The Jet Black Opal Claim
I was feeling intensely excited and keen to get back to Mintabie and start work on the Jet Black Opal claim. I had a good feeling and as a lot of miners will tell you ‘having a feeling’ sometimes leads to a find. ‘Having a feeling’ is different from anticipation or dreaming. Somewhere in your gut you just sense there is something there. I was very ’toey’ in Canberra and keen to get started.
During the early days of our Water Tank claim Robert had a feeling about walking over opal every time he pushed the wheel barrow down the drive. This feeling grew to an obsession of sorts and finally we had to dig down through the floor and check it out. There was opal! Just a small parcel and not worth a lot, but never the less the feeling was right. On the other hand I recall being with Sarge cutting down some Acacia trees for a shaft, quite some distance from any mining. Sarge got hit with a falling limb and received a free flowing cut on his head. A few days later he was drilling prospecting holes all around the vicinity of the tree. He believed it was a sign there was opal there and was checking it out. He didn’t find any opal so I can only surmise ‘the feeling’ was really the pain he suffered.
It was about this time (perhaps not exactly, but maybe) another direction for my business ‘Mineshaft’, presented itself. The leasing agent for the Canberra Centre contacted us and asked if I would like to have a shop in the centre. I know when the offer came, my mind was far away in Mintabie and the last thing I wanted to think about was moving our shop, even if it was to my advantage. I probably came across as not very interested and with the benefit of hindsight that was probably a good thing.
To digress, the Canberra Centre is the main shopping mall of Canberra. The centre opened in 1963. It quickly became THE meeting place. Friday nights at the ‘mall’ was the focus of frantic, almost party like gatherings for Canberra teenagers, me included. The mall had three levels and right at the bottom was a coffee shop. It became sport for some teenagers to drop small grapes from the top level and see if they could be landed in the cup of a hapless coffee connoisseur below. This sport never had time to develop to Olympic standards or even to a national competition because of the heavy handed move on tactics of a few beefy security guards intend on spoiling the fun. “Move on” seeming to be their entire vocabulary.
Back to the leasing agent and I told him I could be interested. The shop would have to be in a good position and the rent would need to be close to what I was paying. I told him I was going back to Mintabie and he could send an offer or wait until I came back to Canberra. Whichever way it went we were offered a corner shop, of perfect size and at a fair rent so we moved. I did a deal with a watchmaker to move in to our old shop (at very little cost to him) and the transition happened very smoothly.
Finally arriving back at Mintabie I was ready to start work on the Jet Black Opal Claim. Stafford and I agreed to split the mining costs between us and the opal would be divided three ways. I went around to the claim owner’s camp, Serbian Danny, to talk about his original prospecting, taking with me the three jars of jet black potch. I asked if he knew how many prospecting holes he drilled on the claim. Danny was adamant he drilled only five in total. This was really important to me because it told me if I could find three holes underground I would know one of these, at least, had gone through the pocket. The next important question was if he could recall the depth of the opal. Unfortunately he had no idea. This meant I had no alternative other than to start mining at the very bottom and prospect until I could find at least three of the holes. Once I had these I would either have found the pocket or know it was above me.
Normally, starting at the bottom, would not concern me. However the last few meters of Stafford’s bulldozer cut beside the Jet Black claim was through what was, possibly, the hardest sandstone in Crystal Valley and would present difficult mining. Stafford purchased an attachment for the front of the Bobcat to hold the drill and drill automatically. He thought it would help and perhaps speed up the process. Unfortunately the speed could not be controlled as precisely as I needed in the hard ground and the tungsten tips on the drill bit were being torn off with regular monotony. At around $15 a pair and quite a bit of time to solder new ones on and sharpen them, this method was not going to work and the attachment was quickly abandoned.
Even holding the drill by hand was difficult. The sandstone was really hard and worse still the hardness varied. Every now and then the drill bit jammed and the drill handle would hit me on the side of the head with the force of a Mike Tyson haymaker or twist my arms with the expertise of a world champion Judo black belt sending me to a much harder mat. Sometimes both! Invariably my knuckles became skinned and very painful each time they were knocked. With thirteen holes per blast and five or six blasts a day it was hard torturous work and I was looking like a well beaten tent fighter. I was often spending over an hour a day attaching tips and sharpening the blunt ones. I began taking several drill bits to work so I didn’t have to keep going back to camp to fix them.
I decided to follow a couple of the stronger faults evident in the wall exposed by the bulldozer. I was hoping the pocket would form along one of these and the prospecting holes would be close by. Around twenty meters in I jubilantly came across the first hole and a day later another one. Despite the pain, I felt a sense of achievement even though there was no sign of opal. After all, I only had to find one more hole and it would all be a ‘piece of cake’! Well finding the third was totally frustrating. I followed the original fault almost to the end of the claim believing the area would be where the hole was. I widened the drive around the two holes, with no luck. Frustrated I went over to the other fault and started driving along the side closest to the fault I had followed. About twenty meters in I finally came across the elusive third hole that I so desperately needed. No opal, but enough to celebrate a partial victory and cartwheel down the drive. The rest would be easy. The opal would be just above me sitting elusively in the roof waiting to fall out.
During this hard period of the Jet Black Opal Claim Danny would occasionally come and help and more often than not would conveniently leave before I had to drill the holes. Stafford would drop in every few days to check the progress but never stayed long because he had more exciting areas to look at with his two bulldozers.
To start dropping the next couple of metres of sandstone I reversed the Bobcat up to the face of the first drive and climbed on top so I could drill the holes. I quickly worked my way back to the two prospecting holes as I only had to flatten the new floor. There was little extra sandstone to take out with the Bobcat. Knowing where the holes were, and a good chance of the pocket, the excitement and anticipation was intense. This feeling was quickly followed by disappointment when I got to the two holes and found there was nothing but sandstone. Perhaps the opal would be around the third prospecting hole in the other drive so I repeated the procedure. I was convinced this would be the case but reaching it there was no sign of opal. I was beginning to think Danny may have drilled more than five holes and that would ruin the mathematics of my prospecting.
To drop another two meters of drive I had to get the bulldozer to push dirt against the entrance to get the height to drill (Even standing on top of the Bobcat). At least the sandstone was back to normal Mintabie hardness and was relatively easy to drill. To say I was anxious is an understatement as I commenced work for a third time. Reaching the first two holes there was no sign of opal or trace and panic was rearing its ugly head.
With a real sense of intrepidation I began the second drive. When I was about ten meters in, after dropping a section of the face, there it was! One centimetre, absolutely jet black potch, across the whole drive. Right in the middle of the seam was a flashing red stone perhaps three centimetres in length. It is funny how your hair stands on end and how many goose bumps appear in a situation like this. I must have looked like a porcupine mated with a freshly plucked chook! I was thinking ‘Boy if that colour widens and the opal stays as black and as thick we have a hellova pocket here’ knowing there were three prospecting holes all going through it.
With normal blasting finished I had to be very careful and Jack hammer out the opal. I would only blast to remove the sandstone when I had reached as far as I could with the jackhammer and there was no chance of damaging opal or blowing it out. A unique problem presented itself and extra precautions needed to be taken because I had the problem of loosing opal down the “waterfall” of sandstone ahead created when I was dropping the roof previously. The top meter or so of this consisted of bigger slabs (some over two metres in length and half a meter in thickness) and pieces of sandstone of all sizes from pebbles to slabs. Any opal not caught when digging it out would be lost down the scree slope and basically gone forever. This of course wouldn’t matter with the black potch but I didn’t want to miss a single stone of precious Jet Black Opal.
For two days the situation stayed the same and the 3cm of red colour continued exactly as it first appeared right in the middle of the seam. I had a nice handful of red on black opal but at this stage it was impossible to know how good the opal really was. Mintabie black opal often looks better from the side and when faced sometimes loses a lot of the colour and that ‘oomph factor’ is lost. I would check this out after the pocket was extracted.
Ann was pregnant with our second child and she had an appointment for an amniocentesis examination in Alice Springs the next day. With older mothers this test is often done during pregnancy to check for fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis or spina bifida. Stafford said he would keep an eye on the claim while we were away for the two days and we headed off.
When I returned Stafford met us and told me he could not resist the temptation and had continued digging the opal out. I could not believe it as he had not taken any care to collect all the opal and had just collected the bigger stones. A substantial amount of smaller stones could have been lost in the scree. In fairness to Stafford we really did not know the quality of the opal at this early stage and it did look like fairly average material worth perhaps a few hundred dollars an ounce. Never the less, after all the effort to reach it, I wanted to dig it out myself with the respect any pocket deserves.
When I finally finished digging the opal out we had three ice cream containers of this red on black material. The colour bar had remained the same three to five centimetres for the entire length of the pocket which was six or seven meters long by three or four meters wide. At one stage I could spin the Bobcat around in the drive with opal all around both walls and in front.
After cleaning the opal I divided it in to three equal parcels and we drew straws to decide who got which lot. Danny took his share straight away and left for Coober Pedy to sell it. Stafford asked my opinion on what I thought it was worth. My answer was guarded because I really wasn’t sure. I truthfully said that if the opal was vaguely similar to any Mintabie black opal I had seen then it probably wouldn’t face as good as it looked from the side. The red was patchy within each stone and may not continue evenly through the pieces. If this was the case then each of our parcels would be worth around seven thousand dollars. However, if it did face then each parcel could be far more valuable. I left then and took my share back to camp to study it piece by piece.
Later that afternoon Stafford came around and asked if I wanted to buy his share for $7000 as he really didn’t have a market for this type of material. He mainly handled the more traditional lighter based Mintabie opal. I thought about it hard and declined because we were taking a trip to England in a few weeks. Ann, being a pom, wanted to visit her relatives and I needed all the money I could to ensure a good holiday.
During tea I said to her I really should have bought the parcel because if it does face then the value could be substantial. To my surprise she answered “Look if you really want it go and buy it”. I went straight to Stafford’s camp and told him I wanted it. He said “I’m sorry but I sold it only ten minutes ago for the $7000”.
When I started to face the material it soon became apparent it would cut so much better then it looked from the side. It was very difficult material to cut and I had to chase the colour every which way in every single piece. The resulting gems were beautiful and as black as black. Some pieces had red, green and blue on a black base. Since finding the opal I have cut possibly five hundred stones ranging in size from half a carat to around thirty carats. I have sold all of the jet black opal except for three pieces of the best rough to look at and remember. Based on our retail sales over the last twenty years the complete pocket would have been worth considerable money, perhaps close to a million dollars in cut stones. To this day I believe this jet black opal to be amongst the blackest material to ever come from Mintabie. Many years later Al Lad told me he actually noodled the scree inside the mine over several months and found many beautiful smaller stones. The claim was eventually bulldozed with the hope of finding more jet black opal. That was not to be and very little opal was found. I continued working the Jet Black Opal claim until I had followed all the major faults. Convinced there was little opal left Stafford and I decided to move on to the next prospect.
I believe this parcel of Jet Black Opal is very important for the opal industry BECAUSE they actually show some of the blackest opal ever to come from Mintabie. Very few people have seen true Jet Black Opal from Mintabie. The smallest stone is 2.6 carats and the biggest is 6.4 carats.