Return to Mintabie
Mintabie is a long 3 days drive from Canberra and I swear crossing the Hay plain that every blade of grass, every salt bush and the three trees on it had not changed since we crossed last.
The hamburger at the last garage out of Port Augusta tasted deliciously the same as it always did and a couple of kilometres out of town my mind drifted in to opal fever mode. The white dumps of Coober Pedy only heightened the anticipation of digging out the next pocket and the colours were becoming brighter by the kilometre.
Arriving at Mintabie for this second stint was surreal. It was as if we had not been away. The white sandstone, red sand and blue sky holds a special magic. Every Mintabie opal miner senses the possibility of the next discovery each time he approaches and sees the distant opal dumps appear on the horizon. I guess it is the anticipation of discovery that has driven miners since time began. It is simply a bonus that opal is such a beautiful wondrous gem.
Pulling in to Stafford’s camp we could see the small dusty caravan beside his water tank that would be our home whilst we chased the rainbows prospected by Stafford and filed away in his possibility drawer.
Now Peppa the mining dog was an incredible canine, the likes of which has probably never been seen on the opal fields since she passed away. However, travelling with her, in the confines of a car for great distances had drawbacks. Her farts smelt worse than any overflowing drop pit you have been desperate enough to sit upon. They came often, lingered long and by the smile on her face she was extremely proud of. If I didn’t love her so much I could have been tempted to abandoned her within the first 50 kilometres of any of our journeys. She would lie peacefully in her allotted space at the back of the vehicle and apart from her farting and occasional snoring she would stay there perfectly content until we reached the turnoff to Mintabie – just outside of Marla. She would instantly wake up, groan and moan and turn constant circles until we finally arrived. Free at last she would dance a dance of pure delight and race off in as many directions as she could. I am sure she felt she owned the place or that it was heaven for dogs.
After pushing as much dust, dead flies and bugs out of the old caravan and turning it as best as we could in to our home (A good full day’s work) I was ready to talk with Stafford and formulate some sort of plan to best check out the various prospects he had waiting. So sitting in his office he gave me a rundown of the various areas he wanted to check. Each and every one was enough to excite a kaleidoscope of possibilities and I couldn’t wait to get started.
Out of his drawer came the pieces of potch, coloured trace and interesting level from each of the prospects. I could tell that this would take far longer than the couple of months Stafford had mentioned in his phone call and being perfectly honest I was delighted.
The first prospect was a claim in Crystal Valley. There had been a lot of opal found in the area so it’s pedigree was encouraging. Stafford had prospected it with his Investigator prospecting drill and a section of the claim had produced colour in thin trace from a couple of holes. A Caldwell shaft had been drilled close to the trace but over the last couple of years it had filled with water and probably a lot of mud. The shaft had not been opened up. Another claim, also in Crystal Valley had nice size potch with a little colour. This patch would have to be reached by a tunnel some 30 meters in length from the side of the bulldozer cut beside it. A third and final claim in the middle of the field had showed good level in the drill holes but only fine traces of opal. Shafts would have to be drilled to reach this prospect.
Moving on, Stafford had pegged a claim at Gus’s. The claim had been previously worked and a very large pocket found along a fault running through it. He had pegged the virgin claim beside it into which the main fault ran and was going to bulldoze it. He believed there was still more opal in the previously worked claim but did not want to go to the expense of cutting it as a lot of work had been done and the major fault had been totally worked. He did think more underground mining was the way to go and when his cut beside it was finished easy access would be gained.
Finally he showed me three jars of solid jet black potch from three separate drill holes drilled several metres apart. The opal was around a centimetre in thickness. It was very strong healthy opal but without a skerrick of colour. This was not Stafford’s claim and he had made a deal with Serbian Danny, the claim owner. Danny had spent time prospecting Crystal Valley before it began to produce the quantities of fine opal it now did. At the time, he placed little importance on this find as it was only potch (even if it was jet black). Over recent years he had allowed dirt from nearby cuts to be pushed on top of his claim and it resembled a mountain. Quite a bit of good opal was being mined from the area and Stafford had made arrangements with other claim owners to cut their claims leading up to the side of Danny’s claim. When these claims were finished he had made a deal to check out this black potch by tunnel with access from his bulldozed claim beside it. This prospect excited me but it would be many months before it was ready to explore even with Stafford owning two bulldozers.
A New Camp
It was obvious the caravan would be just a temporary abode and we would need to have our own camp with more room to swing a dead cat if we were going to have another lengthy stay. We had sold our original camp for very little money and would have been happy to buy it back but on inspection the camp had been totally destroyed and taken apart for the building materials contained in it.
Over the next few months we checked out several potential camps and settled on one in the main town reserve opposite what was run as the Mintabie caravan park. The camp consisted of quite a large shed with a smaller shed attached to it. There was plenty of room and had the basics for us to construct a permanent and liveable camp. I approached my good friend Henry (A prominent Chinese opal buyer) and asked him if I could borrow enough money to pay for the camp and I would return it when I came back from Canberra next time. For a second time I became a permanent Mintabie opal miner doing what I liked best.
The Mintabie caravan park was not what is conjured up in the mind of most travellers. There was no swimming pool, lush green grass or even regular hot showers. There was dust, urinals, cold showers (occasionally with hot water) and electricity when the parks generator was functional and turned on. It was, at best, a place for tourists to park as they passed through.
During our second stint at Mintabie the caravan park was owned by Stretch. Stretch purchased it for a minimal amount of money (minimal for some but every cent he had). He needed to escape the past and start a new life in a community he could fit in to. We became good friends and our son Michael would spend hours talking to him. I never knew Stretch’s real name and was known as Stretch because of all the stretches he spent in prison in his previous life. He had been a total alcoholic for so many years he couldn’t remember. Most of these years he couldn’t remember what happened during them. He had a family once but now had no idea where they were or much about them, he just hoped they were content with life. Stretch was happy at Mintabie. He talked to any tourist passing through for as long as they liked. He would go out of his way to show them around and he ran the local Alcoholics Anonymous group. (Bearing in mind the border between acceptable amounts of alcohol and being an alcoholic is debatable and a very thin line on most opal fields). In any case Stretch did his best and would always say he was one drink away from slipping back. I hold nothing but admiration for Stretch and he truly stands as a beacon for those who have stumbled in life and desperately try to fit back in.
The Blower Blows
Stafford had organised a mining partner to work with me on the first prospect. He had spent many years mining at Coober Pedy and owned a Blower (A giant vacuum cleaner powered by truck motor mounted on the back of a truck and used for sucking loose sandstone from the mine). The deal was he would look after the blower and I would do the underground work.
We set the blower up beside the shaft and began sucking the water out of it by using the telescopic pipe extension of the blower. We had placed a steel ladder down the water filled shaft and I would try to balance on it whilst holding the telescopic extension slightly above the water to suck the water out and not stall the motor (easier said than done).
We were about 30 feet down when I heard this almighty explosion and the blower making absolutely weird noises and water cascading backwards down the pipe. When I reached the surface there was a smoke coming from the dead blower motor and a gigantic hole in the side of the machine. The fan that creates the sucking power had somehow exploded and went flying through the machine. That was the end of this particular mining episode and the shortest mining partnership of my mining history. Stafford decided I would move on to the next project and we would come back to this one later.
The Somersaulting Bobcat
Stafford had purchased a Bobcat fitted with some type of gas neutraliser so it could be safely used underground. I would be mining with this (Once I learnt to drive it) for the second prospect.
We would be tunnelling in from the side of a bulldozer cut for about 30 meters to reach the area with the potch and colour previously drilled. My new mining partner (Dave I think) would be sharing the mining. The bobcat was brilliant and removed the overburden effortlessly. This was definitely the way to mine and saved on any aches and pains. Not only was it easy but it was much quicker. It wasn’t long before we were both experts at reversing backwards whilst navigating right angled corners, flat-out with only inches to spare within the confines of the narrow drives, and with a full bucket of sandstone. Sometimes, though, over-confidence can set in. A few weeks in to this venture I was emptying the bucket and went a little close to the dumping edge, somersaulting the bobcat over it (much to Dave’s amusement). We had the bobcat checked out by Stafford’s mechanic and all was fine except for my dinted pride. Next trip to the pub and my reputation as a circus bobcat driver had spread throughout Mintabie much to the mirth of the more experienced operators.
On the way to the target area we became side tracked a couple of times chasing encouraging lines of trace. We did find a little bit of opal but nothing in the way of a pocket. When we arrived at the target spot the result was not encouraging. We managed to find the prospecting holes but there was very little opal. We collected a couple of hand full’s of low grade material and a bucket full of specimens but nothing of value. There was a promising fault close by so we decided we would drive along it and see what we could find. This fault was a real teaser as almost every few metres we would be using the jackhammer to check out trace and collect a few low grade stones. After following it the full width of the claim we decided enough was enough and ended the venture. Dave went his own direction and Stafford and I decided on the next prospect.
The bulldozer cut next to the original prospect had been completed and we decided we would use the bobcat and check it out by tunnelling in and having a good look. I would be mining by myself and was quite happy with this arrangement. Peppa the mining dog always lay at the entrance to the mine only to occasionally chase away any pesky sparrows or to let me know I had a visitor with a heralding bark. Occasionally she would venture in to the cooler inner reaches of the mine and press her cold sniffer against my leg thereby scaring the shit out of me. I would give her a pat and she would return to her sentry position. When I reached the prospecting holes there was less opal then the previous mine and only a couple of pieces of keepable opal were found. I decided to do some further prospecting drives to have a better look but that was the last of the opal I was to find in this claim.
It was later extensively worked by another miner and as far as I know no pockets of any great value were found.
Transforming the Camp Into a Home
Our day off and any spare time was spent building and improving the camp and turning it in to a home. The first item constructed was a solid outdoor barbecue with a contained fire area beside it. Something about sitting around a fire at night, looking at the stars and sharing a drink is one of the basic pleasures of life. I added a bedroom extension and we build a bathroom/ toilet room WITH a flush toilet. We put up a water storage tank connected to the town water and our shower went from a bucket of cold water to a constant luxurious hot shower of respectable length. Not long after telephones came to town, so we had one connected. Gone were the early pioneering days and we began to feel positively urbanised?
This period of time coincided with peak opal production at Mintabie and the most mining activity. There would be no more new fields discovered and only the consolidation and mining of the existing ones. It would not be many years and the bubble would burst just the same as so many mining towns in the past. Today I feel privileged to have been a part of it all and to have experienced the early days as well as the glory days.
Stafford was almost finished cutting the claim next to the Jet black prospect so we decided to go back to Canberra for a while and return refreshed and start mining it.
For some reason I had a gut feeling this could be a good one.