Yeon Kim (A Korean Opal miner) had joined our partnership on an equal basis. This gave flexibility for one of us to go back home and the mining continue. Yeon Kim was older than Robert and I, so being respectful of this we called him ‘Kim’.
Kim had a claim on the old field beside Matt (A long term Croatian miner) Ned had the claim beside his. Ned and Matt were finding good opal and Kim had found promising indications. His claim had several identifiable levels on it. The deepest being over ninety feet. Kim had his own York Hoist and Robert and I had one each. This meant we could have three workable shafts and move from one to another depending on how we felt or have an alternative claim to work whilst waiting for gas to clear after blasting.
Mining at Mintabie was not without its incidents and mining did not always run smooth. The Warden’s court is part of the judicial system. It hears disputes on mining matters and the decision of the court is final. At Mintabie Opal Fields the opal claims had certain working conditions that had to be adhered to. If any of the conditions were breached, you were in danger of losing the claim by having it revoked by the Warden’s Court. Sometimes, other miners plaint (take to the warden’s court) a claim they feel has not complied with working conditions or some other piece of legality. There was an unwritten law at Mintabie, that no Mintabie miner would plaint another Mintabie miner’s claim. If the claim was held by someone who lived outside of Mintabie then that was O.K.
A local ‘weasel’ of a miner named Andrew, particularly liked the area near the water tank, where we had 3 claims. Shafts on all three claims were interconnected underground. We did not work all of these claims at the same time. Andrew thought this was his opportunity to gain a prime claim in such a good area. He chose the period immediately following Christmas to plaint my claim! Most miners arrive back to work when the weather begins to cool down. Technically this breached the labor conditions of the claims, because in those days the Christmas break was legally only a few short weeks. We were away enjoying a well earned extended Christmas break. The first I found out about it was when I received a letter of demand to attend the next Wardens court to be held at Marla about an hour away from Mintabie Opal Fields.
Robert and I went to considerable trouble to gather evidence and pictures of proof to present at my side of the hearing. We took photos of the large amount of recent dirt on top of the claims. We drew diagrams of our network of tunnels to demonstrate that work was being done underground on one claim but the dirt was being removed via a shaft on another claim. We got receipts for generator and jack hammer repairs to show why we were late returning to Mintabie Opal fields.
The Warden’s Court convened in a room of the Marla Hotel/Motel. Inside the room the Warden sat at a desk with his “scribe” sitting beside him copying down the proceedings. Several claims were in dispute that morning so all the miners were waiting outside in the stinking hot summer conditions, shooing away flies and waiting their turn. Robert and I waited nervously with them. The attendant finally came to the door and announced;”Blythe vs. ‘Weasel’, would all parties please come inside”. We entered the room and sat at the chairs in front of the stern faced Warden. He looked up and said. “Blythe verses ‘Weasel’ is dismissed because ‘Weasel’ is in hospital and unable to attend.” I immediately responded with, “I hope his stay is long and painful!” The Warden turned to his scribe and said “Don’t write that down!” We left ecstatic and headed for the bar.
That was not the last of the ‘weasel’. His second attempt was just as obnoxious! In between two of our claims was a small strip of ‘no man’s land’. This was a narrow strip about fifteen feet in width on one end, narrowing to about ten feet at the other end. Although not pegged it was obvious to all, that this was regarded as part of our partnership’s claims.
The Christmas break after his failed legal attempt on my claim, he stooped to a new level of weaselry. Whilst we were away he pegged this tiny strip of land. It was just wide enough to reverse his blower (a giant vacuum cleaner type machine attached to the back of a truck that is used to remove the dirt from underground via a series of steel pipes). Although this was totally legal it was not the accepted thing amongst Mintabie opal miners.
He knew that the level we worked was 42 feet. He contracted for a hole to be put down to forty five feet. Normally, when mining at Mintabie, the shaft is drilled quite a bit deeper than the level to make it easier to open up. Anyway, Weasel thoroughly worked this narrow strip. By the time we came back to start work for the year he had finished, pulled his pegs, and moved on. We heard he had not found a single piece of opal so had wasted his time and money on the endeavor.
Later that year we decided this hole was conveniently placed so would set up on it and do some work from there. We re-pegged one of our claims to legalize the hole and moved the winch. Deciding to start with the lower level we began to sink the shaft down another ten feet. To sink down, holes were drilled with the auger to place the explosive charges in. When we reached the lower level, the first hole drilled, cut through a seam of opal. With extreme care the ground was removed until directly on top of the opal. The actual opal was dug out with a hand pick and placed in a bucket. The pocket was a small pocket worth a few thousand dollars.
The most satisfying aspect was that Weasel had missed it. If he had done the normal procedure instead of trying to save a few dollars by sinking a shallower shaft he would have at least found this opal. I have not seen Weasel for many years, so perhaps if he stumbles across this article he will realize that karma had bit him on the bum.
Later that year Ann and I returned to Canberra. We had been at Mintabie for several months and I needed to see how Peter Bucke was going running our shop, ‘Mineshaft’, and to sort out any problems he was having. Well Peter was running it brilliantly. If all managers went to the extremes of customer service that he did then all business would flourish. The old dears from Miranjani retirement village adjacent to the shopping mall loved him. Through his service above and beyond the call of duty these old Biddies would refer all their friends and demand their offspring shop at Mineshaft. Peter even managed to fix broken toasters and install stereos. The dear old ladies used to come in and say “well Harvey Norman couldn’t fix it but I knew Peter could!”
Pete had a knack for labeling. We had several malachite carved German Sheppards. They were just sitting there and not selling. Until Peter made a label saying “Malachite Dingos”… bingo… we sold all of them!
But perhaps more memorable was his business dealings with Miss Lazova. Pete tells how she came in to the shop reeking of stale alcohol and asking in her strong accent “could you sell me a ring for my boyfriend?” “Certainly”, he answered and showed her our range of some six rings. She then said “sorry…..I would like to buy a ring for my boyfreindzzzzzzzz”. Meaning, Pete guessed, she had more than six! Disappointedly she huffed and puffed (the alcohol breath was nearly enough to put Pete over the limit.) and stormed out of the shop. Minutes later she returned and purchased a couple and as a parting gesture asked Pete if he would like to visit her ‘shop’. Pete politely asked what her shop was and that turned out to be the local brothel! Miss Lazova would return often to purchase a ring for her boyfriendzzzz. Pete never did visit Miss Lazova’s shop.
Another Mintabie Black Opal Find
We had been in Canberra a couple of weeks when I had a phone call from Robert saying that they had found a parcel of opal and were coming back to Albury. Robert and Kim had been working the lower level of our ‘watertank claims’ and and found a parcel of semi-black opal that included several ounces of nice flashy black opal. I can remember feeling both excited and disappointed. Excited because they had found opal and disappointed because I hadn’t been there to experience the discovery. I had to be satisfied with reliving the find through their eyes. Some of the opal was exquisite and a joy to cut. Kim was in a hurry to get back to Coober Pedy so he could sell his share and send the money back to Korea.
Back to Mintabie
It was at this stage we purchased a small caravan and towed it to Mintabie. I think this was an admission that opal mining was not only to become more permanent but an ongoing pursuit. It certainly meant a more comfortable home.
On the way to Mintabie we would stop at Coober Pedy for supplies and explosives. We would go to Mick Lucas and sons for all our groceries. We became friends with Luke Lucas and would occasionally stay in his wonderful dugout if we didn’t have the time to continue the last part of the journey. Luke weekly sent grocery parcels on the bus for us and we would drive out to Marla and pick them up. Later as Mintabie grew he had a small refrigerated truck and would bring groceries and perishables on a semi regular basis. I remember the first trip he made because he called in to our camp first with a tub of semi hard (but cold) ice-cream. It was an excruciatingly hot day so we all sat round the table and enjoyed the entire tub before it melted…..just one of those indelible imprints of how a little insignificant gesture can be so important. All of this became redundant and inconsequential when the first shop finally opened and ice cream became a normal indulgent.
Day-to-Day at Mintabie
Mining was not always as exciting as it may appear to some reading this. There were many ‘drought’ periods, where months went past without a find and like most miners we would think that perhaps our luck was slowing down. These periods made the dawn to dusk shoveling tedious and back breaking. The boredom though, would be offset by the great company of other miners and talk about previous finds and strategies for the next. There was always some miner finding opal and I optimistically dreamed about our next pocket.
On our one day of the week off we would often walk around the entire opal field (This would only take a couple of hours). We would check out any new prospecting holes and look at any opal dumps to see if there was evidence of new finds. This knowledge would help our own mining and we were always looking for the next direction to peg claims as the field grew… A little like playing chess with claims. You pegged claims hoping that the one beside you would find big opal and you would have an instantly good claim without having to prospect. We always tried to have one set of pegs ready for use.
Occasionally the miners would organize a game of soccer at the local “football ground.” This area was roughly flat, with most of the larger boulders removed from the barren red dusty surface. It was also conveniently located close to the ‘pub’. Perhaps the football arena was not what the Liverpool lads were used to playing on but it did provide an entertaining afternoon for all. Generally teams were selected along the line of “Fatties verses Skinnies” or some other equally evaluated criteria. This sporting event was followed by a progress association barbeque that every man and his dog attended. These were always entertaining. Occasionally there were a few arguments but no more than at your average event. The next day everyone was back to work hangover and all. What I enjoyed about the barbeques was that we all had opal in common and so everyone could talk the same talk. I remember talking to one miner who had several bulldozers and who owned quite a bit of real estate. He didn’t need mining but loved the life and the excitement. I asked him what it was he liked about living at Mintabie and the people there. His response was “In the city people can think I’m a bastard but call me sir. At Mintabie if they think I’m a bastard they call me a bastard!”
I am sure that attitude is what I liked about Mintabie. You were respected and you respected others. It didn’t matter who you were or what occupation you had in the past. For that matter the past was exactly that… in some cases best left behind. We all had our future and we all had to get along. A great place to be and as the opal field grew the more exciting it became.
Our three way opal mining partnership was making our lives easier. We were each able to go back to our respective homes during the year when required and know the mine was still operating with always a chance of more opal.
A lot was happening around this period and life was pretty full on. Around this time I made my first trip to the annual Tucson gem and mineral show. In those days it was mainly a show for mineral and fossil specimens and was held in just two motels. These days it encompasses everything in the stone world and any person remotely interested in rocks, gemstones, fossils or minerals should make the pilgrimage at least once in their life. It has spread out across Tucson and there are various shows in almost fifty different locations. I have lost count of the number of times I have been, but it would be approaching thirty. In fact I almost qualify for Tucson citizenship, having spent over twelve months of my life there. It has become an ‘old boys club’ and each year we meet to network, discuss new finds, and renew contacts. We eat too much, sometimes drink too much and generally have a really great time. When you only see these friends once a year for a couple of weeks it becomes like a ‘micro life’ within our normal life and we all seem to grow older very quickly.
I marry Ann
Ann and I married so we could start a family and eventually we were to have three children. Over almost the next two decades I had most of the rough edges knocked off. As far as married life goes I ran the gauntlet of all possible human emotions, hardships and joy that most marriages experience. Our first son, Michael, spent most of his early life at Mintabie and still recalls the times fondly. He even found his own way back many years later for a Mintabie reunion.
Business and Communication
My business ‘Mineshaft’ was the backbone and cog of my economic life, as it still is, and I was experiencing the joys and hardships that all small business goes through. The main hardship at this time was communication. Keeping in touch by phone was not an option as the only phone was a radio phone in the caravan for the flying doctor and that was to be used only in emergencies. The turnaround time for mail was well over a week so there could be no urgent decisions. The paperwork arrived by mail and on completion I would return it along with any “pressing decisions”. I had to run my business as simply as I could and give Peter Bucke (our manager) more responsibility to make decisions. It actually all ran remarkably smoothly. A few years later one of the first satellite phones in Australia was installed at Mintabie and life became easier. Later still it was possible to have a landline installed in your camp and communications became ‘normal’.
Opal mining was my passion. Every day was an adventure and every day I woke up wondering what we might discover. The growth and development of Mintabie from a fledging opal deposit to a booming opal mining community was a tremendous experience. The optimism and excitement could be breathed and we all thought it would never come to an end. Those years, in hindsight, made us very fortunate to have been part of the adventure.
Kim was a terrible driver but he owned the mining ute that we used to get around the field. Many the time, Robert or I would call out “Kim there is a hole in the road up there… KIM THERE IS A HOLE IN THE ROAD… @#@*! “ We hit it. These holes weren’t ‘normal’ holes as with most roads. These were holes drilled by prospecting rigs and often the whole front wheel of the ute would disappear into them. Kim needed the entire road and often other miners would head bush as soon as they saw him coming. At least his ute was red in colour! I bought some large black stick-on letters and stuck “KIMS CAR” on the front and sides of it so everyone would know.
Most miners had their own unique mining cars. These were all unregistered and most were only just running. At least they saved the wear and tear on your normal transport. The roads through the mining field changed continually. Every time a new bulldozer cut was started the road was moved. Prospecting holes were normally navigated around as were the bigger boulders. Bulldozers and drilling rigs also used the road so its condition was not always comfortable or predictable.
Every now and then some official would come to Mintabie to check for unregistered cars. The bush telegraph worked really well and generally advance notice would be received from Coober Pedy and we would all hide our mining cars in the sand dunes until it was safe to use them again. The same bush telegraph warned us when a mining inspector was to make a check on claims and everything was straightened up to the letter of the law. A few years later a permanent mining inspector arrived and common sense and the law prevailed.
I always wanted a German Sheppard! Mintabie was a giant backyard and as we were now based there for most of the year I finally got my puppy. Peppa was to become the most amazing mining dog and with plenty of time to train her she was a brilliant canine. However she was not good at staying in the back of Kim’s ute whilst Kim was driving. It was a common occurrence for Kim to hit a bump and we would turn around to see Peppa summasalting through the air. Luckily she was never hurt and we would slow down and she would simply jump back in as if this was normal.
Kim Dreams of Tomatoes
Kim used to dream. He would spend a lot of time analyzing his dreams and extracting relevant information to relate to his life. In particular he would try and decipher particular dreams to help his opal mining and use the sub-conscious to find him more opal. We were used to these discussions and would often offer interpretations to help. Mainly though, they were entertaining and a fun thing to talk about and pass the long boring hours when there was no opal and little trace.
Robert had gone home to Corowa for a break and Kim and I were alternating between his opal mine and a mine we were working near Mintabie’s water supply.
One morning on the way to work Kim says, “I had a strange dream last night! I dreamt we were diving through crystal clear water and picking these ripe red tomatoes!” There was not much I could say about that so we continued to walk to the mine. We both went down the shaft to check the blasts before starting to pull the dirt.
In one drive our blast had broken through into the end of an old drive that had been dug by the previous opal miners. There was a very small hole in the bottom corner of our drive. After we cleared the dirt away with our hands we peered through the hole with our hand held light. The last lot of dirt was still in the drive from the previous miners and they had obviously not even bothered to check it. This old drive was a few feet deeper than our drive and it had filled up with water. We could see, through the shimmering water, pieces of brilliant opal scattered all over the dirt. The last lot of explosives the miners set had blown out dirt up to a seam of vertical opal (Opal that forms in a vertical seam rather than the more common horizontal seam opal) This vertical had fallen out on top of the dirt and left the opal scattered all over the place.
So we reached in through the crystal clear water and picked out the bright red (and green, yellow, orange and blue) pieces of exquisite crystal opal.
This parcel became known to us as Kim’s Ripe Red Tomato Pocket. It contained over 60 ounces of top quality crystal opal up to two centimeters thick. I still have a few pieces of this memorable opal and occasionally take them out to reminisce or show interested people.
Because there was no bank at Mintabie anything of value we buried in the sand and dug up when needed. In front of our caravan on top of the sand was a large tarpaulin. We had chairs and storage boxes on it and it kept the sand and dirt away from the caravan door. We used to bury our money and opal in Tupperware boxes a meter or so from the corner of the tarpaulin. We had our share of Kim’s tomatos buried on one corner and our money on the other corner. During the year we decided to move our campsite a few hundred meters to an area with better trees. It was few months after our move when we were heading back to Canberra that Ann says “Where is our money?” I had dug the tomato’s up but had forgotten our money! Now since our move there had been quite a lot of rain and it was impossible to tell exactly where the tarpaulin had been pegged. I am sure anyone looking would have thought I was mad. I frantically dug where I thought the box should be but unfortunately I was wrong. It took several exhausting hours before I unearthed it. The ground looked like a freshly dug potato field. I was so relieved when I finally found it.
Kim Dreams of Apricots
Perhaps Kim’s most interesting dream was his ‘Apricot Dream.’ The day after this dream he was very animated and excited. He was sure he knew what it meant and was keen for us to stop mining where we were and to chase his apricots. Kim dreamed there were two apricot trees in a field. There was a fence between these two trees. One tree had no apricots on it and the other tree was loaded with beautiful big apricots but he was having trouble picking them!
At the time we were working our ‘watertank’ claims. The claim beside one of these had been bulldozed and they had found quite a large parcel not far from our border. There was large amount of dirt pushed on top of our claim adjoining this that completely covered half of it. This had been done a few years ago before we had pegged it. Kim explained “where they found the pocket on the adjoining claim was symbolized by the apricot tree with no apricots. The fence was the border of the claim and the Apricot tree with all the lovely apricots was a pocket of opal on our claim but close to the border and under the mountain of loose dirt”. It would be impossible to put a shaft down where Kim believed the pocket was because of this dirt. The best we could do would be to drive from an existing shaft and that would be quite a distance. This, Kim explained, was why he had trouble picking the apricots and it gave him all the more reason why we should do the hard work to reach the pocket!
We decided if we were to pacify Kim we would have to chase his apricots. We stopped our immediate mining and commenced a drive straight towards the apricot tree. About ten meters from the shaft the level started to dip. This meant we were now pushing our wheelbarrow long distances AND uphill. We persevered because the reward of best quality apricots was enticing. We were not even halfway. A few meters further on we came across a drive done by someone else a few years back. This drive was full of water logged dirt and it flooded our drive. After removing as much water as we could we continued. We were now pushing our wheelbarrow uphill through slippery mud and water was continually seeping into our drive. Those apricots were indeed becoming difficult to pick. The level than began to dip dramatically and with two of us pushing the wheelbarrow it was becoming a monster chore. Because the level dipped the seeping water from the old drive was continually running down the floor to the face we were working. The air was getting hotter and very humid with no ventilation shaft and we were sweating profusely. In the end even Kim decided the apricots would have to remain unpicked.
Years later the watertank claims were cut… All except about a third of the old claim with the mountain of dirt on it. It is still there and perhaps underneath is an incredible apricot tree.