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.

Iron Man Jim Shaw

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.

Minnie Berrington

Minnie Berrington, first woman opal miner at Andamooka, wrote a book about her adventures in Coober Pedy and Andamooka. This book is called "Stones of Fire" A Woman's Experience in Search of Opal. This book was published in 1958 and is well worth reading to gain an idea of the hardships faced by the early miners in Coober Pedy and especially Andamooka. Written by a woman who first hand experienced life in these primitive places, this book details the experiences faced by women in what was principally a man's domain and shows how she coped and enjoyed her time opal mining.

If you have ever driven from Cunnamulla to Thargomindah in southern Queensland you will have passed through the small township of Eulo. If you blink twice you will miss it as there is not much there.It has a cafe, post office, police station, a date farm and of course, the Eulo Hotel. While it is a fairly insignificant town now, it was quite important in the 1880's, being a bustling township with three hotels and for quite a while it was home to one of the legends of the opal era, "the Eulo Queen"

White Cliffs is a small town located 95 km north of Wilcania in New South Wales. Opal was 1st discovered there on 1889 and by 1897 there were thousands of miners in the area. The opal was found in white sandstone country indicating it had once been part of a vast inland sea. Beneath this sandstone , at various depths depending on the terrain, lies a gritty layer of "opal dirt". Below that there is greasy clay which usually does not produce opal. The lst layer of sandstone above the opal layer is often harder and more silicious and the miners called it "the band"

It  was late May and the weather in Melbourne was getting colder and wetter. It was time to escape north to a better climate and to do some fossicking and fishing. Barbara and I packed the  caravan and Hilux with all of the essentials for an unplanned trip. Plenty of food, the kayaks, fishing gear, gold detector, gold pan and sieves just in case we ended up in an opal or other gem-field. As if we wouldn't?

Early Days at White Cliffs

The early days at White Cliffs were quite interesting and somewhat different to most other opal fields. The information in this post comes mainly from the book "They struck opal" written by E F Murphy,  "The Opal Book" by Frank Leechman and "The Lightning Ridge Book" by Stuart Lloyd. E F Murphy was born at Mt Edgerton in Victoria in 1862. He went to school at St Patricks College in Melbourne and was well educated. He was a young man of twenty when he came to White Cliffs and was the fifth miner to take out a lease at White Cliffs. This occurred soon after the first finds of opal were made at this location and so had first hand experience of what conditions were like at the field.

Whenever we think of opal we usually think of gems used in jewellery, but there are some opals and other gemstones which portray beautiful and intriguing patterns, but which are not necessarily suitable for use as jewellery. Some of the stones shown below are from my collection and while not the most valuable, they are still amazing for the patterns and colours they exhibit.