Opal Mining in Coober Pedy
by the late Piet Lamont
People often ask me – just what’s involved in becoming an opal miner and what do you do?
To begin with, opal mining can be likened to a very expensive hobby, there are no guarantees of making a fortune and you just can’t rely on it for a regular income. This aside, it’s a great lifestyle – freedom to do your own thing and no “boss”. You do as much or as little as you like. There’s only one small problem. Opal is not easy to find!
Prospecting, running expenses and living cost a great deal and on top of this, you may not find opal for months or even years! Why do it then, you ask? Let’s say it’s a bit like gold fever, once you’ve go the “opal bug”, you are hooked. The search for “The Queen of Gems” is like trying to find “The Holy Grail”. Where is that underground rainbow of nature? And when you find it, no two opals are alike and no other stone shows such an array of colours. To see opal glistening in the face of your mine is an unforgettable experience. Every miner is lured by the hope that one day they will find this “rainbow” – it will be their turn, they hope.
So, now to a brief insight into opal mining. Depending on how deep opal is found will dictate what type of machinery is to be used. Most opal in Coober Pedy is found approximately 3 meters to 30 meters below the surface in what are called “levels” (much like a seam of coal). Shallow levels are mined by bulldozers and excavators. Deeper ground is worked by tunnelling machines – small coal mining type machines.
Once a particular area has been prospected by a miner and the ground is deemed to have “prospects” firstly the miner pegs a claim 50m x 100m then shafts will be sunk to try and locate the traces of opal. The miner goes down these shafts to “read the ground”. If the indicators are good, mining commences. Deep ground mining is done by driving out from the shafts sunk following the seam or level looking for that “pocket” of gem colour. We use a tunnelling machine. This has a revolving cutting head that cuts away the sandstone. The machine is hydraulic/electric and is the size of a
The waste dirt tunnelled is sucked up pipes by very powerful suction machines called “blowers” and dumped on the surface. So, you keep following a thin layer of “trace” within the level hoping the next gouge will uncover your “fortune”. Along the way opalised fossils such as shells and belemnites can be found. They tend to occur randomly so are often missed. If I am finding opal I know a percentage will be missed so all the waste dirt on the surface is processed by machinery called “Noodling” Machines. This dirt is passed on a belt through a darkened room where ultra violet light fluoresces any opal white. This is handpicked from the moving belt and hopefully, very little is lost.
This opal mining is easy, hey?
A final few words – 90% of all opal found has no value – we call this potch and furthermore, 90% of all the work we do is for “nix, nought and nothing”. Crazy hey? Ah, but what a lifestyle!
So, if you ever come to Coober Pedy, look us up at The Opalcutter, experience at first hand our underground living and outback hospitality.
Dreaming of opal....
Post Script: Piet died 2/08/2006. Since then ‘The Opalcutter’ has moved to Trinity Beach in Queensland. We still mine for opal but now look for ‘Boulder Opal’!.