Aussie ABC: O is for Opal!

White Cliffs New South Wales

White Cliffs Fossicking Fields, NSW

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!

White Cliffs Landscape, New South Wales

White Cliffs Landscape, New South Wales

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.

Coober Pedy from Lookout, South Australia

Coober Pedy from Lookout, South Australia

What else but the Australian Outback!

Was my quest successful? Well … here’s a set of random adventures from each Opal town!

1. Coober Pedy, SA

Underground in Coober Pedy, South Australia

Underground in Coober Pedy, South Australia

I awoke in perfect pitch blackness and waited for my eyes to adjust to the light.

They didn’t.

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.

The BIG Winch, Coober Pedy, SA

The BIG Winch, Coober Pedy, SA

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!

Yowah from the Bluff Lookout, Queensland

Yowah from the Bluff Lookout, Queensland

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!

Yowah Nut Pendant

Yowah Nut Pendant

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 …

3. Lightning Ridge, NSW

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.

Say what?

Amigo's Castle, Lightning Ridge, New South Wales

Amigo’s Castle, Lightning Ridge, New South Wales

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.

Corcoran Opal Fields, Lightning Ridge, NSW

Billion Dollar View … Looking out over the Corcoran Opal Fields, Lightning Ridge, NSW

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!!

4. White Cliffs, NSW

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.

Warning Sign, White Cliffs, New South Wales

The dangers of working the opal fields … White Cliffs, New South Wales

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.

Above Ground Opal Mine Tour, White Cliffs, NSW

Above Ground Opal Mine Tour, White Cliffs, NSW

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!

Quilpie from Baldy Top Lookout, Queensland

Quilpie from Baldy Top Lookout, Queensland

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.

Quilpie Opal

Quilpie 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!

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47 comments

  • Very interesting post. I absolutely love your website layout. Truly beautiful and well organized.

  • I fell asleep halfway into reading this account of your opall experiences. I awoke early today to trot to the dunny after last nights festivities and made it – just, er in doors pulled my head from the desk where I am sitting and I continued reading to the end, great stuff, I must call again. BTW, thank you for calling on my blog.

  • Beautiful pendant Red!
    Such a kaleidoscope of beauty.
    My mother was superstitious of opals. I never knew why, or what bad luck had befallen the person/s who started it all. I used to love staring into the milky rainbow depths.

    Wishing you a happy and safe festive season, and all the very best for 2014!

  • We wish you a Merry Christmas,
    RW & SK

  • Dear Red
    Cave sleeping, huh? Hibernating. I didn’t know there was bad luck associated with opal. Seems I had some tiny opal earrings once but lost them. I suppose that was the bad luck. Then does the bad luck pass to the person who finds them?
    That was an adventure and a half. There are a lot of precious stones around here too but most tourists buy their gems at the “gem store” before they go home.

    In reference to Hedlund. It must be Port Hedlund. But, I’m curious as to why you said 24 hours there was enough. I don’t know where this friend got their information but has never been to Australia. I’ve known this couple over 25 years and all they talk about is retiring to Australia, around “Hedlund,” be it Port Hedlund. I think it’s become a life-long obsession, especially with the guy. I have no idea why. They retired a year ago and their daughter in Seattle became deathly ill so they sold house and possessions and left for Seattle to be near daughter. I haven’t heard from them and I now wonder if they went on to “Hedlund.” If so, I hope it is what they had yearned for all these years. It’s sad when one’s expectations become tarnished.
    So I take it you wouldn’t want to live there. ???

  • Ok, no pearl diving with crocs 🙂

    ¨ * ¨ * ¨ * Happy Holidays * ¨ * ¨ * ¨ *

    Alessandra

  • @EG Camera Girl – Haha, the pendant will keep me going in my quest!! I’ve just GOT to have a matching ring!!!
    @Filip – The 2nd picture is my favourite too – the Australian Outback has unbelieveable colours!
    @Susan – I suspect your hunch about your grandmother/aunt is correct! I’ve NEVER heard that superstition and I come from the land of Opal!!!! So where did the rings end up??? There’s a lot to be said for merlot-coloured gems as well … not to mention merlot-coloured merlot!! Maybe there’s a natural synergy between the two that must always be honoured by combining them??? Hope you get to do that over Christmas!! Enjoy the season!!
    @Stewart – Hahaha, you don’t know what you’re missing … or maybe you do!!! That applies to the Melbourne attraction as well!!! Merry Christmas!
    @Greg – Really?? You MUST have been drinking!!!! Everyone we saw was perfectly sane and normal!!! And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you … Merry Christmas!

  • @Bizzy Lizzy – And WAY more to come!!
    @Alessandra – Hahahaha!! I would have been better off if I didn’t expect to find anything!!! Next time I go, I’ll know EXACTLY what to expect – NOTHING!! You COULD try pearl diving – amongst the crocodiles, sharks and lack of oxygen – not sure which gem is the most hazardous!!!
    @TFG – Oh what a shame I missed the chance to use the ‘mine field’ being a ‘mine field’ witticism! Maybe I’ll send my posts to you for proof-reading … Sadly, you’re right about where to find the best opal selection … but I’ll keep trying! There are WAY more RED opal spots to be found!
    @TMWH – HAha, no pic of the lifer … I’m always torn between looking for the sake of looking, and looking for the sake of a good photo!! And does saying that the experience is worth more than any opal ring true? Or do I just sound like an Opal Mining LOSER?!?!?!
    @Weekend Windup – Weird, but the landscape really DOES look just like this!
    @Betty – Thanx for coming!! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did … but I bet it was more fun to be there!!! Merry Xmas to you too, my friend!

  • @diane – Thanx, but I’ve still got a few to go … stay tuned!!! Who knows how many more unusual characters I’ll get to meet??!!
    @Carole – Haha, yes the $800 has paid for a lot of adventures … but one day I’ll get my ring!! The Opal Fields are no place for a coward – but I gave it my best shot!!!
    @ladyfi – A night underground was plenty long enough … now that I’ve had the experience, I don’t need to do it again!! Although I might change my mind next time the temperature hits 45 degrees (C)!
    @Christine – You lucky thing!!! Maybe I need to do more digging – for long lost well-to-do relatives!!!
    @Rick – OMG, the pressure, the pressure … seriously, welcome and thanx for following!! I hope I live up to your expectations!!!
    @George – Haha, it’s the journey, not the destination, right? RIGHT??? Actually, just seeing the places makes it worthwhile (spoken like a true opal mining ‘loser’)!!
    @Susan – I know I will have failed if you nod off during any of MY posts! Welcome and look forward to sharing my Aussie Adventures with you!!! If I can hold your attention … !!!
    @Iris – Yes, it was ‘cool’ – both temperature and experience! But I don’t need to stay underground again … having no windows is a bit odd!! Not sure about the sculpture guy – don’t recall anyone like that – but the area is full of colourful characters!! And signs!!
    @Our Photos – Yes, RED Rocks!!!

  • @eileeninmd – Of COURSE it was fun!! Although maybe I should call what we did ‘mining’ – it was more like fossicking, or even ‘messing about on the opal fields’!!!!
    @Joanne – I think there’s a LOOOOONG list of people who had no luck on the opal fields!!! But I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse!!!
    @Andrew – Yes, you can do it the easy way, or you can do it the HARD WAY!!! But one of them is more interesting/fun than the other, and gets you out of the office!! But do blogging mates of friends of neighbours also get the discount??? I never thought much of opal until I saw the ‘real’ opal colours!
    @Vicki – I’m still in front even if I don’t find any opal!! The landscapes of these remote parts are surreal – and I’m one of a relatively small number of the world’s people to have seen them. How lucky am I?!
    @Fun60 – Haha, take your RED wherever you can find it!!! I’m sure the opal in the Bond St jewellers looks mighty fine, but nothing beats seeing it in its natural habitat!
    @River – Well spotted!! Maybe that movie reference just shows we are both women of a certain age … Amazing how many people have thought of making it rich on the opal fields – I wonder what the ratio of success to failure is?? You must have stayed somewhere unremarkable while your Dad was away, or else you’d recall it??
    @Bill – Welcome!! Needles and haystacks have nothing on Opal and Aussie Outback!! Stick around – most of my adventures are HILARIOUS!! No, really!! Ask anyone!!!

  • @Arija – The only reason Andamooka didn’t make it is because I haven’t yet been there! Maybe THAT’S where I’ll hit the jackpot … it’s gotta happen somewhere, right?!?!?!
    @Joop – These are the colours of the Australian Outback, my friend! If you like this, then you’ll LOVE the rest of Australia!!!
    @Saucy – Hahaha, I think there’d be a few long, dull episodes in the reality series of my travelling life! But, maybe I’ll work up a pitch during the Xmas break!! Then I’ll invite you down as a guest – SO many possibilities if only I can find someone to ‘bite’!!! Merry Xmas to you too, my friend!
    @whiteangel – Opal is EVERYWHERE … just not in the bits of ground where I’m looking!!! I would have thought finding an electric jug in CP would have been even more tricky than finding opal! Am I right?!?!?!
    @LONDONLULU – Haha, and now you find a story of childlike expectation of just turning up on the opal fields AND picking up a few cutters without even trying! Doesn’t life turn full circle!!
    @Sharon – Haha, I have a horrible suspicion the gift shop is it for me too!! Not sure if being able to out-desert and out-desolate Arizona is a good or bad thing though …
    @Sallie – Coober Pedy is the closest of these towns to where I live and it’s 847 km away (that’s ~500 miles to you)!! And even the losers are interesting in their own special way – at least they make good blog fodder!!!

  • I sort of liked Coober Pedy, except most of the men looked slightly disturbing. You know, unkempt beard down to the package, eyeballs set deep in their skulls and hair like a cashmere rug in a windstorm. A sort of cross between Charles Manson and the Yeti? Did you see that sort of look…?

  • What a wonderful adventure! My hubby and I went panning for gold and gems in the mountains of north Georgia this year, and had a grand time. We also toured a gold mine, which was chilly and damp, but pretty neat. He even let me select any one of the gems we’d found to have cut and polished and made into a necklace. We’d found emeralds, sapphires, and rubies, but I chose a lovely garnet. It’s about the color of Merlot. Very pretty.

    But my favorite gems are jade and opal, neither of which we’ll ever find in our own state. When I was a young girl, I fell in love with the opal rings my grandmother and one of my aunts wore, but they told me it was their birthstone, and that it’s bad luck for anyone to have an opal if it isn’t their birthstone. I dunno… maybe they just didn’t want to get me a ring? HA! But I think opals are gorgeous. I hope you find the perfect stone on your next outing. (What fun!)

    Take care, and a very Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  • Great second picture and neckless

    Greetings,
    Filip

  • I saw Coober Pedy by night and I think I may have had enough! That’s probably not fair!

    Nice post on Melbourne’s most under-rated tourist destination as well – I’ll be there between Christmas and New Year.

    Cheers – Stewart M – Melbourne

  • Thanks for sharing!! Love the pictures. Water in middle of the desert and the stone statue looks good…

  • Sounds like you had a great opal hunting adventure. Buying opals likely gets the best selection. Know you must have liked Quilpie as both the soil and rock is red. Would have walked with great care in the mine field. Wouldn’t want to find an abandon mine shaft by stepping into one. Great post, and love your photos.

  • This sounds like my kind of adventure! I really like the Yowah Nut pendant but I would also enjoy the thrill of the hunt for raw opals.

  • fantastic scenery, great photos and narration!
    thanks for taking us a long with you!:)

    x

    wish you and yours a very merry xmas!!:))

  • I’d say that you discovered a vast treasure of experiences beyond the discovery of an opal. My goodness! Such exciting locales, and not for the faint hearted! I am glad that Pilchard got to see a lifer–did he take pictures?

  • I Love that red landscape!

  • Well, they say that the journey is more important than the … opal! You did discover lots, and I too reading this, I am not coming back to Aussies for opals for sure, but wild landscapes yes :-). Now, about those big pearls that grow over there… 🙂

    Ciao
    Alessandra

  • Oh, wow, Red, you stayed in such an underground place? Cool – in like “cool” 🙂
    I still have a pic of Coober Pedy saying “next emergency phone… ” was some 100 km!
    Have you met that crazy guy with the sculptures or is he no more? Seesh, he gave us a “German” greeting that made us leave immediately 🙁

    That sure is a very special opal you got! Beautiful!

    Opal Pineapples? What´s that?

    Awww, Quilpie is beautiful!!!

    Fingers crossed you find an opal worth for a piece of jewllery!!

  • You posted a comment on my site–thanks! and I decided to visit your blog.

    Wow! What a travel adventure and what a good story teller you are. Normally I nod off during blog posts that ramble on about fixing pumpkin bread, or how to edit writing. But your post kept me reading.
    I definitely want to hear about your further hunt/expeditions to find opals, er, Si…H2O!

  • I hope you find that beautiful big opal in the future, but your hunt so far has certainly led you to some awesome sights. Thanks for sharing these beautiful photos with us.

  • Wow, you have some stunning photos. I’ll be back 🙂
    Rick, your latest follower.

  • I have an opal ring that belonged to my great-grandmother. Sounds like I got it the easy way by inheriting it!

  • I think your Yowah Nut pendant will go with every Outback outfit you plan to wear Red; good choice over $800 worth of opal on your finger. $800 worth of petrol (especially with a Woolies 16 cents off voucher), will get you to another great adventure!! I wouldn’t have gone down that long dangling ladder in a fit either!

  • Found you through Phoenix Daily , you rname caught my eye. Well your comentry on the search for an opal had me in stitches. Seems a hard way to go about getting some jewellery and some harsh landscape to look in.

  • You are so right Red. The contrast between are two worlds could not be greater. The only opals I can see are in the flashy jewellers on Bond Street. But there is a lot of red around here at the moment but only the bright lights kind of red!

  • Love that red landscape. There’s as much beauty in it as there is in the opals.

    Merry Christmas to all!

  • Fascinating place – love the scenery! And how cool to sleep underground – well, for a night!

  • You are right about opals being found in the harshest of places. It is amzing that you have been to them all. great commentary too.

  • I would love to visit Coober Pedy have never been there my parents have and loved it dad tried to find opals with no luck either.

  • “Scathingly brilliant idea”-Hayley Mills-Trouble with Angels
    The Yowah Nut pendant is quite pretty, but I’m curious now about Opal Pineapples. What are they? Could you post a picture or should I google?
    In the mid-late 60s my Dad went with a friend to Andamooka with plans of coming back rich. Didn’t happen of course, but he brought us back a tiny tube of Potch each with flecks of glorious colour.
    Funny thing is, I don’t remember anyone looking after us kids while he was gone. Did we stay with friends? I don’t remember.

  • Looks like you hit the jackpot as far as I’m concerned, knowing full well that you’re as much of a scenery junkie as I am. And throw in the interesting characters you met (not the drunken gray nomad, but all the other people you mention) and Pilchard’s lifer…. a great place to visit. I wish I wasn’t so lazy, cuz I know I could look this up, but I always wonder how far you travel to get to these places. (I guess I actually couldn’t look it up now I think of it, since I don’t know where you start from.)

  • And I thought the deserts of Arizona were desolate, these places certainly have us beat. I really do love opals but I think I’ll stick to the gift shop for mine. I must say, that pendant is stunning. Another very interesting post. I thank you!

  • I’ve an early childhood memory of a children’s book mentioning opals from Australia – this is so cool!

  • One of neighbours owns an opal shop in town. Wouldn’t it just be easier…… She will give a discount to friends of her neighbours.

    I like the opal you bought. I think opals are underrated as precious stones.

  • Never looked for Opals, saw a lovely one in Winton a few year back, was a nice price.
    I loved Coober Pedy, stop there too and had to by a new electric jug at the hardware shop. That was an experience 🙂
    Keep trying you may get your opal one day.

  • Sorry you did not find any of the opals, it was fun trying right? I enjoyed the scenery and the lovely pendant. And the Quilpie Opal is amazing. Wonderful post, have a happy day!

  • I forgot to wish you a Merry Christmas and much happiness in the New Year. Cheers – Lilly

  • This was the coolest adventure Red – I felt we had run into a wonderful new series on television. he,he
    Seriously, what an amazing wealth of information and I would have loved to be on that 7 1/2 minutes with you. Great Post.

  • Great pictures with nice colors…… i like this interesting post very much.

    Greetings, Joop

  • What, no Andamooka??? Only one I haven’t been to is Yowah. I have some lovely Andamooka black opals, My Granddaughters still have a house there.

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