Life Changes – Again
I was almost 30 and my life was about to enter a period of dramatic change on all fronts. Christian was offered a posting with the French embassy in the Maldives. I was starting a new relationship with Ann (The English girl) and an opportunity to go opal mining was about to present itself.
In the late 1970’s I kept hearing enticing snippets of an exciting new opal find somewhere north of Coober Pedy. Perhaps it was only rumor and perhaps what I was hearing was highly exaggerated but it certainly made my ears prick up and I was hungry for more information. I had heard a Croatian miner had taken a bulldozer to this place and had found opal in a cut on the edge of an escarpment. The talk was he found thousands of ounces of opal and there was huge potential for similar finds. The intrigue value of this really appealed to me. The information at this stage was the find was in an isolated place and all provisions had to be taken in, including water. The opal was occurring in harder and coarser ground then Coober Pedy and was much more difficult to mine.I had experienced opal mining at Grawin near Lightning Ridge and White Cliffs opal fields but this was only for short periods and very basic hand mining. I really wanted to learn more and knew at some stage in my life I needed to try it. This new discovery was making my pulse rise.
In the mean time I had started taking Ann out and we were seeing a lot of each other. Christian had decided she would accept the posting to the Maldives and was busy making arrangements to leave. I suppose this was convenient to the situation as I felt awkward breaking the news about moving on to a new relationship. It did worry me at the time because she was such a really nice person and I would have found telling her very difficult. I decided to take the coward’s way out and hope that the change in both our lives would solve the issue. I regretted this later as she deserved much better. She would phone from the Maldives from time to time and several months on when Ann and I were living together, Ann answered the phone and told her to move on! I found out a year or so later from someone at the French embassy some disturbing news. After only being in the Maldives for a few months, Christian was attacked and viciously raped by two locals. She was badly injured and the embassy sent her back to France. I heard no more news and even now I would love to know if she found happiness because she really deserved it. She was soft, gentle, loyal and devoted. She would be a wonderful wife and a great mother.
Ann had been living in the UK for a while and had only recently returned to Australia. She applied and won a job as chef at a new restaurant on the south coast so our early relationship started with intense short doses and lots of driving.
Before becoming involved with her I had booked my first overseas trip. Big Don, who owned a clothing shop next to me and I decided we would spend a couple of weeks in Tahiti. I guess you could call it a ‘final singles fling’ and we had a great time. We spent a couple of days on the main island and then headed over to nearby Moorea. We hired little motor bikes called mo-peds and drove everywhere we could. Big Don, who was about six foot six and built like a reinforced concrete outhouse, ended up pushing his mo-ped up most of the steep hills. We drank too much most nights (not a normal thing for me) and socialized to all hours of the night. One night big Don got stuck on a reef in the resort’s canoe only to be rescued by frantically called staff. We tried snorkeling, wind surfing and many other new experiences. The trip did create a desire to travel and see more of the world at a future time.
When I returned I was committed to a relationship that lasted 20 years and produced three wonderful children. It would be a relationship that took me to the extremes of human emotion and I guess I learnt a lot about myself and relationships during that time. Towards the end were many years of pain and the marriage ended in a bitter divorce. Like anyone who has experienced that, it is very difficult to write about or even want to reminisce and the good times get lost and cast away. So if at times my writing seems impersonal please feel free to fill in the missing feelings.
Back in the shop business was going fine and the demand for opal growing. Although my business was small it was providing me with enough income to live a reasonably comfortable life.
I had several wholesalers call in from time to time so supply was not a problem. One of these wholesalers was based in Adelaide and sold opal triplets. He was calling in several times a year and always spent time chatting. He had been to the mysterious new field, telling me the name was Mintabie and confirmed there was plenty of potential, although, it seemed pretty rough. To me it just seemed exciting.
Perhaps around 1979 I began learning more concrete information. A couple (who lived in Canberra) came into my shop whose elderly parents were mining there. They had visited Mintabie and stayed for a few weeks. Whilst there they noodled some stones and wanted to sell them. I recall their opal was semi dark and was in a small bag weighing a few ounces. It was a very mixed lot but included some quite nice pieces. I was put on the spot as they had no idea what price to ask and insisted on me making an offer. I was torn as I dearly wanted to own some of this new opal and couldn’t wait to try cutting it. At this stage I did not have a lot of experience in predicting the value of the resulting cut stones. The temptation was too much and I took a stab at it and purchased my first Mintabie rough opal. It was exciting to cut and some of the opal faced much better then it looked in the rough. I would be able to sell the cut stones for a good profit.
Ann and I decided we were both sick of driving to and from the coast so we decided she would leave the restaurant and move in with me. Her total possessions (mainly pot plants) fitted into the back of my four wheel drive so the move was no problem. I was still sharing the house with Hughie and the cameraman and the situation remained this way for some time. She began to help in the shop and soon our life resembled anyone in mainstream suburbia.
The Billings Family
At some stage around this time the mother of the couple I had purchased my first Mintabie rough opal from came into the shop and introduced herself as Hazel Billings. She asked if I would like to look at some rough opal. She called it ‘potch and colour’ but I could see at first glance it contained much better material than this and wasn’t particularly well graded. Today you would have just called it opal rough! I asked her how much and she said $10 an ounce. I purchased the parcel from her and it was enough to keep me cutting for some time even though the cost of the entire parcel wasn’t a large amount. I think I was fortunate one of her sons lived in Canberra with his family. Every time she came to visit them she would come to my shop and sell me a parcel of ‘potch and colour’. Hazel was such a lovely lady and we instantly got on well. She was always willing to spend time and talk and I learnt a lot about Mintabie. I was more determined than ever to go there one day.
Hazel and her husband Stan had been graziers on a small property near Albury. They had a love of opal and often visited the different opal fields, fossicked and hobby mined. Their youngest son Robert shared their interest. After retiring they decided to have a look at the new Mintabie opal fields. They towed an old caravan behind them and after visiting Coober Pedy headed north to Mintabie.
When they arrived they parked the caravan beside a group of acacia trees a few hundred yards from the diggings on the escarpment. At this stage there were not a lot of miners, only a handful of bulldozers and no drilling rigs. They spent their time noodling and Stan pegged a few claims using bush pegs (made from the local acacia logs). Most of his claims were not registered but apparently in the very early days they were respected by the other miners. One day a new miner with a Caldwell drill (these drill shaft size holes) arrived at Mintabie and pulled up beside Stan and Hazel’s caravan for directions. I am not exactly sure how it happened but after a cup of tea and some discussion, Joe (the drill owner) was talked into putting a hole down close to the caravan. The hole bottomed on opal, Stan and Joe became equal partners and a new chapter in Stan’s life began. They mined this claim for several years and Hazel would noodle on top of it as well as other claims close by. It was this opal I was buying when she visited Canberra.
The Irresistible Package
I first met Stan when he came with Hazel to my shop with a parcel of opal they had recently mined. This was the first time I had seen opal of any real quality from Mintabie. I remember their visit as clear as yesterday. Each grade was in a plastic bag and each lot could be sold separately. The top parcel was all big stones and every stone was skin to skin colour with a dark semi black base. There was no way I could seriously look at purchasing this magnificent lot. From the same pocket was a parcel of 40 ounces of small stones (these were also skin to skin colour from 7 to 10 mm thick in nice rectangular pieces). It was as plain as the nose on your face that every stone in the parcel would cut a lovely opal with the average finished weight from 3 to 5 carats. What a magnificent parcel and I WANTED it. Biting my lip I said I would purchase it but they would have to come back in a few days when I had raised the money. Stan sealed the package with tape and made me sign the join.
Now there was a slight dilemma. I had committed to buying the parcel and I had nowhere near enough money to pay for it. After emptying my bank account I was still considerably short. I went around to my beloved dad and explained the predicament. I already had borrowed a large amount from him to set the shop up and was paying him off at $50 a week. Anyway, my dad said “if you really think it is worth the money then you had better buy it”. I went home that night and told Ann I spent all my money and most of my dad’s money on a parcel of rough opal. When Hazel and Stan came back I was very excited and couldn’t wait to have a look at each and every piece of this, the biggest single purchase of opal rough I had ever made. The opal turned out to be an incredible investment and was to keep me in opal for quite some time.
The Mintabie Adventure Begins
I am not sure how much time elapsed from buying this parcel until I saw Hazel again. Her next visit was to lead to a total change in my life and the reverberations and related affects of it are still felt. She came in not with a parcel of ‘potch and colour,’ but a proposal that made my heart race. Stan and Hazel had finished active opal mining at Mintabie, although it still held a big place in their hearts. Hazel told me her son Robert wanted to spend six weeks mining at Mintabie. She said Stan would not be able to keep up the pace Robert would like to work. She wanted to know if I would be interested in spending six weeks working with Robert. Stan and Andrew (a friend of his) would have a percentage and I would receive an equal 25% share of any opal found. This was an opportunity I could not let pass. Here was a chance to learn how to mine opal from someone that had been successful. Not only that but a chance to mine opal in this exciting new Mintabie opal field.
I went home that night and told Ann we were headed to Mintabie for six weeks. I think she was as excited as I was as this would mean travel and an unpredictable adventure.
I asked Peter Bucke who was doing our watch repairs if he would be prepared to run our shop whilst we were away. I figured for six weeks it would be the same as taking ‘leave without pay’. Pete agreed and everything was set.
The memory is a little hazy but I think we met Robert and his wife June before we left to discuss actual dates, what we would need, and where we would meet.
Eventually the time rolled round, the four wheel drive packed with provisions, and we headed off to meet up with Robert at the shell garage just outside of Port Augusta in South Australia. The adventure was underway.