Sometimes when you are mining, a little bit of trace or a change in ground gets you so excited you become convinced you will soon be on to a big pocket. Something about the indication is so strong you are almost prepared to bet that opal is not far away. A little bit like a strong bite when you are fishing and you are sure it is the biggest fish in the river.
We were working a claim on the Old Field at Mintabie when the ground started to change noticeably. The level started to dip and contained lenses of really hard sandstone with scattered empty little hollows like honeycomb with heavy black staining. Many fine lines of black potch were joining into the level. Everything looked good and we were convinced the trace would lead us to the mother of all pockets. Sometimes the lead up to a pocket can take many days and the anticipated excitement grows to fever pitch.
It was late on Friday afternoon and we had decided that we would only put two explosive shots in the floor and jackhammer our way in to carefully check any development. We use an auger that is a little over a meter long to drill the holes for the explosive. The auger is about 4 cm wide and has tungsten tips on the end to cut through the sandstone. Because the ground is very hard at Mintabie, the tungsten tips have to be kept well sharpened so they cut through the sandstone easily. If they are blunt then they grind instead of cut and it takes a long time and a lot of effort to drill the holes.
I was drilling and was almost to the end of the hole when there was a, “clack-clack-crunch” noise from the end of the hole. This is the sound made when you drill through a seam of opal.
The sound is enough to send goose bumps through any opal miner’s skin. Normally if the opal is not too thick the drill bit travels through the seam and when you pull the bit out you see little bits of the opal. When I pulled the bit out this time I had broken off both tungsten tips and out with the tips came a piece of opal about 2 cm square. It had the most striking red colour and was on a jet black base. This was obviously a piece of opal out of a very thick seam. Robert and I did a dance of excitement up and down the drive before regaining our senses and deciding on our next move. It was right on sunset and as our claim was in the middle of a very busy section of the opal field we had to stick to our normal routine and not arouse unnecessary suspicion. We had to stop work as normal. We lit the fuses in the other two drives and left for home.
Saturday was the day of the Mintabie Progress Association’s monthly Barbecue. All mining ceased for this day. Not only was it party time and a time to socialize but also a time when you actually got to eat meat. Mintabie was several hours drive from Coober Pedy over a rough corrugated road. It was a trip you made only if you had to. In those days we lived in a caravan so there was no room to store meat. We ate out of tins and dried food that we bought with us. After a month of this, a pig on the spit and a T bone steak tastes pretty good. Accompanied by FFFFFresh bread and a CCCCold drink it becomes an occasion not to miss.
This time however, it meant that the biggest pocket of black opal that Mintabie had ever produced would have to wait another day. If we had worked instead of going to the Barbecue it would have been obvious we were on opal. Throughout Saturday Robert and I stole occasional glances at our piece of black opal. It was definitely gem material of the best quality. Each time we looked at it the bigger the pocket became. After all, the trace and the ground were perfect. Robert was talking about his next holiday and I was just plain dreaming. We showed Sarge (A long term Mintabie miner) our stone and he was equally impressed and wished us luck. Finally we were back at the mine. Excited and full of adrenalin we started to jack hammer in the meter to reach our pocket. The ground was incredibly hard and slowest us down. This only made us believe the opal would be worth the effort. Several hours later we were within inches of our goal and the anticipation was immense. We stopped for a coffee and a few minutes break to summons the energy for the final assault. At last we were through to the seam. Pieces of thick black opal began to appear. It was strong and jet black. We were convinced that somewhere in this pocket would be some of the best black opal imaginable…..after all we had a piece in our pocket! We spent several days digging out the opal and all without a single flash of colour. The only colour was in that single piece of opal that came out with the drill.