Mintabie opal field is located 280 kilometers north of Coober Pedy. It is 35 kilometers west of Marla.
I went to Mintabie in 1980. It changed the direction of my life and you are reading this now as a direct result of that first trip. Whenever I see a picture of Mintabie my pulse races a little. I can smell the fumes of burning explosive fuse and recall the vivid colour of the opal and the excitement I felt when digging out the pockets of opal I found there. I recall the drone of generators at night, the sound of multiple bulldozers by day interspersed with the detonation of explosives……..dreams are made of the stuff!
Around 1920 a well digger by the name of Larry O’Toole is attributed with finding the first opal at Mintabie. However, aborigines were selling a semi black type of opal at Coober Pedy that was obviously not from Coober Pedy. It most likely was Mintabie opal.
Opal miners seem to have discovered the Mintabie opal fields some time just after world war one. Because of the extremely harsh conditions and lack of water not much mining was done until heavy machinery was bought in later on. The sandstone at Mintabie opal fields is very hard (much harder than Coober Pedy) and the upper level the early opal miners worked was extremely difficult to mine with old fashion hand mining and discouragement would have come easy.
In the late 1970’s a Croatian miner named Milan started a major rush to Mintabie by finding a huge pocket of opal on the escarpment. Following Milan were opal miners such as Yakka, Sarge, Drago, Stan, Joe, Tony, Ned, Ted, Russian Spy, Bruno and so many more pioneer opal miners of the era. Combined, they were responsible for the development of one of Australia’s major opal fields. During the 1980’s the Mintabie opal fields were the biggest producer of opal in terms of value. In fact there were several years when it produced more opal then all the other opal fields put together.
And yet a lot of people had never heard of it. I know in the early days a lot of opal miners sold their opal as either Coober Pedy opal or Lightning Ridge opal depending on the type of opal. They would take their rough around the country trying to sell it to whoever they could and often they found resistance from the buyer if they mentioned an opal field the opal buyer was not familiar with. I believe in the early days Mintabie opal field did not get the credit for the quality of some of this early opal that it rightly deserved!
Most mining at the Mintabie opal fields was done by heavy bulldozers (Catepillar D9’s and similar). The claim size was 50 meter square and the average depth was around 20 meters. Many went as deep as 40 meters. I know of one claim on the old field that went to 101 feet in the corner before green dirt was reached signifying the end of the opal bearing ground. At the peak there were around 70 bulldozers working and Mintabie opal field held the distinction of the highest per capita use of diesel of any town in Australia.
Mintabie opal has a unique advantage over opal from other fields. It is the hardest of all Australian opal. Perhaps this is because the host rock is older (Ordovician) than the host rock of other opal fields (Cretaceous). Perhaps it is because of the harder and more compact host sandstone. In any case it means a more robust opal that resists scratching a little more then other opals.
How many more years before another Mintabie opal field is found? No one knows. I have been incredibly fortunate to have played a small part in Mintabie opal field’s history and those years I spent there are imprinted permanently in my life.