Peter’s Story Part 25

The prize fighter claim – Part 2

I felt on top of the world and digging out breathtaking opal in our newly named “Prize-fighter Claim”. The opal seam was becoming wider by the day and there was some wonderful opal amongst it. I had already taken several buckets to Stafford’s camp for storage so knew the value of the pocket was building nicely.

Opal stretched the entire front of the drive and was now running for over two meters on the right hand side. The left hand side was barren but it was only a meter in from the wall of the finished bulldozer cut. I was faced with the delicious dilemma of being able to choose which section and where to continue the chase.

I had dug out several pockets of opal over the years and was well aware they always come to an end and it would more than likely be a long time before I might be in a similar position. With this in mind it was time to “smell the roses” and savour the moment. Stan and I looked at the opal in the wall and marvelled at the beauty presented before us. The variation in colour and thickness was truly amazing and there were many individual gems winking at us as if to say “dig me out first”!

The opal was semi crystal opal with a nice variety of colour changing throughout the pocket. Orange and green mixed well, particularly in the thinner opal. The occasional break or change in the hard band seemed to alter the pattern within the opal so we were digging out a range of opal which made the mining even more enjoyable.

When beautiful opal is dug out and put in the bucket many pieces demand a closer look and the dust has to be removed by a quick lick. This can result in small cuts to the tongue from the sharp edges of the opal. These cuts accumulate with the bigger pockets and the pain can be excruciating. A painful tongue is a good thermometer and testimony to the quality and size of the pocket. I am sure if Isaac Newton had been an opal miner he would have devised a new law of physics to cover it.

Stan had dug out many pockets from his days of mining at Mintabie and he recalled some of his memorable moments. Our conversation was remarkable in recalling dreams already fulfilled and dreams in process. The “here and now” was combining with the “done and dusted” fuelled by the adrenalin rush of the “what’s to come”.

My only regret today is I did not take more photo’s, particularly of the opal in the wall. Many years later I can close my eyes, smell the ground and mentally drift to one of the most breath taking scenarios I have seen. Perhaps it is the sheer quantity of dirt between each pocket or perhaps it is hind sight placing their discovery in true perspective for they become even more remarkable over the years. Opal pockets are the driving force behind every opal miner, most of whom may never experience an actual find of a decent size. In any case I value the experience amongst the best in my life and I will always dream of finding another one.

As is the case with the hard ground at Mintabie the opal thickness varies across the face. Where the opal thinned the colour was vibrantly bright and when it became thicker the colour was not quite as bright. Every few feet there were sections with some beautiful gems and all totally sandwiched between thick siliceous sandstone. It would not be easy prying any of the opal from its grip. In fact most would have to be removed with some hard band attached and sawn out later. We discussed the choices and directions we could take, even to which section with “whatever” gem appealed to us most.

Reality made the decision in the end. With my bruised blue knuckles and aching shoulders I was beginning to look for weaknesses in the opposition and the easiest section to attack rather than the prettiest. This would be a victory on points after a hard fight. I was not in a hurry and I knew we could get every small piece rather than rush after the best stones. A systematic approach was the professional way. There would be enough time to look at the individual gems later.

The slog was on and I settled down for the grind, deciding to continue in the same direction running parallel to the finished cut where the ground seemed a little more fractured parallel to the seam. At least there were entry points for the jack hammer which allowed me to pry slabs of the hard band away from the opal seam. I would turn right and head towards the prospecting hole later. The ground in that direction was looking ominously solid with hard band up to half a meter in thickness with few attacking points and very little room for error.

Peppa the mining dog had become used to all the attention of the noodlers who arrived early every day and stayed until dark. She would check the ranks on a regular basis collecting her allotment of pats and then settle down at the front of the drive to snooze with one eye open and both eyes primed. She would occasionally saunter in to the mine to check if all was well with the workers and whilst everything was under her management plan she was a most contented canine. At the end of these hard days I would stop by Nobby’s shop and buy both of us a hard earned chocolate paddle pop. Peppa knew when this was going to happen as her mouth would open and shut and hers eyes would be wide open as she waited patiently in the back of the mining truck.

We continued parallel to the old cut for several meters battling the entire way. Every five gallon drum of material was earned with many bumps and “Hail Marys”. I was beginning to forget what clean fists looked like. The opal on the right stopped along a fault line and the parameters of the drive we would be making were beginning to take shape. The opal continued ahead but was pinching out in the hardening siliceous sandstone and we could tell it would be ending soon.

It was a wonderful feeling knowing when this drive had yielded all its prizes we still had a section to go probably stretching to the prospecting hole where the dream started. Each night I delivered the opal to Stafford’s. We filled up our first forty gallon drum and started on the next. Each day before heading back to camp I heated and belted the jack hammer picks back to a good working shape as we were blunting them very quickly. With extreme ground they only work efficiently when they are well shaped. When all the work was done it was home for an energy restoring meal and the making of enough explosive shots for the following day. Then it was straight to bed, falling instantly in to a deep sleep punctuated only by the regular technicolour dreams I always seemed to have when I was on opal.

Stafford had his bulldozer “The lucky lady” remove the rubble I had taken out of the mine, giving me more space to dump and manoeuvre the bobcat. We had not expected to have been at this mine for more than a day or two and now it was over a week. We had a seam of opal two meters wide and heading straight towards the prospecting hole which we guessed could be three or so meters away. In any case we still had quite a bit of ground to explore.

With one direction exhausted we started work on the new “treasure drive” towards the prospecting hole. I was now in to a regular pattern of placing two explosive shots in the floor placed at the sides of the drive. An opening shot was placed in the middle a foot above these. This would blow out about a meter of material well below the hard band. The remaining soft sandstone directly underneath the hard siliceous sandstone was removed by jack hammer and taken outside with the bobcat. I would be left with a clean floor and a cave about a meter deep and plenty of ground to continue the fight removing the hard band protecting the opal. Often slabs of the hard band would drop off all the way to the back of the drive and a minor victory would be celebrated. With a lot of effort and the knowledge accumulated along the way I was finding it quicker to remove the hard band and get to the enjoyable part of extracting the opal seam. When as close to the opal as possible the jack hammered hard band was taken out with the bobcat The floor perfectly cleaned and made ready for the dropping of the opal seam. We would have a cup of tea and move with anticipation to the “reward section”.

Stan stood with the light held close to where we were working. I would place the jack hammer a few inches above the opal in any crack or gap in the hard band and push. With rock dust filling the air eventually the hard band would give way and a section of the opal bearing ground would collapse on the floor. We would stop, admire the odd special piece and carefully put all opal in the bucket. The floor would be cleaned again and the procedure repeated until we had dropped all available seam.

The new drive was in about four meters and we were beginning to wonder where the prospecting hole was. No complaints were uttered because we were on opal and the longer it took to find the hole the more opal we would get. I could now spin the bobcat around in the growing cavern we were excavating.

On the side of the drive the hard band was being infiltrated by very black lines and becoming so hard it glistened. The opal ended abruptly against it and was about 4 mm thick with exquisite colour. The good opal was about 3 stones wide and changed to lower quality opal. Never the less it just looked exquisite flashing back at us as Stan moved the light across it. This was going to yield some very special material.

We decided to remove as much ground as possible from underneath the opal and dig further ground from the side of the drive to make the dropping of the hard band possible. This took the best part of half the day and with the precision of a brain surgeon and the best shaped jack hammer we edged as close to the seam as we could. When we dropped the entire seam with the gem opal in the middle any chance of damaging the opal would be minimal. When the moment of truth came the whole section came away easy and the top quality pieces of opal fell away from the hard band intact as if a gift offering from the opal gods. There in our hand we held about 2 ounces of opal with a remarkable quilt patchwork pattern with multiple rolling colours. This opal was way above the average but as is often the case there was just a small amount.

The following shot we broke through to the prospecting hole at the very back at floor level so knew our pocket would be ending soon. As we worked towards the hole the opal ended on both sides and about six inches past the hole finally finished. I continued on a few meters and it was obvious there would be no more opal. It had been a monumental battle and I felt the elation of a prize fighter after a gruelling ten rounds points victory.

Our pocket filled two forty gallon drums with material. It took three of us a week to saw the opal from the hard band and tumble clean the parcel. After grading and dividing I walked away with several bags of wonderful cutting opal and the best memories indelibly imprinted in my brain. The year had ended on a high and we packed up and headed back to Canberra.

P.S. A few years later a Mintabie underground miner spent considerable time mining the claim and my information is that very little opal was found.

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