Lets Travel to Opal Country
1. Opal is hydrated silica which means it's basically a liquid just like glass. If you are old enough to remember the old glass windows in school rooms you might recall that when you looked to the bottom you will notice that the glass starts to waver or be out of shape. This is because the glass over a long period of time starts to ‘pour’ just like water. Of course this will not happen to opal but it's the fact that opal is hydrated that allows it to accept the light from the sun and split it up into all the colors of the spectrum.
The surface of opal if you take a look under an electron microscope, actually consists of racks of small spheres that grab the light, deflect and diffract it and put on a magnificent color display that is unlike any other gemstone. Opals can be red, green, blue, orange, pink, yellow, crimson, or a combination of some or all of these colors. So why are people all over the world so excited about this stone? In this series of articles we will take you to places that few people have been, but first a bit more information about the stone itself.
2. Australian opals are the most secure in the world. Just as well for Australians as this country would not have its current economic security if it were not for unique commodity products such as opal and of course all the varieties of minerals including gold and silver that are found in this country. Australia, being a very old dry continent provides the correct environment for stones such as opals to grow and solidify over a long period of time.
Hence the chance for opal to crack and craze is minimized although it must be said that there are opal mines in Australia to be avoided. Always seek the help of experienced opal merchants in purchasing these stones so that you can have international guarantees in place. Opals from Australia are different to any other opal and over 90 percent of all opals come from this country. So if you wanted to get to know more about opal, where to find it, the people who dig it, and what it's like to live there, enjoy this ten part series on the subject.
3. Australian Opals come in a variety of different distinct families. To explain this we can start of in the southern states of this country, namely NSW near the South Australian border. There, not far from the famous mineral producing town of Broken Hill, you will find a small opal mining community called ‘White Cliffs’ who are the remnants of the world’s largest opal mine as it was in the late part of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
White Cliffs produced a beautiful crystal opal not unlike the opals that supplied the Roman Emperors from Hungary in Europe.
Today this town is such an interesting place to visit. The folks who live there today do it more for the style of life they enjoy than for their interest in opal which has pretty well run out now apart from a few small finds. At White Cliffs you can experience a stay in a Motel under the ground and if you ever have problems with noise or light when you are trying to sleep, White Cliffs underground Motels will give you a few nights of relief and some Motels have underground opal tours as well.
4. As you cross the border of NSW into South Australia and proceed north away from the capital city of Adelaide, you will come to a town called Roxby Downs, a major uranium producing area from the Olympic dam mine and not far from the Woomera rocket range. But if you continue further you will be excited to find another old opal mining town called Andamooka which is reported to mean ‘large waterhole’ in one of the aboriginal languages. Andamooka produced one of the finest quality crystal opals, often recognised by its slightly darker appearance and jelly like presentation. Andamooka also produces a matrix stone which was appropriately called ‘Andamooka Matrix’ Incidentally the term ‘matrix’ just means that a mineral of one type (in this case hardened sandstone) holds another mineral (in this case, precious opal) In other words the sandstone is the ‘mother’ or ‘matrix’ of the opal. When these stones come out of the ground they are quite light in color so the miners and opal cutters treat them with a carbon process to give them a dark or black appearance and make them look like black opals. Andamooka opal is a good way of owning a black opal at a much reduced price.
5. Continuing further north towards Darwin along the Stuart Highway, often dubbed ‘Explorer's Way’, approximately 800 kms from Adelaide you will see the sign to Coober Pedy, another opal mining town which in the tongue of the local aboriginals means ‘White Man in a Hole’ and you couldn’t get a better description. The first inhabitants of this land couldn’t quite figure out why these white fellas bothered grovelling around in the dirt in this extremely hot country looking for little colored stones.
‘White man in a hole’ but this hole is in Lightning Ridge
It didn’t make sense to them as they held not value for opal. Of course white society looks at things differently and not only did these miners dig holes, they started to dig REALLY BIG holes with the aid of backhoes, excavators, underground diggers and bulldozers. The days of the old pick and shovel were numbered when men found out they could find more opals with diesel and machinery than with hand tools. Today Coober Pedy is the new opal capital of the world and people from all over come to this place. Probably the largest community here are Greeks and the place has sometimes been called ‘Outback Athens’
6. Keep driving north along the Stuart highway and you will find two more opal fields. Lambina turnoff is first to the right and Mintabie just north of there to the left. Mintabie opal field is located 280 kilometres north of Coober Pedy. Lambina produces an opal similar in some ways to Coober Pedy and Andamooka, while Mintabie is quite a lot different. It is claimed that the opal from this area is a little bit harder than other opal and the field itself dates back to the Ordovician era a slightly earlier geological period before the Cretaceous period. (This just means ‘chalky’)
Quite a lot of nice black opal was found in Mintabie and some claim that the quality of this opal at times rivals Lighting Ridge although I personally have not seen this. People buying Mintabie rough opal have to be careful because at times it can look really nice from the side but when you open up the stone, the color can all but disappear. This same thing can happen in most opal fields but Mintabie was infamous for it. Having said that, there was lots of top class opal won from this mining field and its sister field (location wise) Lambina, but both these areas are now running out.
7. At this point, opal all but runs out until you travel right up to Alice Springs, the centre of Australia, in the Northern Territory (Don’t miss Ayer’s Rock-or Uluru and ‘The Olgas’- on the way), continue north towards Tenant Creek and then double back down towards Winton where you come across one of the largest opal fields in the world, producing the famous boulder opal, the second major type of opal in this discussion.
(Incidentally you can take Australia’s longest shortcut to get to Winton from Alice Springs but it's not recommended unless you are well equipped.) Take a look: http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2008/11/06/2412552.htm
Winton town is the centre of Boulder Opal mining in the north of the state of Queensland. Most of the opal is found in areas about 100kms away from the town so in this case it is different to most of the other opal towns in South Australia and NSW. Also most of the work is done by large excavators and bulldozers because of the nature of the stone itself which is often found in very large ironstone boulders which would be very difficult for a man with simple tools to handle.
Most of the opal in other fields are fairly small lumps found in the cretaceous, chalky white clay sandstone but boulder opals are veins of precious color running through these large rocks which have to be gouged out of the gravel with hydraulic teeth and broken down with sledge hammers. Opal miners get to know where the color is more likely to be in each of these boulders, so they apply the hammers to areas that are less likely to destroy precious opal.
But of course they don’t always get it right and there has been many a sad opal miner seen sitting next to a boulder that has had the precious opal completely smashed with a hammer. But there are many more stories of those who have dug for lengthy periods of time and been rewarded with a million dollars worth of opal in just one boulder.
8. Continue south along the Matilda Highway, named after that famous Australian song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ written by the famous Australian Poet, Banjo Patterson, probably on Dagworth Station, approximately 100 kilometres north-west of Winton.
You will pass through the town of Longreach where you should pay a visit to the stockman’s hall of fame with its feature of a jumbo jet to symbolise the beginning of Qantas airlines which began in this town.(Qantas meaning "Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services’)
The film Star John Travolta, a flying enthusiast himself, travelled their recently with my old friend Neil Stuart, a radio announcer in Toowoomba who has been the ‘voice’ of outback rodeos for many years. But Longreach is not an opal town, so you pass through until you get to Blackall where John, a good friend of mine has an opal shop in the middle of town. Be sure to call and say hello as you go through. John is a bag of information on opal and the opal mines.
9. Further south along the same route and eventually you will come to Charleville, the centre of a large farming area in Western Queensland. Travel west of Charleville about 200 kms and you will come across the little town of Quilpie which represents the other end of the boulder opal mining area.
Quilpie boulder opal is very much the same as Winton and the type of mining involves similar machinery. It was there back in the seventies that Des Burton owned a chemist shop in town but this chemist was more attracted to opals than medicine and gradually his little shop became filled with boulder opal specimens until eventually Des revived the opal industry in that area which had become stagnated and, even though he has passed away now, his son Paul still carries on the tradition of his father and many more miners have joined him in making boulder opal what it is today, one of the most sought after black opals in the world.
In fact, because of the deterioration of the Lightning Ridge fields, and the desire for many Europeans to ‘get back to nature,’ the boulder opal with it's natural ironstone and opal combination has become very sought after.
If you continue south through Toompine, call in for a beer at the Toompine pub and stay overnight if you get a chance. The publican will introduce you to some Camels and donkeys in an enclosure at the back and you will meet some interesting travellers as they pass through on their way to or coming from the last boulder opal towns in the southern end of Queensland, namely, Yowah and Koroit.
These two mines deserve an article just for themselves but we will have to leave that for another time. Suffice it to say that these ‘mini’ boulder opals are some of the prettiest and most interesting opals out of all the fields. They have become collector’s items sought after by opal enthusiasts the world over.
10. To complete this giant circle in the Australian outback, we bring you to the north western NSW town of Lightning Ridge with its sister opal fields of Coocoran, Sheepyards, Winton, and Glengarry, to name a few.
Paul Hogan, Australia’s famous ‘Crocodile Dundee’ was born in Lightning Ridge and no doubt developed a lot of his sense of humour there. In the 1870’s a man, his dog and a flock of sheep were killed by a lightning strike as they camped, probably soaking in water near an ironstone ridge, and that is where this place got its name.
But Lighting Ridge has achieved its fame because of the discovery of the amazing black opal. Up until the recent nomenclature on opal was released, the name ‘black opal’ was more or less assigned just to opals from this area although most of the mines have a percentage of it, the same as light opal is found in all mines as well. But Lightning Ridge black opal was and still is considered to be the opal that all other opal is measured against in terms of value.
Black opal of course is not black. The terms is only used so that the opal can be distinguished against the light colored opals which were pretty much the only type of opal known until black opal was discovered.
It's called ‘black opal’ because of it's dark background. A visit to Lighting Ridge is a must for anyone remotely interested in these precious gems. Unlike the boulder opal centres, the town itself has an atmosphere of opal because it really has sprung up in the middle of the opal diggings. Sadly a lot of the old huts and artefacts have been removed and replaced by more modern building, but hints of the old days still present themselves even in the main street of the town where several old huts have been preserved.
The historical Society is located in one of these old miners’ huts and a meeting with American Barbara who cares for this aspect is a revelation. Barbara recalls a lot of the old characters who lived there. Bill the buzzard. Jackhammer Jack. ‘Av a chat’ ‘One bucket bob’ ‘Wallaby Bob’ and many more. Again, there is so much to be said about this fascinating place, along with all the towns mentioned in this series, but this will have to be left to another time and another article.
Visit the opal Mine website