09 Jan Andamooka Opal Field – A Brief History
Andamooka is situated approximately 360 km from Port Augusta. It can be reached by turning off the Stuart Highway at Pimba and travelling along sealed roads via Woomera and Roxby Downs.
Andamooka was one of the later opal fields found in Australia.Opal was first found on the Andamooka Station in 1930. As in all opal discoveries there are a number of claims as to who first discovered opal in the area but the most commonly accepted story is that Roy Shepherd and Sam Brooks, who were working at the Andamooka Station and shifting camp from one place to another, discovered opal in the area now known as Andamooka Opal Creek. They had climbed a hill to watch their horses and to fill in time were throwing rocks in a challenge to see who could throw the furthest. One of the rocks was covered in opal.
On the 29 th August they showed the opal to the then Manager of Andamooka Station Bruce Foulis who was very interested. He sent people out to investigate and did everything to keep the find a secret. The field was worked for 2 years with hardly anyone aware of it. Alan Treloar, one of the men sent out originally was the 1st person to take out a search licence for opal at Andamooka. He was the storekeeper at Andamooka Station.
Around 1932, news of the find reached the miners at Coober Pedy and a small group set off to investigate. As they did not return it was rightfully assumed they had found opal and more miners left Coober Pedy for Andamooka.
It is very hard for us to appreciate the hardships faced by these miners. Roads were almost non exist,ant the area is close to the harshest in all of the desert areas of Australia. Water and food had to be carted in atrocious conditions with miners having to virtually live off the land in order to survive. Despite this ,people did make the journey and when they did arrive conditions were no better. Many of the early miners had to live off rabbits shot in the area.
One of the early arrivals at Andamooka was Min Berrington, the 1st waman miner to arrive at Andamooka. She has written an early history of Coober pedy and Andamooka called” Stones of Fire” which describes life in the early days of these opal fields. I have not had the pleasure of reading it as yet but hope one day to come across a copy. Min eventually became the 1st postmistress at the field but did do a lot of mining before that.
One of the biggest problems in the early days was the lack of water. Various bores were sunk but only limited supplies found.Other problems faced by early miners was the extreme heat in the summer period and many miners departed during the worst months when temperatures exceeded 45 degrees and plagues of flies and mosqitoes made life almost unbearable. Obtaining food was also very difficult as roads were almost non existent. The mail man originally brought in food supplies once per week by camel and later by two ton truck. He had to battle numerous sand dunes and dry swamps and was prevented from traveling when rains filled these swamps. Life was certainly not easy in these days.
The early miners lived in tents or constructed semi dugouts by digging a wide trench and covering this with a roof of beams and tin. Some of these still exist today.
As roads improved so too did the arrival of more building materials and a hotch potch of dwellins were erected. Building permits were obviously not required but this added to the interest of the town.
While some of these buildings still exist, modern Andamooka is fast changing. many people living there today work at the Copper mine in Roxby Downs, some 30 km away and commute every day. Modern houses are being built and there are even sealed roads being constructed.
When opal was first discovered it was found quite near the surface. As the field developed miners progressed up the hills and shafts were up to 30 feet deep which is relatively shallow compared to some other fields. Andamooka was a rich field with very stable opal. Many different types of opal were found including crystal, white opal, small quantities of black opal and matrix opal. Originally only the opal with red colour was considered valuable and the green and blue opal was often left in the dumps as was the matrix opal which early on had no value also. These dumps have mostly been sifted (noodled) and this opal removed.
In 1954, the Woomera Rocket Range project commenced and miners were recruited to work there with many immigrants who were arriving. They were recruited as they were used to working in the extreme conditions and many could earn more than by mining at that time. Opal was reputedly found around Woomera and there are many stories of opal being unearthed in the “Prohibited Entry” areas of the Range.
Even in 1957 Andamooka was a very isolated town. There was only one shop and the owner did not sell food. This still had to be brought into town by the mailman. This shop was built of chicken wire, empty cartons and other miscellaneous items. It had a dirt roof which used to sag whenever it rained heavily.
This shop was rebuilt in 1959 and started stocking food. The new owners also bought a truck which was used to stock the store. Today there is a modern supermarket, post office , two hotels, a motel and a camping ground , so fossickers and tourists are well catered for.
the most famous opal found at Andamooka was the “Andamooka Desert Flame”.This was found in 1969 during during bulldozing operations and weighed an amazing 220 ounces.Later on it was cut up into many stones. It was considered one of the largest blocks of opal discovered in Australia. It was originally bought for $168,000 dollares in 1969 and by 1970 was valued at over $1,000.000 dollars.
The opal fields have expanded over time and now take in the area around the Andamooka township and White Dam some 11 km away. Open cut mining is largely used now. Bulldozers remove the overburden down to the opal layer where the modern miners carefully scour the surface looking for traces of the precious opal. This is a very expensive operation with even medium sized machines using around 75 litres of fuel per hour. A lot of this overburden is removed and stacked in large heaps and fossickers can noodle over these areas and still find the odd stone.
It is impossible to calculate how much opal has been found in Andamooka or at any of the opal fields as most of the opal has been sold for cash and no accurate records kept.
It is well worth the trip to visit Andamooka. The road access is good and there are all the facilities a tourist could desire as long as you are prepared to rough it a bit. There are many of the original semi dugouts to see and of course there is also the chance to find a lovely piece of opal. If not, then there will always be someone to sell you one.