you Coober Pedy Fella?

Aug 26, 2001

The Bottom Line Opal, the stuff a new gold rush is made of?

Feeling tired, burnt out, listless, lethargic or generally stuffed? Well Doctor Smith prescribes a holiday, vacation or bludge with a difference. Yep, definitely time to get away from it all, forget your worries and maybe get rich all at the same time. We are going Opal Mining in the land downunder, Australia.

But before we do, a little history. In days of yore, PE*, there was nothing like a goldrush to get a country moving. Up went the cry "there's gold in them thar hills", and there was, bucket loads of it - and back then it almost made sense that gold was so sought after. After all, they were the days of the "Gold Standard", by which a countries wealth was measured. That has all changed now, but still gold has a pretty high value.

In fact not two miles from where I am sitting in the Adelaide Hills, the "Bird in Hand" gold mine was very successful until water became an insurmountable problem.

In these more modern times, Opal has become extremely popular. Basically useless, these rocks are hung around the necks of women in the forlorn hope it will make them more attractive (only joking, my darlings - give me a kiss and you've got the job!).

I have to admit it is all Australia's fault, because almost all the worlds opal is found here in this country. And, whats worse, of that its nearly all in my State, South Australia. There is so much of the rotten stuff we crush it up and make roads out of it these days, but you don't know about that!

Seriously, Opal is really SiO2H2O which must be Aboriginal or Latin, but regardless lets take a little tour of the major Opal fields around the place, remembering there are many more small ones spread through four states, Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and of course South Australia.

For an overseas tourist to reach the Opal Fields we will assume you entered Australia at Sydney. Lightening Ridge is our first destination and it is located midway along the New South Wales - Queensland border. This is real Donga (Outback), so the easiest way to get there is by air. Regular flights are available daily from the domestic section of Sydney Airport.

This year, 2001 is the hundredth anniversary of Lightening Ridge. The first people out here were either courageous or nuts, depending on your viewpoint. They were after black and semi black opal, being famous worldwide with those interested in opals. These first characters out here were certainly keen. The isolation was naturally much worse back then. The nearest town was six hundred miles away, across unforgiving desert, and with transportation being camels, it was fortunate there are plenty of them. In fact it is usually claimed there are more camels in Australia than Arabia. A hundred yards on a dirty stinking piddling camel is enough to make me want to strangle the dopey thing, far less than hundreds of miles!

It is hard to comprehend the early miners digging rock hard soil in stifling hot country with only a pick and shovel, filling up leather buckets. Lightening Ridge mining life is still isolated and many live in camper-type vehicles. Typically water is heated over an open fire and plastic wrapped around three posts or trees hides a hole dug for a toilet! Some do live in the lap of luxury with generators or solar power for electricity. Modern conveniences are even installed.

So Lightening Ridge is in a world of its own and unless you have a penchant for black opal time can probably be better spent in the very different Opal Fields of South Australia. To get there we need to fly back to Sydney, then across to Adelaide - of course if you decide to just se the South Aussi opal fields simply enter Australia in Adelaide.

From Adelaide the best way to attack the opal fields is by car. We simply head up highway 87 towards Alice Springs. We travel through Port Augusta and on to Woomera, home of Australia's rocket range. Here we turn off the highway and drive about eighty miles through Roxby Downs and on to Andamooka, a quick little four hundred mile trip.

Andamooka is the latest of the Opal mining towns, having begun in 1930. Four hundred people dig away today in search of quality opal that usually finishes up as heirlooms. Many of the houses are part way dug into the ground in an attempt to moderate the heat. The first of the semi dug-out homes are on the national heritage register which means they can't be altered. Visitors are reasonably rare way out here mainly because its on a road to no where hence there is no through traffic. Consequently tourists are made to feel welcome and can have a good look over the early houses and the mines currently in use.

Opal found at Andamooka is unique, just as it is at Lightening Ridge where it is predominantly black. But here in "Anders" the opal has had something of a magical transformation. This is because it has filtered into layers of limestone, and very ancient layers at that. Limestone prevent the opal from forming the thick layers of fire we normally expect to see. However, looking through a microscope, we can see a "reticulated effect", as if it was full of tiny fires. The opal found here is called the Andamooka matrix opal. When it was first discovered it appeared a bit light in colour but a treatment I don't begin to understand called "treated matrix" makes the opal a real neck hanging. Experts around the world mostly say the black Lightning Ridge opal is the nearest to perfect but the treated matrix is the most brilliant. I would think it's really more an individual taste situation, but then who really understands fashion?

Well we best head off for Coober Pedy. Rather than risk our lives in a desert crossing, we return to the highway and heading north again arrive at Coober Pedy three hundred and fifty miles later.

Now this is a very different world. In the middle of South Australia's Outback, but on the main highway, it certainly isn't in the class of remoteness of Andamooka. Coober is Australia's largest and oldest opal mining town, well known for the underground lifestyle to escape the summer heat. Almost all the five thousand odd people live underground but don't get the mistaken idea they are "roughing it". The houses are just as big as normal, and well furnished with all the amenities - and two huge bonuses! Inside the temperature hardly varies day or night and, if you want an extra room, or a bigger room, just start digging! The cheapest possible houses and the best for the desert, maybe, I think, just about anywhere!

Moving around Coober is like moving around the Moon - the whole landscape is of holes in the ground, some in use, most not. So great care needs to be taken walking around. The area stretching outwards about thirty miles in every direction - one great Swiss cheese! The huge number of holes have been created over generations of miners who started digging, got fairly deep without finding opal, and just walked off and started digging somewhere else. No one seems to ever fill a hole in! To avoid being shot, tourists should never fossick for opal around miner's claims. Always ask and you will be shown somewhere you can dig away, usually in the tailings or 'mullock' heaps. This is discarded soil but very often opal can be found that has been missed by the miners.

There is plenty of underground accommodation, including places like the Coober Pedy Experience Motel, the Desert Cave Hotel or the Opal Cave plus many more. There are a couple of places with aboveground accommodation for those that don't like being "buried". The underground houses and so on are not deep down, usually only a few feet. Want to go to church - thats underground too, like nearly everything else. Coober Pedy (“kupa piti”) ,in Aboriginal means white man in a hole. Coober is the largest supplier of opal in the world and 100,000 tourists visit each year, so there is plenty happening. The opal is found in many colours, including colorless, white, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green, gray, brown, and black.

On to Mintabie, a short hundred and sixty miles up the highway to Marla where we turn off for thirty miles of hell to Mintabie. This road is so good it is best to drive next to it in the desert! Graded as recently as a hundred years ago (?), it is a real shocker and must be travelled slowly if you want your vehicle in one piece.

The Mintabie Opal Fields are one of the world's biggest and untold millions of dollars worth are mined each year. With a huge population of 250, Mintabie itself is small but the mining is on a large scale using earth-moving equipment for open-cut mining, very different from the other areas. Caterpillar D9's, and similar, bulldozers rip the sandstone away about a foot at a time and spotters continually check for signs of opal.

Mining still depends on luck, and opal worth $2 per troy ounce is often right next to rocks worth $10,000 or $12,000 per ounce. Mintabie Opal is usually sold cleaned but not polished. This is freehold Aboriginal land so a permit is required by everyone who enters the area. The Police Station at Marla is the best place to apply.

Mintabie is about eight hundred miles from Adelaide and ends our little opal tour. To return we could drive back to Adelaide, or if the vehicle is rented Alice Springs is only two hundred miles north and the car can be left there and we could fly out, or even catch a plane.

Just a couple of little things about Opals in general.

Most opal is more than 60 million years old and dates back to when dinosaurs ran around. More than 90% of the world's opals come from South Australia.

The largest opal find ever was in White Cliffs, way up in "Corner Country" in far north west New South Wales but this place is so difficult and time consuming to reach it is not really worth going there on a normal vacation. No one knows exactly what it was worth because it has never been sold. Wealthy families in Europe have it stored somewhere very safe!

Now aircraft, modern vehicles, the Flying Doctor, the School of the Air and mechanised equipment have made mining much easier, but still its no place for the faint hearted.

* PE * Pre Einstein

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