Peter and Robert Professional Opal Miners
1983 was our first year of full time professional opal mining. Robert had resigned from his secure job and Peter Bucke had agreed to become the full time manager for Mineshaft.
Mintabie was growing in population as more miners decided to try their luck. In these early days optimism was really high. Every miner believed it was not a matter of whether he would find opal but rather ‘when’ he would find opal. Almost weekly another bulldozer would be delivered to town and new camps were springing up everywhere.
The Long Drive
It was a long three day drive from Canberra to Mintabie. We would generally drive to Balranald or Mildura for the first night and then on to Port Augusta the second night. Finally after hours of corrugated and dusty travel we would sight the opal dumps of Mintabie in the distance and our newest adventure would be ready to unfold. We returned to Canberra a couple of times during the mining season. These return visits were always hectic as I had my business to attend to with all the ramifications of an absent owner. I also wanted to spend quality time with my daughters and visit my own dad.
Visits to my dad always left me unsettled. He had been the most wonderful father and my love for him could not have been stronger. Since his retirement the demons of alcohol addiction had him firmly in their grasp. Glimpses of his incredible intelligence were still shining through although the prolonged effect of alcohol was doing its damage. My surrogate mother, Cynthia, was coping well with dad’s problem and her love for him never diminished. There was always laughter and great conversation but I left with tearful eyes and a numbing sadness for what the future must inevitably bring.
The drive between Narrandera and Balranald, encompassing the Hay plain, is tedious and monotonous. Over 450 kilometers of ‘cricket pitch’ flat boredom. I think it is quite likely that regular travelers could recognize those rare individual trees and infrequent bends in the road. On reflection though, like most parts of Australia, this section can be memorable and beautiful. I have driven across it in driving rain and experienced thunderstorms with all the drama that forked lightning and thunder can deliver.
I have seen blinding dust with that eerie red haze and trips in shimmering heat that make the air dance. I have seen unbelievable mirages only interrupted by countless dancing whirly whirlies. I have driven this road through wind carrying dried grass so thick it looked like the strangest storm. At times there have been unbelievable numbers of swarming grass hoppers and even plagues of scurrying mice that sounded like hail as you drove over them. Only now that I don’t have to do this trip am I appreciating how fortunate I was…
We must have stayed at every motel or caravan park several times on these journeys. I recall once staying at the Balranald caravan park and visiting the ‘loo’. On the back of the toilet door was a ‘Gibson new leaf’ toilet paper dispenser. You know the type… it grudgingly dispenses one tiny piece of micro thin grease proof paper at a time, that more often tears on the way out. Anyway, above this particular dispenser someone had boldly written “Balranald tourist information news sheet… Please take one”.
Whilst at gutter level, the urinal at Marla used to be a large stainless steel trough tilted so that the contents ran to the end and out a drain. Over the drain hole was a large cover. Above this someone had scrawled… “Beware of Marla crabs… they jump!” When any fluid went down the drain these bloody big bugs would gallop out frantically from under the cover in all directions.
Mintabie – The First Full Time Year
Our first full time year of home life was not easy at Mintabie. As yet there were no shops and all supplies had to be taken in. The bore water was high in nitrates and not suitable for drinking so our drinking water had to be bought in with us. Coober Pedy was a good three hours of uncomfortable road away and only travelled when absolutely necessary. We lived mainly on tinned or packaged food. Bread and milk were luxury items as was fresh meat. We lived in a tent and carted our camp water from the bore in five gallon containers. Washing was done by hand and our shower was a pull up bucket. It was bloody hot in summer and bloody cold in mid winter but the rest of time it was bloody perfect and we loved it.
The next few sections may not be in precise chronological order and some of the adventures are overlapping. Those involved can put their own participation in the correct sequence.
During my opal mining at Mintabie I had a couple of ‘hairy experiences’. The first taught me a valuable lesson and the second was beyond my control.
I Almost Died
We were working a claim near the water tank on the old field. The claim had two shafts, about twenty feet apart. They were connected underground. It was in the early stages of this mine and we had not done much work. It was my turn to shovel and as I climbed down the shaft I noticed a small crack parallel to the roof about a foot up in the bedding of the sandstone. I can remember thinking, I must keep my eye on that, and continued on my way. I walked through the drive to the next shaft and for some reason turned and looked up at the roof. I simply touched it and ‘KA-THUMP’, down came the whole roof in a one foot slab from shaft to shaft missing me by inches. I felt the displaced air flow across my face and the episode gave me a sick feeling inside. The sandstone at Mintabie is very blocky and this was a lesson for me. From that time onward, the first thing I did after each blast was to check the roof. Any loose slabs of sandstone would be pulled down with the opal pick. Over the next decade I was to lose the odd toe nail and fingernail but no major problems with collapsing roofs.
I Almost Die – Again
Milan Rako’s part in Mintabie’s history is paramount! His initial find on the edge of the escarpment led to the development of Mintabie as it is now known. Milan was a bit of a wild boy who at times was involved in many ‘blues’. The result of these generally favored Milan. In the early 1980’s he had a claim next to ours. Milan mined with a bulldozer and he was cutting his claim.
The cap rock at Mintabie is very hard silcrete. It is impossible to rip through with a bulldozer and has to be drilled and blasted. The claim owner has to notify all adjoining claim owners and can only blast at specific times (At least these were the official rules). Sometimes the silcrete is so thick and tough that several attempts of blasting are made before the softer sandstone below is reached. Milan was through to the sandstone but was doing ‘bulling shots’ to straighten the sides before he continued.
Robert and I had just had a new shaft drilled and we were opening it up. We had blasted one lot of half shots of gelignite in the side at the bottom of the shaft on the 45 foot level and were cleaning it out. This first blast only removes about 6 inches to a foot of sandstone and there is not a lot of room or protection for the opal miner below. Robert was filling the buckets and I was on top working the hoist. I had one hand on the lever and one arm on the winch with a full bucket half way up the hole when all hell broke loose. I heard an almighty explosion and almost instantly a rock about the size of a football sped between my face and the hand I was holding the winch with.
I was in a major predicament! I could NOT drop the bucket because Robert was directly below and it would probably have killed him. I knew this was only the first blast of many more. I also knew I had about 20 more seconds before the bucket reached the top. More large rocks went flying narrowly past and I was hit by several small ones. The twenty seconds felt like forever and as soon as the bucket reached the top I sprinted for the car and dived underneath. There would have been around a dozen explosions and as they were all on the far side of the cut, the direction the rubble took was straight at our claim.
Generally I am a very mild natured person and it takes a bit before I lose my temper. This incident pushed my blood temperature past boiling and as soon as the blasting stopped I sprinted towards Milan’s claim in a total rage as he and a couple of other opal miners walked back towards it. I almost knocked Milan over as I grabbed him by the shirt whilst screaming “You #@!## idiot! You nearly ##!*@ killed us you #)*^##…##**! Now Milan is a lot bigger than me and he could have swatted me off like an annoying fly, but I am sure he realized how maniacal mad I was and all he could say was I’m sorry.
After venting my anger and being allowed to spray him with many original obscenities, calm returned and I settled down. Milan told us he had looked across at our claim and our car wasn’t there so he thought there would be no problem and went ahead with his blasting. (We had driven in to the other side of the claim beside the new hole. Normally we parked beside the old hole and Milan would have seen the car easily). This experience was truly the most horrific experience I have ever had in my mining career. (There were no hard feelings between Milan and I and we got on well. There is an interesting interview with Milan in Len Cram’s book ‘A journey with colour’ volume 3 starting at page 307)
Sarge is a well known colourful Mintabie miner. I have known him since our first year. His first camp (shared with early mining partner ‘Drago’) was not far from where we had our tent. His early mining was at Andamooka, and he then prospected at Lambina (now a well known field). In the 1970’s Lambina was little more than another opal ‘occurrence’ and was not to be rediscovered and developed for many years. When Milan Rako found his first large pocket Sarge moved to Mintabie and pegged a claim. In these very early days he became friends with Stan and Hazel (my partner Robert’s parents). Sarge and Drago had claims next to Stan. I want to mention him early as he pops up often in our adventures. Sarge is Croatian and like so many miners this is not his real name. When he first came to Australia some type of misadventure in his homeland led to him needing a name change. This was suggested by a sergeant at a police station in Sydney so he adopted the pseudonym from the policeman and henceforth became ‘Sarge”.
Most of the early miners originally came from Coober Pedy or Andamooka. The ground at Mintabie was completely different. There was generally not a distinct level and the opal could form anywhere from the surface down to ‘green dirt’. On the old field this ‘green dirt’ occurred anywhere from 30 feet to over 100 feet. ‘Green dirt’ as the miners called it is probably that point where the water table ceased to move up and down. At this point the sandstone changes to a distinct green and no one has found opal in it. Hence the bulldozers worked until they reached ‘green dirt’ and that signified the end of the cut. Because of the extremely hard ground and unpredictable levels most mining was carried out with large bulldozers.
Underground mining was significantly more difficult than the other opal fields. The absence of distinct recognizable and consistent levels coupled with course, hard and abrasive sandstone made hand mining a little like playing three dimensional chess. Explosives had to be used and our drill bits had tungsten tips that required constant sharpening and frequent changing. And yet all this instantly appealed to me. Anticipating where the pockets might occur and learning the little signs that might lead us to them became absolutely fascinating.
This first year of full time mining was also successful. We found several pockets and although they yielded far less opal than our first two pockets the total was significantly satisfying. Most weeks we would find a little opal. If it wasn’t of much consequence we would add it to previously found opal and when we had a small parcel we would sell it and add the money to our ‘expenses box’ for purchasing fuel, explosives and other mining requirements.
A New Partner
Yeon Kim was a Korean opal miner and one of many Koreans mining at Mintabie. He was an illegal immigrant. We had no idea of this and found out several years later when the government had an amnesty. The entire Korean Mintabie contingent mysteriously left for Sydney ‘en masse’ to legalize their presence. We were told after the event. Kim was regarded as an excellent, experienced hard working underground miner. He had been mining at Mintabie for several years before I arrived and had acquired a good knowledge of the ground. I can’t recall how it came about but Robert and I had decided it would be beneficial if we had a third partner. This would mean that one of the three could return to their home whilst the remaining two would continue mining. Kim was looking for someone to work with so he joined the partnership and a new chapter was about to unfold.