Peter’s Story Part 14

My Dad Tries Divining

My dad was inflicted with that horrible disease ‘Alcoholism’. That didn’t mean I loved him less.  I just didn’t like seeing the man who was such a wonderful father, in a drunken state. Today I would be far more tolerant as I understand more about the condition. Hindsight is a wonderful teacher and my lack of understanding is one of my greatest regrets. However at the time we thought it would be a great idea to take him to Mintabie for a few weeks. He would have a great time and perhaps dry out a little. The first part was correct but after he left I discovered the remnants of his smuggled contraband buried in the sand under his tent.

Dad loved talking to the miners and became interested in the ‘divining’ for opal that many of the miners practiced. Our friend Sarge had shown us some years ago how he used brass wires to find the underground faults that opal may occur beside. At the time I was totally skeptical so Sarge suggested a little test. He was mining underground with partners Drago and Ben. Sarge already knew there were 2 main faults on his claim. He told us there was no magic involved with divining these faults. In fact the wires generally worked for everyone. He suggested that all of us should walk across his claim with the wires and try to locate the faults. He also suggested we should do this one at a time and not be able to see where anyone else had placed the faults. Well the amazing thing is that all of us found the faults and marked them in the sand basically in the correct position. Now this does not find opal but it does find the faults that the opal can occur on.

My dad divining for opal

My dad wanted to try the wires out so he was put to work on one of our claims to find the faults and hopefully a decent pocket of opal.

How to Divine for Opal

The technique used is this. You hold one brass L shaped wire by the short side firmly in each hand but not as hard as to stop the wire from moving under the influence of ‘the force’. You walk slowly across the claim and when you pass over the fault the wires will ’mysteriously’ swing open. This marks the fault. Working your way across the claim you can then find the direction of the fault. After that you depend on luck as far as the opal is concerned. Anyway dad spent many hours locating all the faults and cross faults on his particular lucky patch of ground.  He marked where he believed the strongest signals were and felt his marks were directly over a giant pocket of opal. On our day of the week off we hired a prospecting drill and drilled his markers. Unfortunately there was no opal.

An Extra Glass of Wine

After his few weeks with us he travelled back to Canberra by train with Ann who was heavily pregnant at the time.  The first evening meal had a special on the menu ‘fish and chips with a free glass of wine’. He convinced Ann to have fish and chips and because she was pregnant he would drink her wine. My dad also had fish and chips. There is no train station at Marla and the ‘Ghan’ was stopped at night by flashing your headlights at the train as it pulls in to the siding. It is interesting that you can see the powerful light of the train over thirty minutes before it arrives. I think this train trip really impressed my dad as he often spoke of how ‘He stopped the Ghan’ before his trip began.

Often while mining, there is to be no opal found. It is just that when you do find it the experience is so much more rewarding. Sometimes when you are mining, a little bit of trace or a change in ground gets you so excited you become convinced you will soon be on to a big pocket. Something about the indication is so strong you are almost prepared to bet that opal is not far away. A little bit like a strong bite when you are fishing and you are sure it is the biggest fish in the river. We were working a claim on the Old Field at Mintabie when the ground started to change noticeably. The level started to dip and contained lenses of really hard sandstone with scattered empty little hollows like honeycomb with heavy black staining. Many fine lines of black potch were joining into the level. Everything looked good and we were convinced the trace would lead us to the mother of all pockets. Sometimes the lead up to a pocket can take many days and the anticipated excitement grows to fever pitch.

Mintabie early days

Opal Fever Strikes Again

It was late on Friday afternoon and we had decided that we would only put two explosive shots in the floor and jackhammer our way in to carefully check any development. We use an auger that is a little over a meter long to drill the holes for the explosive. The auger is about 4 cm wide and has tungsten tips on the end to cut through the sandstone. Because the ground is very hard at Mintabie, the tungsten tips have to be kept well sharpened so they cut through the sandstone easily. If they are blunt then they grind instead of cut and it takes a long time and a lot of effort to drill the holes. I was drilling and was almost to the end of the hole when there was a, “clack-clack-crunch” noise from the end of the hole. This is the sound made when you drill through a seam of opal. The sound is enough to send goose bumps through any opal miner’s skin. Normally, if the opal is not too thick, the drill bit travels through the seam and when you pull the bit out you see little bits of the opal. When I pulled the bit out this time I had broken off both tungsten tips and out with the tips came a piece of opal about 2 cm square. It had the most striking red colour and was on a jet black base. This was obviously a piece of opal out of a very thick seam. Robert and I did a dance of excitement up and down the drive before regaining our senses and deciding on our next move. It was right on sunset and as our claim was in the middle of a very busy section of the opal field we had to stick to our normal routine and not arouse unnecessary suspicion. We had to stop work as normal. We lit the fuses in the other two drives and left for home. Saturday was the day of the Mintabie Progress Association’s monthly Barbecue. All mining ceased for this day. Not only was it party time and a time to socialize but also a time when you actually got to eat meat. Mintabie was several hours drive from Coober Pedy over a rough corrugated road. It was a trip you made only if you had to.  In those days we lived in a caravan so there was no room to store meat. We ate out of tins and dried food that we bought with us. After a month of this, a pig on the spit and a T bone steak tastes pretty good. Accompanied by FFFFFresh bread and a CCCCold drink it becomes an occasion not to miss. This time however, it meant that the biggest pocket of black opal that Mintabie had ever produced would have to wait another day. If we had worked instead of going to the Barbecue it would have been obvious we were on opal. Throughout Saturday Robert and I stole occasional glances at our piece of black opal. It was definitely gem material of the best quality. Each time we looked at it the bigger the pocket became. After all, the trace and the ground were perfect. Robert was talking about his next holiday and I was just plain dreaming. We showed Sarge (A long term Mintabie miner) our stone and he was equally impressed and wished us luck. Finally we were back at the mine. Excited and full of adrenalin we started to jack hammer in the meter to reach our pocket. The ground was incredibly hard and slowed us down. This only made us believe the opal would be worth the effort. Several hours later we were within inches of our goal and the anticipation was immense. We stopped for a coffee and a few minutes break to summons the energy for the final assault. At last we were through to the seam.  Pieces of thick black opal began to appear. It was strong and jet black. We were convinced that somewhere in this pocket would be some of the best black opal imaginable… after all we had a piece in our pocket!  We spent several days digging out the opal and all without a single flash of colour. The only colour was in that single piece of opal that came out with the drill.

Mad Max Encounter

When we needed more explosives we would drive down to Coober Pedy and get it.We would pick up supplies and enough fresh bread to last a week. Whilst there, we would generally drop in to the Opal Inn for a drink or two. I remember one of these early trips well. The opal Inn had an early space invader game that was set in to the top of a rather low table. A chair was on either side and two people could play.  I remember walking past the table on the way to the bar. On one of the seats sat a dwarf and on the other side, concentrating on the game intensely, was a guy at least six foot six high and covered in disheveled hair. He was so tall he was almost squatting on the seat. I turned to Robert and casually remarked in a knowing fashion “It can only happen in Coober Pedy” and continued to the bar. Several months later I found out they were filming a movie called ‘Mad Max’ and these guys were extras for the movie!  It really didn’t raise an eyebrow at the time, such is the diversity of inhabitants of Opal towns.

The Town Called Alice

We were working our watertank claim approaching Christmas and the temperature was approaching ‘bloody hot’ to ‘madness ‘on the thermometer. We hadn’t found any opal for many months and our expenses box had taken a hiding. Our drives were long and stuffy and our working faces a considerable distance from the shaft and it was becoming very hot and sweaty work with the wheel barrow.  The nights were unbearable and it was impossible to sleep even with our portable air conditioners ( Windex bottles full of water that you point in the air and squirt to cool you down). Sarge and Robert would come around at night and we would sit outside under the stars and whinge. We all needed a break so decided to go to Alice Springs for the weekend. This would mean staying in an air conditioned room, having a shower that lasted more than thirty seconds and eating fresh food. Just the luxury needed to recharge the batteries. We agreed to stay at the casino and each spend $50 gambling. I had never been inside a casino before so this would be a totally new experience. I told Robert I would pay to have a new shaft put down if I won anything. Robert and Sarge went straight to the black jack table and it wasn’t long before they had both lost their money and headed for the bar and later back to the room. Meanwhile I was trying my luck on red and black at the roulette wheel. Well I couldn’t lose! I had all my pockets stuffed full of chips and when they couldn’t hold any more I decided to stop and cash them  in. $2,800 was the total. This was to be my only victory over a casino.

Lenny Butts sinking our ‘casino funded hole’

I Got Lucky Again – Not

When we returned to Mintabie we arranged with Lenny Butts to come and drill a new shaft. That was when the excitement began. When a shaft is being drilled the miners sit around the dirt as it is dropped from the Caldweld Drill bucket and check for trace. Even a good level can be identified, often by a change in colour or staining in the dirt. The driller can tell how deep the trace is and you can then check it later when opening up the shaft. This time however, every miners dream came true. We bottomed on opal and noodled a couple of thousand dollars of good quality opal from the drill hole.  The excitement was intense.  It was late in the afternoon so we decided to start early the next day. Robert went down first and came back up disappointed because he couldn’t find any opal in the wall. I went down and spent considerable time scrapping the wall. We could identify the level but all the opal had come up in the drill. That night we went to the pub and as soon as we walked in we could see Lenny sitting with his mates. He calls out, “How are the millionaires going?”. Robert says to him “Lenny you drilled it all up” Lenny broke down in raucous laughter, pulls up his jean trouser and says “Come on boys, pull the leg will you”!  There was nothing we could say that would convince him there was no opal!

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