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.
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?
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.