I’m done. Finished. Finito.
The two boxes I needed ticked are well and truly tickéd.
I entered Australia with the sole intention of trying my hand at sheep shearing and mining. Wool and minerals. Australia’s two main exports The twin backbones of this great nation, true blue Australia (I also worked in services which actually is the largest export ahead of wool and minerals but fuck services, boring, homogenous).
Andamooka, I’ll need to write another post just to paint a picture of the place (put it on the list with Bruny and Young and Sydney and the rest), just let me say the Wild West and you’ll have to imagine it as such until that post comes. A town where the flag gets lowered to half mast whenever someone dies. Where dingos and blue tongues lizards scrap in the desert sands.
I don’t need to rush around every state to try and see it all. I personally prefer to know one place real intimate than to have been to five and remember none… And boy do I know Andamooka well. Like the back of my scarred and dusty hand.
Its open cuts, its shafts. Every inch of this fucking town I’ve scoured for opals; the backyards of abandoned shacks, under discarded washing machines, under discarded cars, along the sides of roads, underground and above.
And have I been rewarded?
No. Is the simple answer.
I have not made my fortune. I cannot buy myself a silky sleeping bag liner to hold me at night let alone a yacht full of strippers… That’s not to say I haven’t made money, I have. It’s just more along the lines of a cold beer every day as opposed to shouting a round for the whole town and washing my filthy self down in Dom Perignon. No. Though I’ve had a taste of Daniel Plainview’s life it’s been the part before he finds any oil and drinks people’s milkshakes.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
what is it?
“opal is a form of silica, chemically similar to quartz, but containing water within the mineral structure. Precious opal generally contains 3-10% water which acts as prisms, refracting the light and producing the characteristic “colour””
This opal is found at a level between 3 and 10 metres down, a former seabed a couple of million years ago. Though that’s horse as there are often two levels in one place and hills make finding the level a good deal more difficult than “between 3 and 10”. The water is trapped in cracked rocks, fossils, dead plants and clay, left for a few million years and the trapped water reflects light in all the Richard Of York beauty.
In the rocks it forms normal standard opal, crack it open with the pick and you’re rewarded either with beautiful crystal opal ($$$) or potch, potch is opal, just not pretty or copious enough to sell, it consists of mainly one colour instead of the spectrum and is often in thin veins in the rock. This is the majority of what I find.
However Andamooka is unique in that the opal is not only in the rock, but has leeched into clay as well. This is called matrix and is a different kettle of fish.
The matrix is clay containing opal, when dry it looks exactly the same as clay, white and porous, making it pretty difficult to identify, especially when it’s hidden inside a mountain of white porous clay. When wet however… When wet it also looks just like clay, until the sun hits it at THE perfect angle then you see the teensiest tinyiest play of colour, the smallest glint of green or red flashing as the sun shines over your shoulder. Always over the shoulder. “You can’t see a rainbow by stating at the sun” as my partner often informed me.
Take your clay and boil it in sugar water or cola then boil it in pure (98%) sulphuric acid. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.
This turns the sugar into.. Carbon? I think, not sure. It makes it black anyway. The colour now stands out like nothing you have ever seen. I prefer it to crystal, the pure stuff, by a long shot.
This particular trick is unique to Andamooka and was slyly employed in the 80s to fool buyers into thinking they were purchasing the rare black crystal opal from NSW. Someone found out, people got in big trouble, but the process remains as a way to highlight the colour play.
I found the matrix but getting the acid is proving more difficult as shitty biscuits state government requires to jump through all sorts of loops to buy an transport it. Also 20 litres weighs what felt like genuinely at least 100kg and I’m not in the mood for carrying that in my backpack. Boiling it requires both incredible stupidity and the ability to replace anything the fumes touch… Tent, clothes, skin, lips, the lot.
Red colours in opal are the least commonly seen and command the highest prices, blue vice versa.
how do I get it?
There at two, no three ways to get opal: buy it, mine it or noodle. I’ve done the latter two (though I’ve been tempted to chuck everything in and just pay for it often enough).
Mining involves either working with a partner, as I have, or going alone and buying a lease. The lease lasts for a year and consists of four white posts in the ground, 100ft by 100ft, I think. Nobody else can use this ground, however keep your damn mouth shut boy or else the whole town will buy leases surrounding yours. Not because they think you’re onto something and want to snoop around, oh no. Overburden is the ten metres or so of dirt you have to remove to get to the opal, no matter I it’s tunnels or open cut the dirt has to go somewhere. If you have leases surrounding yours, you have nowhere to put the overburden without it falling onto other leases. This means you can’t dig. People sit around each other’s claims for years without digging, in a stalemate, however you have to be at your mine for a certain number of days a month to keep your lease, all this means is that the men drive out to the lease (or normally get someone else to) and then drive back, as all that the wardens look for is tire marks.
I should really say now that nobody seemed to want anyone else to succeed, in fact quite the opposite. If any one asks if you’ve found any opal, the clever thing to say is “what’s opal?” It’s a pretty dangerous atmosphere, to not get sidetracked Andamooka is a lawless community, self governed, that consists of East Europeans with vast amounts of Gelignite; it has a history of murder and sabotage more colourful than the opal. Though nothing is more colourful than opal. It doesn’t help that the town is essentially dry, nothing more is coming out the ground, the heyday is over, gone, no more good times.
The “level” is the line of seabed where the opal is hidden. You can dig shafts down to the level and then tunnel along when you find it, alternatively you can mine open cut, where you excavate down to the level with bulldozers and work along it with picks. These are the two options for the miner. Open cut is easier and safer, if more costly in terms of machinery; bobcat parts, diesel, picks etc… Tunnels are more fun.
It’s also worth saying that unlike most mining, opal mining is individual, a sole undertaking by only one or two people. For example the BHP mine next to Andamooka (2 hours away) is run by one of the larger companies on earth. They use planes and sonar to sound the ground and identify gold and uranium and whatever else they’ve got under there. With opals the only way to find it is dig, and digging with no real hope of finding anything is a job nobody would ever take a wage for. The people of Andamooka find the opal, cut it polish it and sell it, or try to sell it.
Noodling is pretty much just walking around and looking for opal on the ground. It’s both easier and harder than it sounds. Some of Andamooka’s most beautiful finds were from tourists walking down the high street and seeing a flash of colour on the red dirt road. I did… Okay with it but not laughing naked in a bed of plastic Australian dollars okay.
The whole town is a mine, houses are built ontop of, and often in, the honeycomb of tunnels and cuts. The great piles of earth removed by the bulldozers to make land for dwellings contain most of the actual level, leaving finding opal merely a matter of walking across the right mountain of sandstone or through the right back garden and the sun catching the colour. The matrix in particular is a common find within the town as opposed to the mines as before 20 years ago, miners had no idea what to do with it, so they simply threw it away. I found this mostly outside the windows of old miner’s houses.
But noodling isn’t mining, it’s a tourist thing and I was determined not to be a tourist. So I waited for Lance. I met Lance in Bruny Island. Just south of Tasmania. He had made a 2 metre tall flouting buoy with a ladder on one side and a trampoline on top, anchored maybe 100 metres out at sea it was the perfect instrument to turn my bellyflop into a dive. I used then went to thank the man who made it. The house was identified by the makeshift wind vanes, slides, parts of aeroplane on the roof and just general Dickensian Australiana beauty of the place. I met Lance, we talked about opals and he invited me to Andamooka when the weather was bearable (below 50C).
5 or 6 month later, true to our words we meet and talk for an hour before donning hardhats, boiler suits and fetching the rope ladder. Lance has a white Range Rover from the 80s, he’s cut the back off it and turned it into the longest ute you have ever seen. He had a friend who bought the extra extended long wheelbase Range Rover from UAE, the longest Range Rover you can buy; Lance’s was more than a metre longer. It’s the car of my dreams.
If I start to write about the tunnels I won’t stop, but, I need to write about them.
We go down old tunnels looking for pillars the old miners left for roof support, we destroy the pillars to see if they’ve missed any opal. Going down old tunnels also helps when looking for slips in the earth, faults. These faults can be followed onto imminent ground for Lance to buy his lease when I leave.
So we drive up to either lunatic or tea tree (some of the opal fields) lift the rusted tin sheets off the hole and look down, the way you look down off the top of a cliff, pursed lips and pulse thumping. After we were down Lance says he’s surprised I did it in the first place, most would of chickened, I didn’t tell him how I close I was to not going down, or how scared I was looking down the shaft, or how my first attempt to get onto the steel pole placed across the hole which holds the rope ladder nearly made physically sick. It’s a long way down. On a 10 year old homemade rope ladder that swings and flexes with every step, in a tunnel that had been left for 40 years, down into dust and darkness. Past the zone where the air turns from fresh to stale. It’s been five minutes, you’re still climbing. You pass nests full of dead birds, Lance shouts up that sometimes you’ll find a pissed off snake at the bottom that fell down and hasn’t eaten for days. You’re still climbing down, take a break and rest your back against the crumbling wall of the tunnel. You can’t see shit. Keep climbing down. It’s maybe 10 degrees higher than the above ground temperature if the tunnel doesn’t hit another tunnel with an open shaft, if the tunnel is a nice tunnel it meets another shaft and the air flows through, these are 20 degrees below above ground temperature, fly free and gorgeous. You hit the ground, the underground. It is. The best.
I can’t describe the vibe I get 15 metres below. The pitch, true darkness that only gets lighter when you close your eyes. The silence, not just absence of noise but sheer denial of it, it’s crude to talk, the atmosphere of an empty church still lit by candle but carved by pickaxe. The smell of dust and damp and weight and fear. Something beyond sense. The feeling I get when I’m underwater, lying on my back and blowing bubble rings at the surface, surrounded and confined and unable to breath properly, like drinking or dreaming going underground is a true loss of control. When you stand in your garden there is the one single assurance that the sky will not fall down and crush you before you realise what’s happening. Lance comforted me by saying “there’s no quicker death”… Thanks Lance.
The first thing you do is check the walls for cracks, these mean the tunnels is unstable, the tons of sand above are a shifting away and wanting nothing more than to slump and crush and bury. To Lance it means hit the crack with the pick as that’s where the opal hides. I don’t argue with Lance. The next thing is to light a candle, though a head torch is brighter it can’t tell you if the air is running out, or where the exit is when you get lost; and you will get lost. Oh you’ll get lost.
Your body will keep you breathing automatically, the candle will go out if the air gets used up, all that remains is to find the level and chip away, all day all night. Lying on your back in a two foot high tunnel, packed so tight you’re only reminder that you are looking up is the dust and rock drifting down onto your straining eyes. Nothing exists aside from that line of rock that may possibly hold your fortune. In itself opal mining is dissociative, meditive, transient kinda work: coupled with the atmosphere of beneath ground and you quickly forget planet earth. Forget food or friends or day or night or politics or sun or sex or iPhones or humans or life. You forget yourself…. It’s bliss.
It’s too hot for overalls but you emerge from the shaft to find the sparks from the pick have burnt holes in your shorts and fragments of flying rocks have cut you to ribbons. You can be wiping your sticky blood off the rock time and time again without realising you’ve been cut because the red blood isn’t red crystal opal. So I t doesn’t exist.
Nothing matters and nobody cares. It’s not escapism it’s oblivion. It’s what I like about camping and lifts and hiding in car boots and good books.
Then you see colour and your. Brain. Just. Goes.
what the FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUIUUIIIIARGHWHAT
for 4 hours or years or months or forever you’ve seen white and only white, constantly seeking for the tiniest flash of blue or yellow. Then a rainbow jumps out and kicks in your fucking head.
Before the air or dust gets to it the opal is at the hight of its beauty, the zenith of natural magnificence and splendour. Polished and cut under jewellery shop lights it will look like rusty dog food in comparison to the first time it’s exposed under shaking torchlight. Blues and greens and reds. That’s the one I found. Tiny, near worthless. But if I have a kid they will never match the beauty of that one tiny stone.
You try and sell it.
Nobody wants to know. Even if it’s the nicest piece they’ve ever seen. Supply is rich and demand is scarce. All the miners are sitting on rings and necklaces and boulders and pendants and buckets of matrix. Nobody wants to buy it. No tourists go to Andamooka, it doesn’t matter if you can set it your self and polish it an cut it yourself if you have nobody to sell it to.
I sold some and then kept the nicest bit I found to turn into a ring for myself, in Adelaide I had the stone cut in half and the half of it paid for the stone to be cut polished and “tripleted” (placing the stone on a black glass backing with a glass some on top to magnify the colours. It’s green and blue, slightly like my eyes I noticed as I examined it nightly in my tent, but turn it just slightly and red will… It’s nice.
Getting the stone set into a ring is the next ripoff but what can you do?
OPAL MINING: TEN OUT OF TEN
But leaving town was the most difficult thing I’ve done in a good while.