Preparing a New Opal Mine
We had bottomed on opal at our new grasshopper claim and were really keen to go down and dig it out. This might appear a ‘ready set go’ procedure but the fact is there is quite a bit of preparation work to be done before this can happen. Firstly the hole has to be prepared and opened up. Another shaft has to be drilled and connected so there is air flow to allow comfortable mining conditions. With just one shaft, it is a little like trying to shovel dirt in a sauna and considering the day temperature was already in the late thirties /early forties it would not be very comfortable.
The Caldwell drill shaft is drilled a few meters deeper than where the floor of the drive will be. This is so the dirt from the first explosive blast can drop down and not block the working area. After this there is little more room to move. We were working with a York Hoist that lifted a 12 gallon bucket filled with sandstone and the miner filling the buckets needs enough room so as not to be directly under the bucket going up and down. The first couple of meters of the shaft is loose sand so we inserted a ‘collar’ of pressed roofing tin made specifically for this task (This stops the sand flowing down the shaft after every explosive shot). The collar sits directly on top of the hard rock under the sand. On top of the shaft we constructed an extension by cross lying sawn logs of local Acacia trees. This is continually extended as more and more rubble is removed from the shaft (One mine we worked extensively had 5 meters of extra height). A pipe was placed vertically in the ground a meter from the hole and secured by 4 wires from the top, stretching away from the pipe and secured by fencing poles at a distance of about 10 meters. Our York Hoist was attached to the pipe and our ladders hung over the side of the hole. We were now ready to go down, check the run of the opal and open the hole to start mining.
Opening a new shaft is hot, difficult and cramped work. Because the sandstone at Mintabie is hard, explosives have to be used so it is a tense procedure. With opal in the wall we were only going to put these shots below the level and work our way up to the pocket with a jack hammer. When we climbed down the shaft we had opal around sixty per cent of the hole. We decided to blast on the side with no opal and even then only under the level. We had a shortened auger that we use specifically for opening holes (With the normal length there is just not enough room to drill the hole). We use Gelignite because it requires a much narrower hole than the sausages of nitropril we normally use, so is easier to drill. The drill was lowered down the hole on a rope and then I climbed down the ladder and wrapped one leg around it and positioned my back on the wall of the shaft (Not particularly comfortable and bear in mind there is still a drop of twenty feet below… A little like pole dancing but not quite as romantic). Six holes were needed and by the end of the first hole sweat was pouring off my body.
With the drilling finished it was time for a very long drink before setting the charges. The gelignite was lowered down the hole in a bag and once again I climbed down the ‘sauna shaft’ and placed the 6 shots in the holes. Once the first charge has been lit smoke fills the shaft and the rest is done by feel. Occasionally you can’t find a hole and valuable time is lost because if the charges are not lit in sequence the blast is not as effective. The smoke and sweat gets in your eyes and it is bloody uncomfortable. At this stage it is advised not to slip on the ladder or to stop and admire the opal in the wall! There are two minutes to do all this and every second is counted. Once on top all the ladders have to be pulled up so they don’t get twisted with the blast. We had had a small prospecting shaft drilled a few meters away, on the dead side, so we drove as quickly as we could to get a connection and a flow of fresh air. Once that was done we were ready to see what opal we had ahead.
The First Kiss
Michael, our son, was just a toddler and I remember taking him to Nobby’s shop for an ice cream after a hard day of opening our new mine. When we walked in we noticed a particularly attractive, immaculately dressed, young lady we had not seen before. She was busy talking to a couple of miners. She came over and started chatting to Michael. She picked him up and gave him a big kiss. After a while we asked what she was doing in Mintabie at this time of year. Her unembarrassed, matter of fact, answer was that “she was on the game’ and had come to Mintabie to make some quick money. I often remind Michael that his first kiss was from a ‘whore ‘. I saw her again about a week later and she looked totally exhausted and not quite as neat as she originally did. I dare say she made a lot more money than most of the opal miners. The word must have got out amongst the working girls because from that time on there were quite a few seeking their fortune on the opal field. Apparently when a new ‘lady’ came to town some of the more ‘randy’ miners would hold an auction to see who went first.
A Church at Mintabie
It was also around this time that Mintabie’s only church was finished and ready to accept confessions (not before time) and all those other things a good church provides. The catholic priest from Coober Pedy was to deliver a service once a week and all would be invited regardless of religion. I silently thought that the ‘good lord’ had his work cut out for him with some of his flock in this community. Being a ‘Kalathumpian,’ like my dad, I did not attend. I did however attend the party to celebrate its consecration!
Now here I will admit to a little naivety and total lack of knowledge on the subject so those more dued-up than I can correct any minor errors. The party was held at Matt’s camp and he had gone to great trouble to provide a feast fitting to the occasion. The entire town was invited and all attended (Even the pub closed early). The Catholic officials were all there (Three had come up from Adelaide to provide the official ceremony as well as the local priest from Coober Pedy). They were dressed in their finest colours (Red being prominent and looking a little like sun burnt penguins). The white was as white as could be (At least it was early in the night). I am sure after returning from the red dirt of the opal fields entire new uniforms would be required.
One of the official party could have been a bishop but then I am not sure. Had they been dressed in rugby league football jumpers then I could have told you not only what team they belonged to but the names of most of the team members. They were all handed glasses of the very best red wine and these were never allowed to get anywhere near half empty. Later in the night I couldn’t help but smile as the very drunk Bishop/ Cardinal/ Pope (?) sat on a bench being steadied on either side by his obedient subordinates so as not to fall over even whilst seated. He was talking, in a fashion ( and very slurred), about honesty on the opal fields with a dubiously honest opal miner I would not trust with a half eaten sandwich I’d spat on. It could only happen in the outback and was probably one of the few times the Bishop/ Cardinal/ Pope (?) was himself and didn’t need to look behind his back… obviously enjoying himself immensely.
Stafford Scott was an opal dealer who also owned two bulldozers, scrappers and a couple of prospecting drills. He was looking for new claims to cut that showed promise and approached Robert and I about our three ‘Watertank’ claims on the old field. We walked him over them explaining what and where we had found opal. He offered us a deal to cut all three starting the next season. As we had worked these extensively we had no hesitation in agreeing.
Our New Claim – A closer Look
It was after this that we returned to our new claim to actually see where the opal in the wall would lead.
The opal came out in quite large pieces and the pocket looked like being a large one. The quality was not as high as we would like but there was colour in all of it and the quantity would compensate for the lack of quality. After the first day of jack hammering we had a five gallon drum full of opal. On the way home we took it over to another miner who had just started his underground claim not far from us. As this was the first pocket to come out of the Grasshopper field we were excited to show it to someone. I think our excitement was contagious as he began arriving at his mine most mornings before us.
The Mirage Was Real
A couple of days later we were coming back from camp after lunch and were approaching the mine when Robert says ‘Can you see the mirage’? I had no idea what he was talking about until I looked at our mine. There, sitting on our dump were two young skimpily dressed ladies noodling. Now the temperature was scorching hot (Well over the century in the old system) and this was a new field so we were not expecting to see anything like this so it may have been a mirage. We started talking to them and found out they were back packing around Australia and decided to drop in to Mintabie and have a look. How they managed to get to the very end of the field and find our mine I will never know. Anyway Robert, being the thoughtful person he is, suggested they could come down our mine and noodle our finished dirt in the relative ‘coolness’ of the underground. Now that is where the problem began. We had opal in the wall and we were trying our best to carefully remove the opal whilst these bikini dressed mirages sat, legs splayed noodling our discarded material. Robert reckoned he destroyed more opal then he had ever done with misplacing the point of the jack hammer (Whilst looking over his shoulder at ninety degrees from the opal and where the jack hammer was headed) When we got home that night word had already reached there that we had had not one, but two young ladies down our mine. I think every opal miner in Mintabie knew about our afternoon and we were constantly being asked how our mining was going and if we had found anything ‘valuable’.
A few days later we had finished digging out the pocket and being close to Christmas we finished up for the year and headed off home. It had been a hard year and even though we had ended up with a good pocket I was physically and mentally tired. I put my retailers cap back on for the remaining few weeks of the Christmas rush. By the time our annual holidays came early in the New Year I was exhausted and ready to relax, read a book and do nothing for a while. Unfortunately this state of mind was not good for our marriage.