It was around about this time that opal mining at Mintabie exploded (No pun intended). Prospecting Drilling rigs were beginning to find nice trace and opal on the flats across the first sand dune that was to become known as Crystal Valley. Some of the nicest opal ever mined at Mintabie came from this field and started the phenomenal expansion that continued for several years. Some of the original bull dozer cuts found large parcels of opal and the expansion of the mining area was dramatic.
We would often spend our day off walking around the new field and in particular checking out the dirt left by the prospecting drills. Occasionally we would find small trace either missed or thought not worthy of further exploration. To us, the information would help form part of a jigsaw in our minds to help with future pegging of claims. On one of our early walks we found a drill hole dump with the most incredibly bright very thin trace scattered amongst the dirt. It was so thin it fell apart in your hand. The colour was simply exquisite! The hole was quite a distance from any work but no one was to know which way the field would run in the future. I thought about the possibilities for a long time and the colour was so incredibly bright that any pocket would be just unbelievable. Now trace does not mean pocket and generally much more information is needed to warrant the expense of opening up a mine. Still the romance of it all and several ‘multi coloured’ dreams led me to store the location in the ‘achieves’ of my mind in case the field moved closer to the area. We were working claims on the Old Field so this would have been a ‘wild card’ pegging. However a few years later the trace was still on my mind so I registered the claim and paid the fees. It was not long and a full year had gone past and the claim came up for renewal. I just couldn’t let go so I paid another yearly fee. Crystal Valley had opened up and most of the opal was found up the other end of the field. Although some mining moved slowly towards my claim it was becoming apparent that the main opal run was not this way. Still I couldn’t let it go. Sometimes you mine areas on ‘feeling’ rather than fact. Another year went past and I paid the renewal fee. In the mean time we followed the ‘run’ of opal in a professional manner but more of that later. Several years went past and I doggedly paid the renewal each year. Toward the end of my time at Mintabie I decided that since I had paid a small fortune to ‘Consolidated revenue’ in rent for this 50 meter block I had better at least check it out before my Mintabie mining ended. So I spent more money on several prospecting holes and $600 for the drilling of a large shaft. I spent a couple of months mining and a couple of thousand dollars on explosives and found no opal. In the end when I left Mintabie I gave the claim to Peter Noakes and left for good. Peter mined the claim for quite a few years and found some nice opal but no big pockets. Some of the opal he found was quite brilliant and cut beautiful doublets. He used some of the opal in making opal face watches. Because I had spent so much money on the claim, I purchased an opal watch from him for $300 just adding a little more expense to the ledger. To this day I think I have the most expensive opal face watch in existence. This was the only opal I saw out of the claim I owned for many years and spent so much money on. When I look at it, I see the wonderful bright trace that ignited so many dreams. I fitted the watch to an 18ct gold Seiko watch band that belonged to my deceased dad and it is a wonderful symbol of the love I feel for my dad and the passion of opal.
Long Term Friendships
Friendships that last over many years are rare and valuable. Over the years I have had three amazing friendships that have been so important to my growth as a person and so incredibly precious as the years pass. These friends have shared the good times and helped me through the black times of depression and heartbreak that many people have at some stage in their life. Hughie the mad Irishman I have already mentioned. My friend Terry Coldham I met around the time I started mining at Mintabie. We were doing a trade fair at Goulburn gem show where we had adjoining booths. We both sold very little. In fact the only real sale I had was an opal to Terry and the only real sale Terry had was a sapphire to me. We hit it off as we had so much in common and we have shared many travels and adventures both locally and overseas since. I should mention that Terry has the most incredible collection of carved gemstone pigs. (Is this because of his surname or does he simply have a pig ‘fetish?) Terry visited us at Mintabie in the early days and I got the impression there was a deep seated mining bug deep within his makeup. Terry, whose business started around Australian sapphire, is an expert on this stone with his expertise spreading to all faceted stones and beyond. His business ‘Sapphex’ became one of Australia’s most respected gemstone wholesalers. He has even had a stint in a remote part of China helping set up a ruby exploration mining company. These days Terry, I and my Brazilian friend Jose meet whenever possible, wherever possible. Jose and Terry first met when we all shared a room at the Tucson gem and mineral show. I was arriving after Jose and Terry. Terry arrived first and within hours of finding the motel room Jose knocked on the door and introduced himself. He asked Terry if he had ever been to the Quartzite show. As it turned out Terry had a good friend with a stand at Quartzite (John Bennett) so he decided to visit him. Pushing his jet lag behind, off they went. Terry remembers the trip well because the hire car Jose drove was a convertible sports car. All good, but Jose couldn’t manage to put the roof up and Arizona is quite cold in February. At least it kept Terry awake.
Jose and I met in my shop. I can’t remember the first meeting so I will tell it from Jose’s view point. I was on a ladder changing a light globe when he came in and introduced himself. He says “Hello, I am Jose, I am Brazilian and I am going to Brazil. Do you have any suggestions on what I could bring back?” Apparently, without getting down, I suggested that there was a new ‘movement’ of people liking crystals for healing purposes rather than collections so it might be a good idea to bring some amethyst geodes and gemstone spheres as Brazil is where it all comes from. The second visit I remember distinctly and was the catalyst for the start of a friendship that has seen us both through the good, the bad, the ugly and the wonderful. Jose has the most expressive eyes and the most honest soul of anyone I have met. I felt this instantly with his second visit. He walks in and opens the conversation. “Hello, I am Jose and I asked your advice a few months ago on what I could bring back from Brazil. I have a proposition I want to put to you. I have imported many drums of amethyst from Brazil and I have a problem. They are stuck with customs and I don’t have the money to clear them. If you can pay the amount I will let you select at my cost price whatever you want for the amount of money I need to clear them”. Sometimes you can tell the sincerity of a person and I had no hesitation in writing Jose a check. Jose was to move on to run a very successful wholesale business called Brazilian Emporium and supplied the growing ‘crystal movement’ for several years. Our friendship has lasted many years, several countries and more business discussions than any book on the subject. Because of the time I spent mining, times with my friends were intermittent and limited to when we could meet and this pattern remained constant over many years. It seemed like I had two lives. At Mintabie I had the life of an opal miner and when I was in Canberra I had the life of a business man with the transition from one to the other almost instant.
Bowler Ties For The President
The American ambassador to Australia between 1981 and 1985 was Robert Nesen. He was a regular at Mineshaft and purchased several opals. We got on really well with the ambassador and his wife (In fact his wife hand knitted Michael his first pair of baby booties). The ambassador wanted to give his friend (The then president of the United States, Ronald Reagan) a set of ‘Bowler Ties’ incorporating a particular rock the president liked. The rock was ‘tigeriron’ one of the oldest geological gemstones on earth found in Western Australia. I told the ambassador I had a really nice piece at home from my time in Western Australia when I was much younger. I would be honored to have it turned into bowler ties for the president and his wife. The bowler ties were made with the tigeriron stone set within a silver horse shoe design. The job was not without drama. Our goldsmith did a wonderful job but when we showed the ambassador he was very worried. We had made it with the horseshoe pointing downwards. Apparently that can lead to the wearer’s luck running out. Well, with a lot of effort we managed to turn the horseshoes up the right way and the ambassador was really happy with the result. ‘End of story’, as far as I was concerned, and I returned to Mintabie for another mining stint. Several months later Peter Bucke, our manager, receives a phone call along these lines “Hello, this is John Smith here, President Reagan’s personal secretary”. Peter almost replies with “Yes and I am Donald Duck” but wisely decided not to. Apparently he needed the correct spelling of my name. Arriving via the embassy a few weeks later was a photograph of the two bowler ties along with the president’s signature. It is still on display in our shop.
The Blocked Vacuum Cleaner
Back at Mintabie Robert, Kim and I decided to buy a blower (A Giant vacuum cleaner on the back of a truck for removing the dirt from the mine). We thought it was time we moved forward and this would help speed up our mining operation. We went to Coober Pedy and eventually purchased one. Although they work really well at Coober Pedy and other fields they were not terribly successful at Mintabie. It was a total waste of money. The sandstone at Mintabie was coarse and very abrasive and was quickly wearing holes in the metal bends. We cut some truck tyre inserts and placed them in the bends and that seemed to solve that problem. The major problem was our wet ground. Although Mintabie is in the desert, the ground was relatively moist with sometimes the moisture forming wet spots on the floor of the drives. The result over a short space of time was the insides of the pipes were slowing being ‘caked’ with moist sandstone that was sticking like glue and the 9 inch diameter pipes were sometimes down to 6 inches. Not only was the sandstone having trouble getting through the system but the pipes were becoming very heavy. When the blower was working well the mining was fast but as soon as the pipes became blocked it would take us all day to clean them out. The end result was it simply was no faster and we were spending a day in every three cleaning the bloody pipes. To add insult to injury we had our blower set up on the top of a ramp leading down to a bulldozer cut. One very wet night of rain washed our blower down in to the cut. We pulled it out by bulldozer and never used it again. I think the truck was sold to someone to use as a water tank carrier.
Uncle Roy’s Lunch
It was about this time that scrappers were being tried out for the very first time to remove the ripped sandstone from the bottom of the bull dozer cuts. My old Uncle Roy (He had driven all sorts of machinery in his working life) and I were sitting on top of a dump watching one of the original scrappers hurtling down the ramp of a cut and then picking up a load of sandstone and driving out. Later they changed the technique so that the bulldozer slowly pushed the scrapper through the loose sandstone until it was full. This caused less damage to the machine and actually worked well. Anyway, Uncle Roy dryly commented “I’ll eat crow if these things ever work here!” I still have a lovely vision of Uncle Roy sitting in a white cloud with a crow in either hand happily munching away. He had driven his converted camping ‘combie’ to Mintabie and was staying with us for a while. I remember fondly when he took our young son Michael noodling for the day. He said not to worry about lunch because he would take enough food for both of them. I asked Michael how was lunch and he said ‘great’. I asked him what he had and he said ‘bikies’! Apparently all they ate was a shared packet of my uncle’s favorite biscuits ‘Iced Vovos’.
Whisky – The Pitjantjatjara Tracker
My mining partner Robert and his wife June had a lovely little toddler named Taran. Their camp was about half a kilometer from the opal fields at the back of Mintabie. Robert and I were working a claim near the water tank. We were both underground when we heard June arriving somewhat in a hurry with the horn blasting. Robert went up the 50 foot ladder in about 3 steps closely followed by me. June was in a panic. Taran was missing! She had been cleaning the camp and had not noticed that Taran had wandered off. She had frantically searched everywhere and her little angel was nowhere to be found.
This was a really serious problem as there are thousands of shafts and large drill holes on the opal fields. Because the top few feet is sand often the holes are shaped like large funnels and are extremely dangerous.
Noodling on our dump were several of the local aborigines including Whisky the local leader of the Pitjantjatjara. We asked Whisky if he could track. (Many aboriginals are experts at following footprints) He said he could so we bundled him into the four wheel drive and headed as fast as we could to Robert’s camp. Whisky picked up her tiny footprints almost immediately. She was headed straight for the opal fields.
We all began to panic as Whisky led the way into the opal fields. Deeper and deeper into the field we went and the more concerned and frightened we all became. We wanted to call out but didn’t want to panic little Taran, in case she ran towards a hole.
Several hundred meters in towards the centre of the opal fields Whisky said that a large dog had joined her and was walking beside her. We thought this could have been my German Sheppard ‘Peppa’. This was good news, at least she wasn’t alone. Whisky continued his tracking for what seemed to take forever. We were past the center of the opal field and were heading towards the road that led in from the town on the other side of the diggings.
Our other mining partner ‘Kim’ and his wife had a caravan actually in the opal fields beside the road and Whisky was headed straight for it.
There curled up, asleep, on the dusty mat in front of the door was Taran. Peppa was lying beside her. Little Taran had decided to pay Kim a visit.
FOOTNOTE. Whiskies ability to follow Taran’s tracks was totally amazing. There was no way you could see what he saw, yet it seemed so natural to him.