Opal mining and living in Koroit
by Ulrike Kalthaus
Another beautiful, cold and sunny winter's day on Koroit Opal field and mining here is in full swing.
Koroit opal is widely known for its unique character, variety and intensive color play, in particular for its pattern opal, picture stones, centre nuts, matrix, opalised wood and beautiful clean face opal. Due to its originality and qualitiy, Koroit opal has become a trade name for opal lovers and specialists around the world.
Koroit opal field, the southernmost Opal field in Queensland, is situated approximately eighty kilometres North West of Cunnamulla. It consists of some clusters of leases, which are several kilometres away from each other, including the lease known historically as the Scottish Mine, now called 'Elusive'; the 'Fiery Comet' lease; the 'Piglets' lease; the 'Holloways' leases; 'Three Mile' lease; the 'Shallow patch' leases close by; and the lease historically known as the 'Christmas mine', now called 'Ulrike's Stockade'.
Mining on these leases is mostly conducted by commercial opal mining operations, and unlike Yowah, Koroit is not a tourist destination. The most common mining method used on Koroit opal field is open cut mining. Opal bearing levels to about 30 feet depth are being exposed with excavators and bulldozers. Levels between 30 and 65 feet (deepest known opal levels on Koroit) deep are generally mined with underground mining methods, because this is a more time and cost effective way. First when mining underground, a one metre diameter shaft is drilled. From this shaft, the miners dig tunnels in the depth of the opal level with jack hammers and hydraulic tunneling machines (diggers). The excess rock is transported to the surface with the help of a so called hoist. The finding of opals is at least partially a matter of luck. Some opal pockets are located by test drilling with 9 inch auger drills.
There is nothing like the happy and elated feeling, when you are the first person to lay eyes on a beautiful freshly dug opal!
It makes the experience of opal mining exciting and unique.
The discovery of Koroit Opal field in 1897 was followed by small, short lived rushes and interrupted periods of intense mining activities. After periods of no and very little activity after 1926, an interest in Koroit opal field re-emerged around 1972. The popularity of Koroit opal increased steadily in the years to follow, and as a result, Koroit opal field has grown a lot to the present day. More claims and leases are being worked on Koroit than ever before despite the time consuming bureaucratic processes and regulations around the registration and maintenance of mining leases and exploration permits. Current Koroit opal production is at its most substantial since the field's discovery, supplying rough and cut opals in response to demand from within Australia and from further afield, interest mainly coming from the USA, Germany and Japan. Most commercial opal buyers come to Koroit to buy rough and polished opals. A big range of Koroit opals is also for sale at various yearly opal/gemstone shows, including the opal show in Yowah (wholesale and retail), and the Gold Coast Opal show (wholesale only).
The camp life of miners can be difficult, but also has many benefits. Most mining camps on Koroit opal field consists of a combination of caravans and tin sheds. They usually have a water tank for rainwater, which is collected from shed roofs. Its supply is limited and therefore only used for cooking and drinking. For showers and all other water needs, bore water is used. Some camps are lucky to have a direct water poly pipe connection to a bore outlet, but most miners have to make a nightly trip to a bore water shower, which is part of a sheep shearing complex approximately 10 kilometers away.
The electricity needs of the mining camps are supplied by generators or solar power. Gas fridges and stoves are powered by gas bottles, which can be refilled in Cunnamulla, 80 km away, where miners do their weekly shopping/stocking up on essentials. Most camps have phone connections, and some have satellite internet and television connection. Opal mining on Koroit is hard work, which with a bit of luck is rewarded by finding and digging up beautiful opals. Miners have long working days and it is not uncommon that they work every day of the week, mining, maintaining and fixing machinery and camp equipment. The miners don't mind, they love the life style. They are part of a great community and help each other when required. There is still time to go fisihing in one of the nearby waterholes on a Sunday and to catch up with fellow miners for a meal, sunset drinks or to sit around the fire at night, sharing opal mining tales and experiences.