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Latest Tales from Coober Pedy -- November 1997

Above is a picture of a parcel of opal that hasn't been tumbled, it is just as it came out of the ground apart from 2 stones that are missing.

Today I was on the fields at Coober Pedy with Kent, we were driving out through the 7 and 8 mile fields and he was showing me the work that he had done.

The 7 mile he showed me where a huge slab had fallen away from the wall which probably weighed about 20 tonne. He had been with his excavator looking at the wall, and his checker Milton was at the face, checking to see if there was any opals in the wall, all of a sudden a huge slab, like a big slippery back, slipped off the side of the face of the bulldozer cut.

There was one hell of a thud and dust went everywhere. Kent thought quickly and jammed the dipstick of the 40 tonne Komatsu excavator against the falling sandstone, not delaying it a split second, there was dust everywhere and Kent was no where to be seen. Finally as the dust settled and he saw Milton standing along way back waving to show that he was still alive. However, the keys from his belt were missing and after an extensive search they were found. That is how close that big slippery back came to killing Milton.

Just seeing this and the cuts that the pair had done, we came across a man fixing his "blower". A blower is like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks the dirt from the shaft out of an opal mine. I knew the man well and stopped to speak with him. He invited Kent and I into his mine however, Kent wouldn't go and asked me not to.

Being inquisitive type I went down the mine and saw the biggest ballroom I had ever seen. You could've turned 2 semi trailers around in it. I saw the highest and longest drives I had ever seen. I saw the widest drives as we walked through the mine, the miner directed us to the walls, he didn't want us walking in the middle. All along these old drives there were lumps of sandstone that had fallen away from the roof on the floor.

If we walked out into the middle one of these would come down for sure at any time and kill us. A friend had a theory that in the bottom of these large ballrooms there was still another level containing opal and he said that he wanted to put a machine in there to operate it from a great distance, so that if the roof fell in it would only fall on the machine and not him.

My friend carried a light hooked up to a generator with what seemed to be hundreds of yards of extension cords. I am telling you if he had left me in there, I would still be there, there were just miles of tunnels. Big open ones and little narrow ones. Some stages we were climbing on our bellies like snakes.

I was amazed that he knew where he was. He eventually stopped and pointed to the wall and said I got a parcel there last week. He said that he felt that his mind was like the Bank of England, both stacked with gems and money that was all his. I said to him what do you doing in here, it is so dangerous you are going to be killed, he said Murray, "I need the money."

Again he insisted that the mine would be his undoing and cause his end. He laughed and threw the pick into the wall where he had got his last parcel and we heard clink, yes, there was more opal there.

If you look at the picture at the top of this story and you will see the opal that we found, minus 2 stones. He then proceeded to dig out the little parcel and wanted to sell it to me before we went up out of the mine. He wanted $500, but it wasn't worth that, I offered him $350, thinking he wouldn't take it, but he took and he and I both knew that it wasn't even worth the $350, and up we went. Kent was standing at the top of the mine anxiously waiting, he was upset with me and said "what took you so long?" After a few pleasantries we left.

Ten minutes less than 1 week later, my friend was dead. Yes, the roof came in and killed him. Kent was right, I should never had gone into that mine. My friend shouldn't have worked there.

My friend had 2 daughters and later I gave them each a stone from the last parcel of opal their father mined.

What is opal worth? Look at this parcel and you will see the parcel that cost a man his life. Was it worth it? No doubt he and his friends had been down many dangerous mines. The fact is that there isn't any mine that isn't dangerous. I have a picture of a friend that was taken earlier by an American guest who we would like to see e-mail us and I will send you an e-mail and a picture of him.

This sad saga took place a number of years ago. I have a picture of this man in my office. When I think a miner is asking too much for a parcel, I often look at it and think "What is opal worth?".

It has taken me this long to bring myself to telling this story, there would be hardly a person on the field who wouldn't tell such a story about miners during the past 100 years. They are an exceptional bunch of people. The lure of the stone, drives them on. Not all survive.

WE SALUTE THE AUSTRALIAN OPAL MINERS."


Kindest regards,

Murray Willis.

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Last modified: July 8, 2004
Murray Willis