Introduction to The Outback
The year of 1981 saw us on our way to Mintabie to try our hands at opal mining. We met up with my new partner Robert and his wife June at the shell garage on the outskirts of Port Augusta. We headed out of town and about an hour north set up camp for the night.
I remember the first night particularly because of two incidents. It was extremely warm and we set our camp besides one of those water tanks you see in the outback that provide water for stock. Ann being a typical ‘english pom’ had not seen much of Australia and her first visit to the outback was about to become memorable. Being hot I decided to cool down in the stock tank. When I climbed up the side, swimming around in it, was a large brown snake! So before our swim we had to fish it out to make room for us. The second incident was when she needed to go to the loo. I gave her the shovel and pointed to the bushes. Well during her visit an inquisitive small green ant climbed on to her bare backside and delivered a decent bite. Any one that has been bitten by one of these little monsters knows how much they sting. I thought that would be the end to our camping before we even started. The bite had swollen to a size that would make a Rottweiler proud and apparently was pulsating and giving her considerable curry. Welcome to the outback.The road north of Port Augusta in those days was only tar for the first 60 odd kilometers. After that it was either corrugated or covered in deep fine red bull dust or more commonly both. There was a slight reprieve at Pimba with 20 odd kilometers of bitumen and then it reverted to bull dust and corrugations all the way to the Northern Territory border. These corrugations were just impossible. It was impossible to find a comfortable speed to travel, either slow or fast. On top of that every few kilometers it turned our heater on automatically, making the already hot interior even hotter. (I had no air conditioning back then). If you were following a road train and there was no wind, it was impossible to see or breathe. You had to use the windscreen wipers from time to time to push away the dust……oh what today’s tourist misses out on with their cushy visit to the red center now that the road is sealed and they travel in air conditioned luxury.
Many, many hours later we arrived at Coober Pedy. I had been to Coober Pedy before and found it a magic place. The moonscape approaching the town with all its opal shafts, dumps and bulldozer cuts conjures up dreams of riches and Technicolor thoughts of incredible finds. I am sure I am not the only person whose mind wanders with such images when approaching and imagines the unfound bonanzas under the surface waiting to be discovered by a dreamer such as me.
We met up with Stan and Hazel (Roberts’s parents) in the dusty main street. Whilst we were standing in the middle of the road, Abdullah Chan (an opal dealer) came and started talking to Stan. Stan had worked an incredibly rich claim at Mintabie for several years. Abdullah had purchased a lot of the opal and they had enjoyed a long term business relationship and were now friends. I distinctly remember the moment as it was hot, very dusty and cars were whizzing past, driving around us as if this was normal procedure.
I had known about Abdullah by reputation and knew he was one of the biggest buyers living at Coober Pedy. He was wearing old shorts, T shirt and a pair of worn out dilapidated thongs. He invited us all to dinner that night at a restaurant attached to the Opal Inn.
After checking in to our motel, we showered, put on clean dress clothes and headed to the restaurant. After a few drinks, in walked Abdullah. He was still wearing the same clothes. After greeting us he headed straight through the doors of the kitchen to talk directly with the chef and ordered the meal. The food was as good as any we had ever had. It is a wonderful thing to enjoy quality seafood in the heart of Australia in a dusty opal mining town far from the sea.
At this stage I will diverge into the future with a few paragraphs on Abdullah.
Abdullah was to buy several parcels of rough opal from us over the coming years. He was a good buyer, never taking long to look at the parcels and if it was material he wanted, offered a fair price. He always smiled and occasionally would break out in a profuse sweat. I always thought this happened if he particularly liked what he was seeing. If the material was not what he wanted he told you straight out. This policy, I believe, was the reason many miners offered him first look at their parcels.
Abdullah had his up’s and down’s. For a while he bought in partnership with Arthur (A Greek opal buyer) and later reverted to buying independently. He travelled to Mintabie almost weekly during the boom days and sometimes flew in especially, if he heard of a large find.
When my son Michael was born he gave us a $50 note to stick in his bank account. On several other visits he added to it.
Abdullah gave to the community that provided him with opal. One Christmas he flew a couple of chefs and a whole host of the finest seafood and meats up from Coober Pedy. This showed the strength of his commitment to the opal miners. It was a period in Mintabie’s development when there were no shops and all food had to be bought in by the miners. Fresh food was a luxury. Abdullah provided the most amazing feast in Mintabie’s short history.
We sold Abdullah one parcel I will always regret selling. It was a parcel of extremely thick semi dark crystal opal. All the opal was a uniform blue/green colour and a steady 15mm thickness. Because the colour was not intense I decided to sell my share as well. There were four of the largest plastic zip bags full. This was several hundred ounces. I think we got about $14,000 for the entire parcel. I regret the sale because the opal would have cut the most amazing large opal beads that today would be worth a lot of money. It was a time when I needed money and you do what you have to do.
Many years after finishing at Mintabie I would run into Abdullah at the Tucson gem show in Arizona, U.S.A. Abdullah had a booth there and sold opal rough. Each time I went, I would catch up with him and reminisce Mintabie’s glory days. One visit I remember fondly. He invited us to his favorite Tucson Chinese restaurant. When he arrived he walked straight into the kitchen to talk to the chef and order the meal. It transported me back to Coober Pedy and the first time I met him.
The next day was spent purchasing a couple of miner’s picks, a shovel, a few boxes of gelignite, a roll of fuse, some detonators and other supplies. It was then off to Mintabie.
Mintabie is located a little west of Marla. Marla is now a thoroughly modern town community. Originally though, it was simply an Atco transportable shed with a couple of petrol pumps in the middle of a dusty nowhere. Greg Oakley, who owned it, had a vision that this location would be perfect for a township on the proposed new highway. Marla is named after a water bore not far from the location. On the wall of the transportable was a faded blue print map of his dream town. Each time we got petrol over the first few years we would stare at this blue print and Greg’s fantasy township. Unbelievable at the time, the current township is now the fruit of his dream. Greg Oakley was a true pioneer and man who passionately followed his dream. He passed away on the 23/1/2015 but his legacy lives on with the township of Marla.
Mintabie – We Arrive
The drive to Mintabie was about an hour over a very rough track. Eventually the sight of white opal dumps appeared on the horizon. I must admit to an intense feeling of excitement as I had wanted to come to this place for so long. In these early times the whole extent of the mining activity was in one area now known as the old field. You could walk around the entire workings in an hour or so.
We drove up the escarpment and in to the workings where Stan had pegged a claim on the edge of the field. Stan and Hazel had arrived at Mintabie some days before us to find a suitable spot for Robert and me to work. We unpacked the four wheel drive and set up camp within easy walking distance. I jokingly remarked that the giant tool box I bought along was to put our opal in. The claim Stan selected had several holes already on it but not much work done. The original owners were in the act of removing their pegs and moving on when Stan walked past. Because it had the holes he immediately pegged it thereby saving us time and money drilling shafts on a virgin piece of ground.
On this new claim was an excuse for a tent where an old identity of Mintabie had lived for some time. No-one knew his name and he was known on the field as “Spooky”. He was knick named this as he seemed to appear and disappear out of no-where. He survived by noodling the dumps. Spooky rarely bathed, washed or shaved. In fact they say he never even took his boots off. Spooky’s tent was an old piece of discarded canvas strung between two trees. It was full of empty cans and old paperbacks. There was a 5 gallon drum that he stored his worldly goods in. On the ground was a filthy old mattress. The whole lot smelt like a well turned compost heap.
I never met Spooky because he was taken to Adelaide by the Royal Flying Doctor with possible gangrene of the foot before we arrived. He left as he came, without a cent. All the miners used to joke that he was probably sleeping on top of a fortune and it was on that omen we were to work “Spooky’s claim”.
Ann and I slept in the back of the four wheel drive and we set up our kitchen in and on some packing crates we had packed our provisions in. We didn’t have a shower but there was an old bulldozer cut nearby that had filled up with water. Although inhabited by biting water bugs it made a delightful end to the working day. Soap up all over and dive in and wash off the sweat and dirt. All our food and drinking water had been bought up with us and had been carefully planned to last the distance.
Mintabie – First Day
The first day at Mintabie was spent setting up our mine. The dirt was to be removed using a York Hoist. The York Hoist was originally developed to fit around scaffolding to lift building materials on building sites. They became very popular with opal miners because they were very cost efficient, quick to set up and easy to use. They were particularly popular at Andamooka opal fields and to a lesser degree, Coober Pedy.
A large pipe is vertically secured a meter from the shaft, by 3 wires attached to the ground about 30 feet away with steel posts. The hoist is attached to the pipe so that it can swivel around it. As the pile of dirt grows the hoist is lifted further up the pole.
One opal miner does the shoveling underground whilst the other operates the hoist and empties the dirt. We had a flat bottomed hand-made wheel barrow on which sat a 12 gallon fuel drum with the top cut out and a handle attached. We worked two drums at the same time. Whilst one drum was being lifted to the surface the other drum was being filled with dirt. Generally the underground miner worked at a pace to keep the hoist in continual use. The further he was away from the shaft the faster he had to work. It became a challenge to get back to the hole before the empty bucket arrived.
A hub cap from a car was nailed to a post on the top corner of the hole. Close to this we had a hammer on a swivel with a rope tied to the end that stretched to the bottom of the hole. When the rope was pulled it swung the hammer and belted the hub cap. This let the hoist operator know that the bucket was ready to lift. One gong meant lift the bucket. Two gongs meant stop. Three gongs meant trouble. An average blast of dirt took around forty buckets to clear.
Because the sandstone at Mintabie is very hard explosives are used to drive forward. We were blasting two to three times a day. After blasting we went noodling on other claims whilst waiting for the fumes to clear.
Noodling in the early days of Mintabie could be very productive. This was because there was a lot of opal being found which led to the phenomenal growth of the field in the early 80’s. When any miner is finding good opal he tends to be in a little bit of a hurry to get the opal in to a bucket and often misses pieces or simply discards inferior bits and opal he considers trace. This was particularly true with the early bulldozer cuts. When these cuts reached a pocket of opal the noodling was generally pretty good. The miners would halt the bulldozer and then dig the opal out with their picks. The opal was put into 5 gallon drums. In later years the miners would take more care and even sieve all the loose dirt so as to recover almost all of the opal including chips. However in the early days they picked up whatever they could see and many fine opals and lots of bright chips and smaller stones were missed amongst the larger sandstone rubble. When this ground was pushed out of the cut it became noodler mayhem as everyone frantically searched for missed gems. There could be sometimes 50 or more noodlers on the bulldozer dump all intently scratching like hens in a chook yard.
In our first week of mining every muscle of my body ached from the continuous shoveling. This was, however, more than compensated by the opal we were noodling between our blasts. I was thinking that even if we didn’t find any opal during our six week stint at least we would go home with a nice lot of noodled opal and a wealth of experience. But this was only week one and we had five more weeks to go!