John Summers


Road to Andamooka

from Chapter 11: Opal

Looking for fun? Want to make a fortune?

First thing you have to do is write that letter to your boss: “Dear Sir, I am fed up with a humdrum life and running to catch the 8.30 every morning. So as far as my job goes you can. ...” You have to lick the letter, seal it, and post it.

You’re on your way. Adventure, here I come....

So you’ve been thinking about those good old days not so long ago when men were men and women were glad of it! The good old wagons-westward days when the swinging picks and shovels opened up the big bonanzas and the prospectors pans gritted with the gleam of gold and silver and the glitter of diamonds...

Long gone, hey? Today it’ll cost you a cool £1,000,000 to sink a shaft for your gold mine. And any day now the last gold pay-dirt dredger in Alaska will be grinding to a halt. Why? Because it’s costing more to dig an ounce of gold out of the ice-filled slush of the frozen North than the price an ounce of gold will get you on the market.

But there’s one place left where you can find precious stones fit to grace a rajah’s crown and can chance your luck at shovelling up a £250,000 gem on your very first day’s digging.

Capital? All you want is a frying pan and a few weeks’ grub stake.

And where’s this Ali Baba’s cave of riches? In the romantic sunsoaked sands of Australia.

The name of the precious stone? Opal.

So you’re sick of running to catch the 8.30 to the office or the work-bench every morning You want to get rich quick? You want some Big Adventure? All right, follow these directions:

Take an atlas. Open it to Australia. Now look at the very centre of it – right in the middle of the Australian Desert. You are looking at the richest pieces of country on this earth.

It’s rich because it’s filled with precious opal. Now don’t rush down to the nearest hardware store. You can get all the tools you’ll need a few hundred miles from the opal diggings.

From Kingoonya, 300 miles from Port Augusta, a mail-truck leaves once a week for the opal diggings. You can hitch a ride on that for a couple of Australian pounds. The air is hot enough to shrink wood and the truck bumps over old mulga roots half-buried in the sand. They explode under the threshing tyres with reports like pistol shots.

At the edge of the Stuart Rangers are the world’s two most famous opal diggings – Coober Pedy, and, a little further south, Andamooka. From these two little clusters of dugouts in the heart of the Australian desert come practically all the precious opal gems the world has ever seen....

At Andamooka you’ll find only about twenty opal gougers, at Coober Pedy (it means White-Man-in-a-Hole-in the aborigine dialect) only a few more.

The petrol engine of the old Chev truck-grinds away past blue salt-lagoons where the water smells too brackish for even a kangaroo to drink – but the steaming radiator gulps it gratefully in just the same. An old bone-shaker she may be, but daubed in white paint on the bonnet are those two words: ROYAL MAIL and that’s that.

And talking of kangaroos ... there on the side of a ridge, thundering along in a wild surge gallop, is a herd of blue and yellow kangaroos, all the powerful-legged “old man” ‘roos barking away on the Hanks of the herd – with their little hands brushing the clumps of saltbush, they surge away into the red dust sunset....

You look over your shoulder at the two parallel lines the truck is making as her tyres bite deeper into the orange-coloured sand to mark your progress towards the opal-diggings.

Sometime in the night your truck bumps down a “gully” – the bed of a river that dried up when Australia was still joined to South America a few billion years ago.

The half-caste aborigine driver jumps down off the Chev and brushes the red Australian dust off his trousers: “Andamooka!”

At 4.30 dawn bursts over the desert.

All over the diggings are heaps of “mullock” clay from the opal shafts.

The mounds of mullock clay lie spilled out above each little shaft. Each opal shaft with its little wooden windlass and bucket perched atop of it like an old-fashioned well. When you’re digging down in your shaft you shovel the pink opal-dirt clay in your bucket and then wind it up and out.

An old man chawing tobacco approaches you down the drift. Waves a battered old bush-hat.

“’Lo, cobber! Come up to do some opal-digging?” Waves an arm to where the desert races away up there in the silence of the great hot breeze to the dry salt lake of Lake Eyre, to the north. “Plenty of room here... Watch out you don’t spill no water. The mozzies (mosquitos) breed in that like heck...!” The old Aussie opal gouger squats down on a pile of rough white clay and opal chips under the drying sun.

“’Nother thing, watch out you don’t get bitten by no redbacks either!’ Opening a tin box and prodding the dried-up little insect inside. “Here’s one....”

A very little spider with a red tab on his back. “Poisonous?”

And the old man shrugs the dirty shirt off his back: “You might last a coupla hours.”

On the white opal-dirt ridges you can even see women up here. Opal gougers’ wives, sharing the digging and shovelling with their husbands. And even children squatting on stones outside the tiny pebble and tar-paper school the South Australian Government has built for them here on the hard gibber pebbles of the desert.

Outside another dugout a man is sitting with a pair of earphones on his head and trundling away with his feet to drive the pedals of a pedal-radio: “Andamooka calling ... Andamooka calling ...” It is the opal diggings’ only contact with the outside world.

Littered in heaps in the sand are empty Australian wine-bottles. Mementoes of the big strikes when whooping gougers celebrated their new found fortunes round blazing bonfires of malice chips.

The old Aussie gouger points: “Them’s the booze-artists!”

At Coober Pedy two brothers took out £25,000 in six months. Another Australian dug £40,000 in one year. But no one really knows how much precious opal is dug up here. The Australian Mines Department has it that £58,000 worth of precious opal was exported to America in one week of a season.

Aborigine hunters kicked up the rich Andamooka opal seam. Within weeks tattered sweating men were digging and filching rainbow coloured gems from the desert.

At Coober Pedy water will cost you 8s. for a 100 gallons. You’ll probably find red threads of mosquito larvae squiggling in it even then. But it’s water. And water costs plenty big money in the Australian outback. But at Andamooka there’s a Government water-bore and a well.

In the mud-chinked pebble dugouts here you’ll be a “new- chum” in the lingo of the outback. Act “dinkum” and you’ll be a “mate.”

Here on the opal diggings you find men from every port in the world. Men who have tried their hand at incredible enterprises. The old Irishman who got shanghaied on a China Sea sailing clipper in Rio de Janeiro when he was only thirteen; the man who dug £15,000 in opals in one afternoon and got cheated out of it by a cross partner. The California seaman, who jumped his ship hi Sydney, reading a San Francisco newspaper in the candle-light of his dugout and telling you he just knows he’s gonna hit into that pocketful of opals tomorrow: and make him a real fortune ... the ex-lawyer, the ex-school teacher. Here in the dugouts of Andamooka and Coober Pedy you’ll find them all.

Prospectors from the great mineral fields of the world – Gran Chaco, the Yukon, Rand and California. All suitors now to the whims of Mother Nature who first splashed hot silica into the sand from the ancient volcanoes of the world to make precious opal.

But now you’re all set and raring to go. You picked up all the tools you’ll need down at Port Augusta, a few hundred miles from the diggings. A pick, a shovel. You paid 5s. for .your Miner’s Right.

The blue sky of Australia overhead and the hot dry breeze scorching your skin – you’re already so sunburnt you look as if you’ve fallen in a fire.

So you hammer in three pegs to mark your claim – and you start in digging.

Strip off to a pair of shorts and shovel the dry white clay and sandstone between your legs with the sand burning through to the soles of your feet. Put your shirt on again while you’re digging your shaft or you’ll lose some skin on the sides of it.

Opal digging is nice and easy. The sandstone is soft and easy to work.

Now you’ve got a chance of digging up a £250,000 gem like that other lucky gouger did right here in Andamooka only a few months ago ... a rare black opal necked with veins of fire ... that was the price it fetched down on the Sydney opal market.

Shovelling and hacking away with the pick-handle slippery in your grasp you wipe the back of your arm on your face and feel the opal dirt gritty in the sweat on your forehead.

“Hey, I’m sellin’ opal!” a gouger yells and you see a Sydney opal buyer pay £5,000 for his piece, the size of a pullet’s egg. Another splinter of black opal the size of a man’s thumbnail fetches £500. Cut and polished the same night it proves to be worth much more.

You can dig through the pink opal-dirt and throw any opals you find behind you. Not all opal is precious. A good deal is “milky” and “jelly.” Save the best of this ... it will go to Ceylon. Cheap skilled labour will polish it to bring out the “fire,” and some rich sahib will buy it. If you strike black opal, don’t jump for joy; remember you’re working in a tunnel – but a few ounces of this could make you rich for life.

The older gougers will snip any stones you find and “face” them for you. Opals are bought by what their “faces” look like.

Best opal is solid. Remember that when you buy an opal. Inferior opal is backed with another stone, sometimes with glass, to bring out the “fire.” The more fire the more value. Black opal is the most valuable.

Opals gouged from this desert sandstone by simple men have become kin to the world’s fabulous gems – £2,000 was paid for the Pandora Black back in 1945. The Flame Queen, another opal, fetched £5,000.

As long as you’re digging you’ve got a chance. And there’s always beginner’s luck. Like the two young Australian brothers from Sydney who arrived with just three weeks’ grub supply and one Australian two-shilling piece between them for capital.

Painfully, they started to- dig their shaft where the opal-bearing dirt was forty feet below the surface of the desert… about as far down as you can go. Most shafts you dig are ten feet or so. In three weeks they had got down to twenty-five feet and were living on jam-and-damper – a cake of wet flour and raisins and roasted in the ashes of the fire. Recognizing their pluck the other diggers helped them with bread and potatoes they were too hungry to refuse. Then they bottomed on the exciting pink grit of “opal dirt” and started to dig through it....

They bought two sticks of gelignite with one of their two shillings. That left them broke. Then Evan, the elder of the two brothers, thought of the potatoes they were living on and remembered the steaks you can buy for 2s. in Sydney. He threw his pick down and scrambled up the shaft. Jim, the younger brother, didn’t need to ask v/here he was going. Jim stuffed in the two sixpenny sticks of gelignite, lit the fuse and climbed up after him....

When he heard the charge go off he thought he’d take just one look down – then back to the dugout, pack their gear and they could leave for the coast tonight. Jim will tell you, “When I went down and the smoke clears – there’s opal lying everywhere ... I grabbed two handfuls and ran after Evan shouting...!”

At sundown they collected their opal in an old sugar sack. £700 worth! In two days another £1,000 in one blob of opal. At the end of the week, like mugs, they sold their claim for only £50 and rushed down to Sydney for a wild weekend at the coast. But, amazingly no one ever got another penny’s worth of opal from that shaft!

Though you can walk on millions of pounds in opals just a few yards beneath the soles of your feet – can you dig them up? Opals come in little pockets the way they were hidden there by Mother Nature. Your shovel could be missing a £10,000 lump – by a mere inch.

The opal field at Andamooka is only half a mile or so across. Coober Pedy is smaller. The country around is just as rich – no, richer! – in opal. But dry, poor in water. Strike out from the others, carry your own water, and in a few months you may be a rich man.

Pack up at sundown and an old Aussie will ask you in his dugout for a brew of tea. Dried fruit and vegetables come up once a week and sickness is rare. In the old days of paltry and impure water men on Lightning Ridge and White Cliffs, racked with fever, crawled from their sick mates to die outside the dugout and be less nuisance. The sun was hot and the flies fat.These days most dugouts have flyproof doors. If a redback spider bites you, lie still with a bottle of brandy till the “Flying Doctor” comes in his Auster.

Bites from insects and reptiles are surprisingly rare, deaths rarer. Snakes come around for water in dry weather. You’ll stamp in to your dugout one night in time to see a black one slipping through that cold stew you left on the table. Try not to get him in a comer, but if you do, slather yourself with potassium permanganate crystals first and hold a clean razorblade handy. Just let your snake escape through the roof ... and try to go to sleep that night. She’s right! as the gougers always say.

Flying doctors and all, the opal diggings remain a quiet, if romantic backwater. Young men come here for money and adventure. Old men often for peace. Their hospitality is medieval; start to make your dugout and your neighbours will emerge from theirs to help you.

On the diggings, you’ll meet men like Teddy Larkin; his wife is really a mate, sharing the digging and the shovelling with her husband, and Paddy M’Glyn.

Paddy swigs his tea at sundown, looking over the ridge where there’s a sandstone block with a name scratched on it., Jim, his lifelong prospecting-partner, died last year, “... the kind of mate every man ought to have ...” Jim is buried in the opal and ve may hope he’s satisfied at last. :

You’ll meet them all, and good meeting you’ll find it. When the warm tropic nights and dark silence of the great desert draws man to man, and words are food. The old prospectors gather in their dugouts at sundown and in the smoke of their pipes and candles try to relieve the old Australia they knew. They’ll tell you how the opal was dealt an unfair blow when it was branded as unlucky. Some say that superstition was fostered by the big South African diamond syndicates to cut out competition from Australia’s beautiful stone. Who knows?

Now you’ll find how hot. a tin mug is to hold in a blistered sunburned hand when it’s filled with scalding tea.

You can talk with a gouger (“yabber” as the Australians say), drink tea and sit on a soapbox filled with his precious opal – you’ll be sitting on maybe £5,000. She’s dinkum! The opal diggers have a law of their own, seldom broken.

There’s a wind that blows out of the Indian Ocean, rains on Perth in Western Australia, furrows along the Nullarbor Plain picking up dust and stones, rises in a hot cloud over the Musgrave Ranges and williwaws through the desert towards Andamooka and Coober Pedy. You can feel that same wind on your cheek. Smell that wonderful night breeze coming, under the orange stars of the Southern Cross in the green-hued night sky that would take a Gauguin to paint. A meteorite falls from the Southern Cross burning itself out on the darkening rim of the desert.

You’ll be loath to knock off work at sundown but you’ll come out of the hole you’re digging in the desert to see that tremendous sunset and watch smoke and sparks flying from the roofs of the dugouts.

Just as you climbed out of your ten foot deep shaft, kicking down showers of sand and pebbles, your kneecap cracked on a shiny nub of glasslike “potch”—the matrix that holds a real hones t-to-goodness opal.

Feverishly you crack it open with your pick. It cracks open in two like a coconut and – it’s there.

You climb up out of your shaft and clutch tight in your fist a lump of opal that has captured a sun of its own. In the firelight you’ll see another opal buyer counting out a wrist-thick wad of notes for a two-inch chunk of raw opal before even the dirt is washed off.

But maybe you’re not having any luck yourself? You look at your blistered hands – “Ouch!” – and you brush a redback spider off your blankets and you swear you’ll get the hell out of there when the mail truck comes next Thursday.

But when. Thursday comes you buy another pound of flour and a few more dried apricots – and you go on digging. Because you hit into a £50 blob of opal today. Or you think you’re going to tomorrow.

That’s opal.

The Chev truck bumped twice on the side of a cliff and skidded down a dried-up gully, rattling along the pebbles, and shook itself to a smoking standstill.

“Stuck!” shouted the half-caste.

“Keep her going, keep her going!” The opal buyer strained at the back wheel, sand spraying in his face. “Keep her going.”

“No good – she’s stuck!”

“Blast and blister the cow then!”

The opal-buyer set the crutch of his pants squarely and hitched up his belt, leaning with us against the truck’s back. “All right! Let her go!” We all heaved together ... the truck roared with its rear wheels throwing up pebbles all over us. “Yah!” – showing his teeth the opal-buyer strained with popping eyes and the truck thundered up on to the harder edge of the desert.

And that’s how we saved the Royal Mail.

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