Blasting and Noodling
Robert and I had just started mining ‘Spooky’s claim’ on the Old Field at Mintabie. In between blasts we would noodle the dumps of some of the nearby claims being bulldozed and were accumulating a nice selection of cuttable stones. Although in the early weeks we didn’t see anything but sandstone in our mine I was totally enthralled. Learning how to mine properly was thoroughly enjoyable. After the first couple of weeks my muscles became used to the constant shoveling and although tired at night, I was feeling great. We started our day at sunup by shoveling out the blast from the night before. After checking for trace, holes were drilled and another lot of explosives set. Whilst waiting for the dangerous gasses to clear we would go noodling and then repeat the process. Most days we would move two or three lots of dirt. Robert had previously done some mining at Mintabie on one of Stan’s claims and had found a nice pocket. His experience led to a contagious optimism. Stan entertained us at night with talk about some of the opal pockets he had found, interlacing his experiences with stories of fabulous finds by other miners. These talks fueled my desire to find some opal.
When I was five or six, my uncle took me to Backwater Creek near Armidale N.S.W. looking for Topaz, Smokey Quartz and Amethyst. I can still recall that magic feeling of discovery, when in one of my little shovels of river wash, I found a perfect Smokey Quartz crystal. I was so captivated with the joy of discovery I can relive the feeling today. I have this crystal on display in my shop ‘Mineshaft’ to encourage children to follow their dreams.
My grandfather spent his life mining gold, antimony, scheelite and other minerals. When he was very old he would spend time talking to me about his mining experiences and the joy of discovery and hopes of the bonanza find that fueled his passion. He would tell me he KNEW where fortunes were buried… it is just that he ran out of time! Fifty years later I can say the same and relate so well with what my long deceased grandfather had told me. In particular, those precious times when he found something special mean even more to me now. These are truly special moments and become ingrained into your brain and only fuel the desire to find more.
I can only guess that a certain amount of this desire to find something special from the earth had been handed down via the genes of the many miners from my past generations. I think I always believed that I would be one of those lucky opal seekers who would find opal.
Never Ending Sandstone
So each day we went back to shoveling never ending piles of sandstone. After a few weeks the geology changed and the bedding dipped dramatically. Stan’s experience told him we needed to change direction so we started driving towards where he believed we could find opal. Finally we started to get a fine line of potch. Over several days this turned into a seam about 5 millimeters thick but with no colour. We followed this seam for several days. The level was slowly rising but the seam contained only thin grey, monotonous potch. Stan was hopeful it could gain colour as it got closer to 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 in geological terms) and all but disappeared. On the other side of the fault the seam was still there but as thin as a piece of the finest tissue paper and only a few inches long. It looked like it was the end of the seam with only sandstone beyond. Stan had been right. It had eventually made colour even if it was almost invisible.
We shoveled out the blast and stood looking at our opal in disappointment for it looked like disappearing. Stan said that although the opal was paper thin he was going to get the jack hammer anyway. It was the only colour we had seen and so he was going to jack it out!
The technique used is to dig a cave like hollow under the seam. As the ground is quite hard at Mintabie this can take some time. The bottom of the ‘cave’ is shaped like a bench so that when the seam is dropped it collects on this bench and the opal doesn’t get lost on the floor of the drive. When the ‘cave’ is finished and the bench cleaned of loose sandstone the jack hammer is placed a few inches above the seam and started.
My Legs go Weak
After the first push of the jack hammer my legs went weak, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and my hands began to shake. In less than a couple of centimeters our thin trace had turned into beautiful green opal 5 mm thick. Large pieces had dropped on to the bench and flashes of colour could be seen in the wall. All our aches and pains disappeared instantly 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.
There is a magic sound that only opal miners who have found a large pocket of thicker opal know, that causes goose bumps and mad ramblings. It only happens when jack hammering out opal and only on opal of the bigger pockets. When the jackhammer is placed above the seam and the opal level dropped IF the opal keeps going, the material at the back rubs against the opal still in the wall and makes a beautiful ‘skritch-skritch’ sound that tells the miner the opal continues. It is a sound you never forget and can reduce a normally sane opal miner into a rambling incoherent lunatic.
When we went back to camp that night it was impossible to keep from smiling. Everyone was grinning uncontrollably. Realizing we might be on to a big parcel, we began to worry about where we would keep the opal. So, as soon as it was dark, out came all the tools and camping gear from the big tin trunk I had joked about a few weeks ago and in went the opal!
The Pain Changes Location
The next day the opal continued and showed no sign of stopping. The following day was the same (it begins to hurt when you grin continuously for three days)
There is a ‘disease’ that only opal miners of larger parcels get. Generally, the better the opal, the more serious the disease. It is called opal cut finger and tongue disease. When you are digging out seam opal the pieces can be quite sharp and as you are picking up the pieces to place in the bucket you are often cut by the opal. Every now and then a special piece will wink at you so you pick it up and lick it to see the colour. Occasionally this will cut your tongue. Sometimes you end up with so many of these little cuts that your fingers and tongue are incredibly painful. I have never known any opal miner to complain!
Each night we would sit around the camp fire, eat our meal, and then off to bed to try and sleep as fast as possible so as to dig out more opal. I am not sure if other opal miners had the same problems as I, but I had a really hard time to stop my mind racing and actually sleep. When I closed my eyes all I could see were visions of colour. Eventually when I did fall asleep my dreams were in full Technicolor. I would wake up with a jump eager to see what the day would bring.
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 had become incredibly hard and seemed to be squeezing the opal out. It was becoming impossible to jack hammer even with a new pick. After a few days of hard sweaty work for no more opal we decided to start blasting the full face 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. 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 countless small chips of beautiful black opal of the strongest colour. We had blown it to pieces (A feat I never repeated) Although it had been a small pocket of perhaps twenty ounces it still makes me feel sick because of the intensity of the colour. All day we spent noodling through the blast for a coffee jar of beautiful chips… not a single stone.
After that we were more careful but no more opal was found. We decided to finish mining for the time being and go to Stan’s house near Albury to sort and grade our opal.
The day of sorting was one of the most enjoyable days of my opal mining life. We were all sat around a table in Stan and Hazel’s sun room. The opal was carried into the room in the big tin trunk (It took two of us to lift it) There was also a couple of extra buckets. The first job was to clean the opal in a tumbler to remove the excess sandstone and tiny chips. We then took out all the potch and colour and put that in buckets around the wall. All the higher quality cutting opal was placed in one of those elongated baby baths. By the end of the sorting this bath was overflowing with wonderful opal. Hazel kept bringing tea, biscuits and cake. Laughter and discovery of wonderful stones kept the day flowing as we passed these gems around the table.
In particular, I recall the beautiful cascading kaleidoscope when the baby bath was tipped out on to the table for final grading. What a wonderful memory. What incredible beauty. This is one moment that became imbedded in my brain. It took all afternoon to grade the opal and then divide it into equal portions. After this was finished numbers were placed in a hat with numbers on the equally divided portions and the opal shared.
We returned to Mintabie and our claim only to see that while we were absent some ratters (illegal miners) had gone down our mine and done considerable work. They had dug drives that circumnavigated the pocket we had taken out. From the trace in the walls it was quite evident that all their work was for no return as all indications led to the pocket we had taken out.
As it turned out, the pocket we found 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 an incredible pocket of opal. We had taken out almost 3,000 ounces of opal when we finally pulled our pegs. Years later this claim was bulldozed. I have no idea if any more opal was found.