The men who work in the opal fields are a hardy lot. The work is extremely hard and the weather conditions are deplorable for much of the time. They are often forced to live in primitive shelters and with few of the modern comforts that we have today. You would not think they would have a lot to laugh about except when they found some opal. But that is not the case. Maybe the heat affects some of them, maybe some are just mad by nature but that does not stop them from creating strange creations and signs out there in the opal fields.
The opal field towns were established at a time when building materials were very scarce and hence the early architects had to very inventive and had to recycle almost everything they could find. The first miners arrived on foot or by horse, or in the case of Andamooka, by primitive motor vehicle, and hence could not bring anything other than the very basics with them. The shelters they created were made with mud, boughs of local trees and if they were lucky, some bits of canvas and tin. While these were primitive they did provide some sort of shelter from some of the extremes of weather faced in the opal fields. While most were very basic there are some fine examples of Architecture in the opal fields.
As you travel around any of the opal fields, particularly Andamooka, Coober Pedy and Mintabie. you will find a proliferation of old abandoned vehicles. Miners have obviously purchased these at some time to use on the opal fields and when they have become un-repairable they have been left to rot. While these relics might be unsightly in some places it adds interest to the opal fields.
Most of us who visit the opal fields do not have the expertise or knowledge to actually mine for opal. A lot of us though, do have a desire to find a piece of opal. There is a way that this desire can become reality, and that is by noodling and specking for opals. Noodling is sifting through the dumps left by the miners and specking is walking slowly along staring at the ground looking for any signs of colour.
One of the major impediments to the establishment of any of Australia's opal fields was the lack of available water for the miners and their animals. The opal fields are located in areas which were once a vast inland sea which had later turned into desert. The opal was formed at the base of a varying depth of sandstone deposited over millions of years. Opal was only found when due to upheavals and weathering of these sandstone layers, pieces of opal (floaters) broke away from the opal level and were left on the surface.
Lightning Ridge is located in New South Wales, north of the township of Walgett and south of the Queensland border. It is renowned as the largest known deposit of black opal in the world. Black opal is found in much smaller amounts at a number of other localities such as Andamooka and Mintabie, but it is acknowledged that the quantity and quality of the Lightning Ridge black opal is unsurpassed.
We had visited White Cliffs Opal field on a number of occasions but had not even considered that there were other fields discovered and worked in the area. While reading some of the old opal books I discovered there were quite a few areas worked around White Cliffs. This makes sense as miners would spread out and prospect all around the known sites in the hope of being the first to find a new deposit.
In the history of the opal fields there are always some very eccentric people who pop up. You probably had to be a bit different to head off into the desert to toil in extremely hot and uncomfortable conditions to dig for opal, especially in the early days of opal mining. There were very few amenities and even basics like food and water were very hard to come by. Despite all this, many men and even a few women, were enticed to dig for that elusive gem, the opal. The following is the story of one of those characters who arrived at Coober Pedy and later went on to Andamooka and has left a legacy because of his unusual antics. His name was Jim Shaw and he is still referred to as the "Iron Man". I have obtained most of the information about Jim from the book "Opal Men" by P Vin Wake. This is a great read if you can get a copy of it,as it tells stories of some of the more unusual characters who arrived and worked on the opal fields of Australia.
This post continues Minnie Berrington's story as told in her book " Stones Of Fire". The previous post relating to her story told of her life in Coober Pedy and this one relates to her life at Andamooka, now a small town located approximately 120 km from the Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia.
It was October and we were off on another trip to Andamooka. Normally we wouldn't go there at this time of the year as the temperature can be well into the thirties but there was to be a memorial service for Brian Tansell, an old time miner at Andamooka, and we did not want to miss it as we had got to know him over the past 6 years.