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The New Andamooka Saga



On Friday afternoon I was sitting with my wife having a coffee when I saw a friend, who was standing in the middle of the road dialing his mobile phone. Who's phone do you think went off? Yes it was mine, I didn't answer the phone I just called to him, saved his call and he came over sat down and had a coffee with us.

I said, "Hey, would you like to come to Andamooka with me?"

He said "Yes, of course, when do you want to leave?" and I said "What about in 1 hour?",
and he said "What about I let you know tonight?".

So before watching a pretty big football match on television in the evening, I rang him and he said :

"Yes, 95% he would come", so I didn't bother to ring any other of my friends. (I have been promising 2 other friends for years that I would take them to our mine and haven't done it yet.)

The guy I wanted to take is an opal miner and has lots of suggestions and he is the best company that you could ever have on a 400 mile trip. After the football match I rang him and he was asleep, had lost his enthusiasm and didn't want to come. I planned on leaving at 5 am but I didn't sleep very well due to the excitement of going to our mine so I was up at 4.15 am and left by 5 am.

Whilst I traveled down the highway, there were police cars and ambulances etc., the road was blocked off and I was re-directed around an horrific accident. Unfortunately 3 out of 5 youths had been killed, the 4th is critically injured and the driver walked away just about unscathed, unbelievable.

I arrived in Andamooka after watching the sunrise in the east over some beautiful hills. There were dead Kangaroos on the road with crows and eagles pecking at them and having their breakfast. On arriving in Andamooka I went straight to the mine and saw our little bulldozer and listened for our excavator but alas I couldn't hear it working.

At first I thought it may have broken down and then I thought, Aha, we are on opal. My partner must be sitting down the hole digging it out. No he wasn't there.

I drove back into the town, past Willis Corner and found my friend. He had been selling some opals to a friend's friend who was about to travel overseas. So we had some lunch in a local store as my partner is a bachelor and we then ventured back to the mine. Well, what an afternoon we had.

I brought joy to at least 1000 bush flies, they were everywhere. Fortunately for me with every scrape we had of the excavator into the face of our mine we found some material even if it was only potch. I found dead Matrix, I found a Painted Lady, the excavator had come down and obviously broken a stone in two.

I found the stone that was in the wall but I couldn't see the one that had probably been picked up in the bucket and thrown on the dump. The Painted Lady was only worth about $50 but you never know what the other side would have been like, it had beautiful reds and greens in 3 different places. The first person who wants it, can have it.

My partner has got me a new pick, both ends are flat, normally there is one sharp pointy piece to a pick but we prefer both ends to be flat. I spent quite a lot of time sitting on the loose dirt with our 30 tonne Kommatsu excavator while my partner dragged down loose rocks at the top of the cut which could come down and smash my skull in, even with a hard hat.

He then trims off the top of the cut to expose what we call "the Squibby level". The ground is then dragged down and lands at the bottom of the face of the cut. I then crawl up on it. It is very uneven and it's difficult to stay on my feet, to look at the squibby level to see if there is any opal in that level.

A miner from years ago had a little D6 and he said to one of his friends, "That D6 has pushed me a $1,000,000, however, I know now that it has probably pushed $500,000 from the squibby level that I never checked in the early days. He then said that he was getting quite a bit of opal from New Hill on the squibby level. Unfortunately I never found any opal in the squibby level in the 2 days that I was mining.

When I had completed the squibby level I had to climb down from the mound and then climb up a very big mound of dirt that is sitting in front of the excavator and go and sit on one side of the excavator far enough away so that I didn't get knocked over when it swings around dumping dirt and wait until the face is scraped probably about 6 to 9 inches back from where we last checked it. I eagerly watched the wall to see if that big ultimate fantastic flash of colour is going to be reflected by the sunlight. So far that hasn't happened but we are always hopeful that we are going to hit one as big as a football. We will see it from afar.

We opened up the face and a lot of loose dirt appeared just to the right of centre, it was at least 12 foot wide and went from the bottom of the face to the top. My partner and I suppose that may have been an old D6 bulldozer cut. My partner tells me that the ground to the right will yield a little more colour and looks more promising than the ground to the left.

On the 2nd scrape to the right as I picked into the opal level I hit dead matrix, it is like a river stone about 9 inches long and 5 inches wide, beautifully smooth and under that stone I could see colour, I saw brilliant colour.

I saw greens and golds covered with dirt. I took a screwdriver and pried it away from the stone only to find that less than 1/3 of what I am looking at was opal and the other 2/3 was just dirt and rocky type material. My heart sinks, then I look into the hole where the stone came from the face and I see another little lump with a sparkle of light coming quickly to my eye.

My heart jumps and I think this could be a beautiful stone. I carefully remove the stone from the mud and clay, put it in my mouth to wash off the residue of mud and as it comes from my mouth, I am gladdened of the spectacle of a beautiful green orange crystal, it is better than the one next to it but not as big.

My partner is right. The best opal is going to come from the right hand side of the claim or at least it had until that moment. The back of the stone is flatter than you could get anything if you saw through it. A closer inspection shows that the colour is mainly in the top of the stone but that doesn't matter because that is what one is going to look at when it is set in jewellery.

On the left hand side of the face, my partner is carefully placing his pick into the level and finds a huge piece of potch with a speck of red, so out came the screwdriver and the probing went on. Out came 2 lovely little red stones, not full but very bright and enough to lift our spirits until the next scrape. But alas it never opened into a pocket, just the 2 little red stones.

It is things like this that split partnerships unless all the partners are at the face of the mine, when 2 good stones are produced they are always thinking where is the rest? Andamooka is like that, it might just put 1 or 2 nice stones there and then nothing. The next climb back up to the excavator is done much more easily, who cares about climbing up this loose dirt when the next scrape might produce the big one. Not me.

I watched eagerly and with my renewed enthusiasm started to brush the flies away from my face. Normally my face is theirs to do their will, the more you chase them the more you stir them up. Sudden movements and you get an extra 50 flies in your face. I then checked the squibby level with eager eyes and anxiety and I watched the face as it was scraped again.

This time well to the left, just one single stone of jelly was produced. It weighed about 3/4 oz, not a lot of money but a nice stone. 100 oz of that jelly would make beautiful faceting material or beads so today might be THE DAY.

Whilst I was there I made some new friends and met some old ones. At the bottom of this you will see some very very beautiful Treated Concrete. These stones weigh approximately 20 oz plus and can be yours for only $1000 which is less than 30c per carat, you can't be that.

TO BE CONTINUED IF REQUESTED.


PART 2

It is now winter but you wouldnÕt know it in Andamooka it is very much like the Arizona area, hot and dry in summer and beautifully warm and clear in winter, balmy days and very chilly nights but no snow whatsoever.

Andamooka is a beautiful town set in a valley with a creek running through the middle, however, only in times of flash floods do you see water in the creek. There is part of a branch known as Andamooka Station and for almost 100 years have hopeful people endure the 400 mile drive in the hope of finding that elusive rainbow.

The rainbow is well in our sights. At 6 am we arose for some quick toast tea, donned our heavy boots and tough mining clothes that would protect our bodies should we fall across one of the thousands of piles of sandstone in our mine and headed to our cut on New Hill.

The excavator was up on high ground as every night when we finish work we take it from the cut in case of a flash flood or another mishap. We put it in an area that we could work on should be have any problems with the machine. Before we took it down its steep and narrow drive to the base of the cut we greased the machine as we do every 2 days.

We have a special grease gun that is operated by an air-compressor, this is no more than a 15 minute job and then the machine is walked down to the face. I don my hardhat, throw my pick over my shoulder, as did the 7 dwarfs and glided to the cut face. For a moment I feel like a foot soldier walking behind a tank towards the enemy.

In reality, I am the soldier who has to fight the earth. The earth is prepared to take on the machine and always wins. There is not a mining machine that has never broken down with the wear and tear of tearing into the earth for its treasure. The earth takes the men on and wears them down with its dusty hot desert, tests their patience and sends many men from the fields with their tails between their legs. Some lose their families because they have become opalholics and continue to drive and dig in search of the earths treasure. They are besotted by the stone and finally lose their stake and often their families as a result.

Today once again my partner and I did battle with the earth. In the cool of the morning and the renewed energy produced through the night is sat with very high hopes. As you will remember the last scrape had produced some very beautiful jelly. Was there to be another few stones hiding behind the last? I watched the machine as the large bucket, which will hold 3 men shoulder to shoulder, drove through the squibby level down to the bottom of the face. No. I couldnÕt see any brilliance from the safe distance I sat from the bucket, but as I stepped down through the mullick, tiny bits of sandstone tried to sneak down the side of my boot to aggravate me.

I did spot some dark potch, maybe 4 or 5 pieces but it was as dark as lead. I indicated to my partner as he sat on the machine waiting for it to cool down before he turned it off to come down and check the level that there were traces. Here it was early in the morning on our first scrape and we have a trace already. Surely today was going to produce the big one. Potch was just potch nothing more. To the left some very thin skinny translucent potch and to the right, well today we wonÕt know what is to the right because there is so much overburden that if we step in there we could be buried.

My partner thinks that to get opal in this cut the opal will come more to the right. He tries to explain why to me but I figure it is more intuition than any reality. He talks of opal running this way and opal running that and something stopping the flow and the opal is formed one hundred million years ago. How he knows I donÕt know. I certainly wasnÕt there to verify his theory. So we were concentrating on the left. Nothing on the first scrape, a little potch on the second scrape, even less potch on the third scrape.

The sun was coming out and so I lifted the collar on the back of my neck, I didnÕt expect to be getting sunstruck on this Sunday. In battling with the earth I didnÕt figure I was going to allow the sun to become its ally. I carefully covered the rest of my body with some material so that the sun would not damage me. On the 4th scrape I saw some colour as large as the point of a pin. As I scraped around it, it grew bigger.

The tinge of blue became bright blue green, however, to my disappointment there is a little sand through the blue green. Yes, we were on blue green Crystal trace. Behind that stone was another and to the side of that stone was another, behind that stone was another but it was only trace but that was good enough for us so early in the day. Scrape after scrape more potch and more potch, the blue green disappeared as fast as it appeared. Opal is shy and it is hidden for many eons and by lunchtime had not shown her face.

I had lots of work to do in Adelaide. I had asked my partner as a special favour to me to work on a Sunday morning. I figured that if I knocked off by 12 noon I could have lunch, clean up and be ready to leave by 2 pm and be back in my home in the city by 8 pm. As the excavator was driven from the cut, I walked behind it, took my hardhat from my head and felt the cool relief of the wind as it fanned my perspired brow because to get the excavator to high ground we have to go up hill.

I trudge behind the machine and felt like a defeated soldier, I had no fear of what was ahead of me. My footstep was heavy in contrast to the lighthearted step I had behind the machine as we walked down the incline towards the cut in the morning. My mining for the weekend was over with just a few stones to show but nowhere near enough to pay for the fuel that we had expended or to cover the food that we had consumed or to pay for the electricity for the power to heat the expensive water used to clean our bodies though in my case it doesnÕt matter much because fortunately I have an opal business to rely on for my living.

But I can tell you my partner didnÕt have too many smiles on his face. He has payments on his 4 wheel drive to make and no opal to sell to make those payments. He also has other commitments and has taken me in as a partner and I have to pay all the mining expenses and provide the machinery. He has had to take in a partner to minimise the gamble of producing opal.

We attend the local supermarket to have our lunch. We have to provide our own because the miners wife has had enough of the fields, taken the children and gone, another disappointment for my partner. He told her many times that things will improve, that he will find a big one. He did before he became my partner and he will again and he will enjoy the luxuries of what the earth has to provide but she is gone and so we will buy a pie for our lunch.

There are little tables in front of a television screen and the locals are Sitting staring at the screen. I am told that it is a Keno screen and they play. As number 23 was my old football number I watch to see if the number appears, it doesnÕt in 3 games so I put $20 on the 4th and it doesnÕt come, I put $50 on the 5th it doesnÕt come, I put $100 on the 6th it doesnÕt come, I put $200 on the 7th it doesnÕt come. I asked my partner to put $400 on the 8th and he doesnÕt come fast enough so my money is not on. We anxiously watch the screen to see whether number 23 comes up, we are sure that it will and this was my last punt, it doesnÕt come.

On the 9th game we are on and 23 comes, we collect $1200 but had an outlay of whatever it adds up to and we figure that I am $480 in front but not really because I have a partner. I handed him $240 and keep $240 for myself so the day wasnÕt so bad. My partner doesnÕt want to take the money but he knows how badly he needs it and tries to give it back but I force it on him. It should feed him for another 3 weeks.

TO BE CONTINUED IF REQUESTED


MURRAY WILLIS

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Last modified: July 8, 2007
Murray Willis