The Bits and Pieces claim
We had just found an incredible pocket of black opal in our Jet Black claim and I was still on a high. I had roughly faced a couple of stones at Mintabie and the result was astonishing. I couldn’t wait to finish off a few. I needed to see some of the completed gems before heading off to the UK for our holiday.
I arrived back in Canberra with a couple of weeks to sort out any problems at Mineshaft and to spend a couple of days cutting and polishing some of these exquisite gems. The early stones were a real joy to unveil and an exquisite treasure chase. The red bar running through the rough was totally unpredictable. Sometimes it faced better from the top and other times better from the bottom. Even from the same piece of rough the same was true. To get the best yield and brightest stones was one of the greatest and rewarding challenges of all the opal I have ever cut. Most pieces of rough were cut in to several gems because of the variations within the colour bands. To see these stones come to life and knowing they were possibly the blackest black opal to ever come out of Mintabie was simply breath taking. At the time I did not realize not only how beautiful this opal was but how special they were coming from our mine. Mintabie always had the reputation of producing “semi black” opal but these stones show even the most ardent sceptic that there was some exquisite black opal mined there.
Ann and Michael (our son) had flown to England a fortnight or so earlier then me to be with her various relatives and spend time catching up with all the small talk and gossip that poms seem to thrive on. When I arrived her Uncle Neville lent us a Mercedes and we travelled around England, Scotland and Wales in absolute luxury staying at bed & breakfast places along the way. We visited my friend Allan Beasley who was living and working in London at the time. Allan, now in semi retirement works part time at Mineshaft. He has a lifetime interest in gemstones and faceting. His knowledge and faceting skills are as good as any professional. One of the interesting things about life is you never know what will happen in the future and I never would have thought some 25 years later we would be working together.
Travelling around the UK was fascinating. The history, evident in every city and village town was amazing. Within old pubs, castles etc there were intriguing discoveries to be made. Often these were obscure such as the “Waterloo dentures” I saw somewhere. This was a set of dentures apparently made from real teeth extracted from the deceased at the Battle of Waterloo. There were around 50,000 causalities and so there were plenty of available teeth for dentists to make high quality “chompers” for those who could afford them. Of course the obvious tourist haunts were visited and these were pleasurable but it was the out of the way unexpected discoveries I enjoyed the most.
One the most bizarre and uncanny experiences of my life occurred whilst travelling around Cornwell. My blood relatives from my mother’s side came from Cornwell. They were tin miners and at some stage decided they had no future and moved to Australia hoping for a better life on the tin fields there. I knew very little about their past other then knowing I had inherited, through their genes, the desire to dig holes and look for the rewards concealed in mother earth. We were travelling down the coastal road when I had the most incredible strong “déjà vu” feeling accompanied by an inner warmth and belonging. I said to Ann that around the next headland there is a tin mine that goes under the sea. I had no idea, but that was the feeling I experienced. And there it was! I have no explanation and nor do I need one, other than perhaps one day I will find out. I really enjoyed Cornwell and perhaps it was the ancestral connection or perhaps the beauty of the place but it was memorable for whatever reason. Eventually after circumnavigating and criss-crossing the UK we ran out of money and our time was up.
Back in Australia I spent a couple of weeks stocking up Mineshaft and preparing for the next mining adventure at Mintabie. It was quite an effort to anticipate what stock would be needed for the two to three months we would be away mining. At least now we had the telephone connected to the camp and I could talk directly to our manager and answer any questions or place orders with suppliers easily.
When the phones were connected it was completed under quite an unusual set of circumstances. The town had developed “ad hoc” with no town planning, and only the very basic of rules and records. When they put our line in I had to walk in front as they were digging the trench. Our power was being shared with Stretch who ran the caravan park. I had buried an extension cord form my camp, under the road, and over to his generator. I didn’t want Telstra’s trench digger to cut this line so I had to find exactly where I had placed my power cord a couple of years ago and mark it on top. Their trench was deeper then my hand dug trench so when they reached the cross over point we had to tunnel under our power cord.
The same was true for our water pipe running from the tank we assembled for the town water supply (Constructed by Mintabie miners) There was no real record of the exact and precise location of the town line other then it ran parallel to the road. Our camp was some 50 meters from the tank located on the edge of the block. Care had to be taken not to cut either of these plastic pipelines. The location was obvious in most places but not everywhere because of random bends and twists. Generally though, most difficulties were within the miner’s camp surrounds as there was absolutely no planning and often the exact location of water and power lines from generators had been forgotten or fell under the category of “somewhere about here”! In a remarkable effort of partnership between Telstra and the miners the phone connections were done in a short space of time. This would have been one of the most unique town phone hook ups ever undertaken in Australia.
Stafford had another project ready for me to work on. This was a claim where a very large parcel of opal had been found on a prominent fault running through it. Stafford owned two claims beside it and had re-pegged this claim when it was given up. There was still a fair amount of un-worked ground and as Stafford had bulldozed the claim in front I had easy access for the Bob Cat. Unfortunately Stafford had not found much opal in the claim he cut but I was hopeful there would be more than the one good pocket in the claim I was going to mine. I can’t remember the name of the original owner but he used to come and visit me often whilst I was working. He gave me information about the ground and his thoughts on my prospects and progress. He owned a tiny little Jack Russel terrier that Peppa the mining dog looked on with pity. This tiny carnivore “wantabe” would jump off the ground and try and bite Peppa on the belly and do mad “round abouts” trying to entice her to play with it. Peppa would look at this wild curiosity and after a while put her paw on top of it and growl in total distain. The Jack Russel would then launch itself with incredible athletic finesse on to the shoulders of its owner thereby being saved from a fate worse than death.
This miner told me he had not sold his big parcel and intended to keep it and enjoy cutting it in his retirement. It was a really large parcel and I have visions of him sitting there today remembering his claim and the excitement of the find each and every time he cuts a stone. There are so many miners with this genuine love and passion for such a beautiful gem.
Stafford had exposed an unworked fault running close to the edge of the claim I was going to work and I decided to drive along it. Every few meters I would come across a few pieces of opal but after following it the length of the claim I had just a hand full of stones. Many years later Charlie Butcher (one of the older Mintabie miners) who used to play around with mining dropped the roof of this drive and found a pocket of opal. Good luck to him as he was a really nice guy. I however, did not find enough opal to cover the cost of explosives. I decided to drive on the other side of the claim at right angles to the main fault and see if there were any more faults on that side. At around twenty meters I came across another fault. This one was completely virgin and headed towards the sand dune. It was quite a major fault and had tiny potch particles in the clay within the fault zone. The level was also healthy with black carbon lines and hard bands making it attractive and possibly opal bearing. There was a second level high in the roof so I decided I would make the drive quite high and take out both levels simultaneously. This meant my drive would be around three meters high and any jack hammering of the upper level would need to be done standing on the raised bucket of the Bob cat. Stafford and I were sharing costs and any opal would be split 50/50. Every time I blasted I was using 15 shots and blasting 4 or 5 times a day. I was spending over an hour a day just making up enough shots to blast. At $1.50 a shot back then it was costing a lot to mine and we needed to find a decent pocket.
Every few meters I would find these small plate sized patches of mediocre opal and I would throw it in the bucket. Each night, if I had any opal, I would take it around to Stafford’s camp and put in a large locked drum in his opal room. I didn’t take much notice as the weeks rolled by as I hadn’t found much in quantity or quality to write home about and so didn’t place any real importance on what we had. Stafford would ask me how it was going and I would answer “Just a few hand fulls of potch and colour”. Some of it was up to 2 centimetres thick but it did not come in any quantity and never more than a few pieces. I followed this fault the length of the claim and didn’t find a decent pocket. Driving ten meters at right angles to the first two faults I came across another identical one and repeated the exercise. I was to find more handfuls of opal every few meters but nothing of significance.
Eventually Stafford calls me in and asks what sort of value I thought we had. I answered perhaps a couple of thousand dollar worth but that would be it. He said “well lets clean it up anyway” and have a look at the material. All the bits and pieces added up and there was a substantial amount of opal. In fact we had accumulated several hundred ounces after cleaning without finding a pocket. We put a value on it of around $30,000 and I was totally and pleasantly surprised. This was quite a significant amount for a “bits and pieces” mine and so I was excited to continue mining.
A couple of weeks later Stafford turns up and says he has a small job for me that may take a couple of days at most and could I check it out over the weekend. He had drilled a claim every 3 meters and close to the edge he had found some potch and colour. The claim beside it had been cut and filled up with rubble. Stafford had pushed away the rubble besides his claim right down to the level and wanted me to go in underground with the Bob Cat and check out the potch and colour. So on Friday night I loaded the Bob Cat and mining gear on to the trailer and headed over for what I thought would be a quick weekend adventure ready to start first thing in the morning.
What eventuated would be an incredible opal adventure taking several weeks and the worst case of skinned knuckles I have ever had.