Finding the Balance
Running my shop ‘Mineshaft’ and being a full time opal miner made my life very busy. Somehow amongst all this I had to juggle a marriage and spend time with our young son Michael. There are periods in every body’s life where circumstances mean we probably take on more than we can handle. In hindsight I can see this now but at the time it was full speed ahead and ‘take on all comers”. Peter Bucke had moved on to open his own shop (A great pity, as he was a real asset to my business) and we had to find a new manager. As anyone who has been in retail understands it is not as easy as it appears to get good staff and not all are as honest as they appear. Over the years we have been blessed with some really great staff and cursed with some bad ones. Despite overwhelming evidence we have simply let the bad ones go and held on to the good ones as long as we could. One of the best we had was the sister of my next door neighbour. Lurl had been out of the work force for many years and was terrified about re-joining it. She ran our shop for many years and only left because she could not stand for long periods of time and took a job where she could sit. She was a real Diamond and it was a sad day when she moved on.
Back to Mintabie
With the summer cooling down it was time to head back to Mintabie. This year was going to be very hectic. Stafford was going to do a large bulldozer cut on our Watertank claim and Robert and I had our claims on the new Grasshopper field to work.
Stafford had organized Ray to drive his Bulldozer, “The Lucky lady,” to cut our claim and would be starting midyear. There was a mountain of dirt on the far end of our claims. It had been pushed there from a cut beside our claim made previously by Tom and Dick. (Dick was accompanied everywhere by a large dog I think was a Rhodesian Ridge-back more commonly known as a “Lion dog”. I remember asking him if it was a good dog and he replied with “Well, have you ever seen a lion at Mintabie?”… Who can argue with that!) Anyway Ray started removing the overburden and was working until late almost every night and starting at “sparrow fart” in the mornings. Even with this intense effort it would take him many weeks before he had the overburden removed. On our way back to camp from Grasshopper each evening we would drop in and check on his progress. We would have to start work “checking” on our claims as soon as Ray was ready to start ripping the floor. We would have spare time each day to do a little hand mining when Ray was pushing the sandstone out of the cut after ripping. Unfortunately our claim at Grasshopper was at the far end of the field and was not quickly reached. We were discussing this with Ray and he mentioned he had a claim at nearby Crystal Valley and we could work it underground whilst our cut was being done. This would be a three way split and we would equally share costs and opal. Ray told us the claim had been grid drilled approximately every three meters and some opal had been drilled and a shaft hand sunk over the opal. A small pocket of a few thousand dollars had been found and very little work had been done. Because the claim had been extensively drilled the original claim owner decided there was no more opal and given up. Ray decided to peg it and at some stage check it out with a little more work. We decided to have a look so took our ladders over and climbed down to evaluate the prospect. The area worked was just the size of a small room and the level looked very healthy. There were thin lines of black potch interspersed with a quite hard siliceous, porous looking level. Because the level looked so healthy we agreed with Ray that it was worth more investigation. So a secondary partnership was formed with a hand shake and our year mapped out.
When Ray had all the overburden removed from our Watertank claim the floor had to be drilled and blasted to fracture the six to ten foot of hard silcrete that lay directly under the sand and on top of the sandstone. This is hard hot work but without doing it the bulldozer has no chance to break up the rock. Even after the initial blast and clean up, there were some sections that had to be hand drilled with a rock drill and additionally blasted. Really hard, hot work where everyone within a fifty metre radius is cursed and their heredity well and truly questioned. Whilst the bulldozer was pushing out the dirt after each floor rip, we were hand mining Ray’s claim in Crystal Valley. Robert and I did the bulk of the work and Ray would come and help on his day off or when the bulldozer was being worked on. This was a very interesting claim and within weeks we found a really nice small pocket of gem opal. The pocket was about the size of a saucer and quite thick showing lots of colour. The pocket finished within a few centimetres of a prospecting hole. This became a pattern on this claim. We would find a small pocket of opal and then very close to it we would come across a prospecting hole. It seemed they did a great job of missing the opal. The ground in this claim was exceptionally hard and even with sharpened tungsten tips on our drill bit, it was still often very time consuming and hard to drill the explosive holes. Our routine was falling in to place. We would spend a couple of hours checking the floor of our Watertank claim whilst Ray ripped the floor and then the we would spend a few hours hand mining the Crystal Valley claim.
Wailing – The Divining Alternative
One particular day Robert and I were underground checking out a little bit of trace. When underground you can hear quite clearly conversations that are taking place above ground. We began to hear this awful wailing. It was like someone who has received bad news and wails uncontrollably. Robert says, “Oh shit, someone must have hurt themselves so we better go up and see!” When we reached the surface we looked across at the adjoining claim to see this character bent over from the waist swinging something on the end of a piece of string over the ground. From his mouth came this awful wailing noise. Robert looked at me and I looked at Robert. Roberts says, “I think I better go and ask him what he is doing.” We wandered across and when the wailing stopped for a second Robert gingerly asks the guy what is going on. The guy turns and smiles at us and says, “Oh, everything is fine mate; I’m just helping me mate find opal pockets on his claim.” Well this had us intrigued, even if it was just for the theatrical value of the performance. Robert bravely says, “Do you reckon you could come across to our claim and find our pockets for us?” Robert then turns to me and winked. “Sure”, says the guy, “I’ll come over as soon as I finish here.” His tool for finding the pockets consisted of a quartz crystal attached to a length of string. His method was to walk slowly in a grid pattern across the claim twirling the crystal a few inches above the ground anti clockwise and wailing. Apparently he received vibrations and messages of some type when he crossed over the pockets. He obviously took it very seriously as it took him about an hour to check out our claim. He told us that he could get lots of signals but only one area indicated a pocket of opal. He showed us the spot and we never saw him again. We hammered a stick in the ground and went back to work.
A couple of days later Robert says, “You know that pocket is only a couple of days work off our main drive! Do you reckon we oughta go and have a look?” Opal is a strange thing, so I said, “Well, we have nothing to lose, and the least it will do is satisfy our curiosity”. So the next day we headed straight for where the metaphysical pocket was supposed to be. Two days later we started to get potch. The potch became thicker and we began to get excited. We were obviously in the middle of a large pocket of opal but despite our hopes we were not to find a single piece of opal with colour. We told Ray about the incident and showed him the peg in the ground and the area underground where we dug out the potch. We all agreed that it was worth the effort and for all the guys wailing we had to admit he was spot on. We at least had a good after dinner story to tell. I had forgotten about this incident until many years later when I returned to Mintabie to go in a ballot for some claims. The airport had finally been relocated because it was bang smack in the middle of some prime opal country. Extremely good claims had produced a lot of opal on both sides of the airport reserve. There were some potentially brilliant claims up for grabs so even though I had finished mining at Mintabie I returned to try my luck in the ballot along with many other opal miners. I ran into Ray and he says, “Remember that wailer who found the potch pocket on the claim at Crystal Valley a few years ago? Well I decided to work the lower level (About 10 feet lower than the level we worked). On impulse I drove under the potch pocket that you boys found. You know there was a big pocket of precious opal directly under the potch pocket! It was beautiful opal and really unusual because it had a lot of purple mixed with the reds. I had no trouble selling it because it was really different and very pretty stuff.” So perhaps the Wailer really did know something and we were to miss the only large pocket by going over the top of it. You be the judge. Our pattern of mining continued with checking behind the bulldozer cut and hand mining.
Regular small pockets of good quality opal were being produced on our “Metaphysical claim”. Some of this opal was exceptionally beautiful and faced on both sides. A picture of a pendant made with a piece of this two side opal is included here. This is perhaps one of the nicest pendants made from this opal and now belongs to Meg who worked for us for a couple of years. The pattern is totally different on both sides but each is equally beautiful.
It was getting late in the year and checking behind the bulldozer was becoming hot sweaty work. The cut was down about thirty feet and it was taking a couple of hours to rip the entire floor. Some days were well over forty degrees and walking behind the dozer on top of white reflecting sandstone with no wind was quite uncomfortable, monotonous work.
The Letter in the Rubbish
I had found an old shaft that had been drilled a few hundred metres from our camp and totally by itself, away from the main workings. I was using it as a dump and I took all the rubbish from our camp and threw it down the hole. One afternoon I had several large plastic bags in the back of the landrover and was in the process of throwing it down the hole when one of the bags split and the contents went everywhere. I don’t know why I looked but there was a letter Ann had written that caught my eye. I think it was one of the words that did it and DH Lawrence could have used it in one of his more seedy novels. When I read it I can only describe the pain as ‘unbearable’. It was like a knife passing through me with an unbelievable feeling of total loss. This was not a letter written to me. I confronted Ann with it and the rest is a blur. I found a few hidden letters and they had been sent to Ann via Robert. I think this compounded my hurt as Robert could have said to me “Hey I think you might have some problems with your missus”. I felt let down on both fronts and all avenues in life seemed to have hit a brick wall. I decided we would finish mining and leave Mintabie for good and go back to Canberra. Within a couple of weeks I had sold our camp, given our claims to Robert and left my share of the Watertank claim to somebody (I can’t remember who) to finish checking for my percentage. My opal mining life at Mintabie and my marriage was finished… or so I thought!