South Australian Opal Fields

See also:

Mintabie

Mintabie, once second only to Coober Pedy as an opal producer, is today in low production. There are a number of reasons, possibly the main one being the restrictions under native title (Aboriginal rights to reclaim native land). Nevertheless, Mintabie is still the home of some fine opal.

On a recent visit in August 1998 I was priveleged to see a beautiful parcel of full red colour, worth many thousands of dollars.

Mintabie also has a reputation for producing some very fine black opals, similar to that found at Grawin, with the odd stone indistinguishable from that of Lightning Ridge.

Aborigines were the first to sell Mintabie black opal in Coober Pedy, just after the First World War. Although some miners tried to find where it was coming from, the Aborigines were able to hold their secret until the early 1930s. No one ever regrets a visit to Mintabie. It is a must for all those who love travelling, as the beauty of the desert has much to offer. Besides, it has good amenities.

A 20-minute drive from Marla off the Stuart Highway, and permission under the Pitjantjara Lands Rights Act, available from the police station at Marla for $5, will get you a visit to the field.

Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy lies between Adelaide and Darwin on the Stuart Highway. It is situated approximately 800km north west of Adelaide. The climate is so barren, many of the locals have built their homes underground.

Discovered on the 1st February 1915 by a 14 year-old boy, Coober Pedy is the world’s largest opal field and responsible for 80% of Australia’s production. The field was originally known as the “Stuart Range Opal Mines”. The explorer passed by the area in 1858, naming the present site of Coober Pedy after himself.

The name Coober Pedy comes from the Aboriginal language and, when loosely translated, means a “white man in a hole”. It was selected from four proposed names by a newly formed progress committee in June 1920.

Willie Hutchinson, the youngest member of an Adelaide gold prospecting syndicate, discovered opal while searching for water. The first claim was pegged eight days later on 9 February. It was during the worst drought in the State’s history, forcing members of the party to search for water in different directions, leaving young Willie to look after the camp.

Camped near the foothills of the nearby range, Willie disobeyed orders and wandered off in search of water. There was apprehension among the members when he failed to return by dark. Finally, he strolled into camp with a grin on his face and a half sugar bag of opal slung over his shoulder. Not only had he found opal, but a fortnight’s supply of water. The full story is told by his father, James Hutchison, the leader of the expedition in the Adelaide Chronicle on 7th April 1938.

Due to its remoteness, only a handful of miners worked the field for the first few years, with no visiting buyers before 1920. The first rush took place in 1919, swelling the population to a few hundred. During this period, massive amounts of opal were produced.

The harsh environment did not make for easy living. Lack of water, which often had to be recycled many times before being discarded, was always a problem. The situation was so critical that the Government in 1924 built a 2,000,000-litre tank which partly solved the problem, allowing water to be rationed at 110 litres per person per week.

The area suffered during the Depression years (1930’s) when opal prices bottomed out. The discovery of the Eight Mile field in 1945 by Toddy Bryant, an Aboriginal woman, caused a great sensation. Her discovery of opal within 20 centimetres of the surface was a turning point in the history of the field and went a long way towards establishing Coober Pedy’s future prosperity.

Today Coober Pedy remains a thriving mining town, and the home of light opal. It has also become a popular tourist site, because of the extreme heat miners were known to dig out homes underground, these underground dugs out have known to include pools and even a church.

road to coober pedy

Andamooka

An aboriginal name, Andamooka is believed to mean “large waterhole”. The area was discovered by John McDouall Stuart in 1858 and settled in 1872. It is one of Australia’s famous opal fields, having produced some of the most beautiful crystal opal ever found.

Situated 600 kilometres north of Adelaide by sealed road, it has a floating population of between 600 and 1,000, depending on the season.

Andamooka is the only town in Australia where the streets are not named and the main thoroughfare is a creek bed. Since the sealing of the road many of the tourist buses now make it their first northerly stop.

The area, once a great inland sea, is a treasure trove of many of Australia’s opalised prehistoric fossils. Like the fossils, the opal is found in levels up to 10 metres below the surface, with one patch at German Gully being so rich it was called the Bank of England.

Visitors to Andamooka soon learn it is an ideal place to shed the stress of modern life. The folk are friendly and searching the mullock dumps for opal makes for a great holiday. All the necessities of life are available, which include various types of accommodation, supermarket, chemist, cafes, souvenir shops, field tours and other attractions.

It was a torrential thunderstorm which led to the first discovery, when Shepherd picked up the first opal. He and Brooks, who were tank sinkers, were on their way to check their horses when a storm broke. They brought their find back to camp and showed Oxy Nugent, who had previously worked at Coober Pedy, and confirmed it was opal. However Nugent wasn’t interested in looking for opal after finding none in Coober Pedy.

The following weekend Brooks took several pieces into the homestead and showed Mr Foulis, the manager. He became very interested and sent out his bookkeeper, Alan Treloar, and Paddy Evans, a former opal miner from Coober Pedy, to investigate.

Everything possible was done to keep the discovery a secret and prevent a rush. To avoid forming tracks, no-one was allowed to travel back and forth by the same route - even Mr Foulis used a different way whenever he visited the men.

The first rush took place in 1933, establishing Andamooka, after Alan Treloar forwarded a parcel of gem quality opal to a friend at Coober Pedy for valuation.

It has since developed into one of Australia’s major opal fields with output at one time equaling in value that of Coober Pedy. Many people consider crystal opal from this field to be the finest in the world. It is a breathtaking experience to handle a gem from Andamooka.

All the above information and images are an excerpt from “Beautiful Opals - Australia’s National Gem” by Len Cram. For sale in our opal books category.

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