In 1926, Minnie Berrington, a young typist from London arrived at Coober Pedy becoming one of only 3 women on that opal field at that time. Conditions may not look all that good at Coober Pedy today but at that time they would have been much worse.
Access to the town, if you could call it a town then, was appalling. The road from Port Augusta was unmade and was really just a dirt track. Supplies were difficult to obtain and the weather was extremely hot in summer with little shelter and certainly none of the "mod cons" we have today such as airconditioning and refrigeration. Food and water was even difficult to come by. This did not deter her and for a while she was employed to look after Jacob Santings store at Coober pedy.
In the early 1930's there were a few miners working at Andamooka. One of these miners was an old European who lived in an old dugout away from the main centre. He was regularly seen walking across the hill to collect water from the well in the main centre, but he rarely spoke to anyone. At that time there was a tin store near where the school is now, run by Reg Absalom. During a long heatwave it was realised that no-one had seen this miner for several days, which was quite unusual. Reg went looking for him and found him dead on the hill. He'd been dead for about three days. The decision was made to bury him where they found him, and this was the start of the original cemetery.
In my teens I had a strong interest in fossicking for gemstones. This led to gold panning and gemstone fossicking trips to Beechworth, Walhalla and other similar places,
In 1966 my cousin Ken and I decided we should try and find some opal as we had read about its beauty and the possibility of finding chips and small pieces rejected or missed by the miners at some of the older fields. After some study we settled on an old field called "Pride of the Hills" situated in Queensland west of Cunamulla and east of Toompine. We had no idea of what to expect but headed off in my Cortina sedan in September of that year. We took plenty of fuel, water and food to last the two weeks as well as picks, shovels and sieves.
Andamooka is situated approximately 360 km from Port Augusta. It can be reached by turning off the Stuart Highway at Pimba and travelling along sealed roads via Woomera and Roxby Downs.
Andamooka was one of the later opal fields found in Australia.Opal was first found on the Andamooka Station in 1930. As in all opal discoveries there are a number of claims as to who first discovered opal in the area but the most commonly accepted story is that Roy Shepherd and Sam Brooks, who were working at the Andamooka Station and shifting camp from one place to another, discovered opal in the area now known as Andamooka Opal Creek. They had climbed a hill to watch their horses and to fill in time were throwing rocks in a challenge to see who could throw the furthest. One of the rocks was covered in opal.
Andamooka matrix opal is basically a limestone base rock impregnated with tiny pieces of precious opal. Because the limestone is very pale it is often difficult to see the play of opal colour in the stone and hence a method of darkening the limestone background was developed so the colour of the opal could be seen.
The treatment described here in no way alters the opal component of the stone. It merely allows it to be seen with the naked eye. It is amazing how the stone can be transformed from a pale stone with seemingly little colour to a dazzlingly brilliant black opal. Purists will often oppose such treatment but if it can bring out the unseen beauty in a piece of opal I can see no reason not to do it. It also allows those of us who cannot afford good quality opal, the chance to cut brilliantly coloured stone at a very low cost as matrix opal is so much cheaper.
Cutting Opal is really about grinding away the colourless opal or potch and shaping your stone to an appealing shape while revealing the best colour on the prominant face of the stone.
As explained elsewhere great care should be taken to study the stone before any grinding is carried out. Look at the stone from all angles under a good incandescent light or sunlight and work out which face has the brightest colour. Study the stone with and without using your 10 magnification loupe so you can see any surface irregularities , sand or cracks which will have to be removed before polishing.The face of the stone with the brightest colour should be the top of your finished stone. Mark this with texta colour and then proceed to dop your stone with the wax being on the opposite side to the selected top. (See the post on Dopping Opal on this page) You may need to grind away any sand or loose material on the back of the stone to ensure the wax will get a grip.
What on earth does "dopping opal" mean?
If you have ever tried cutting and polishing opal or any other small stone by holding it in your fingers you will know it is very difficult to do and will often result in grinding a hole in your finger as well as ruining the stone.
The solution is to glue the opal onto the end of a small stick or nail. You will then have much better control of the cutting process and it is much safer.
The cutting and polishing of opal will require some machinery in order to shape and polish the stones. There are many different types of machinery available and it can be very expensive. If you are just starting to cut opal or any other gemstone, you can do so without spending a lot of money. This post will describe probably the minimum amount of equipment you will need to start with. As you get more confident you can then experiment and upgrade to better quality equipment. With the equipment I will describe you will be able to cut and polish beautiful stones: you may just have to be a bit more careful than if you had the more upmarket equipment.
The photograph below is of the White Dam Opal field.
In July 2007, my wife Barbara and I visited Andamooka. We camped in the Andamooka Caravan Park which is on the main road into Andamooka township.
Andamooka is a small town but still has 2 hotels, a supermarket, bottle shop, Post Office, motel, and various places to buy opal.