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Opal Mining

Australian opal fields have a long and colourful history. Here you can find fascinating insights into our most well known fields.

The area marked in white below indicates where the ancient Artisian inland sea once lay. within this area Australia's most famous opal fields operate. All types of precious opal are found in this vast area.

The area marked in gray indicates where the state of Queensland's opal fields are found, home to the boulder opal.

Opal Mining By State Information:

South Australia

New South Wales

Queensland

South Australia's Opal Fields

Mintiabe Opal Fields

Mintabie, once second only to Coober Pedy as an opal producer, is today in low production. There are a number of reasons, possibly the main one being the restrictions under native title (Aboriginal rights to reclaim native land). Nevertheless, Mintabie is still the home of some fine opal.

On a recent visit in August 1998 I was priveleged to see a beautiful parcel of full red colour, worth many thousands of dollars.

Mintabie also has a reputation for producing some very fine black opals, similar to that found at Grawin, with the odd stone indistinguishable from that of Lightning Ridge.

Aborigines were the first to sell Mintabie black opal in Coober Pedy, just after the First World War. Although some miners tried to find where it was coming from, the Aborigines were able to hold their secret until the early 1930s.No one ever regrets a visit to Mintabie. It is a must for all those who love travelling, as the beauty of the desert has much to offer. Besides, it has good amenities.

A 20-minute drive from Marla off the Stuart Highway, and permission under the Pitjantjara Lands Rights Act, available from the police station at Marla for $5, will get you a visit to the field.

 

Coober Pedy Opal Fields

Coober Pedy lies between Adelaide and Darwin on the Stuart Highway. It is situated approximately 800km north west of Adelaide. The climate is so barren, many of the locals have built their homes underground.

Discovered on the 1st February 1915 by a 14 year-old boy, Coober Pedy is the world's largest opal field and responsible for 80% of Australia's production. The field was originally known as the "Stuart Range Opal Mines". The explorer passed by the area in 1858, naming the present site of Coober Pedy after himself.

The name Coober Pedy comes from the Aboriginal language and, when loosely translated, means a "white man in a hole". It was selected from four proposed names by a newly formed progress committee in June 1920.

Willie Hutchinson, the youngest member of an Adelaide gold prospecting syndicate, discovered opal whil searching for water. The first claim was pegged eight days later on 9 February. It was during the worst drought in the State's history, forcing members of the party to search for water in different directions, leaving young Willie to look after the camp.

Camped near the foothills of the nearby range, Willie disobeyed orders and wandered off in search of water. There was apprehension among the members when he failed to return by dark. Finally, he strolled into camp with a grin on his face and a half sugar bag of opal slung over his shoulder. Not only had he found opal, but a fortnight's supply of water. The full story is told by his father, James Hutchison, the leader of the expedition in the Adelaide Chronicle on 7th April 1938.

Due to its remoteness, only a handful of miners worked the field for the first few years, with no visiting buyers before 1920. The first rush took place in 1919, swelling the population to a few hundred. During this period, massive amounts of opal were produced.

The harsh environment did not make for easy living. Lack of water, which often had to be recycled many times before being discarded, was always a problem. The situation was so critical that the Government in 1924 built a 2,000,000-litre tank which partly solved the problem, allowing water to be rationed at 110 litres per person per week.

The area suffered during the Depression years (1930's) when opal prices bottomed out. The discovery of the Eight Mile field in 1945 by Toddy Bryant, an Aboriginal woman, caused a great sensation. Her discovery of opal within 20 centimetres of the surface was a turning point in the history of the field and went a long way towards establishing Coober Pedy's future prosperity.

Today Coober Pedy remains a thriving mining town, and the home of light opal.

 

Andamooka's Opal Fields

An aboriginal name, Andamooka is believed to mean "large waterhole". The area was discovered by John McDouall Stuart in 1858 and settled in 1872. It is one of Australia's famous opal fields, having produced some of the most beautiful crystal opal ever found.

Situated 600 kilometres north of Adelaide by sealed road, it has a floating population between 600 and 1,000, depending on the season.

Andamooka is the only town in Australia where the streets are not named and the main thoroughfare is a creek bed. Since the sealing of the road many of the tourist buses now make it their first northerly stop.

The area, once a great inland sea, is a treasure house of many of Australia's opalised prehistoric fossils. Like the fossils, the opal is found in levels up to 10 metres below the surface, with one patch at German Gully being so rich it was called the Bank of England.

Visitors to Andamooka soon learn it is an ideal place to shed the stress of modern life. The folk are friendly and searching the mullock dumps for opal makes for a great holiday. All the necessities of life are available, which include various types of accommodation, supermarket, chemist, cafes, souvenir shops, field tours and other attractions.

The first person on the field was Oxy Nugent, a well-borer, who had been contracted by Andamooka station. Not long after he had found water in what was later to become the main street, opal was discovered in August 1930, by Roy Shepherd and Sam Brooks, in an area now known as Treloar's Hill.

It was a torrential thunderstorm which led to the first discovery, when Shepherd picked up the first opal. He and Brooks, who were tank sinkers, were on their way to check their horses when a storm broke. They brought their find back to camp and showed Oxy Nugent, who had previously worked at Coober Pedy, and confirmed it was opal. However Nugent wasn't interested in looking for opal after finding none in Coober Pedy.

The following weekend Brooks took several pieces into the homestead and showed Mr Foulis, the manager. He became very interested and sent out his bookkeeper, Alan Treloar, and Paddy Evans, a former opal miner from Coober Pedy, to investigate.

Everything possible was done to keep the discovery a secret and prevent a rush. To avoid forming tracks, no-one was allowed to travel back and forth by the same route - even Mr Foulis used a different way whenever he visited the men.

The first rush took place in 1933, establishing Andamooka, after Alan Treloar forwarded a parcel of gem quality opal to a friend at Coober Pedy for valuation.

It has since developed into one of Australia's major opal fields, with output at one time equalling in value that of Coober Pedy. Many people consider crystal opal from this field to be the finest in the world. It is a breathtaking experience to handle a gem from Andamooka, this treasure house of nature.

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New South Wales Opal Fields

Lightning Ridge - aka The Ridge

Lightning Ridge - to find a more appropriate name for the home of such beautiful gem would be quite difficult, as the fields have no equal in the world. The name, though unofficial, became well entrenched during the latter part of last century, long before the discovery in the district.

It's not known who originally called it Lightning Ridge, possibly boundary riders from surrounding stations. It came about one night during an horrendous electrical storm, when a shepherd, his dog and 600 sheep were killed by lightning whilst sheltering on one of the low ridges.
Since then the name of Lightning Ridge has flourished. Government departments used it for nearly 100 years before it was officially gazetted on 5 September 1963.

The main street of the present town is named after the now famous opal ridges. The name was taken from the local Aboriginal folklore which called them Morillas, hence the street's name, "Morilla".

Aborigines explain the ridges supernaturally, saying they were created by their God and culture hero, Byamee as a highway for his convenience during flood time.

Today Lightning Ridge after mining since 1900, is the fastest growing town in north-west New South Wales, with a great future producing large quantities of fine black opal.

It is the only known place on earth where the breathtaking world-famous black opal is found. Yet when Sydney's gem merchants, shrewd as they were, saw the first black opals in 1903, they rejected them outright as a worthless form of matrix, thereby losing themselves a fortune for themselves.

The true story of Lightning Ridge is one of faith, courage, struggle and luck in the face of almost contemptuous disbelief and bittern feuds with the graziers of the day. They, in their own hypocritical way, formed the first mining syndicate, and after abandoning it, tried to force the miners from the field by impounding their horses and poisoning their water. Finally, only intervention by the Government brought about peace in those troublesome times.

Lightning Ridge now has over 70 fields and more being found every year.

The Discovery of Lightning Ridge

The first record of pretty stones being discovered at Lightning Ridge was in 1873 by Robert Moore, the manager of Muggarie Station, latter changed to Angledool Station . A former Ravenswood gold miner, he picked up the stones while prospecting the Nebea Ridges to the northwest of the present town . Believing them to be of some worth, he forwarded them to Sydney for an evaluation . They were returned as having no commercial value .

In 1880, Aboriginals wandering the Nebea Ridges brought in topaz to Bangate Station . Mrs Katie Parker, the owner’s wife, believing them to be diamonds, sent her brother, Ted Field, and Bob Hudson, a station hand, to investigate . They searched the area north of the present town, but found nothing that resembled the Aboriginals’ stones . However, they did return with other attractive stones, but their variety and value were never ascertained .

It wasn’t until 1887, when a piece of opal was found in a gravel pit, now part of the famous Nine-Mile field, that it came to the notice of the Mines Department, who did little more than record the event .

It wasn’t until after the discovery of White Cliffs, and the publicity it generated, that an interest was shown in Lightning Ridge . Coach drivers spread interesting news like the proverbial bushfire and in 1893, Joe Beckett, the Weetalibah Innkeeper, discussed the possibility of there being opal in the area with Frank Doucutt, the Bangate Station bookkeeper, after the discovery of colour on the flat at Potch Point.

They engaged a Sydney geologist to investigate the possibilities of opal being found in the Lightning Ridge formations . In his report he stated, that in his opinion there was opal in the ridges, but very deep, and suggested some trial shafts . The depth of the shafts discouraged Beckett and the idea lay dormant until 1890, when Jack Murray found opal while setting a rabbit trap in the Nobby region.

Opal had been in the news since the big rush at White Cliffs in July 1894, so when Murray made his find he realised what he had discovered, but was in no position to do anything about it . Other than some exploratory work of a Sunday, he did little, which eventually cost him his job . He is then credited with taking up mining and produced the first opals at Lightning Ridge in 1901, a fact reported in the Mines department’s 1903 annual report .

Fred Reece, who was born at Bangate Station in 1889, told me they sold the first opal from Lightning Ridge to Joe Beckett, the innkeeper at Weetalibah, on the Lightning Ridge-Angledool road . They also sold opal to Mr Patterson, the Angledool schoolteacher, who later developed his own market and continued to buy for many years .

Although a more appropriate name for the home of such a magnificent gem would be hard to find, it did not originate with the discovery of opal . The name of Lightning Ridge, although unofficial, became well entrenched during the latter part of the 19 th century, long before the discovery of opal .

It is not known who originally called it Lightning Ridge, but Katie Parker recorded how the name became folklore in her 1879, My Bush Book:

Lightning Ridge was so called because in of those terrible inland storms, lightning killed six hundred sheep, the shepherd and his dog .

 

White Cliffs

Australia’s First Opal Mining Town

White Cliffs was Australia ’s first opal mining town . There are legends but no records of who first discovered opal there in 1884, or who those early mysterious miners were, but a monument stands to their presence at White Cliffs .

For some unknown reason the field didn’t eventuate, and no more was heard of White Cliffs until 1889 when George Hooley and Alf Richardson discovered opal while kangaroo shooting .

Charlie Turner, one of two friends whom they later took into partnership, sent the opal to Tullie Wollaston, an opal merchant he knew in Adelaide . Wollaston relates the story in his book, The Gem of the Never Never . Wollaston had just returned from a long trip to the Queensland fields in December 1889, and was surprised to find a parcel of opal waiting him from some kangaroo shooters north of Wilcannia . He was so impressed with the opal that after only two days at home with his young family he was once again on the road for the ne w f ield .

At the site he found the men already had some fine opal and, like its sandstone cousin from Queensland , it was free of adhering matrix and came away freely from its bedding in natural jointed seams which fitted together like small pancakes . The men had no idea of its value and were at a loss to ask a price . Wollaston said, ‘They knew nothing and I knew a little more . It was a new type of opal . I could have got the lot, including the specimens, for ₤10, I later discovered . In fact, they told me afterwards, if I had turned it down, they had decided to throw the stuff among the gibbers and continue their shooting, at which they were making good money . I had to stumble at it the best I could – it was a new type and I was knew at the game . I thought I could risk ₤150 and give myself room to spring ₤10 – go no chance! On my naming the figure there was great calm . They were simply paralysed, but only for a moment, then eight eager hands shot out! But I do not regret making a fair offer and saved my tenner anyway .

E . F . Murphy, a former gold miner from Mt Brown, was the first to take out leases in association with a Wilcannia-based syndicate after George Hooley and Company . Murphy was a man of destiny and compassion . He was not only a pioneer opal miner, but White Cliff’s first magistrate and coroner . He was also a trusted opal classer, buyer and company manager . He was later appointed Guardian of Abandoned Children by the Supreme Court of New South Wales .

A severe drought throughout 1890 made conditions very uninviting for newcomers . Food was scarce and expensive and water shortages were common . Living there was so bad for the first three years that an average of only 18 miners ventured onto the field .

When the drought finally broke in 1893, the population quickly increased to 800 and White Cliffs was reborn .

For more than 20 years White Cliffs had been a star in the crown of the colony, producing over ₤1,500,000 for its economy . Much of the opal came from opalised wood, shells, plants and animals, including the famous pseudomorphs known as pineapples .

White Cliffs still produces beautiful opal . There is still plenty of untried grounds for those who would like to try their . For the visitor, ample accommodation and amenities is available to enjoy themselves on this unique field .

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Queensland Opal Fields

Koroit

Koroit is situated on the Humeburn road 100 kilometres north-west of Cunnamulla. Opal was first discovered there in 1897 by Lawrence Rostron, the manager of Tilboroo station, Eulo. A syndicate comprising eight members was formed. The Koroit field has been relatively quiet in comparison to other Australian fields..

Little work was carried on until 1925, when a number of miners set up camps along the creek. The largest one was the Christmas Camp, with its own cook. All opal found was pooled and the profits evenly distributed.

It was a tight-knit affair, a type of brotherhood, with no room for strangers. Many of the men had pasts which they rarely spoke about. Their only association with two other camps, which were further down the creek, was to bring each other’s mail and stores out from Cunnamulla. They were finding good seam opal in small pockets among large sheets of potch under a thin ironstone band, at the base of the sandstone. There was little interest in the matrix or boulder higher up in the sandstone; they were selling their better grade opal for ₤10 per ounce in Brisbane.

A little interest was taken in the field after the Second World War, but it soon faded. In 1972, a small number of men moved onto the field, among them Mike Bennent who was still there in 1997.

 

Yowah

The date of opal discovery at Yowah is not known. There are a number of versions as to how it was discovered, all tied up with local folklore, the most popular being gold prospectors when the country was first opened up. E.F. Murphy, the famous opal buyer, said opal was found by Mr Rossiter, the original manager of The Southern Cross Mine.

There is only one record lease in the archives dating back to the 1880s for this remarkable little field, the rest appear to have been lost.

In 1900, Warden G.H. Newman, stationed nearby, was directed by the Government to report on the Yowah:

I have the honour to inform you that in accordance with your telegram of the 2nd October, I proceeded from Eulo to the Yowah opal field on Friday the 5th, returned to Eulo on the 8th.

During that period I also visited Mount Blankeny – the scene of a reported gold discovery on Dynevor Downs – situated some five miles south-west of Evans’ Great Extended Opal Mine at the Yowah.

The country from Eulo to the opal field is uninteresting in the extreme, not a blade of grass or patch of herbage being seen on the whole journey. So severe is the drought in this locality that even the birds seem to have migrated.

Permanent water is scarce, the nearest to the opal workings is at Sheep Station Creek, some five miles from The Great Extended Mine. Water has to be carted to the miners from the dam at this place, which conveys some idea of the disadvantages under which they labour.

The Southern Cross Mine – from which Bond and party a few years back took many thousands of pounds worth of opal – was the first place visited. There was no work in progress at the time, nor did I see any signs of habitation in the vicinity.

An air of gloom hung over the old workings – silent and deserted, and the solitary grave of the first English manager, Mr Rossiter, roughly fenced in with a bendee tree at the head, stood out clear and defined in the very centre of the abandoned shafts and countless heaps of mullock.

Under his grave – he was buried in a shaft which he himself sunk – a band of rich opal is said to have been found, but before it could all be brought to the surface, the shaft caved in, and the working party with the loss of their tools, had a narrow escape from being entombed.

The Great Extended was one of the original mines which had only been worked to a shallow depth and abandoned. It was later taken up as a lease by Mr Evans, who sank one of the shafts to a greater depth, bottoming on the richest patch of opal so far discovered.

The Great Extended mine [Evans’] is in line with, but about one and a half miles from, the Southern Cross. The mine covers an area of 2 acres and has been proved to carry good opal throughout. A number of shafts have been bottomed and the claim has been opened up by drives from end to end.

The sinking, which average about 32 feet, is through soft desert sandstone. I descended the principal shaft and followed several of the drives. The opal is found in a pipeclay band, varying in thickness from 6 inches to 2 feet.

The gem is found in small ironstone boulders, thickly embedded in the pipeclay band, varying in thickness from 6 inches to 2 feet.

The gem is found in small ironstone boulders, thickly embedded in the pipeclay. It is in the breaking of these opals, either by a tomahawk, or on the head of a pick, that many stones become flawed and greatly diminished in size, and consequently value.

I was shown a number of parcels of opal, being held for market, and amongst them were some beautiful pieces.

Several varieties of the gem are found in the boulders, the most valuable being known as “Pinfire”, “Flash” and “Noble” opal. But the black opal also occurs in this mine, and the lessee – Mr W.O.F. Evans, an old Victorian miner – has on hand a good specimen of rare gem.

At present, work is not being carried on very vigorously, owing to the scarcity of water and the fact that the miner is practically at the mercy of the buyer, who visits the field at long intervals and places his own value on the stones.

The lessee has contented himself with stripping the opal bearing band, and leaving it to when a better market offers. In the meantime he is disposing of small parcels – mostly to a buyer in South Australia – to meet current necessities.

Besides work done on the mine, the lessee has erected a substantial four-room hut, with detached kitchen, for the convenience of himself and family. There are several other miners and their families nearby, and although all are on more r less payable opal, nothing is being found to equal in quantity, or quality, the stone found on Evans’ lease. The population is about 20 persons.

 

Jundah

t’s not known when opal was first discovered west of Jundah, but it did develop a reputation for quality and was highly prized by the buyers. The country began to settle in the late 1860s, and in 1869 Harry Redford, famous for the legend of Captain Starlight, took up a selection called Wombandary, north-west of the present town. It wasn’t until September 1872, with the arrival of the Tozer family, that the district became established. Shortly afterwards, a native police out-station was set up, which, by 1876, was acting also as a receiving and dispatching depot for mail. Although Jundah was steadily growing, the police presence in 1881 was one white office and six black trackers.

The original community which sprang up became known as Opalville. Although there were numerous mines scattered throughout the hills, there were basically only two main fields. The Old Field, known as the Top Flat, and the famous Black Mine, which joined it half a kilometre to the east. Opal from these two areas became legendary; it was the highest quality, surpassing all Queensland fields with the possible exception of Duck Creek.

Jundah opal came in two forms, as nodules and cylindrical pipes in the band at the junction of the sandstone and clay. They ranged in size from that of a small pencil to 2 metres in length. Many were more than 10 centimetres diameter. The boulder opal above in the sandstone was of little interest until it was rediscovered in the 1970s.

Many of the larger pipes were filled with potch and hard red brick-like material, occasionally carrying a little colour. They were so numerous the miners nicknamed them brick pipes.

It was a rare pipe which was full of colour. Most of the better pipes contained at least 90% potch, the remainder being high-quality opal in isolated patches throughout the potch.

The Black Mine of Jundah was Australia’s first black opal mine and is of great historical significance. It was 10 years before the discovery of Lightning Ridge. In 1901, it accounted for almost the total production of the field.

During the 1960s, two young miners arrived at my home with a magnificent parcel of black pipe opal from Jundah for sale. I found it hard to believe that such opal could come from anywhere except Lightning Ridge, yet here was the evidence. What further amazed me was the intense density of the chaff-like pattern and colour. No wonder buyers once drooled over Jundah opal!

B.J.R. Rayment, known to his friends as Bob, in his book “My Towri" gives a graphic description of life on the fields over 100 years ago:

In the days of the Jundah opal fields, some station owners were as unreasonable and just as bullying as the wharfies of today.

In 1900 there were several hundred men idle in Jundah during the drought. With no other prospects started gouging. The land was an undeveloped part of the cattle section of a large station. The livestock as well as the miners had to get their water from a spring five miles away from the actual mine.

The spring was a good one and trickled about half a mile. The miners carted the water – the most up-to-date in drums on bicycles with neither tyres nor tubes. Some of the men carried the water Chinaman fashion on yokes, others used home made wheelbarrows.

The miners took it in turns to camp at certain pools to protect the water. The station next charged that the local Jundah butcher would not sell meat to them. This naturally forced the miners to kill the station stock for meat. In the next move the station arranged for a police constable and black tracker to camp in the locality.

The men, however, had to eat, so the cattle continued to be killed discreetly. The constable must have felt for the miners because he could have caught scores of men killing, but he contented himself with warning everyone that he would arrest any man who wasted beef.

In one of the camps there were two big bullies who were foolish enough to think the constable was afraid of them. One night while he was within hearing distance, they talked of what they would do to him if he caught them killing. I was only a lad and they would not listen to my warning, but I new the constable, George Phew, a good bushman with a ton of guts.

At their next killing, from the same mob, Phew walked out of the nearby scrub, put the brands and ear-marks in his shirt and took his four prisoners by foot through the rough country, 25 miles to Jundah. They paid dearly for trying the bluff.

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All the above information and images are an excerpt from "Beautiful Opals - Australia's National Gem" by Len Cram. For sale in our opal books category.