13 May My First Trip to the Opal Fields
In my teens I had a strong interest in fossicking for gemstones. This led to gold panning and gemstone fossicking trips to Beechworth, Walhalla and other similar places,
In 1966 my cousin Ken and I decided we should try and find some opal as we had read about its beauty and the possibility of finding chips and small pieces rejected or missed by the miners at some of the older fields. After some study we settled on an old field called “Pride of the Hills” situated in Queensland west of Cunamulla and east of Toompine. We had no idea of what to expect but headed off in my Cortina sedan in September of that year. We took plenty of fuel, water and food to last the two weeks as well as picks, shovels and sieves.
We drove non stop to Cunamulla with the section of road from Bourke to Cunamulla being unmade and very slippery as it had been raining very heavily. Luckily the road was very wide as the car slewed from side to side and we eventually made it to Cunamulla just on dark. After a strange meal of chicken, tinned peas, tinned carrots and tinned spaghetti at a local cafe we set off out of Cunamulla on the road to Eulo. We pulled off the road after a few km and found a relatively dry spot and set up camp.
After a good sleep we set off in the morning in high spirits to Eulo. These spirits were soon dampened when we were advised we had no hope of getting through to Toompine because the track was very wet and the only vehicles getting through were the mail trucks which carried provisions to the outlying stations. We hadn’t come all that way to give up so easily so we decided to try and get through. The locals did advise that if we were going to try, not to leave the main track no matter how wet it looked. They said the base of the track, even under the puddles was a lot more solid than the surrounding ground even if that looked dry.
It didn’t take us long to get into trouble. A few km on the road to Toompine we came across what looked to be a huge deep waterhole in the middle of the road. The ground alongside the road looked much drier and more accessible, so guess what we did. Yes we left the road and immediately got bogged. Always listen to what the locals tell you.
Several hours later after denuding several trees of their branches, jacking the car up and piling the branches underneath and then edging forward we eventually got back onto the track which, while still wet , was at least solid enough to bear our weight. We cleaned up as best we could and headed onwards, confident now we would get through.
According to our fairly primitive maps there was a private track which left the Toompine road and led to Duck Creek opal field. We had no idea of the condition of the track but decided it couldn’t be much worse than the one we were on anyway, so we headed off along it. As it turned out it wasn’t that bad probably due to much lesser usage than the main road.
Before reaching Duck Creek we passed through a number of small deserted opal fields and of course jumped out to have a look but didn’t see any opal lying about which was rather disappointing. So off we set again and late in the afternoon reached Duck Creek where we set up camp. Our camp consisted of a two man tent with mats and sleeping bags and a couple of camp chairs. It was quite primitive but enough for our needs.
There was only one other person at Duck Creek at that time. An aboriginal man named Reg Duggan was living in a caravan and was prospecting for opal while being financed by a Canadian. He hadn’t found any opal up to that point which was a bit disappointing. We had quite a discussion with him and he suggested we sieve the ashes of any old fires we saw as the old miners used to sit around the fires at night chipping the edges off any opal they had found during the day and throwing the chips or colourless pieces into or around the fire. This proved to be a useful tip as we did find some nice pieces of colour even though some of it was charred.
We also asked him if he knew the way to the “Pride of the Hills “mine as our map only gave a vague direction. He said he did and would take us there the next day if we would take him into Toompine first to get a tyre repaired. We agreed as we really had no idea how to get to our destination. The next day we did the trip to Toompine and got the tyre repaired and he then took us overland to “Pride of the Hills”. I am not sure how he did it as we seemed to be just traveling through sparse bush and over dry creek beds. But make it we did and after a quick look around we set off back to his caravan to return him. We waved goodbye and headed off back to “Pride of the Hills”. Unfortunately we headed off in the wrong direction but soon realized this and ashamedly backtracked to the caravan where he was still standing sadly shaking his head. This time we found our our tracks and back we went to our opal field.
We quickly set up camp and then started fossicking. We couldn’t believe our eyes. There were chips of boulder opal everywhere with some containing lovely colour. We spent over a week there finding pieces strewn all over the place and soon had quite a collection each.
“Pride of the Hills” consisted of a small hill which had a layer of small to large rocks, some containing the precious boulder opal. Many miners had been here hand digging into the base of the hill to remove the boulders and had then smashed them with hammers to see if there was any opal in them. This was why there there were so many chips around. The miners were only interested in the larger pieces containing gem opal and so left all of these pieces on the ground. Luckily for us we were the first ones there for a long time.
Years later I met an opal miner named Otto who was working at Andamooka at the time. During our chat he advised me he had been to the “Pride of the Hills” and had, in fact leveled the whole hill with a bulldozer looking for the boulder opal but had not found very much. So it would appear that the”Pride of the Hills” exists no more and is now just a pile of rubble.
While we were there we walked to some of the other small hills in the area but did not find any opal or even signs that the had been any mining there. It seems that this one hill in the area was the only one in that location that contained opal.
We had a wonderful time here with just us and the local galahs which made an awful racket every morning and evening. The only downside was the food we had brought. Because we had no refrigeration we had brought many tins of dubious meaty dishes and for bread we brought “Volkhorn” bread which we were assured would last the 2 weeks we were to be away. It had the consistency and weight of a brick and probably tasted like one as well. You had to slice it really thin and then spread it thickly with margarine and vegemite or peanut butter in order to ingest it. While neither of us really liked it, it was at least filling. I have never had any desire to try it again after that trip.
After about a week and a half fossicking in the area we set off on the trip home. We found our way back to Duck Creek much to the surprise of our aboriginal friend who appeared glad to see us. It was to be our lucky day as the Canadian who was financing the aboriginal to look for opal had flown in. He had brought with him loaves of fresh, white bread and pickles and we were invited to join them for the most wonderful sandwiches I have ever tasted. If you have ever lived on Volkhorn bread and vegemite for nearly two weeks you will know how I felt. They also took us on a tour of the area and especially to a beautiful oasis where there was a large waterhole surrounded by lush vegetation all in the middle of this very arid landscape. I have no idea how to get to it but it was really beautiful and unexpected.
Unfortunately it was time for us to pack up and head home but our adventures were not yet over. On the way out from Duck Creek we bottomed on one of the creek crossings and dented the fuel tank. It did not appear to be leaking badly so we drove on. A little later we had a puncture so we changed the wheel and continued on to Eulo. At Eulo we stopped outside the Eulo petrol station and saw that we had another puncture. How lucky we were as we didn’t have a puncture repair kit. We were obviously very naive and stupid to have traveled overland through all that bush and over creeks with a total lack of repair equipment. I would not advise anyone to do it today.
After the repairs to the tank and tyres we headed off home, ending what had been a very memorable first trip to the opal fields. We both have spent many happy hours sorting through our finds and have cut some lovely stones from the opal we found. I still have some of the boulder opal and will get back to cutting it soon.