Expect The Unexpected
Opal mining is exciting. Every day is a chance and everyday has its adventure. In between all this lies a normal sort of existence. However even day-to-day life on any opal field can be a little different and you soon learn to expect the unexpected.
After our son Michael was born we upgraded our tiny caravan to a larger one with an annex. We came across this bargain priced old, but big, caravan in Canberra where the market for antique caravans is practically non-existent. The best part about it was the annex had not been used much and was in far better shape than the caravan. So we began the long tow to Mintabie. The road from just outside Port Augusta was still the most horrible, dusty, corrugated, teeth rattling “road” that could be imagined. When we got to Coober Pedy we found the caravan door hanging by one hinge with a single screw. Inside, every screw had come loose and all the cupboard doors were lying in a sea of dust inches thick. The beds had collapsed and part of the roof lining had dropped. So we tied everything down as best we could and made our way up the worst part of the “road” to Mintabie. It took over a week to remove the dust and re-attach the interior. So you ‘grey nomads’ in your air conditioned caravans with flush toilet and automatic potato peelers, give a thought as you cruise through the center along the current asphalt highway, to those who went before!
When Michael was really small he would be bathed in the sink and a few months later a plastic bowl in the annex.
We had a drop toilet a short distance from the caravan but Ann didn’t like walking to it at night so we invested in a ‘porta potty’ and she kept it in the annex. A couple of cupboards were also there for storing spare food and other incidentals.
The Flying Porta-Potty
Occasionally we would get extremely windy conditions that made the caravan feel like a crab boat on the Bering Sea. Being an old caravan it used to squeak and rattle, making it impossible to sleep. One particular night was incredibly gusty and the caravan was sounding like an out of tune string section performed by a very drunk orchestra. Sarge had just dropped by and we were sitting in the caravan attempting coffee. A wind blast with the noise of a freight train hit the caravan and lifted it, shaking us violently. Now Sarge carried a little extra weight and I am convinced if he had not come over that night our caravan would have rolled. As it was the annex was totally torn from the caravan and disappeared into the darkness of the night. In the morning the scene looked like a bomb had hit. Ann’s cherished ‘porta potty’ had been lifted, twisted and carried over a hundred meters (You could say #$#@ flew for miles). Acacia trees had been torn from the sand and a strip of about 20 meters width looked like a bulldozer had passed through. It took most of the morning to find our supplies. Michael’s plastic bowl was never found.
Peppa and Dingo
Peppa the mining dog slept in the caravan. This was because we knew there were dingoes around and we weren’t sure how they would get on. Her food bowl was in the annex. Quite often Peppa would not finish her food but in the morning her bowl was empty. It dawned on us that a dingo had discovered a free meal ticket. So I ‘overfilled’ the bowl ensuring there was a little left for ‘Dingo’. Robert’s camp was a couple of hundred meters down the track and every morning just before sunrise Peppa and I would walk to his camp and Kim would pick us all up in the red mining ute. I began to see Dingo looking at us from a safe distance. Over the months Dingo got quite used to us and eventually would be waiting for us about twenty meters down the road. He would walk in front of us at the same pace we were walking. Peppa took no notice and ambled along by my side. If we stopped, he stopped and when we got to Roberts camp he disappeared into the bush.
‘Kamikaze’ was a little black bird who lived in the bush around our camp. He used to drink the water from Peppa’s dish and was a fixture for a while. When the sun was at the right angle he could see his reflection in the window of the caravan. He desperately wanted to get to know the great looking ‘bird’ he could see winking at him. He would fly towards the bird and collide into the window with a loud clunk. He was persistent and would repeat his advances for quite some time. Eventually he must have felt rejected and would fly back into the trees. He tried gallantly for months to communicate with his shadow but in the end I am sure he gave up heart-broken and flew off in to the wilderness never to return.
A Solid Home
Many windstorms and sleepless nights finally convinced me that we needed a solid camp anchored to the ground. So eventually Robert and I each purchased a ‘kit’ garage and assembled them over concrete blocks as the basis of new permanent camps. Now most men reading this would have no problems, but for me it was a frightening task. Even putting a nail in straight is a problem and anything more complicated than that leaves me in a cold sweat. With Robert’s patience and help, my new home was completed. Many containers of expanding foam were used to fill the gaps in an attempt to keep most of the dust out. Windows discarded at the Canberra dump were placed in the walls of the garage and eventually it was looking like a home.
We collected trailer loads of rocks from around the mines and ‘built’ extra rooms on the sides of the garage and when completed we had regular little homes.
Learning to Plumb
Wisdom is generally accumulated by experience and building my first shower room was a classic case. It would be wonderful not to have to walk out into the cold night air to shower. It would also be wonderful NOT to have gritty, abrasive red sandstone all over the soap. Surely all I needed was a small room and concrete floor with a bit of plastic pipe as a drain to run the water off into the sand. A pull up shower bucket on a pulley system would complete the story. What an achievement it was when I completed it. About a fortnight later I was enjoying my bucket of water and luxuriating whilst shampooing my hair. With eyes full of foam I thought I could feel something crawling over my foot and climbing up my leg. With a frantic hop step and jump, along with a kick, I dislodged a giant green, hairy centipede with the suction of a plumber’s toilet ‘plunger’. The wisdom I learned was that a U bend will stop centipedes coming into the shower. So the concrete was jack hammered up and a U bend installed! (At least being an opal miner meant a jack hammer was always close)
In the same narrow room we had set up Ann’s washing machine. She divided her washing in to two piles on the floor (colours or whites… It is a funny thing why women do this in the Australian desert… after all, every bit of clothing is a red shade from the dirt anyway). Robert and I were mining a couple of kilometers from camp and I was underground and Robert was working the hoist. Robert sees Ann driving like a bat out of hell towards the mine and calls down the shaft “You better come up I think there is trouble” When Ann gets there she is trembling like an earthquake, covered in goose bumps and talking incoherently. Apparently she had gone to do her washing and she was confronted by a giant King Brown snake going up and over and into her piles of washing. Terrified that it might hurt Michael and she would not be able to ever sleep again and there was no one around she felt she had no choice other than to dispatch it to snake heaven. Grabbing a shovel she managed to chase it out of the room and it slid in to her garden of desert flowers. Not being able to see the snake she attacked the flowers with the shovel and mortally wounded the King Brown. Her concern was that it was still moving and she didn’t know what to do. We went and inspected the snake and she had indeed killed it (many times).
It Does Rain – Eventually
I decided that as we had a tin roof with a sizeable catchment area we should attach a water tank and collect rainwater for drinking. At this time we were bringing all our drinking water from Canberra or fetching it when we visited Coober Pedy. We purchased one when we went home and put it in the trailer and towed it back to Mintabie. It had been set up for over fourteen months before we had enough water to flow from the tap. As is the case in the desert, when it did rain it filled the tank in one night. There was so much rain we should have had an Olympic swimming pool because we could have filled it to. It is well documented that the desert comes alive with rain. It not only comes alive but there is a definite fresh smell and it elevates your feeling of goodwill. After months of prolonged dry, the boggy road and boots caked with mud are welcome inconveniences. One return trip to Canberra we travelled most of the road to Port Augusta mainly sideways, through deep water and countless miles of sticky mud. The only clean patch on the four wheel drive was where the windshield wipers moved. The rest of the car was thick caked brown mud. In fact for years after, when our car was parked in the driveway and it rained, there would be a distinct rectangular brown mark left as a reminder.
The Sand Pit
When Michael became a toddler we wanted some clean sand to make a sand pit where he would not get covered in the red dirt that was around the camp. The closest dry creek that had enough suitable sand was about 20 minutes away. I was talking to ‘Tank’ from the Queenslanders camp next door about taking the trailer out there and getting a load. Tank reckoned that seemed like hard work and suggested he drive out there with a scrapper and we could make Michael a ‘decent’ sand pit. So on Sunday Tank turns up with a full scrapper load of nice river sand. There would not be too many toddlers with their sandpit delivered by scrapper!
Mintabie had a large Croatian population so it was reasonable to expect that Croatia Day would be well and truly celebrated. Every year at a minute past midnight the beginning of Croatia day is celebrated by an enormous explosion. This explosion contained many bags of ammonium nitrate or the equivalent of several boxes of Dynamite. The very first Croatia day I experienced at Mintabie I will never forget. Although asleep I felt the air move and the force of the explosion shake the earth. I thought a big Mac truck was running over our tent. UNBELIEVABLE! Every Croatia day from then on I was prepared. (For the explosion anyway). The day is celebrated as only Croatian opal miners can. Wild, drunken and everything in between packed into a passion packed emotional day of celebration often spilling over into the next day or two. Eventually all returns to normal and even miners who 24 hours before were belting the crap out of each other were back working again as if nothing had happened.
Occasionally the unexpected can have profound effect on your mining and your home life. We were working a claim at the back of Mintabie Opal Fields. It was in an isolated area and had no adjoining operating claims. It was a part of the opal field that had not been prospected much and we were looking for a new area to mine. The claim had a few shafts on it and had been abandoned a few years previously with only a little work done. We had climbed down a couple of the shafts and checked the walls for trace. The ground looked promising so we decided to spend some time and do a little exploratory work.
At the time, a few claims on opal were being ratted (Ratting is when someone other than the claim owner, goes down the mine at night and steals the opal). There were pretty strong indications who this particular ratter was. He had lived at Mintabie for a few years and had never done any real mining. He was what was called a professional noodler. (A noodler is someone who goes through miners left over dirt searching for missed opal) Most suspected his money came from ratting. I can’t recall his name so I will call him George for this story.
Several ratters over the years had gone missing from Mintabie and most miners think they were thrown down abandoned shafts. Mintabie was certainly self policing and some of the local miners had a total distain for ratters. There were rumors that George had suffered this fate. He was indeed missing and not been seen for over a week.
Back at our claim we had just got on to some interesting trace. Although there was no opal, the ground showed promising indications. It was certainly showing us that more work was required. This particular day we had put in a lot of shots and had gone home for lunch. When we returned we noticed a foul odour coming up our shaft and could see the reflection of shallow water at the bottom. When we investigated, our shots had broken through the side of a drive from one of the other shafts. It was about 4 feet deeper than our drive and completely full of water. We peered through the small hole made from the blast and could see right at the end of the drive a disturbing sight. The end of the drive was about thirty feet away and we could just make out something in a large plastic bag floating semi submerged in the water. What looked like an elbow was sticking up from the inside of the bag.
We were convinced we had found George. We didn’t know what to do next. If we went to the police (This would have been a trip to Coober Pedy) and if it wasn’t George we would be the laughing stock of Mintabie Opal Fields. The ground was looking promising so we didn’t want to abandon the mine. We decided we would have to pump enough of the water out so that we could climb into the old drive and check George out. We set up our pump and started to pump out the water. The stench was horrible! You could smell it for a hundred meters. There was a lot of water to remove and it was obvious it would take a couple of days to lower the level enough for us to get in the old drive. Eventually we were ready to check George out. Robert and I flipped a coin to see who would have the pleasure of doing the forensic work. In preparation we moved the winch over on top of the old shaft, as it would be easier to lift George out from there.
Robert won the toss, much to my relief, so armed with a flashlight he lowered himself into the water that remained in the old drive. I waited in our drive for the verdict. Robert made his way towards the garbage bag. The water was up to his armpits and he was holding the torch above his head. The odour was almost unbearable and there were maggots floating in the disturbed water. I made the sarcastic remark that he had better keep his mouth shut. By the time he reached George the water was up to his neck. With an opal pick Robert broke away the plastic in a moment that I could only call tense. Inside the bag was the carcass of a very dead large dog!
FOOTNOTE The smell got the better of us and we abandoned the mine. George was never found