This article was originally published in October 1982 in Issue number 73 of the Australian publication ‘Gem & Treasure Hunter. I have done some slight alterations for this web page.
I dug my first opal out of the ground at Grawin in northern New South Wales. It was an opalised shell with magnificent color. I was only at Grawin for a couple of weeks and can say that I probably contracted opal fever with the discovery of that shell.
Opal – it can make poor men rich or rich men poor. But for all those involved in mining opal the magic of digging it out unites all. Opal fever makes men prefer a life in some dusty, isolated, outback town to the luxuries of the city.
Mintabie Opal Field is such a place. Situated in South Australia almost midway between Coober Pedy and Alice Springs, Mintabie in the nineteen eighties was one of the few opal fields actually growing.
Mintabie opal is like most opal….absolutely beautiful. It comes in every type, from the whites and crystal of Coober Pedy and Andamooka to the black opal of Lightning Ridge. In the nineteen seventies Mintabie opal fields grew from a virtually unknown opal field to one of the major producers of opal in Australia.
However Mintabie was different from all the others. Because of its isolation it was probably one of the last pioneering opal townships.
I came to Mintabie in 1981, although my partners Robert and old Stan had mined at Mintabie for quite some time. Old Stan had done well, mining some of the finest opal the field had ever produced. His claim, in the middle of the old field, had yielded opal for several years until finally worked out. The thrill of digging out such an elusive gem had kept him coming back.
I met old Stan and his wife Hazel when I was buying opal rough, and when the offer came to join them at Mintabie I couldn’t refuse. Old Stan had pegged out a claim by the time Robert and I arrived. It already had several holes sunk on it, with a lot of unworked ground. It was on the fringe of the field and adjoined a producing claim.
On our claim was an excuse for a tent where an old identity of Mintabie had lived for some time. No-one knew his name and he was known on the field as “Spooky”. Spooky rarely bathed, washed or shaved. In fact they say he never even took his boots off. Spooky’s tent was an old piece of discarded canvas strung between two trees. It was full of empty cans and old paperbacks. On the ground was a filthy old mattress. I never met Spooky because he was sent to Adelaide by the Royal Flying Doctor with possible gangrene of the foot before I arrived. He left, as he came, without a cent. In fact all the miners used to joke that he was probably sleeping on top of a fortune, and on that omen we started to work ‘Spooky’s’ claim.
We set up on an existing hole and drove straight into new ground on the 42 foot level. I soon discovered I had more muscles than I had ever imagined as they all ached from the continuous shoveling; but after the first week I began to get used to it.
Because of the hard ground explosives were used to drive forward and we blasted two or three times daily, spending the rest of the time shoveling dirt. After the first few weeks we came across a slide (a sudden dip in the bedding of the sandstone) From old Stan’s experience we changed direction and started driving to the front of the slide because he believed that is normally where the opal would be. Finally we started to get a fine line of potch. Over the days the potch got thicker until it was about 5mm thick, but still no color. In fact we were beginning to think it would never make color. The level was beginning to rise and old Stan seemed hopeful that the potch would gain color when it reached the roof.
One morning when we went down after the gas had cleared from the blast the potch had run into a vertical line in the sandstone (a fault) and had all but stopped.
The only indication left was a fine line of paper thin opal up near the roof. Old Stan had been right. It did make color, but so thin we could have cried. We shoveled out the blast and stood looking at our opal in disappointment for it looked like disappearing. Old Stan picked up the jackhammer and said that even though the opal was paper thin, it was still the only color we had seen in weeks, so he was going to jack it out anyway.
After the first jack my legs went weak, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and my hands began to shake. In less then a couple of centimeters our thin trace had turned into beautiful green opal almost 5mm thick. All our aches and pains disappeared immediately and the air was charged with excitement. Inside an hour we half filled a plastic bucket and the opal was still going. In fact it seemed to be getting thicker and the vein stretched the entire width of the drive ahead. By the end of the day we completely filled two buckets and the opal was still going.
When we went back to camp that night it was impossible to keep from smiling. Everyone was grinning uncontrollably. Realizing that we might be on to a big parcel, we began to worry about where we could keep it. After all, we didn’t want anyone on the field to know that we had a strike. So, as soon as it was dark, out came all the tools and camping gear from the big tin trunk and in went the opal.
The next day the opal kept going and also the next (it begins to hurt when you grin continuously for three days) but then I’d never experienced anything like this before. Finally our pocket seemed to be disappearing and we all began to feel cheated. We had become accustomed to digging out opal and wanted it to continue forever.
The ground started to get very hard and seemed to be squeezing the opal out. It was becoming impossible to jack, so after a few days of hard work for no opal, we decided to start blasting again. We were convinced our run was over, so shots were put in and a new drive commenced.
I will never forget the next morning, as it was my turn to go down first and shovel. When I reached the end of the drive where we had blasted, the dirt was covered with small chips of beautiful black opal of the strongest color. We had blown it to pieces. Although it had been a small pocket of perhaps twenty ounces it still makes me feel sick because of the intensity of the color. All day was spent noodling through the blast for those beautiful chips.
As it turned out that was the last of the opal, and despite much driving and the sinking of another shaft, we were to find no more opal on ‘Spooky’s claim’. Spooky had not been sleeping on top of a fortune but he had been sleeping on top of a very good pocket. We had taken out almost 3,000 ounces of opal when we finally pulled our pegs.
A New Start
1982 found us on a new claim, this time closer to the centre of the field and near a claim that had been bulldozed the year before. Rumor had it that they had found a small fortune, so we considered ourselves lucky to get a claim close-by. We had already figured out that there should be a big slide somewhere across our claim from what we knew of nearby claims. So with this knowledge we were aiming to find the slide underground and drive along it.
Four holes were put down and driving commenced. This year we planned to work hard so a target of three to four blasts daily was set. We were driving two to three meters a day and it wasn’t long before there was a mountain of dirt on top. In the first five weeks we saw not a piece of potch or a hint of the slide, and only the knowledge of the claim near ours kept our spirits high. Driving continued for twenty meters in one direction and then headed off at a 30 degree tangent for another ten meters. We went back to the hole and drove to the border of the claim in the opposite direction. Nothing but dirt again. By this time all our holes were interconnected and I was running out of time for I had to get back to my shop to sort the business out.
With a week to go we decided to go back to where we made the 30 degree tangent and head to the side of the claim. In just one blast we hit the slide and were on opal. The grinning commenced again . If we had turned earlier we would have hit the pocket weeks ago. This time the opal was very dark and dipped at about twenty degrees. As this seam of opal finished, another seam took its place at the roof and started dipping down. The tools were once again taken out of the big tin trunk to be replaced by opal. This opal was very different from any we found the year before. Each seam had opal in it varying in color from white base opal to jet black precious opal. Each seam had everything from potch to top color. The bottom left tended to be very potchy but up to 3 cm thick. The top right seemed to have most of the color, but was the thinnest. Everything was collected and put in the trunk, for there would be plenty of time later to sort it all out.
Each day we were to dig out a five gallon drum of mixed opal. Towards the end of the week the opal, although not disappearing, had be-come nothing but solid potch.