History of Opal Mining in Australia
How Opal Mining began in Australia
The history of opal mining in Australia is a fascinating one. That opals get mined at all in Australia, is a huge testament to human endurance and our determination to gouge these beautiful and precious gemstones out of the earth. Opal mining towns and districts are to be found around the edges of the ‘Great Inland Sea’ in South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales.
Deep in the heart of the Australian Outback, these opal mining districts have traditionally been tough, rugged places to work, with extreme climates and surrounded by the surreal mullock humps. Probably the four best known opal mining towns in Australia are Lightning Ridge, Coober Pedy, Andamooka and White Cliffs.
Australia produces around 97% of the world’s precious opal, with white, black, boulder and crystal opals being mined. The German geologist Johannes Menge discovered the first common opals in South Australia on a cattle station called Tarrawilla near Angaston in 1849.
Lightning Ridge in New South Wales is famed for producing the most exquisite black opals, which are unlike the milk ones because they contain trace elements of carbon and iron oxide. According to Aboriginal legend, the presence of these beautiful gemstones in this region is due to a large wheel of fire that fell on the earth and covered the land with beautiful, vividly coloured stones.
Lightning Ridge has been producing opals since 1900 and got its name from one dark night when a powerful electrical storm raged. A lone shepherd unfortunately got struck by the lightning that was forking from the sky and he tragically died along with his dog and the 600 sheep he was watching over. Opal was first found around Lightning Ridge in the later years of the 19th century, but it was not until the discovery of the opal fields at White Cliffs that any real interest was shown in mining at Lightning Ridge.
Two locals called Joe Beckett and Frank Doucott hired a Sydney geologist in 1893 to investigate the possibility that these valuable gemstones could be found on Lightning Ridge. The geologist’s report stated that there was a strong likelihood of them being present, but that they would probably be at some depth and so suggested that they dug trial shafts. They were discouraged by the reports, so it was left to Jack Murray, who had originally found some opal while setting rabbit snares in 1890, to start the mining operations in 1901. A few years later a miner called Charlie Nettleton started prospecting on a hill that later became known as Nettleton’s Hill and this became the start of the mining town of Lightning Ridge.
Many famous opals have been found at Lightning Ridge, including the ‘Fire Queen’ in 1906. The ‘Fire Queen’ was discovered by Charlie Dunstan who sold the magnificent gemstone he had found for the ludicrously low sum of £100. There was also a rumour doing the rounds that he had lost two other sizeable stones while he was drunk, and this unfortunate soul ended up shooting himself in the head in 1910.
Other famous opals found at Lightning Ridge were the ‘Flame Queen’ found in 1918, ‘Halley’s Comet’, ‘Red Flamingo’ found in 1914, ‘Light of the World’ found in 1928, ‘Queen of Australia’ found in 1931 and the ‘Rainbow Stone’ in 1933. These days Lightning Ridge is both a successful mining town and a popular tourist destination. Thousands of tourists flock to Lightning Ridge every year to try their hand at fossicking for opals, relaxing in the naturally warm artesian baths, or attending the annual goat races.
Coober Pedy, which is 800 kilometres north of Adelaide in South Australia, is the largest opal field in the world. The landscape is very arid and barren, which has caused the inhabitants of the town to make their homes by digging caves in the ground to escape the extreme summer heat. The area was first called the ‘Stuart Range Opal Mines’ after the famous explorer who had passed through the region in 1858. The town was renamed in 1920, when a progress committee selected the name Coober Pedy. The name Coober Pedy comes from the local Aboriginal language and roughly translates as ‘white men in the hole’.
The first opal was found in Coober Pedy in early 1915 by a 14 year old boy called Willie Hutchinson. Willie was the youngest member of a gold prospecting syndicate from Adelaide, and had ignored instructions not to leave camp and had gone off looking for water. There was great alarm in the camp when he did not return by nightfall, but happily he returned safely some time later with a bag of valuable opal slung over his shoulder and the welcome news that he had discovered a good supply of precious fresh water. Due to Coober Pedy’s remoteness, very few miners were attracted to the area, but there was an influx of a few hundred in 1919 and large quantities of white opal began to be mined.
Scarcity of water proved to be an ongoing problem in Coober Pedy, and in 1924 the Australian Government had to build a huge, 2,000,000 litre water tank and each of the residents had their water rationed to 110 litres a week. The Depression of the 1930s was a bad time for Coober Pedy, as world opal prices slumped, but in 1945 there was a new discovery that gave Coober Pedy the boost it needed.
An Aboriginal lady called Toddy Bryant discovered a fresh supply of opal which was located only about 20 centimetres below the surface of the earth and this led to the development of the Eight Mile opal field. In 1956 one of the most exceptional and valuable opals ever to have been found in Australia, the ‘Olympic Australis’, was discovered in the Eight Mile field. This extraordinary gemstone, which weighs 17,000 carats and is 11 inches long, was named after the Olympic Games that were being held in Melbourne at the time of its discovery, and is now kept at the premises of Altmann & Cherny in Melbourne.
These days Coober Pedy still has that ‘Wild West’ flavour that is common to mining towns, but it also now boasts a prosperous and modern opal mining industry. Tourism is also flourishing, as people flock in to see how the opals are mined and view the fantastical underground dwellings of the locals.
Andamooka in South Australia was also originally discovered by John McDouall Stuart in 1858 and it was named after an Aboriginal word that is thought to mean ‘large waterhole’. Opal was first discovered in Andamooka in 1930 by two boundary riders from Andamooka Station. It took a long time for the opal field to get going because of the harshness of the terrain and then the impact of the Second World War during the 1940s, but by the early 1960s there around 800 miners working in the area.
The Andamooka opal field spans around 52 square kilometres of the Arcoona plateau, and the gemstone is found between 3 and 10 feet below the surface. This is also one of the areas where opalised fossils and dinosaur bones are occasionally found. Andamooka has the distinction of being the only town in Australia where the streets are not named and where the main road is a dry creek bed.
White Cliffs in New South Wales was the first place in Australia where opals were commercially mined, and by 1899 White Cliffs was the biggest producer of these precious stones in the world at that time. Opals were first discovered in the area by a group of kangaroo hunters in 1889, and they were the first seam opal ever found in the world. Seam opal forms in horizontal seams in the rocks rather than as the small nuggets known as ‘nobbies’. White Cliffs is famous for producing the strangely shaped ‘opal pineapples’, which are opal fossils that form the shape of a mineral crystal, and also for producing other opalised fossils such as shells and bones.
Opal Mining in Queensland
Queensland produces the unique boulder opals, which are ironstone boulders that contain opal as a lining in the cracks or between the concentric layers of the stone. There is also matrix opal where the gemstone occurs as a network of skeins of opal in the rock. The opals are usually cut with the ironstone still attached as a backing, but more rarely solid opals are cut from the ironstone if there is a sufficiently thick layer of of the gemstone.
As opposed to the shaft mining of New South Wales and South Australia, most of the opal mining in Queensland is ‘open cut’. The Queensland opal fields lie in a belt of Cretaceous rocks known as the Winton Formation. Some of the most famous Queensland opal fields are Yowah, Koroit, Opalton and Jundah.
So if you like the idea of touring the opal fields, there will be many exciting things for you to see or do. You will be able to try your hand at prospecting, exploring the starkly beautiful countryside or watching lots of the unique native wildlife like emus, kangaroos, koalas, birds and reptiles. Probably the best time of year to visit the opal fields is between April and September, as the temperatures can really soar during the summer and sometimes very heavy rains can make the roads impassable. So good luck with your fossicking for opal; maybe you will be lucky and find the next big one that you can sell for thousands!
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