08 Jun Stephen Aracic – “Determined” Opal Miner
A few months ago, Stephen Aracic made a comment on one of the posts on this website. Stephen is a well known opal miner from Lightning Ridge who has written a number of books on opal mining including “Determined”, “Fortunes from the Lost Sea”,”Fortunes in Australian Opals”,”Discover Opals Before and Beyond 2000″and “Rediscover Opals in Australia 1999”. As it happened I was in the process of reading “Determined ” at that time and thoroughly enjoying it.
I have often wondered what drove miners to the opal fields. Conditions were very primitive, the work was backbreaking, the weather unbearable a lot of the time but there was no shortage of men, and occasionally women, who were prepared to undergo all sorts of hardships in a quest to find opal. Many, if not most, were unsuccessful, but this did not deter others from trying their luck.
In his book “Determined” Stephen Aracic gives us a real insight into what drives people to seek opal. Stephen has, very kindly, given me permission to summarise his book and to share with you some of his experiences.
Stephen Aracic’s Story
The war years
Stephen was born on 4th June 1939 and raised on a small farm in Bosnia. This was the period during the Second World War and life was very tough and dangerous. Local soldiers were often hiding out in the farms looking out for Germans. Mostly these were Partisans, (Jugoslav National Army). There were also Domobransto (Croatian Home Defense Army). The Domobrans did not like the Partisans and as Stephens father was a Domobran this created a lot of tension when the Partisans came to their farm and Stephen and family often had to leave and hide to protect themselves.
During this time the whole family lived in fear and Stephen’s father “Pepa” was even taken in for interrogation and tortured. Even after the war, conditions were bad, with many people in the area injured by land mines and children born with deformities due to lead poisoning from all of the bullets in the ground.
Life on the Farm
After the war the family continued to live on the farm. It was subsistence farming with the family living virtually on what they could grow. Stephen had a bit of a hard time of it with his father often belting him for misdemeanors, especially after his father had been drinking his home made wine.
Stephen had been educated at home until the age of ten and then attended school. This involved a 7 km walk to school, barefoot even in the snow. While it was hard, Stephen loved school and excelled at it. Life went on with Stephen enjoying life on the farm. At twelve he suffered from an attack of appendicitis and nearly died. Other than that he led an active and healthy life.
Leaving home at Fifteen
During his early teenage years he had many adventures with his friends and cousins. In 1954 , after an argument with his father, Stephen left home to work on other farms. He walked twenty km to the nearest railway station and then caught a series of trains, ending up at a town called Slavonski Brod. He then walked to a nearby farm and obtained work there. The pay was not much but at least he was fed and could sleep on a pallet of hay in the barn. For a month or so he worked at various farms in the area and gradually worked his way to where his brother Ivan was working at a foundry. He applied for a job there and was given employment as a trainee fitter and turner making stoves. He stayed with his brother for a few months and then moved into a boarding house. At the age of sixteen he fell in love with a local girl, but found out she was to be married to an older man and he was too afraid of the father to follow up. When she did marry he moved away from the village, broken-hearted. He moved on then to a town called Slavonska Pozega. Here he enrolled at night school while working night shift at the foundry.
Stephen’s attempts to escape from Jugoslavia
When he turned Seventeen, Stephen had to enrol for Military Service. He was supposed to serve three years in this Socialist regime and was not keen to do so. He heard about some young people fleeing across the border to Germany, Italy or France and then started seriously thinking of this himself. His first attempt to flee to Austria failed and he was deported back to Yugoslavia after being imprisoned for some time. As he was to be released he was offered a position as a spy. His job would entail offering to help families to escape over the border for a fee and then turn them over to officials. He was advised that if he refused the job offer and tried to escape again he would be severely punished. What a predicament for such a young man.
He was then returned to his home town. His father was unimpressed and couldn’t understand why his son wanted to escape from his own country. A couple of days later he left home and went back to Slavonska Brod where he tried to get his job back at the foundry, but he was refused. He went back to working on the farms but was still intent on escaping. His second escape attempt also failed when he met a young girl on he train and her father ended up betraying him to the police and once again he found himself in prison for attempting to leave Jugoslavia. After he was released he went to stay with Ivan, his brother.
In 1958 he moved to Rijeka, a beautiful town on the Adriatic coast and hoped to develop a plan to escape to Trieste, which is in Italy. In Rijeka he worked as a builder’s labourer and applied for permanent residency. he teamed up with Bruno and Jure, two workmates and planned his third attempt at escaping from Jugoslavia. This time he thought he had made it but was once again caught by the soldiers and returned to Rijeka. Amazingly he was set free after questioning.
You would have thought he would have given up the idea of escape after these three failed attempts. But that was not the case.
He now moved to another smaller town, Opatija, situated on the coast and well away from his previous escapee companions. His next attempt would have to be on his own as there would be a much better chance of success.
Successful escape at last
In July he headed off on the train toward Trieste with a packed bag. Police were interviewing everyone on the train and he was really worried. He moved to the back of the train and just before his destination, as the train slowed he jumped off the moving train. Uninjured he headed off through the bush toward the border. A heavy mist descended and he felt he had a good chance of succeeding but then tripped over a trip wire which sent up a flare. He bolted for his life toward the border with guards yelling out for him to stop. Shots were being fired and he felt a sharp pain in his side and then he fell heavily and lost consciousness.
He awoke in a hospital in Trieste having been found by Italian soldiers. After finding his bag he proved his identity and was taken to an Italian Refugee camp in Trieste. After some time he was sent on to a Refugee camp in Bari, a coastal town in southern Italy. For over a month he was questioned every day by Interpol as they tried to find out all the details of his life and family. It was a very stressful time as he still did not know if he would accepted as a refugee or set back to Yugoslavia.
On his last day of interrogation he was told he would be accepted but it could take three years to be sent to America or Canada. He was released, given clothes and some money and then went and found a job at a quarry in Bari. He didn’t last long at the quarry because he stood up for a fellow worker and, after threatening his boss, was sacked.
After three months he was transferred to the town of Capua. Here at the Refugee camp he learned many skills and even ended up with a mechanics certificate. The day after he obtained this he learned that single men could emigrate to Australia without a guarantor. He jumped the chance and quickly applied. He had to learn English and also learned a few basic things about Australia. In his words he learned that “there were kangaroos, koalas, cannibals and good looking sheilas”.
Emigrating to Australia
On the 24th of June 1959 Stephen set off on the “Aurelia” for Australia. At their first port of call, Athens, four hundred and fifty Greek girls boarded the ship bound for Australia. Stephen and his fellow countrymen could not believe their luck. Apart from mingling with the girls they attended English lessons and learned more about Australian culture, diversity of the people, native tribes and their culture and about job opportunities.
Arriving in Melbourne on 21st July 1959 he was bused off to Sydney and and then to the Bonegilla camp in Victoria where he became friends with a Serbian called Branko. Together the went back to Sydney where Stephen found work as a cabinet maker. After a while he and Branko again moved on and he obtained work as a fitter and turner at Milperra. He soon made another friend , a Serb called Milos and the three of them often went out together enjoying bike rides, motorbikes and meeting the local girls.
Stephen tried quite a few jobs but kept on moving as conditions were often very dangerous to the health in the workplaces at that time. In one job complaints were made against him for working too hard and the boss took him aside and said that fellow workers, who were also union members, were upset with him because he worked so hard. The workers would not talk to him because of his work ethic, so he was forced to leave.
For a while he worked at General Motors Holden at Pagewood assembling and installing electrical wiring in vehicles. He was also improving his English to such an extent he was translating for some of the other immigrant workers.
In 1961 he had another appendix attack and was rushed to hospital. After recovering he decided to get a job in the Snowy Mountains. He was successful and in 1962 moved to Bella Vista and commenced work changing pipes in the main blow pipe. This was extremely dangerous work and Stephen soon realised it was not worth the risk. He tried out as a welder but was rejected and then failed as a truck driver but did succeed in getting a job as a kitchen hand. This led to a job in a bar at a ski resort where he met quite a few girls and was enjoying his life but by Christmas 1963 he was ready to move on.
He managed to get a job in Ashfield, Sydney in 1964 and in April , at a dance , met a girl called Mary , and after dating for a while asked her to marry him. The engagement ring he gave her just happened to be an opal ring ,which Mary said would bring them good luck. At that time Stephen knew nothing about opals and had no idea that opal would, one day, be such a large part of his life.
They were married in August 1964 and settled in a flat at Dunmoyne and Stephen found a good job at the Dunlop factory nearby.
Stephen’s introduction to opal
One day, Stephen and a friend Kevin were in the city and noticed some nice gemstones in the window of Percy Marks, the jeweller. Stephen explained that the smaller stone looked just like the stone in Mary’s engagement ring so they went in to check out what it was. The owners son explained that they were opals and that they were mined at a number of locations in Australia. He then showed them some really dazzling black opals that were mined at Lightning Ridge in New South Wales. He said they were really valuable, about $250 per carat . This was astounding as Stephen was earning only $50 per week at that time.
From then on Stephen became fascinated with opals and dreamed of going to Lightning Ridge to look for them.
That is all for this post. The next post will tell of their first trip to Lightning Ridge in Stephen’s chase for opals.
I have found Stephen’s story fascinating. It must be similar to a lot of the early miner’s stories. There are many miners from war ravaged Europe who migrated to Australia and found out about the opportunities in the opal fields. They were used to hardship and hard work so would more easily adapt to the spartan life in the opal fields.
Thank you Stephen for giving permission to summarise your book. I have only just touched on Stephen’s story. I really recommend you read the book “Determined”.