The prize fighter claim
Stafford owned an investigator drilling rig and had been grid drilling a claim he owned beside a successful finished claim. This claim had produced quite a large amount of opal and was in a productive area in the middle of Crystal Valley, one of the prime mining areas at Mintabie. Some of the opal was apparently absolutely breath taking. Stafford’s entire claim was drilled to a depth of around twenty meters with a hole every three meters or so. He had not found anything significant and was drilling the last row of holes right on the edge beside the finished claim. One hole produced a hand full of potch and colour about a centimetre thick. The overall result of the drilling was not good enough to spend time and money cutting the claim with his bulldozer. His gut feeling was to at least check out the potch and colour as it was thick enough to be part of a small pocket. I was working our “Bits and Pieces” claim and although not finding anything significant I was finding enough opal to keep going. Stafford came and saw me, bringing the drilled material with him and a proposal to check it out. The finished claim had been back filled with rubble and he bulldozed a section of this rubble out to allow access to the side of his claim.
An area about three blades wide and going down forty feet had been cleared. As the opal was close to the side Stafford thought it would only take a day or two to check it out. His offer was 30% for me. I accepted. It was exciting and would be a quick little adventure, with the chance of a small pocket. The trace he drilled did have a little colour and was thick enough to have potential. It only takes a small amount of good opal to make a valuable pocket. We went to have a look and decided to do the job the next weekend and continue with the “Bits and Pieces “claim. Peppa the mining dog loved a change of scenery and I could tell by her excited yapping and tummy rumbles she knew what was going on when I loaded the bobcat on the trailer for the move. I didn’t have to tell her twice to “get in the back”. She sensed we were ready to go and was in the mining truck and yapping me to hurry up. One of the first things she did on a new prospect was to sniff it all over and chase any pesky birds away. For the first day she would bark at anything or anyone who came near. I had learnt from her bark who was who and if they were known to me or not. Once she was comfortable with her new surrounds and confident in her ownership she would settle down under the shade of the mining vehicle and keep watch. She would only venture in to the mine if I had not come out for a longer period than normal. So by Friday night I had the bobcat ready, filled with diesel and outside the face of the claim. The generator set up ready for a full day’s work just up from my proposed drive. I went home and prepared the jack hammer and sharpened the drill tips with an optimistic premonition of a pocket of opal. That night I dreamt in Technicolor. I was at the claim ready to go by first light. I must admit to a “boy hood” like excitement when it came to a new mining adventure. My brain activates an incredible fantasy world and the slightest trace becomes a magnified universe of possibilities. I often wondered if other opal miners suffer the same affliction. There was a fault on the side of the wall I thought may lead to the opal Stafford had drilled so I decided to start my drive there. I drilled 11 holes and put in the nitropril sausages. Here it goes I thought. First shots, let’s get started and have a look. The gases cleared instantly and at first glimpse opal was sitting in the wall just half a metre in. I think I may have made a bit of a celebratory exclamation as Peppa the mining dog came bounding over with her “excitement” grin placed firmly on her face, ear to ear! With no one else to dance with I gave her the biggest cuddle and set to work picking up pieces of opal dropped out with the dirt from the blast. The quality was better than the opal drilled by Stafford but still mediocre. I didn’t mind because with my optimistic view to mining I just knew it would get better.
Al, a resident professional “noodler”, who I got on with very well, turned up around this time. Al knew the rules and just waited. Once I had moved the dirt with the bobcat it was there for the noodlers to find any missed stones and as far as I was concerned it was good luck to them and a gem saved from being buried again forever. Knowing I was on to a pocket l slowed down and with the respect opal deserves, gathered my thoughts and tried not to get ahead of myself. I needed to pick up each and every piece, remove the rubble, clean and prepare the drive before getting the jack hammer to see where the seam led. Sorting through the first blast took a couple of hours and half filled a 5 gallon drum with opal. My mind was constantly conjuring up opal in full multicolour pieces, reminiscent in size to house bricks! With nervous anticipation and excitement, knowing there was a few metres between where I was and Stafford’s drill hole, I picked up the jack hammer and started to work. Mintabie sandstone is very hard and abrasive. It takes time to jack hammer and to get in a metre can take an hour or more. If the pick is not sharp it is hard to control and simply slides off at an unintended angle and removes little material. There is an art to successful jack hammering in hard ground and over the years a technique evolves. The ground in this claim was exceptionally hard and the band the opal formed in was up to a metre of solid silicified cemented sandstone. My thoughts were “l don’t care, l can get out every opal no matter what you throw at me and l don’t mind how long it takes”. The sandstone under the hard band was ‘normal’, being relatively soft and easy to remove by blasting. I placed 2 shots at the very base of the floor and blasted. This took little time to remove with the bob cat and left a “cave like >” enabling me space to drop the Jack hammered ground in to. I still had quite a bit of soft sandstone under the hard band to remove and that was easy work compared to what lay ahead. This left a cavern of around a metre in length and the full width of the drive over lain by almost half a metre of hard band with the opal seam sandwiched in the middle. From experience l knew opal formed this way can turn to magnificent gem material very quickly and so I was determined to be exceptionally patient and do the hard yards correctly. Placing the Jack pick in the lowest small crack I started the journey. Normally you let the Jack hammer do the work and if the tip is sharp and the jackhammer in good condition it requires little effort. However this ground was hard, stubborn and protective of the prize it concealed. Even getting the first small section of hard band down required pushing and “smoke dust” was coming off the contact point. Every piece was grudgingly removed and sweat glistened my entire body. Every now and then a section would drop off easily as if to catch me by surprise. I would slip and my knuckles hit the remaining hard band drawing blood.
“First round to the “Rock”! With every small slab of hard band removed the closer I was getting to the opal and I would soon have a metre of “pay dirt”, the full width of the drive to see if there was actually a solid continuing pocket or just a “teasing” level with a spasmodic smattering of opal. The battle continued and it is amazing you feel no pain with missing skin, bloodied knuckles, and the strain of holding a heavy jack hammer at chest height for several hours. The worst was sweat continually getting in my eyes and blurring my vision. Eventually I was within an inch of the opal seam with the entire under hard band removed and the floor cleaned up. It was time to put the jackhammer above the seam in a crack an inch up from the opal and drop the prize. This is the moment the heart rate increases and my skin would make a plucked goose proud. Within a few minutes the entire section was on the floor AND there was opal still at the end of the drive……..only with more colour. Second round to me! Picking through the dropped material I filled two 5 gallon drums with opal, some of it still had hard band attached and the opal would have to be sawn out later. I jack hammered in as far as I could and by dark had removed as much opal as possible. I would need to clean all the rubble out and start fresh in the morning. Totally stuffed, as happy as Larry and ready for sleep l left the mess as it was and backed the bob cat in to the short drive. Peppa, I am sure, was beaming as much as I was as we took our drums around to Stafford for storage in the large locked opal drum in his office. With all the adrenaline out of me the pains and aches attacked my entire body. The effort of pushing and holding the jackhammer made scratching my nose impossible as I could not lift my arms high enough. I had to scratch it on the side of the door. Round three to the Rock. I was back at the claim by “pre-sparrow fart” ready to go. Al was there ready and waiting for me to remove the rubble. I chatted with him for a while and told him it was looking good and l was hopeful it would keep going. He said he would look after the claim at lunch time if I wanted to go back to camp, making sure no one went in the mine if the word got out. And it did.
No sooner had I removed the rubble there were perhaps a dozen aboriginals sitting on the pile, laughing and busy looking for anything missed. I swear they have an in built sense, instantly honing in on any miner who finds opal. When you are not on opal you simply don’t see an aborigine. At the slightest hint of trace they seem to appear from nowhere and sit patiently on the dump for days waiting to see if the trace turns to opal. If it peters out they move on. Peppa of course welcomed the new noodlers with a tail wag and her “friendly bark “as if to say “where have you been?” The noodlers made her day more enjoyable and she would periodically move amongst them as a school teacher would in a busy class room. But if someone approached the entrance to the mine she would bark and growl as if saying ” Piss off or I will bite your bloody arm off”. Of course both Peppa and I knew this was just a bluff as this gentle carnivore wouldn’t have hurt a flea. She was a lover not a fighter. I placed another two shots right at the bottom of the floor and blasted. The gas was clear within a few minutes and l prepared the scene as l had previously. l set to work with the jackhammer to attack and remove the hard band…..Perhaps a little more gingerly then yesterday as my knuckles were already a lovely mixture of blue and red with small skin flags indicating a certain degree of discomfort. One look at the opal winking at me in the wall allowed the adrenaline to do its work and like a boxer recovering from an unexpected punch all the pain was gone and I was on top again. Round 4 to me. The hard band was in no mood to give an inch and it wasn’t long until the sandstone was splattered with red colour indicating the fight was well and truly on. Some sections can only be described as tenacious, so hard and with not a single crack to start the jack hammer in. Plain hard slow slog was the only way to get through it, particle smoke creating a haze. Stan, my first mining partner’s father was visiting Robert who was mining not far away. It was Stan who initially taught me many of the techniques becoming main stream to my mining. Stan had heard l was on opal and offered to help by holding the light and making it easier to see the opal l was trying to extract. Even a simple thing like better vision helps immensely and l was grateful for his help and a second opinion on my attack plan. I felt like the apprentice graduating to a professional with the master looking on. Stan loved his opal and it was a pleasure to share the discovery of a pocket with someone just as excited. He turned up every day and just like an experienced corner in a title fight the advantage was swinging more and more my way. Rounds 5,6 and 7 to me on points.
The seam appeared to be running parallel to the cut wall. It was almost two metres wide and looking very consistent. The opal was predominantly green orange with a hint of red (occasionally coloured with drops of my own blood). I followed the seam for a couple of days and at one point it instantly widened. The widening section was headed towards the hole Stafford had drilled and by my estimation was still several metres away. An incredible sight! Opal stretching four metres and looking fabulous. One of those moments l would never forget, engraved permanently in my brain.
To be continued.