the polishing process is complete, you need to remove the polished opal gemstone from the dopping stick. A little tip Peter has for this is to put them in the freezer for a few minutes which hardens the wax and the polished opals can then more easily be removed.

5. Sanding The Back Of The Opal Ready For Setting

This is a relatively simple and short process but still an important part. You need to flatten the back of the finished opal gemstone and a small bezel ready for the goldsmith or silversmith to set into a ring or pendant. Due to the high quality of the four finished opal gemstones produced during the filming of this video, they will be set in gold and offered for sale as a matching set. Once the goldsmith has set them, I will add some photos of the finished opal gemstone jewellery.

Rare Opal Pattern

Rare Opal Pattern
Rare Black Opal

Sometimes an opal cutter comes across some rare opal that has an unusual pattern. These opals are both rare and unique. Peter cut one of these rare opals recently. The rare opal pictured below, weighs 14 carats and measures 30 mm by 20 mm.

Rare opal patterns in large stones are not cut often and for a cutter can be a heart-pounding discovery. This opal demonstrates it was deposited in several stages. The first is the black potch. This was formed and then brecciated and re cemented with a flow of precious opal. This precious opal is very bright with sections of vivid orange, yellow and green. There are also small amounts of Turquoise blue. When the stone is moved the colours dance. The opal was mined at the Old Field of Mintabie in the remote desert of South Australia many years ago. This is the best of six rare opals that Peter has recently cut. The others are all beautiful and have predominantly green colour cementing the black potch. There are still four more pieces to cut, however peter has decided to keep these in the rough because of the rarity and to show as a comparison.

Rare Opal with a unusual patern

Rare Black Opal

The Story of Australia Documentary

Mineshafts’ participation in The Story of Australia… documentary aired in China to 21 million viewers.

Peter  (Owner of Mineshaft) was invited to be part of this documentary. One of the six parts was on mining in Australia and a large section of this was on opal. Peter was interviewed in the shop and later filmed cutting opal at his workshop. Mineshaft was the only opal dealer to be invited to participate. A great honour and endorsement for our business The Story of Australia.  We are very proud to be able to inform you that the series has now gone to air in China on CCTV to an audience of over 21 million!  As the first formal co-production between CCTV Documentary Channel and an Australian company the project represents an initiative of great significance to both countries. Throughout six half-hour episodes The Story of Australia travels all over the continent and highlights Australia’s agricultural products, the mining industry, overseas students in Australia, city life and the stories of famous Chinese-Australians. Through these stories we review the relationship between Australia and China and look to its future. The series has been received very well in China with series co-director Serge Ou attending the official launch in Beijing on Thursday 29 August.  Also in attendance at the launch President CCTV, Mr Luo Ming, Vice President CCTV Documentary Channel, Mr Shi Yan and the Australian Ambassador to China, Her Excellency Ms Frances Adamson. Please find attached to this email a picture from the launch.

 

Selenite Wands – New Shipment

Selenite Wands – New Shipment
SELENITE WAND Code 20394899 A$15

These are of the very best quality Selenite Wands and we are letting them go for a ridiculously low only $15 each. Don’t just “wander” about it come and pick a few up.

SELENITE WAND Code 20394899 A$15

Selenite Wand – Code 20394899 – A$15

Selenite Wand - Code 20394899 - A$15

Selenite Wand – Code 20394899 – A$15

 

 

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Peter’s Story Part 25

The prize fighter claim – Part 2

I felt on top of the world and digging out breathtaking opal in our newly named “Prize-fighter Claim”. The opal seam was becoming wider by the day and there was some wonderful opal amongst it. I had already taken several buckets to Stafford’s camp for storage so knew the value of the pocket was building nicely.

Opal stretched the entire front of the drive and was now running for over two meters on the right hand side. The left hand side was barren but it was only a meter in from the wall of the finished bulldozer cut. I was faced with the delicious dilemma of being able to choose which section and where to continue the chase.

I had dug out several pockets of opal over the years and was well aware they always come to an end and it would more than likely be a long time before I might be in a similar position. With this in mind it was time to “smell the roses” and savour the moment. Stan and I looked at the opal in the wall and marvelled at the beauty presented before us. The variation in colour and thickness was truly amazing and there were many individual gems winking at us as if to say “dig me out first”!

The opal was semi crystal opal with a nice variety of colour changing throughout the pocket. Orange and green mixed well, particularly in the thinner opal. The occasional break or change in the hard band seemed to alter the pattern within the opal so we were digging out a range of opal which made the mining even more enjoyable.

When beautiful opal is dug out and put in the bucket many pieces demand a closer look and the dust has to be removed by a quick lick. This can result in small cuts to the tongue from the sharp edges of the opal. These cuts accumulate with the bigger pockets and the pain can be excruciating. A painful tongue is a good thermometer and testimony to the quality and size of the pocket. I am sure if Isaac Newton had been an opal miner he would have devised a new law of physics to cover it.

Stan had dug out many pockets from his days of mining at Mintabie and he recalled some of his memorable moments. Our conversation was remarkable in recalling dreams already fulfilled and dreams in process. The “here and now” was combining with the “done and dusted” fuelled by the adrenalin rush of the “what’s to come”.

My only regret today is I did not take more photo’s, particularly of the opal in the wall. Many years later I can close my eyes, smell the ground and mentally drift to one of the most breath taking scenarios I have seen. Perhaps it is the sheer quantity of dirt between each pocket or perhaps it is hind sight placing their discovery in true perspective for they become even more remarkable over the years. Opal pockets are the driving force behind every opal miner, most of whom may never experience an actual find of a decent size. In any case I value the experience amongst the best in my life and I will always dream of finding another one.

As is the case with the hard ground at Mintabie the opal thickness varies across the face. Where the opal thinned the colour was vibrantly bright and when it became thicker the colour was not quite as bright. Every few feet there were sections with some beautiful gems and all totally sandwiched between thick siliceous sandstone. It would not be easy prying any of the opal from its grip. In fact most would have to be removed with some hard band attached and sawn out later. We discussed the choices and directions we could take, even to which section with “whatever” gem appealed to us most.

Reality made the decision in the end. With my bruised blue knuckles and aching shoulders I was beginning to look for weaknesses in the opposition and the easiest section to attack rather than the prettiest. This would be a victory on points after a hard fight. I was not in a hurry and I knew we could get every small piece rather than rush after the best stones. A systematic approach was the professional way. There would be enough time to look at the individual gems later.

The slog was on and I settled down for the grind, deciding to continue in the same direction running parallel to the finished cut where the ground seemed a little more fractured parallel to the seam. At least there were entry points for the jack hammer which allowed me to pry slabs of the hard band away from the opal seam. I would turn right and head towards the prospecting hole later. The ground in that direction was looking ominously solid with hard band up to half a meter in thickness with few attacking points and very little room for error.

Peppa the mining dog had become used to all the attention of the noodlers who arrived early every day and stayed until dark. She would check the ranks on a regular basis collecting her allotment of pats and then settle down at the front of the drive to snooze with one eye open and both eyes primed. She would occasionally saunter in to the mine to check if all was well with the workers and whilst everything was under her management plan she was a most contented canine. At the end of these hard days I would stop by Nobby’s shop and buy both of us a hard earned chocolate paddle pop. Peppa knew when this was going to happen as her mouth would open and shut and hers eyes would be wide open as she waited patiently in the back of the mining truck.

We continued parallel to the old cut for several meters battling the entire way. Every five gallon drum of material was earned with many bumps and “Hail Marys”. I was beginning to forget what clean fists looked like. The opal on the right stopped along a fault line and the parameters of the drive we would be making were beginning to take shape. The opal continued ahead but was pinching out in the hardening siliceous sandstone and we could tell it would be ending soon.

It was a wonderful feeling knowing when this drive had yielded all its prizes we still had a section to go probably stretching to the prospecting hole where the dream started. Each night I delivered the opal to Stafford’s. We filled up our first forty gallon drum and started on the next. Each day before heading back to camp I heated and belted the jack hammer picks back to a good working shape as we were blunting them very quickly. With extreme ground they only work efficiently when they are well shaped. When all the work was done it was home for an energy restoring meal and the making of enough explosive shots for the following day. Then it was straight to bed, falling instantly in to a deep sleep punctuated only by the regular technicolour dreams I always seemed to have when I was on opal.

Stafford had his bulldozer “The lucky lady” remove the rubble I had taken out of the mine, giving me more space to dump and manoeuvre the bobcat. We had not expected to have been at this mine for more than a day or two and now it was over a week. We had a seam of opal two meters wide and heading straight towards the prospecting hole which we guessed could be three or so meters away. In any case we still had quite a bit of ground to explore.

With one direction exhausted we started work on the new “treasure drive” towards the prospecting hole. I was now in to a regular pattern of placing two explosive shots in the floor placed at the sides of the drive. An opening shot was placed in the middle a foot above these. This would blow out about a meter of material well below the hard band. The remaining soft sandstone directly underneath the hard siliceous sandstone was removed by jack hammer and taken outside with the bobcat. I would be left with a clean floor and a cave about a meter deep and plenty of ground to continue the fight removing the hard band protecting the opal. Often slabs of the hard band would drop off all the way to the back of the drive and a minor victory would be celebrated. With a lot of effort and the knowledge accumulated along the way I was finding it quicker to remove the hard band and get to the enjoyable part of extracting the opal seam. When as close to the opal as possible the jack hammered hard band was taken out with the bobcat The floor perfectly cleaned and made ready for the dropping of the opal seam. We would have a cup of tea and move with anticipation to the “reward section”.

Stan stood with the light held close to where we were working. I would place the jack hammer a few inches above the opal in any crack or gap in the hard band and push. With rock dust filling the air eventually the hard band would give way and a section of the opal bearing ground would collapse on the floor. We would stop, admire the odd special piece and carefully put all opal in the bucket. The floor would be cleaned again and the procedure repeated until we had dropped all available seam.

The new drive was in about four meters and we were beginning to wonder where the prospecting hole was. No complaints were uttered because we were on opal and the longer it took to find the hole the more opal we would get. I could now spin the bobcat around in the growing cavern we were excavating.

On the side of the drive the hard band was being infiltrated by very black lines and becoming so hard it glistened. The opal ended abruptly against it and was about 4 mm thick with exquisite colour. The good opal was about 3 stones wide and changed to lower quality opal. Never the less it just looked exquisite flashing back at us as Stan moved the light across it. This was going to yield some very special material.

We decided to remove as much ground as possible from underneath the opal and dig further ground from the side of the drive to make the dropping of the hard band possible. This took the best part of half the day and with the precision of a brain surgeon and the best shaped jack hammer we edged as close to the seam as we could. When we dropped the entire seam with the gem opal in the middle any chance of damaging the opal would be minimal. When the moment of truth came the whole section came away easy and the top quality pieces of opal fell away from the hard band intact as if a gift offering from the opal gods. There in our hand we held about 2 ounces of opal with a remarkable quilt patchwork pattern with multiple rolling colours. This opal was way above the average but as is often the case there was just a small amount.

The following shot we broke through to the prospecting hole at the very back at floor level so knew our pocket would be ending soon. As we worked towards the hole the opal ended on both sides and about six inches past the hole finally finished. I continued on a few meters and it was obvious there would be no more opal. It had been a monumental battle and I felt the elation of a prize fighter after a gruelling ten rounds points victory.

Our pocket filled two forty gallon drums with material. It took three of us a week to saw the opal from the hard band and tumble clean the parcel. After grading and dividing I walked away with several bags of wonderful cutting opal and the best memories indelibly imprinted in my brain. The year had ended on a high and we packed up and headed back to Canberra.

Opal solids 2 to 10 carats from our Prize Fighter claim, Mintabie Opal fields

Opal solids 2 to 10 carats from our Prize Fighter claim, Mintabie Opal fields

P.S. A few years later a Mintabie underground miner spent considerable time mining the claim and my information is that very little opal was found.

 

Peter’s Story Part 24

The prize fighter claim

Stafford owned an investigator drilling rig and had been grid drilling a claim he owned beside a successful finished claim. This claim had produced quite a large amount of opal and was in a productive area in the middle of Crystal Valley, one of the prime mining areas at Mintabie. Some of the opal was apparently absolutely breath taking. Stafford’s entire claim was drilled to a depth of around twenty meters with a hole every three meters or so. He had not found anything significant and was drilling the last row of holes right on the edge beside the finished claim. One hole produced a hand full of potch and colour about a centimetre thick. The overall result of the drilling was not good enough to spend time and money cutting the claim with his bulldozer. His gut feeling was to at least check out the potch and colour as it was thick enough to be part of a small pocket. I was working our “Bits and Pieces” claim and although not finding anything significant I was finding enough opal to keep going. Stafford came and saw me, bringing the drilled material with him and a proposal to check it out. The finished claim had been back filled with rubble and he bulldozed a section of this rubble out to allow access to the side of his claim.

Stafford's bulldozer clearing access

Stafford’s bulldozer clearing access

An area about three blades wide and going down forty feet had been cleared. As the opal was close to the side Stafford thought it would only take a day or two to check it out. His offer was 30% for me. I accepted. It was exciting and would be a quick little adventure, with the chance of a small pocket. The trace he drilled did have a little colour and was thick enough to have potential. It only takes a small amount of good opal to make a valuable pocket. We went to have a look and decided to do the job the next weekend and continue with the “Bits and Pieces “claim. Peppa the mining dog loved a change of scenery and I could tell by her excited yapping and tummy rumbles she knew what was going on when I loaded the bobcat on the trailer for the move. I didn’t have to tell her twice to “get in the back”. She sensed we were ready to go and was in the mining truck and yapping me to hurry up. One of the first things she did on a new prospect was to sniff it all over and chase any pesky birds away. For the first day she would bark at anything or anyone who came near. I had learnt from her bark who was who and if they were known to me or not. Once she was comfortable with her new surrounds and confident in her ownership she would settle down under the shade of the mining vehicle and keep watch. She would only venture in to the mine if I had not come out for a longer period than normal. So by Friday night I had the bobcat ready, filled with diesel and outside the face of the claim. The generator set up ready for a full day’s work just up from my proposed drive. I went home and prepared the jack hammer and sharpened the drill tips with an optimistic premonition of a pocket of opal. That night I dreamt in Technicolor. I was at the claim ready to go by first light. I must admit to a “boy hood” like excitement when it came to a new mining adventure. My brain activates an incredible fantasy world and the slightest trace becomes a magnified universe of possibilities. I often wondered if other opal miners suffer the same affliction. There was a fault on the side of the wall I thought may lead to the opal Stafford had drilled so I decided to start my drive there. I drilled 11 holes and put in the nitropril  sausages. Here it goes I thought. First shots, let’s get started and have a look. The gases cleared instantly and at first glimpse opal was sitting in the wall just half a metre in. I think I may have made a bit of a celebratory exclamation as Peppa the mining dog came bounding over with her “excitement” grin placed firmly on her face, ear to ear! With no one else to dance with I gave her the biggest cuddle and set to work picking up pieces of opal dropped out with the dirt from the blast. The quality was better than the opal drilled by Stafford but still mediocre. I didn’t mind because with my optimistic view to mining I just knew it would get better.

Opal-with-hardband-from-the-pocket

Opal-with-hardband-from-the-pocket

Al, a resident professional “noodler”, who I got on with very well, turned up around this time. Al knew the rules and just waited. Once I had moved the dirt with the bobcat it was there for the noodlers to find any missed stones and as far as I was concerned it was good luck to them and a gem saved from being buried again forever. Knowing I was on to a pocket l slowed down and with the respect opal deserves, gathered my thoughts and tried not to get ahead of myself. I needed to pick up each and every piece, remove the rubble, clean and prepare the drive before getting the jack hammer to see where the seam led. Sorting through the first blast took a couple of hours and half filled a 5 gallon drum with opal. My mind was constantly conjuring up opal in full multicolour pieces, reminiscent in size to house bricks! With nervous anticipation and excitement, knowing there was a few metres between where I was and Stafford’s drill hole, I picked up the jack hammer and started to work. Mintabie sandstone is very hard and abrasive. It takes time to jack hammer and to get in a metre can take an hour or more. If the pick is not sharp it is hard to control and simply slides off at an unintended angle and removes little material. There is an art to successful jack hammering in hard ground and over the years a technique evolves. The ground in this claim was exceptionally hard and the band the opal formed in was up to a metre of solid silicified cemented sandstone. My thoughts were “l don’t care, l can get out every opal no matter what you throw at me and l don’t mind how long it takes”. The sandstone under the hard band was ‘normal’, being relatively soft and easy to remove by blasting. I placed 2 shots at the very base of the floor and blasted. This took little time to remove with the bob cat and left a “cave like >” enabling me space to drop the Jack hammered ground in to. I still had quite a bit of soft sandstone under the hard band to remove and that was easy work compared to what lay ahead. This left a cavern of around a metre in length and the full width of the drive over lain by almost half a metre of hard band with the opal seam

Peter inside the mine

Peter inside the mine

sandwiched in the middle. From experience l knew opal formed this way can turn to magnificent gem material very quickly and so I was determined to be exceptionally patient and do the hard yards correctly. Placing the Jack pick in the lowest small crack I started the journey. Normally you let the Jack hammer do the work and if the tip is sharp and the jackhammer in good condition it requires little effort. However this ground was hard, stubborn and protective of the prize it concealed. Even getting the first small section of hard band down required pushing and “smoke dust” was coming off the contact point. Every piece was grudgingly removed and sweat glistened my entire body. Every now and then a section would drop off easily as if to catch me by surprise. I would slip and my knuckles hit the remaining hard band drawing blood.

“First round to the “Rock”!   With every small slab of hard band removed the closer I was getting to the opal and I would soon have a metre of “pay dirt”, the full width of the drive to see if there was actually a solid continuing pocket or just a “teasing” level with a spasmodic smattering of opal. The battle continued and it is amazing you feel no pain with missing skin, bloodied knuckles, and the strain of holding a heavy jack hammer at chest height for several hours. The worst was sweat continually getting in my eyes and blurring my vision. Eventually I was within an inch of the opal

Opal on the hardband

Opal on the hardband

seam with the entire under hard band removed and the floor cleaned up. It was time to put the jackhammer above the seam in a crack an inch up from the opal and drop the prize. This is the moment the heart rate increases and my skin would make a plucked goose proud. Within a few minutes the entire section was on the floor AND there was opal still at the end of the drive……..only with more colour. Second round to me! Picking through the dropped material I filled two 5 gallon drums with opal, some of it still had hard band attached and the opal would have to be sawn out later. I jack hammered in as far as I could and by dark had removed as much opal as possible.

I would need to clean all the rubble out and start fresh in the morning. Totally stuffed, as happy as Larry and ready for sleep l left the mess as it was and backed the bob cat in to the short drive. Peppa, I am sure, was beaming as much as I was as we took our drums around to Stafford for storage in the large locked opal drum in his office. With all the adrenaline out of me the pains and aches attacked my entire body. The effort of pushing and holding the jackhammer made scratching my nose impossible as I could not lift my arms high enough. I had to scratch it on the side of the door. Round three to the Rock. I was back at the claim by “pre-sparrow fart” ready to go. Al was there ready and waiting for me to remove the rubble. I chatted with him for a while and told him it was looking good and l was hopeful it would keep going. He said he would look after the claim at lunch time if I wanted to go back to camp, making sure no one went in the mine if the word got out. And it did.

Outside the clain wuth Al the noodler

Outside the clain wuth Al the noodler

No sooner had I removed the rubble there were perhaps a dozen aboriginals sitting on the pile, laughing and busy looking for anything missed. I swear they have an in built sense, instantly honing in on any miner who finds opal. When you are not on opal you simply don’t see an aborigine.  At the slightest hint of trace they seem to appear from nowhere and sit patiently on the dump for days waiting to see if the trace turns to opal. If it peters out they move on. Peppa of course welcomed the new noodlers with a tail wag and her “friendly bark “as if to say “where have you been?” The noodlers made her day more enjoyable and she would periodically move amongst them as a school teacher would in a busy class room. But if someone approached the entrance to the mine she would bark and growl as if saying ” Piss off or I will bite your bloody arm off”. Of course both Peppa and I knew this was just a bluff as this gentle carnivore wouldn’t have hurt a flea. She was a lover not a fighter. I placed another two shots right at the bottom of the floor and blasted. The gas was clear within a few minutes and l prepared the scene as l had previously. l set to work with the jackhammer to attack and remove the hard band…..Perhaps a little more gingerly then yesterday as my knuckles were already a lovely mixture of blue and red with small skin flags indicating a certain degree of discomfort. One look at the opal winking at me in the wall allowed the adrenaline to do its work and like a boxer recovering from an unexpected punch all the pain was gone and I was on top again. Round 4 to me. The hard band was in no mood to give an inch and it wasn’t long until the sandstone was splattered with red colour indicating the fight was well and truly on. Some sections can only be described as tenacious, so hard and with not a single crack to start the jack hammer in. Plain hard slow slog was the only way to get through it, particle smoke creating a haze. Stan, my first mining partner’s father was visiting Robert who was mining not far away. It was Stan who initially taught me many of the techniques becoming main stream to my mining. Stan had heard l was on opal and offered to help by holding the light and making it easier to see the opal l was trying to extract. Even a simple thing like better vision helps immensely and l was grateful for his help and a second opinion on my attack plan. I felt like the apprentice graduating to a professional with the master looking on. Stan loved his opal and it was a pleasure to share the discovery of a pocket with someone just as excited. He turned up every day and just like an experienced corner in a title fight the advantage was swinging more and more my way. Rounds 5,6 and 7 to me on points.

The seam appeared to be running parallel to the cut wall. It was almost two metres wide and looking very consistent. The opal was predominantly green orange with a hint of red (occasionally coloured with drops of my own blood). I followed the seam for a couple of days and at one point it instantly widened. The widening section was headed towards the hole Stafford had drilled and by my estimation was still several metres away. An incredible sight! Opal stretching four metres and looking fabulous. One of those moments l would never forget, engraved permanently in my brain.

To be continued.

Peter’s Story Part 23

The Bits and Pieces claim

We had just found an incredible pocket of black opal in our Jet Black claim and I was still on a high. I had roughly faced a couple of stones at Mintabie and the result was astonishing. I couldn’t wait to finish off a few. I needed to see some of the completed gems before heading off to the UK for our holiday.

I arrived back in Canberra with a couple of weeks to sort out any problems at Mineshaft and to spend a couple of days cutting and polishing some of these exquisite gems. The early stones were a real joy to unveil and an exquisite treasure chase. The red bar running through the rough was totally unpredictable. Sometimes it faced better from the top and other times better from the bottom. Even from the same piece of rough the same was true. To get the best yield and brightest stones was one of the greatest and rewarding challenges of all the opal I have ever cut. Most pieces of rough were cut in to several gems because of the variations within the colour bands. To see these stones come to life and knowing they were possibly the blackest black opal to ever come out of Mintabie was simply breath taking. At the time I did not realize not only how beautiful this opal was but how special they were coming from our mine. Mintabie always had the reputation of producing “semi black” opal but these stones show even the most ardent sceptic that there was some exquisite black opal mined there.

Ann and Michael (our son) had flown to England a fortnight or so earlier then me to be with her various relatives and spend time catching up with all the small talk and gossip that poms seem to thrive on. When I arrived her Uncle Neville lent us a Mercedes and we travelled around England, Scotland and Wales in absolute luxury staying at bed & breakfast places along the way. We visited my friend Allan Beasley who was living and working in London at the time. Allan, now in semi retirement works part time at Mineshaft. He has a lifetime interest in gemstones and faceting. His knowledge and faceting skills are as good as any professional. One of the interesting things about life is you never know what will happen in the future and I never would have thought some 25 years later we would be working together.

Travelling around the UK was fascinating. The history, evident in every city and village town was amazing. Within old pubs, castles etc there were intriguing discoveries to be made. Often these were obscure such as the “Waterloo dentures” I saw somewhere. This was a set of dentures apparently made from real teeth extracted from the deceased at the Battle of Waterloo. There were around 50,000 causalities and so there were plenty of available teeth for dentists to make high quality “chompers” for those who could afford them. Of course the obvious tourist haunts were visited and these were pleasurable but it was the out of the way unexpected discoveries I enjoyed the most.

One the most bizarre and uncanny experiences of my life occurred whilst travelling around Cornwell. My blood relatives from my mother’s side came from Cornwell. They were tin miners and at some stage decided they had no future and moved to Australia hoping for a better life on the tin fields there. I knew very little about their past other then knowing I had inherited, through their genes, the desire to dig holes and look for the rewards concealed in mother earth. We were travelling down the coastal road when I had the most incredible strong “déjà vu” feeling accompanied by an inner warmth and belonging. I said to Ann that around the next headland there is a tin mine that goes under the sea. I had no idea, but that was the feeling I experienced. And there it was! I have no explanation and nor do I need one, other than perhaps one day I will find out. I really enjoyed Cornwell and perhaps it was the ancestral connection or perhaps the beauty of the place but it was memorable for whatever reason. Eventually after circumnavigating and criss-crossing the UK we ran out of money and our time was up.

Back in Australia I spent a couple of weeks stocking up Mineshaft and preparing for the next mining adventure at Mintabie. It was quite an effort to anticipate what stock would be needed for the two to three months we would be away mining. At least now we had the telephone connected to the camp and I could talk directly to our manager and answer any questions or place orders with suppliers easily.

When the phones were connected  it was completed under quite an unusual set of circumstances. The town had developed “ad hoc” with no town planning, and only the very basic of rules and records. When they put our line in I had to walk in front as they were digging the trench. Our power was being shared with Stretch who ran the caravan park. I had buried an extension cord form my camp, under the road, and over to his generator. I didn’t want Telstra’s trench digger to cut this line so I had to find exactly where I had placed my power cord a couple of years ago and mark it on top. Their trench was deeper then my hand dug trench so when they reached the cross over point we had to tunnel under our power cord.

The same was true for our water pipe running from the tank we assembled for the town water supply (Constructed by Mintabie miners) There was no real record of the exact and precise location of the town line other then it ran parallel to the road. Our camp was some 50 meters from the tank located on the edge of the block. Care had to be taken not to cut either of these plastic pipelines. The location was obvious in most places but not everywhere because of random bends and twists. Generally though, most difficulties were within the miner’s camp surrounds as there was absolutely no planning and often the exact location of water and power lines from generators had been forgotten or fell under the category of “somewhere about here”! In a remarkable effort of partnership between Telstra and the miners the phone connections were done in a short space of time. This would have been one of the most unique town phone hook ups ever undertaken in Australia.

Stafford had another project ready for me to work on. This was a claim where a very large parcel of opal had been found on a prominent fault running through it. Stafford owned two claims beside it and had re-pegged this claim when it was given up. There was still a fair amount of un-worked ground and as Stafford had bulldozed the claim in front I had easy access for the Bob Cat. Unfortunately Stafford had not found much opal in the claim he cut but I was hopeful there would be more than the one good pocket in the claim I was going to mine. I can’t remember the name of the original owner but he used to come and visit me often whilst I was working. He gave me information about the ground and his thoughts on my prospects and progress. He owned a tiny little Jack Russel terrier that Peppa the mining dog looked on with pity. This tiny carnivore “wantabe” would jump off the ground and try and bite Peppa on the belly and do mad “round abouts” trying to entice her to play with it. Peppa would look at this wild curiosity and after a while put her paw on top of it and growl in total distain. The Jack Russel would then launch itself with incredible athletic finesse on to the shoulders of its owner thereby being saved from a fate worse than death.

Entrance to the Bits and Pieces claim

Entrance to the Bits and Pieces claim

This miner told me he had not sold his big parcel and intended to keep it and enjoy cutting it in his retirement. It was a really large parcel and I have visions of him sitting there today remembering his claim and the excitement of the find each and every time he cuts a stone. There are so many miners with this genuine love and passion for such a beautiful gem.

Stafford had exposed an unworked fault running close to the edge of the claim I was going to work and I decided to drive along it. Every few meters I would come across a few pieces of opal but after following it the length of the claim I had just a hand full of stones. Many years later Charlie Butcher (one of the older Mintabie miners) who used to play around with mining dropped the roof of this drive and found a pocket of opal. Good luck to him as he was a really nice guy. I however, did not find enough opal to cover the cost of explosives. I decided to drive on the other side of the claim at right angles to the main fault and see if there were any more faults on that side. At around twenty meters I came across another fault. This one was completely virgin and headed towards the sand dune. It was quite a major fault and had tiny potch particles in the clay within the fault zone. The level was also healthy with black carbon lines and hard bands making it attractive and possibly opal bearing. There was a second level high in the roof so I decided I would make the drive quite high and take out both levels simultaneously. This meant my drive would be around three meters high and any jack hammering of the upper level would need to be done standing on the raised bucket of the Bob cat. Stafford and I were sharing costs and any opal would be split 50/50. Every time I blasted I was using 15 shots and blasting 4 or 5 times a day. I was spending over an hour a day just making up enough shots to blast. At $1.50 a shot back then it was costing a lot to mine and we needed to find a decent pocket.

Typical Bits and Pieces opal pocket

Typical Bits and Pieces opal pocket

Every few meters I would find these small plate sized patches of mediocre opal and I would throw it in the bucket. Each night, if I had any opal, I would take it around to Stafford’s camp and put in a large locked drum in his opal room. I didn’t take much notice as the weeks rolled by as I hadn’t found much in quantity or quality to write home about and so didn’t place any real importance on what we had. Stafford would ask me how it was going and I would answer “Just a few hand fulls of potch and colour”. Some of it was up to 2 centimetres thick but it did not come in any quantity and never more than a few pieces. I followed this fault the length of the claim and didn’t find a decent pocket. Driving ten meters at right angles to the first two faults I came across another identical one and repeated the exercise. I was to find more handfuls of opal every few meters but nothing of significance.

Eventually Stafford calls me in and asks what sort of value I thought we had. I answered perhaps a couple of thousand dollar worth but that would be it. He said “well lets clean it up anyway” and have a look at the material. All the bits and pieces added up and there was a substantial amount of opal. In fact we had accumulated several hundred ounces after cleaning without finding a pocket. We put a value on it of around $30,000 and I was totally and pleasantly surprised. This was quite a significant amount for a “bits and pieces” mine and so I was excited to continue mining.

Michael helping dad mine at the Bits and Pieces claim

Michael helping dad mine at the Bits and Pieces claim

A couple of weeks later Stafford turns up and says he has a small job for me that may take a couple of days at most and could I check it out over the weekend. He had drilled a claim every 3 meters and close to the edge he had found some potch and colour. The claim beside it had been cut and filled up with rubble. Stafford had pushed away the rubble besides his claim right down to the level and wanted me to go in underground with the Bob Cat and check out the potch and colour. So on Friday night I loaded the Bob Cat and mining gear on to the trailer and headed over for what I thought would be a quick weekend adventure ready to start first thing in the morning.

What eventuated would be an incredible opal adventure taking several weeks and the worst case of skinned knuckles I have ever had.

Mammoth Ivory Carvings – New Shipment

Horses in Mammoth Ivory Code 20399634 A$900

Horses in Mammoth Ivory – Code 20399634 – A$900

Horses in Mammoth Ivory Code 20399634 A$900

Horses in Mammoth Ivory – Code 20399634 – A$900

Horses in Mammoth Ivory Code 20399634 A$900

Horses in Mammoth Ivory – Code 20399634 – A$900

19/05/2016. We are just beginning to put out in the shop the latest exquisite fossil mammoth ivory carvings our carvers have recently finished. This is just one of several master carved pieces. Running horses sitting on a hand carved wooden base. The price is A$900

Mineshaft History – First Half 2016

17/03/16……One of  the best opals Peter has ever cut. He mined this opal around 1980 at Mintabie Opal Field. He kept it in the rough just to look at all these years. Yesterday he had the pleasure of cutting and discovery of the exquisite gem inside. 6.9 carats of beautiful dark crystal opal (best of the best).

7/03/2016…Just unpacked this unbelievable Amethyst “wrap around”. Go to our collectable page for more information.

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Peter and Marianne with Dwayne Hall from the TV show “The prospectors”

16/02/2016…..Tucson 2016.

15/02/2016…Insects in Baltic amber. This is just one of the many pieces we now have in the shop Prices range from $50 to $250.

28/1/2016…..Marianne and Peter are going to the gem show in Tucson Arizona to meet up with old suppliers, purchase some interesting stock and see what is new. Peter has been going most years for over 30 years and has seen the show grow from two Motel locations to the mega show it is today with around 50 selling areas

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