Opal Miner’s Huts in the Australian Outback

The aerial photo shows how much of the Outback looks. It grows more barren as you go west. Most of the modern day opal mines are located in similar areas to the old mines and the remnants of these old holes still remain. It’s difficult to comprehend the isolation of the mining areas.

The inland areas of Australia were opened up with the help of Afghan camel trains and to this day it is said that there are more camels in the outback of Australia than Arabia.

100 years ago it was often 1000 kilometers to the nearest town, so early miners had to be independent and self-sufficient.

The largest opal find in history was at Moon in White Cliffs. Here, opal was found by the bucket. Much of the opal from the original find is still stored as an investment in carefully guarded safes in Europe, where the sons and grandsons of the original miners took it for safekeeping. Remnants of old Opal Miner’s Huts are still found there, although the mine has not been producing much for many years.

Imagine the effort it must have taken to mine this desolate, stiflingly hot country with a pick, shovel, and an old leather bucket.

Today the land at Moon has a moonscape surface.

Well documented

The old shacks in the photographs from Beautiful Australian Opals (sorry, this book is not available) are typical of hundreds found in the Lightning Ridge area.

Early miners like “Old Fred,” could not afford to waste money on houses. They built their homes and repaired them with whatever they could scavenge from materials close at hand. Hopping in the car and running down to the local hardware store was not an option. Its doubtful that old Fred ever saw where his opals ended up. Here is an example of the end use of these amazing stones.

The early miners had to keep digging just to keep themselves alive. Back at the turn of the century, a parcel of high quality black opals was sold for 10 shillings, or about one dollar. That’s a far cry from the $5,000 and more per carat high quality black opals command in today’s market! That explains why the opal Miner’s Huts were very primitive.

This simple, isolated gravesite is typical of many found in the mining areas. Some nameless old timer succumbed and was probably buried either by fellow miners or someone who happened upon him.

Few of the miners buried in such unmarked graves are ever identified–and their stories are lost forever. The only thing that remains is some of their huts.

Over 50 years ago, the Flying Doctor medical system was established. This famous medical system has rescued many accident victims in the Outback. The system worked closely with the bush telegraph system, a link up of individual stations (called ranches by Americans).

A companion system called the School of the Air also operates throughout the bush. It gives isolated children an education that competes with city schools.

Despite many improvements, even today, mining life can be primitive and isolated. Miners like to stay close to their mines, so it’s common to see camper-type vehicles serving as houses.

Home Comforts in Opal Miner’s Huts

Though these miner’s homes often lack many modern conveniences, the views from their living rooms are spectacular. At night especially, you just can’t beat sitting under a canopy of stars with the Southern Cross blazing above you!

A typical opal miner’s hut in the Lightning Ridge area usually includes small, self-sufficient dwellings. Bush “toilets” are often bits of plastic wrapped around a few gum trees with a hole in the ground. Showers are made the same way. Water is often heated over an open fire.

Other camps are more sophisticated, using diesel generators or solar power for electricity. These camps typically have lots of modern conveniences.

 

It’s also common to see a group of miners gathering around the “Billy” for tea. The “Billy” is a water container that’s set on an open campfire. Often installed just outside the front door of the opal miner’s hut.

Speaking of water, camp owners who can save enough water to irrigate find that vegetables grow well in the red soil.

All of the mining areas share the same desert-like heat above ground, but only at Coober Pedy is the ground dry enough to support underground living. In this case the opal miner’s huts are not necessary because the housing is in cave like dwellings.  You’ll find a few underground homes at Lightning Ridge, but for the most part, the ground is simply too wet there to support underground construction.

Coober Pedy has a diesel power plant and water desalination works, allowing its residents many of the creature comforts denied to other miners. About 33% of Coober Pedy’s residents live underground. Dugout homes are created by carving dirt out of the ground, usually from the side of a hill. The underground location provides a natural form of climate control, protecting inhabitants from the summer heat and the winter cold. The surrounding earth keeps the temperature inside Dugout homes at an even 23 degrees Celsius (74 degrees Fahrenheit).

Coober Pedy

Older Dugout homes (opal miner’s huts)were simple one or two room chambers that provided just enough living space for one or two men. Many of the early miners were single men who frequently lived alone.

Newer Dugout homes include many modern conveniences–and some might be described as luxurious.

The underground lounge rooms shown reflect the creature comforts and modern living styles that are often incorporated into the Coober Pedy Dugouts. Tastefully decorated with modern furnishings and well lit with electric lights, these modern underground homes are a great improvement over the simple shelters crafted by the early miners.

One fellow I know has a luxury home built underground. He lands his small plane on the flat roof of his house and uses the old opal shaft as a spiral staircase. Inside, he has all modern facilities–including an indoor/outdoor pool!

Home was never like this! Though you might picture underground living as dark, damp, and dreary, this living room shows that life underground at Coober Pedy can include comfortable surroundings and consistently cool temperatures, even while the earth scorches upstairs.

In fact, if I hadn’t told you that this dwelling was underground, you might never have guessed, right?

This opal miner’s hut has been preserved from the old times and can be seen in the main street of Lightning Ridge.

Opal miner’s hut in the main street of Andamooka.

Its a shame that many of the old Opal Miner’s Huts have been destroyed or broken down over the years. But historical societies have been busy at work and those that do remain are being preserved for modern generations to see.

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