Aussie ABC: O is for Opal!
I didn’t understand all the fuss about SiO2.nH2O until 2004.
That’s when I first visited Coober Pedy – slap bang in the middle of absolutely freakin nowhere in the South Australian Outback – and found a piece of SiO2.nH2O I wanted to take home with me.
But you might know SiO2.nH2O better as Hydrous Silica. Or maybe Opal! Down here, diamonds AREN’T a girl’s best friend – with 95% of the world’s opal sourced from downunder, Australia comes by its national gemstone honestly!
But, back in Coober Pedy, the only thing standing between me and my Opal – already fashioned into a tasteful ring that actually fitted me – was a small matter of $AUD800+.
But then I had a scathingly brilliant idea! Why not find my OWN piece of opal and make my OWN jewellery?? It couldn’t be THAT hard, could it??
So over the next few years and disregarding the legendary BAD luck attached to precious opal, my quest took me to five Aussie opal towns, also slap bang in the middle of nowhere. That’s because the ideal climatic and geological factors in which cryptocrystalline hydrous silica (yep, that’s yet another way of saying OPAL!) forms seem to occur in the harshest, most desolate and inhospitable land on earth.
What else but the Australian Outback!
Was my quest successful? Well … here’s a set of random adventures from each Opal town!
I awoke in perfect pitch blackness and waited for my eyes to adjust to the light.
That’s what happens in a windowless room hewn from the solid rock under Coober Pedy in the middle of the night. But for the absence of shackles we could have been in a dungeon. Although the locals who’d built underground to beat the heat were probably used to it.
Meanwhile, the noise from above that had woken me – a pinging sound like pebbles on an iron roof – continued.
I put aside thoughts of poison pills, ventilator shafts and being buried alive. If anyone wanted to do me in, it’d be simpler to dump me in a disused mine-shaft!
Most of the 80% that is South Australia’s contribution to the world opal market is mined in Coober Pedy, a pock-marked paradise where the golf course (‘blacks’ instead of ‘greens’) enjoys reciprocal rights with St Andrews of Scotland.
This isolated town with (I believe) the world’s only underground campground and the Big Winch also had the distinction of being the first place in the world we were able to successfully demonstrate a complete lack of opal-finding expertise.
And the noise?? Rain, of course!
2. Yowah, QLD
From our vantage point high (relatively speaking) above on the Bluff (see above), the small town was almost lost in an endless sprawl of vegetation that promised total disorientation if you left the main road in.
Below was the only place in the world where the extraordinary Yowah Nuts – small rocky nuggets of opal – are found.
For a full-on Outback experience to go with your Yowah Nuts, this town is SO remote it’s serviced by the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and the only fuel in town at the caravan park is only available to their guests!
I certainly didn’t expect to meet an ex-legionnaire, whose anecdotes about life in the Foreign Legion, including the true meaning of ‘decimate’, kept us entertained over lunch at the town’s only cafe!
After that, getting a fossickers license seemed a bit anti-climactic.
Luckily for inept unlucky opal-mining tragics like me, opal can be purchased locally.
SO … in an embarrassing descent into true tourist behaviour, after passing up several fiendishly expensive cuts, I bought my first ever piece of opal – a shard of Yowah Nut cunningly carved into a pendant.
Although I have to stand right for the sun to illuminate its colours, at only $AU25, it’s a reminder of what awaits our return to Yowah.
Besides, Yowah isn’t far from another 2009 travel favourite – Eulo! But that’s another story …
As we left the Lightning Ridge Visitor Information Centre, I was asked the dumbest question in living memory.
‘D’ya reckon we’ll like it here, love?’ the the most inebriated of a clutch of beer-swigging Grey Nomads asked, drunkenly staggering against the door as he held it open for me.
But Lightning Ridge is memorable for a whole lot of other reasons. Following the ‘Car Door’ self drive tours, in less than 24 hours we saw the Corcoran Opal fields – the richest stretch of black-opal-bearing soil on earth – and enough quirky attractions to make us wonder exactly what was in the super-heated bore water bubbling up from the Great Artesian Basin way below into the hot baths full of tourists exhausted after a day in the diggings.
Think Flying Combi, the Chambers of the Black Hand, the Black Queen Experience and Amigo’s Castle! AND it’s home of the self-proclaimed ONLY black-opal-mining Cactus Farmers in the WORLD!! With black opal requiring a tonne of equipment to reach the depths at which it is found, our short stay was spent exploring the place where legendary and prolific Aussie author, Ion Idriess worked and wrote ‘Lightning Ridge’ over 100 years ago.
Ironic, though, that any one of his books is now worth more than all the opal Pilchard and I have EVER scavenged put together!!
Call me a coward, but unable to face the overhang of a LOOOOOOONG ladder tilting backwards into oblivion with nothing between me and the bottom of the mine shaft, I did my ‘research’ on the surface while brave boy Pilchard went below for a mine tour.
The good news is there’s almost as much opal on the surface these days, hidden in the cast-offs surrounding the deserted mine-shafts scattered over the surface. That’s if you don’t mind worthless smaller pieces! The collection of ‘colour’ Pilchard and I found after a hard day on the digging won’t even make jewellery, let alone our fortune, but I finally got the thrill of the quest and why people keep coming back for more.
Besides, White Cliffs is the only place on earth with Opal Pineapples!
As a special treat, the owners of the Red Earth Opal Showroom and Cafe who’d shown Pilchard through their mine, threw in an above-ground mine-shaft tour for free for me.
A real bargain considering it normally costs 50c!
And what’s NOT to love about the place I spent 7½ minutes in paradise?
5. Quilpie, QLD
A bakery run by a gun shearer – she still holds the world record for the most sheep shorn in one day – is just one of many distractions from Quilpie’s main business of mining boulder opal. Hell, with its own HOT Artesian Bore baths and in-season entertainment, you don’t even have to leave the Caravan Park to find yourself a good time!
Not far from Eromanga – arguably furthest spot from the ocean in any direction in Australia – you could stay in Quilpie for a week without even thinking about Opal.
Even heading to the ‘Deuces Wild’ Opal Mine – SO remote a rescue party is sent out (at your expense) if you’re not back by 5:00pm – the distraction of Bourkes Parrot, a lifer for twitcher Pilchard, was almost enough excitement without hunting for the elusive opal.
But on the claim, our ever-growing opal-mining ‘expertise’ resulted in some seams of ‘colour’ running through the rock. But while they look nice in the sun, I’m not sure how they’ll become my Opal Ring …
To date, the unkind could successfully argue my quest for my own piece of SiO2.nH2O jewelry has been a fools errand! But in the process, I’ve discovered an intriguing sub-culture out on the edge which I’m not yet done exploring.
SO … watch this space – and maybe next time I’ll hit the jackpot!