Opal Mines are not relics of the past
Go underground at Lightning Ridge here
Most people are totally fascinated with the “good old days” of gold rushes and exploring. When I wandered the bush back in the 60’s’ I heard stories of the opal miners who combed this country back in the 1800’s. The stories told of hardy men and women who seemed to be able to “smell” where the opal was. The work these miners did with a pick and shovel is unbelievable. Opal mines in White Cliffs for example, look like the craters on the moon.
This is what opal mines look like when you start digging. You have to register a claim, which gives you your right to dig where you think you will find opal. In some ways, picking the right spot is like picking the winning lottery number. In truth, this decision is often made by tossing a coin, though you’ll find many folks who insist they have special and reliable methods for determining where opal can be found. Amazingly, some of the older, experienced miners seem to be nearly able to “smell” opal.
Two types of opal mines are dug in Australia: underground and open cut.
Underground mining, as the name implies, require sinking a shaft with a one meter round auger(drill). Well, that’s how it’s done today. Early miners dug their holes with a pick and shovel–and the old holes were rectangular in shape. How would you like to dig with a pick and a shovel at 110 degrees in the shade? The old miners did it all the time. There are thousands of holes or shafts like the ones below.
Underground miners work with hoists to haul mullock to the surface. Mullock is the whitish clay that must be removed from the mines so that the opal miner can get down to the opal bearing levels. In the early days, mullock was drawn to the surface in buckets tied to a windlass. It was a long and tedious job.
Open cut mining uses bulldozers and backhoes to cut wide furrows in the ground. Much of the open cut mining is found in the Queensland mining areas. Making a “cut” with a dozer saves a lot of pick and shovel work! Once again, the early miners cut these furrows by hand.
Both the underground and open cut opal fields are just full of mullock piles. Miners refer to these mounds as heaps. Interestingly, some of these waste heaps have proven to be a rich source of opal for tourists to find.
Once a miner removes the mullock and gets into the bearing level, he uses a technique called gouging to search for opal. Gouging means using a small pick to remove the dirt in the earth surrounding the stone. Before there was good lighting in the underground mines, the old timers used to listen for the special click sound that signaled when their pick hits either potch or precious stone.
Opal mining is not recommended for folks with claustrophobic tendencies! It can be very lonely down in the mines–and dangerous. Mining rules make it safer by requiring miners to prop the roof of the mine and to carefully leave the mine if the ceiling looks unstable. Unfortunately, it’s tempting to stay “just a little longer” if you’re onto some good gems. Many miners have lost their lives taking risks like this.
Unformed opal is called potch and it can range from no color to milky white to gray to black. This pan full of black potch is called tailings. Australia’s famous black opals are actually opal sitting on black potch. Always, the miner hopes to find some valuable gems among the worthless black potch.
Sadly, it’s been said, that 95% of opal found is valueless potch. Of the remaining five percent, 95% of that is low quality. The remaining bit can be termed precious opal. Miners commonly equate their situation to that of fishermen — too much water is mixed up with the fish; or, in the case of opal mines — too much potch is mixed up with the opal!
Opal Mines are a long way from the jewelry manufacturing side of things. The finished product is often not seen by the miners but with the help of sites like this, it is exposed the world. Take a look here
More pics of the opal Mines
Our agitator set up at the Lightning Ridge opal fields.
This pile of dirt is one of many heaps of rubble. The results of a mountain of work at the opal mines in our area.
Giant Vacuum cleaner [A ‘blower’] makes it much easier to suck out the mullock so that it can be processed.
A typical scene showing opal mines in the foreground that is at present not being worked.
A one meter sized hole dug by a Caldwell drill.
Young Max from Germany. Trying his hand at Lightning Ridge.
Graham out at the Opalton near Winton. Boulder opal country. Heavy equipment is required for this type of mining
So you can see that these mines in Australia are very much a part of the outback of the current century, although it must be said that a lot of the fields are starting to run out. There is more demand is more than the supply at present and a lot of dealers are relying on stock they have had for many years. The boulder Opal mines are a slight exception to this and reasonable stocks are still being produced and you can see some examples of rough for sale here.