By Victoria McGuin
Opal is Australia’s national gemstone. Indigenous stories tell of a rainbow creating the colours of the gem as it hit the earth. Others call it the “Fire of the Desert”. Australia’s opal fields are bigger than those found in the rest of the world, combined. Victoria McGuin went to meet the “Opal Queen of Coober Pedy” whose life is shaped by these gems.
I confess, I’ve never really been “into” opals, but visiting Barbara and Edi at The Opalcutter in Montville has changed my perspective. Walking into their shop is a visual feast. Turquoise, deep blue, greens, rich purples, vivid orange – flashes of iridescent colour everywhere I look.
Opals and mining are a passion for Barbara and Edi; so I sit, enjoying a coffee with German-born Barbara, and listen their story.
“I came over from Minden, near Hannover in 1982. I had heard about Coober Pedy. People described it as the ‘Opal Capital of the World’. I had heard about people living underground and wanted to visit.”
My mind strays briefly to the Hobbit, before Barbara continues. “I saw something there that blew me away. Standing at the bus stop in Pimba, with a long dirt road ahead of me, I saw this huge orange thing coming out of the ground… It was the moon.”
“I had never seen anything like that before. So amazing. The air and night was so still. I just thought: this will change my life.”
She was right. Arriving at the youth hostel the next morning, she met Piet Lamont, who was running the TAFE, and within five weeks they were engaged. Two months later they married.
Two days after her arrival, Barbara began mining for opals. In 1984, Piet gave up teaching and went into mining with Barbara full time.
“I was the powder monkey,” she explains. “I had to put together the explosives and he put them in the rock walls.” A lot of the work was done by hand in the beginning, and there were hard times but they never gave up.
Barbara tells me that most opal in Coober Pedy is found between 3 and 30 metres below the surface in “levels”. These levels are mined by bulldozers and excavators, with deeper work done by tunnelling machines – all of which Barbara operated constantly, and loved to do.
Once an area has been identified as having “prospects”, the miners create shafts and descend them to “read the ground”. The next stage is to start mining with a tunnelling machine, with waste dirt tunnelled up pipes by powerful “blowers” and dumped on the surface. “Noodling machines” are used to double-check the waste on the surface for any hidden gems.
Despite all of this work, roughly 90 percent of all opal found has little or no value and is called “potch”. But those moments of finding “the rainbow” shining in a mine are unforgettable, according to Barbara.
Very sadly, Piet died of cancer in 2006, and Barbara was left with a successful underground opal shop they had created in 1992. Barbara decided to close the store and “pack up and move away,” to prepare for a new chapter on her own.
However, a month later on a walk with her German shepherd, Rex, another German shepherd befriended him. That dog’s name was also Rex. The owner was Edi Heide, Principal of the Coober Pedy Area School, whose parents had come from Austria.
“We walked every morning and evening with the dogs, and found we had so much in common,” says Barbara. “I am very lucky to have found love twice.”
At this point Edi, with his infectious grin, had joined us.
“After meeting Barbara, I realised I needed to choose between teaching and mining….it wasn’t a hard choice.” The allure of opal mining with Barbara had him hooked.
“We bought a mining lease in Koroit Opal Fields, near Cunnamulla, and spent five months there in 2011. We had a ball.”
Edi agrees, “Barbara drove a tunnelling machine and I was the mechanic. It was great!”
“But we were close to broke!” explains Barbara.
Barbara has extensive knowledge and talent at jewellery design, and Edi wanted study gemology (“an excuse to play with fancy rocks”), so they decided it was time to open a shop again. They had driven along the coast and hinterland and just loved Montville.
“For me, it is almost like being in the Black Forest,” says Barbara. “There are nice people, great little restaurants if you don’t want to cook and wonderful local artists.”
In fact, there are paintings and sculptures throughout their shop by local and Queensland artists who the couple loves to support. I particularly noticed Eddie Maguire’s Spiral Guardian sculptures, which use sandstone, bloodwood, copper, opal and gold leaf.
Before I leave, Barbara shows me a small, simple wooden frame, with a single opal nestled behind the glass. “This is one of my first ever opals,” she says. There is a silence as we look at this small, life-changing fiery gem.
I’ve learnt a lot today, about opal mining and the people who choose this path. They have no security or financial guarantees, and I am struck by how much this all means to Barbara. For over thirty years she has shaped these opals and, in a way, they have shaped her too.
“I love it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”