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.
Lightning Ridge is famous for its "black opal" but it also has its share of strange buildings. The strangest of all has to be the "Universe Observatory" or "Astronomer's Castle" built by Polish Alex Szperlak.
There are many amazing sights around Lightning Ridge, but few better than Amigo's Castle.
Vittorio Stefanato, known locally as "Amigo", opal miner and castle builder, started his project in 1985 when he started getting tired of opal mining. Initially he sourced his stone from his mining lease but soon had to travel to all areas around Lightning Ridge as his castle grew in size.
It was all very good finding opal in the early days but if no-one wanted to buy it, then there was little use risking your life trying to find it. Still this did not deter the brave souls who ventured into the harsh environment of central Australia to chase opal. In the 1880's opal had been found in Queensland and miners had established themselves in various areas where opal had been found. At that time they realised they had found a valuable and rare gem but there was no-one to buy it. Miners would hoard the best quality opal and throw away the more inferior material. There are records of miners with sugar bags full of top quality opal but it was of no use to them in outback Queensland.
Yowah is a small town in south west Queensland and is famous for the Yowah Nut which is only found here and nowhere else. The yowah nut is a relatively small, hollow ironstone concretion in the shape of a nut. They occur in closely packed horizontal layers with sandstone overlaying these beds of nuts. In some cases the centre can be filled with gem quality opal but in most cases they are filled with air, powder or some other non valuable material. Yowah also has some really beautiful matrix opal which is the same ironstone concretion often with small flecks of precious opal interspersed through the ironstone.See my post on Yowah Nuts post for more details.
White Cliffs is famous in Australia as an Opal Town but it is also unique for another reason. It was the site for world's first experimental solar station for supplying power to small outback towns.
In 1979 New South Wales was experiencing major political problems. Premier Wran believed that a major environmental project for the state would improve his party's popularity and he had in mind a likely project. The oil crisis in the 1970's had everyone talking about alternative fuel sources so the time was ripe for a solar energy trial.
It seems that the discovery of opal in Australia was often due to chance with many of the discoverers either looking for something else or drilling for water in the outback. When we understand how opal was formed it is not a surprise. Most opal is buried deep beneath the earth and it is only possible to find it on the surface if the earth has been weathered by wind and rain to a level below the opal layer. When this occurs pieces of opal can become exposed. These are called floaters as they also can be washed away by the elements and can end up a long way from where they were originally formed. Finding of these floaters often led to the discovery of a field. If erosion has not reached the opal level there is no way of knowing if opal exists unless a hole is bored. This is expensive and very much a hit and miss method as opal is often scattered in small pieces over extensive areas.
While my main interest is in opal and the opal towns, I still can't resist visiting some of the old gold mining towns as they share a similar kind of history. It never ceases to amaze me how seemingly intelligent men (and it was mainly men) would give up everything and undergo great tribulations to look for gold in some of the most desolate places on earth. Unfortunately, gold seems to have been formed in areas where weather conditions are extreme. The Yukon in Alaska and the deserts of Australia are striking examples and even areas in Victoria such as Ballarat and Bendigo are known for their extremes of weather.
Barbara and I love to travel in the outback. We don't go in for the arduous 4 wheel drive trips, crossing sand dunes and putting ourselves at risk, but we do love to head off and see where our travel takes us. In 2004 we set off up the Oodnadatta Track because it was somewhere we hadn't been before.We were driving a 1996 Toyota Hilux and towing an old off-road camper trailer. Having reached Coward Springs, an old railway station site on the original Ghan Rail line with a lovely hot artesian spring, we were told of a wonderful place to visit called the Painted Desert. So, after reaching Oodnadatta we set off for Painted Desert and were not disappointed as the colours of the hills were amazing with reds, whites and yellows abounding. As we were so close now, only about 200km, we, or maybe I should say, I, thought we should call in at Coober Pedy again as we hadn't been there for a while. This tends to happen a lot whenever we get close to an opal field. Barbara agreed and off we went.