A Comfortable Routine
My life had developed a certain comfortable routine over the time we had been mining at Mintabie. Whilst in Canberra I would run our business and around Easter, when the weather cooled, we would drive the 3000 odd kilometers to Mintabie and chase opal. Perhaps once or twice during the year we returned home to fine tune any problems in the business and have a break. I developed a love/hate relationship with the place. I particularly hated the strenuous and monotonous drive to and from. Once there, I loved the mining but if we went a few months with no opal I began to hate the dreary back braking shoveling and needed to escape for a while. After a week or two away, with the batteries recharged, I was ready to chase rainbows again. Of course there were always issues and mini dramas as there is in anybody’s life.
My marriage to Ann was having more rough patches than before. I put it down to our hectic and changeable life style. As with many marriages one side does not always see situations when perhaps they should and often miss the warning signs of more serious consequences to come. In hindsight I was too busy trying to maintain, two different full time jobs with both requiring a lot of attention. With the mining I had a responsibility to my partners, whose sole income was the opal we dug up. I had a duty of equal input and participation. With my shop I had to maintain its viability from a distance. I still had all the paper work, buying and policy decisions to implement. I took this commitment very seriously as I somehow knew, even then, that the lucrative opal mining days would come to an end and I needed the solid backup of a successful business.
Testing The Teachers
Our son Michael was an absolute joy but he was also very difficult. At an early age he was diagnosed with ADDT (hyperactivity problems). When he started school life our situation made his schooling difficult. He would start the year in Canberra and then attend the new school at Mintabie when it was established. In general his teachers liked him and he did possess a wonderful active and intelligent mind. His impulsiveness however often put him in problems way. There were many humorous incidents resulting from his two totally different schooling situations. At Mintabie when he needed a pee he just went behind a bush and did it. Back at Canberra we got an interesting phone call from the preschool where Michael had recently enrolled. The distressed manager informed us, in a very proper but roundabout way, that Michael was behaving badly and in a totally unacceptable manner. It was explained that he was not going to the proper toilet and preferred to flip it out and ‘water the bushes’ in the play area (Quite understandable to me, considering it was normal at Mintabie).
In primary school we had a call from his Canberra headmaster. Michael was using unacceptable language at school (although the headmaster was having trouble explaining exactly what it was Michael was saying). As it turned out Michael was swearing in ‘Pitjantjatjara’. He had been taught some selective phrases by some of the local Mintabie lads. I thought it showed ingenuity and a novel way for him to express his thoughts. Never the less as dutiful parents we tried to correct the error of his ways. Mintabie was a wonderful place for a child such as Michael to grow up. Plenty of space, freedom to live life the way he wanted and the tolerance of the opal mining community. He now remembers his childhood years with predominately but fond memories. To his credit he has fitted in to society and has had a transition to adulthood smoother than most.
Kim Moves On
Kim, our Korean partner, decided he needed to work with a couple of newly arrived Korean miners. There was no ill feeling. It was more Kim’s personality to help teach his inexperienced countrymen the art of finding opal. There was no better teacher then Kim, who had a wonderful knack for reading the ground and a disciplined work regime. Coupled with his romantic trait of ‘dreaming up opal’ he left our partnership amicably. Robert and I decided to continue mining by ourselves. A short time later Kim had real health issues and his doctor told him he had to give up the strenuous occupation of opal mining. He returned to live in Sydney. Throughout our partnership he had sent most of his money back to Korea to help build a church. We had tried unsuccessfully to convince him to build his own home first before building the Lord yet another home. So Kim started his new life working for wages at Paddy’s market and without a home of his own to live in. I can remember thinking of this lifestyle contrast when I saw him for the last time at his place of work. At Mintabie he had the respect of all opal miners as one of the best underground miners on the field. In Sydney he was just another market wage worker… at least he had his memories.
The Oversized Runway
Opal was being found in large quantities on either side of the airstrip. Some industrious miner discovered that the airport boundaries were actually larger than they legally needed to be. The progress association became involved in long talks with the department of mines about correcting the situation and releasing the excess land to the hoards of opal crazed miners waiting to peg the ‘promised land’. Now the progress association was made up of an interesting batch of assorted and changing opal miners. All had colourful, uniquely different and strong individual personalities. Early progress meetings were held at night in the pub and were quite entertaining and often volatile with several miners passionately fuelled with alcohol. I will never forget one meeting where Mat was fervently putting forward his drunken opinion. His loud slurred voice was constantly interjecting all night and little ‘progress’ was being made. In the end, with a superbly constructed flurry of profanities, he stormed out of the meeting. If only parliament was as entertaining as this. Because Mintabie was outside of normal ‘council’ rules it developed at a fast and furious pace without the restrictions and rules of a normal community. Where else could a town’s water be delivered to the community by the skill and hard work of simple opal miners who had an idea that ‘might’ work! It did and still does. Bulldozers were used to dig a trench from the bore down to the town and a series of plastic pipes were connected to the houses below the escarpment. Camps developed in all shapes and sizes without any hindrance by building inspectors, rules or regulations. Later years some of the problems created by this early method of habitation were addressed, such as all houses to be located within the designated town boundaries and some of the rougher constructions totally demolished. Overall though, the town developed because of the chance of finding opal and was secondary to this, so attention to detail was not as important as simply having a place to live. If only our current government could run the country with the finesse and forward thinking and ‘do it now’ attitude of these colourful miners. We wouldn’t need elections. Progress successfully negotiated for the airport to be shrunken to its correct and legal size. A day was set when the new ground would be released for pegging to the wild horde of salivating miners. News of this ‘hot’ release even reached the Sydney papers and TV channels. There were rumors there would be many volatile situations as the miners fought to secure their dream claims. Of course there were many more miners then there were claims and the press was there for the story.
Years ago I shared a house with Neil who worked as a TV camera man and I had not seen him for years. Surprisingly, he had been sent to Mintabie to cover the anticipated ‘riot’. We had a wonderful night at the pub and Neil asked about the pegging the next day. I reckoned it was all ‘hot air and piss’ but if he really wanted, we could stage him an argument. So at the prescribed time the next day there was a very heated argument that apparently went to air. Our claim turned out to be a dud. A few years later the whole airport was relocated and this time a more orderly ballot was introduced for the opal bearing land.
Vesso was a giant of a man somewhat resembling a huge bear. He never wore shoes and his somewhat oversized feet were callused with rhinoceros like skin, home to many deep canyons brazenly covering his soles. I am not sure if he ever bathed but he probably did at some stage in his life. His physical size was matched by his loud gruff voice. Despite his appearance he was quite a likeable person and a fixture of early Mintabie. Vesso lived in a large tin shed close to the pub. Before any real shops opened he earned a little money selling some canned food and the occasional fresh produce he purchased in Alice Springs. His bed (an old equally callused mattress) was kept on the floor next to the ‘products’ he sold. Ann, with Hazel (Roberts’s mother) went down to Vesso’s to see if he had any new stock. Hazel (A staunchly religious lady) sat in the car whilst Ann went in to see. She came out without anything and Hazel says “well was he there”. Ann says he was but he was lying on his mattress masturbating. Hazel says “What’s masturbating?” Ann says “wanking Hazel, wanking!” Ohh, remarked Hazel and drove off without another word being spoken.
Grasshopper is a sub field on the extremities of Mintabie Opal Field. It produced vast quantities of opal in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. There are some incredible tales to be told about these finds. Grasshopper, was a miner at Mintabie and he was the first person to find opal in this area and the field now bears his name. This is how the first pocket of opal was dug out of Grasshopper and definitely the pocket that accelerated the major rush to peg claims there. The area in the early days was reached by driving over a sand dune. The flats past the sand dune were being prospected by the occasional four wheel drive Investigator drilling rig. One of these rigs was operated by our friend Sarge and his partner Ken. Robert and I were having a break from mining and I was in Canberra and Robert in Corowa. I received a phone call from Sarge that went like this. “Hey Pete, you and Robert better come back to Mintabie quick! Ken and I were drilling at the end of Mintabie and we have drilled up quite a few thousand dollars worth of vertical opal; you better get back and peg some claims!” Mintabie is two days very long drive from Canberra and we were there as quick as we could. As soon as we arrived Sarge took Robert and I out to where they drilled the opal. Sarge had pegged his claim and a few of their other friends had pegged close by. The question that had to be answered was where to peg. We were confronted with two Investigator drill holes about twenty feet apart that both had produced great opal. Sarge had pegged so these were right in the middle of his claim. There were another four or five claims pegged and that was it. Robert and I had three sets of available plates. We pegged as close as we could to Sarge but towards Mintabie. One claim was a little further over and two adjoining claims were towards the sand dune. In hind sight the whole area was on good ground with some claims better than others but at this stage it was purely pot luck.
We had been working a claim close to the air strip. It had not produced any opal and we were at a point where we were both losing interest in it. As it was almost Christmas, we decided to try the new area. We went and saw Lennie Butts (He owned a Caldwell Drill that drills the large holes for the shafts) to see if he could put down a couple of shafts. We told him where the claim was and that we had put a couple of stakes in the ground where we wanted the shafts drilled. It was a Friday and Lennie told us that he could do them on Monday after he finished servicing his rig.
Saturday afternoon we were sitting outside our camp talking when Lennie arrived. He says, “Hey boys, you better get out to your claim! I finished servicing the rig early and decided to start on your holes and I’ve dropped opal all over the place.”
Well, for any opal miner that hears this, the hair stands on end and palpitations start, as it is such a rare thing to happen. We jumped into the Landover and raced out to the claim. Sure enough there was opal all over the top of the dirt he had removed whilst drilling the shaft. We immediately started noodling the heap, putting the opal into a bucket. This was a slow process and took several hours. The opal was seam opal up to 2 cm thick, mostly potch and colour with a few better pieces but nothing of particularly good quality. Never the less it is an incredible feeling knowing that you have bottomed on opal.
This was particularly exciting because it was a new field and the potential was totally unknown apart from Sarges drill holes and the little prospecting that Grasshopper and a few others had done. We were eager to go down the hole and see what was in the wall. About twenty minutes after we had started noodling, the cars, trucks and motor bikes began to arrive and there was a constant stream of vehicles. Opal miners were everywhere with pegs over their shoulders. Many of them were running just to peg some ground. It was the case of a ‘fair dinkum opal fever rush”! By nightfall the whole valley had been totally pegged out.
Later on we heard what had started it all. Lennie Butts made most of his money by drilling shafts for the many Mintabie hand miners. After delivering us the news, Lennie headed straight for the pub. He told everyone in the bar that he had just drilled up the thickest prettiest opal that Mintabie had seen in a long time. If anyone doubted this they could drive over the last sand dune and see us picking up the opal off the heap. Lennie’s drilling was secured for the foreseeable future and the rush was started. We did get a large pocket of opal and Grasshopper became a major opal field.