Peter’s Story Part 11

Opal From My Own Mine

We  returned home to Canberra with my share of the opal from Spooky’s claim. What a feeling to have so much beautiful rough opal to look at and cut. I must have come close to wearing it out simply by looking through it so often.

I felt the pressure of business lift from my shoulders as I would be able to stock my shop with the opal we had found. Little was I to know how important this would become. The credibility gained by saying most of the opal was from my own mine was fabulous.  More and more customers from the various embassies in Canberra became regulars as the word spread and our sales were increasing.

Spooky’s pocket contained a full range of quality and colours. This enabled me to cut a wide variety and offer a great selection of cut stones in all price ranges. I decided I would not sell any of the opal in the rough and systematically cut it as needed. This period of my marriage to Ann was the happiest. I don’t think I could have asked for anything more in life. My business was now secure, our relationship was stable and the promise of more adventure was all I could ask for. Robert and I decided we would spend another season at Mintabie and arranged a period suitable to both of us. Robert’s parents Stan and Hazel were also going to join us. We would once again meet at the Shell Garage just north of Port Augusta and travel in convoy up the corrugated dust bowl of a road to Mintabie.

Robert making up shots ready for blasting

The Hermit

On the old road between Coober Pedy and Marla was a distinct right angled bend about mid way.  Stan always stopped there for a cup of tea so it became part of our routine in the early years.  For many years a hermit used to live here, sleeping in the culvert under the road. I could not think of a less hospitable place to choose (Dusty, hot, dry with no entertainment and nothing to do).  Anyway a lot of the regular miners knew about this guy and would leave a loaf of bread or some food and a paperback to make his life a little easier. I never actually saw him and very few did but the food parcels would always be collected.  I often wonder what happened to him when the new bitumen road was opened some distance away from here. Just out of Marla the road from Oodnadatta joins the road to Alice Springs.  The road follows an old route used by aborigines moving from spring to spring before white man came. Oodnadatta, founded in 1890  was once an important stopover on the central Australian Railway. When the new Tarcoola to Alice Springs railway was opened Oodnadatta’s relevance was finished. It is one of the hottest and driest towns in Australia. Anyway, Stan bought to my attention the back of the large sign post to Oodnadatta. On it, fabulously hand painted was one of Australia’s finest literary masterpieces.  For those of you who have not stumbled across it, here it is.


Oodna-bloody-Datta sign

This bloody town’s a bloody cuss, No bloody trams, no bloody bus, And no-one cares for bloody us In Oodna-bloody-datta. Just bloody heat and bloody flies, The bloody sweat runs in your eyes, And if it rains, what a surprise! In Oodna-bloody-datta. No bloody fun, no bloody games, No bloody sport, no bloody dames, Won’t even give their bloody names, In Oodna-bloody-datta. No bloody clouds or bloody rain, No bloody curbs and no bloody drains, The bloody Council’s got no brains, In Oodna-bloody-datta. The bloody goods are bloody dear, A bloody buck for a bloody beer, But is it good – no bloody fear, In Oodna-bloody-datta. The bloody dances make you smile, The bloody band is bloody vile, They only cramp your bloody style, In Oodna-bloody-datta. The best place is in bloody bed With bloody ice upon your head , You might as well be bloody dead In Oodna-bloody-datta.

Warm Beer – Two-Up and A New Claim

1982 found us on a new claim, this time closer to the centre of what is now known as the ‘Old Field’. We were near a claim that had been bulldozed the year before and rumor had it they had found a small fortune. Mintabie was continuing to attract new opal miners and a high percentage of these early miners were to find opal.  This led to the phenomenal growth rate just around the corner that turned Mintabie in to one of Australia’s most productive opal fields.
The ‘pub’ in these early days was a small fibro building not much bigger than your family garage. It was a place to meet and a focus point for the evolving town. Beer was very expensive and sold by the case… mainly warm with an extra fee if it was cold. Entertainment was limited but the sport of ‘two-up’ was very popular. A game was on almost every night of the week and large amounts of money changed hands. I recall trying to join an early game and wanted to play with a ten dollar note. I was looked at by the other players with astonishment. Apparently the standard bet was $50 and $10 was just not the bet to make. The two-up games actually continued for some time and only stopped with arrival of a police presence at Mintabie. A fuzzy memory but I think the first policeman to visit was allowed the first throw of the night thereby enabling the games to continue a while after that.
Back at our claim we had a strategy in place. From the nearby claims we had figured out  there should be a large fault somewhere across our claim. With this knowledge we were aiming to find this fault underground and drive along it. Four shafts were put down and driving commenced. This year we planned to work hard, so a target of three to four blasts daily was set. We were driving several meters a day and it wasn’t long before there was a mountain of dirt on top. In the first five weeks we saw not a piece of potch or a hint of the fault, but the knowledge of the claim near ours kept our spirits high. We drove some distance in one direction and then headed off at a 30 degree tangent. We went back to the hole and drove to the border of the claim in the opposite direction. Nothing but sandstone again. By this time all our holes were interconnected and I was running out of time for I had to get back to my shop to sort the business out.
With a week to go we decided to go back to where we made the 30 degree tangent and head to the side of the claim from there. In just one blast we hit the fault and were on opal! The grinning commenced again. If we had turned earlier we would have hit the pocket weeks ago. This time the opal was very dark and dipped at about twenty degrees. As the seam of opal finished, another seam took its place at the roof and started dipping down. This pattern was repeated many times over many meters. The tools were once again taken out of the big tin trunk to be replaced by opal. This opal was very different from the opal we found the year before. Each seam had opal varying in colour from white base opal to jet black precious opal. Each seam had everything from potch to top colour. The bottom left tended to be very potchy and up to 3cm thick. The top right seemed to have most of the colour and was the thinnest. Everything was collected and put in the trunk, for there would be plenty of time later to sort it all out.
Typical size and quality rough from the pocket


A nice size piece of semi black opal from the pocket

Each day we were to dig out a five gallon drum of mixed opal. Towards the end of the week the opal, although not disappearing, had become nothing more than solid potch. Robert and I left to go back to civilization, leaving old Stan to care-take until I could fly back in a fortnight’s time. After our experience with the ratters the previous year we were not taking any chances. Those two weeks flew past as I had so much work to do in the shop and I was soon back at the mine. When I returned old Stan had managed to dig some more opal out, but it was mostly potch. We continued following the seam, although nothing of value was found and it finally disappeared altogether. A new drive was started from where the middle of the pocket had been and it wasn’t long before we had broken through  to one of our other drives. It was back to checking the walls again to decide where we would drive next. Old Stan, in his best form yet, with his hand pick was scraping the side of our old drive, and once again, in less than a few centimeters uncovered the beginning of another pocket running at right angles to our first pocket. It is truly amazing how narrowly a pocket can be missed. After all, we had missed our first pocket by only a meter and nearly missed this one by a few centimeters. This pocket was only about a a square meter, however  the opal was a centimeter thick and very dark. Although not top quality opal it was still of good quality. After missing this pocket by so little, we checked our walls very carefully and in fact found another separate pocket which was an offshoot to the main pocket. Eventually we exhausted all possibilities, so it was once again back to civilization to divide our opal. All totaled we had taken out 3,500 ounces of opal.

Cut opal from the pocket. 5 carats to 181 carats

After this second parcel we decided to go full time opal mining. Robert would resign from his administrative job at the Corowa hospital and I asked Peter Bucke if he would manage Mineshaft on a full time basis.  Mintabie was to become a significant part of my life for many years to come.

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