opal mines are in the outback around the edges of the Great Artesian
Basin toward central Australia. Our mining has been predominantly
in the Winton area in Queensland.
rugged, is the Aussie outback. Just dirt tracks, and when it decides
to rain you're stuck where you are. Were we pleased when satellite
phones came to the bush? Before that any contact with the outside
world was through the Royal Flying Doctor service. Even now there's
no power for the phones, (or TV or anything else) so the miners
have generators or solar panels. Very soon we will have all the
mod cons city slickers take for granted.
course one of the big problems is water. It rains so little in
the outback that there's never enough to keep tanks full. Sometimes
kind farmers have let us cart from their dam (often fed by bores
sunk deep into the artesian basin). Then there are some old open
mines that have become dams, or we can haul water from the council
dam in Opalton.
The mining community is small, so small that most miners are known
by their first names or nicknames. You might know a miner for
years before learning their surname or what they did in another
life. Sometimes you never find out.
Most miners live in camps made from whatever is available. One
of the miners we know at Opalton, has the roofing iron held down,
not with nails but with boulders. Our friend Johnno- who has mined
with us over the years, has built his camp from slabs of sandstone,
which came from the overburden (left over rubble) from the mines.
He also built a wall from rum bottles which, he assures everyone,
were kindly donated by the publican from the Tatts Hotel at Winton.
There is a picture of this house published in the Age of Dinosaurs
Issue 1, 2003.
At the camp near Opalton, a 20 foot caravan is home, with a corrugated
iron walled shower room, open to the stars at night. The runoff
water from the shower is channelled down a slight slope to our
veggie garden, which flourishes when we are there for long periods
of time. We grow tomatoes, lettuce silver beet, beans and herbs
for our own table.
fridges, stoves and a hot water service make life comfortable.
The silence on the opal fields at night is sensational, add a
big blazer of an open fire and a canopy of stars, it can't be
we can start digging there are a number of applications to complete
and fees to pay. We need to apply to the Queensland Department
of Mines and Energy to establish the mining lease and obtain a
license, to the Environmental Protection Authority to establish
a surety that the land will be rehabilitated, to the local Aboriginal
people as the original custodians of the land for permission to
use the land for mining and to the property owner from whom we
lease the land our mine is on.
Picking the right spot for a mine is the difficult thing. The
area is opal bearing country but opal is often not where it should
be; it is where you find it. Some people say they have special
or reliable ways of finding where the opal is ", some of
the "old timers" seem to have a sixth sense about where
to find the elusive opal. In the Opalton area mining is predominantly
open cut, although there are some underground or shaft mines.
We have done both open cut and hand mining which involves digging
by hand rather than with heavy machinery
the mine site we would look for boulders, which we split on site
to see if they hold any opal. The odds of a boulder holding opal
is about 1,000 to 1. If there is any indication of opal, the rock
goes back to the camp to be cut with a diamond saw to carefully
expose the opal. Those are the boulders we are looking for and
when we find some or even one, the shout goes up - COLOUR !!!
That is the most exciting time in opal mining- what we all live
for is to be "on colour". That thought of "colour"
is what gets us through the long days of continuously shovelling,
sifting and moving dirt and rock.
is an emotional and physical roller coaster ride, but we are all
hooked. I have heard it said that "opal miners are the lunatic
fringe of the gambling fraternity". They may be from an accountant's
point of view, but, for the miner, that feeling of elation when
you see brilliant colour flashing out of the brown dirt makes
the gamble an investment.