Monday, October 2, 2017

Coober Pedy Opal Mining

Opals - That is what Coober Pedy is all about - and now tourism, but the mining is what created the town and still is it major industry. Even today, town only exists because of opals. Without them there would be no tourism.

Will there be more behind here?
Opals may be in this seam
Opals were first discovered by the son of some men searching for gold. The boy was told to stay in camp while the men went off prospecting. A typical teenager when it comes to obeying Dad, the son did some exploring on his own. Dad was angry when they returned to camp to find him gone, but all was forgiven when he showed them what he discovered.
Lots of mining taking place here
Some of these mounds will be available for noodling
It may still be possible to find some opals above ground, but mining today required machinery and some luck. Once a claim is staked, the miner begins by drilling a nine-inch hole looking for evidence of opals. If he finds any evidence, the hole is widened to one meter and he begins working sideways in hopes of finding more opals. This work is done with a small caterpillar that has been lowered down the shaft. The cat is attached to a vacuum hose that sucks the rock out. This is a two-person job. One runs the cat while the other watches the rock fact hoping to see the opals appear. Once they find opals, the hard work begins as now they much use hand tools to pry out the opals. Otherwise the opals may be broken and disappear into the rock being sucked up to the surface.

Not much of a platform for working

In the old days all this work was done by hand. It would take two men two weeks to drill the shaft. Today that takes about one hour. And of course the work in the shafts is much easier, too. However, one downside to this method is that approximately 20% of the opals are sucked to the surface. This leads to a process called noodling where people, including non-miners, in some areas are able to sift through the rubble to try to find opals in this detritus. One lady tourist found a piece worth $5000 a couple of years ago doing just this. We spent about half an hour trying our hand at noodling joined by a small family. Let’s just say we did not have the luck she did. Today, some miners have developed a set of machinery to automate noodling using black light to illuminate the stones, but the majority of noodling is still done by individuals.

Pictures show the danger of these fragile shafts

All mining is dangerous work, but in Coober Pedy the danger is increased by the more than 250,000 mine shafts already dug and the crumbly nature of the rock. No one is allowed to be on any claim not their own which as much a safety measure as anything else. Signs all over town show the dangers of being near open shafts. Still, people fall down the shafts every year and have to be rescue if they survive the fall which isn’t likely. Miners are required to report any area they feel is dangerous. The area will be inspected and cordoned off if deemed too dangerous to work. Better to be alive and poor than the alternative.

Some mining is now done on the top - no tunneling

Seeing the machinery the miners use, much of it looks like it was made for a Mad Max movie, just made out of spare parts. They begin with an old truck or bus and add pieces to complete the job. Some probably look older than they are because of all the dust and there really is no point in washing them when they get dirty. Nevertheless, the machines work doing the job they are made for.

Noodling machine
Some of the most valuable opals are those formed as fossils. We saw a few of these on sale for several thousands of dollars. Some are complete shells and with the color of the opals, they make stunningly beautiful artifacts.

Opal mining is perhaps the only mining that has not been taken over by the large companies. There just isn’t any good way for them to industrialize the process, so it is still a place where any individual with some startup cash can have his or her own mine. Moreover, the law prohibits claims of over 165 square feet which have to be mined by you and/or your spouse. No third parties allowed. There is space for you if you a looking for some adventure.

Many who come to visit end up staying either because of the lure of the opals or just because it is a great small town. Linda saw a House Hunters episode filmed in Coober Pedy recently of a young family just looking for a nice place to raise kids.

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