Latest Tales from Coober Pedy
— September 1997

It is now seventeen weeks since we found any opal.

We have done a final drive – we have a diesel machine that keeps fading after two or three hours work. We have changed all the hoses, cleaned out the fuel tank, put in new injectors and even put in a new fuel pump. We had a mechanic drive 600 miles to assemble parts and provided him with a vehicle to do so, and then had him drive 600 miles south back to Adelaide, only for the machine to fade again the next day.

We blew a top radiator hose on Friday afternoon. Komatsu’s nearest radiator hose was 3,000 miles away and had to be flown from Brisbane to Sydney, Sydney to Adelaide, and then Adelaide to Coober Pedy. In all we were down for three and a half days all because of a radiator hose.

If you are wondering why we didn’t have a spare one, so am I, however I am told there is about 100 yards of different hydraulic hoses and rubber on our 40 ton excavator. We have numerous spare hoses, but unfortunately we didn’t have that one.

Since then of course every other hose that goes from the radiator or anywhere near it, we have ordered a spare.

When we were troubleshooting to find out why the machine was fading, Komatsu suggested that we may need a new fuel pump so Kent pulled the old one down, gave it a bit of an inspection and they said yes they had a changeover one. Again we were down for two or three days just waiting for the new one to come up. When it got there it was the wrong one.

In disgust Kent got in his vehicle at 5.00 o’clock in the afternoon and drove 600 miles south with our fuel pump to have it repaired. When he left he made his friend promise him he would keep his 18 month old blue heeler dog tied up at all times and not take it to the field. Kent had become very attached to this dog because he had had it ever since it was a pup. He called it Diesel Blue. He had been particularly careful with his dog because his first Diesel was run over whilst Kent was in America selling some of his hard won opal.

Each day when Kent was south he rang his friend to make sure the dog was okay and was still in it’s enclosure and he was assured it was. Yes, you have guessed it, next afternoon, the day before Kent was to go back his friend rang me and told me that there had been an accident, he had taken the dog to the field and it had been run over. Kent couldn’t believe it. He was so upset. His girlfriend Louise was around when he found out about his dog and when he was out of earshot I said ‘I suppose you hope Kent loves you as much as he loved his dog’ – I got a bit of a blank look.

So with no opal for seventeen weeks, breakdowns, his dog dying, he figured things were bad enough.

One day whilst Kent was working with our aboriginal partner the aborigine just up and walked off. It was blowing a gale and dust was blowing in his eyes, he was just generally fed up with the fact that he had no money after working so hard and the machine had been unreliable, so he just took his pick and went home without saying a word. So Kent was left with his machine, no dog and dwindling funds when he found some more opal.

Kent went to see his partner, he was in a bar, somewhat happier than he had been earlier in the afternoon. He told Kent he was sick of not finding anything and he was going to take his chances going pillar bashing to see if he couldn’t make some quick money he so urgently needed.

Pillar bashing is when people go in after successful miners down mines. If they are getting opal or not they have to leave a certain amount of pillars there to hold the roof up. Pillar bashing is a very dangerous occupation as you can imagine, but people are so desperate for money that they will go in and bash out the pillars, and on many occasions the roof has fallen in and caught the pillar basher. Our partner was desperate, we had already lent him money in advance of an opal find, but he was still desperate for more.

A few days when Kent was working midmorning he looked up and there was the aborigine with his pick working at the face of the mine. He continued to do so without indicating that he was there, waving or saying hello or anything. Kent stopped the machine, got off and said, mate it’s no good going on like this we are going to have to talk. Our parner said, let’s cut the talk and get on with the job. And so they did.

Next day they found some baby chips and small stones and by lunch time they had quite a bit of cheap material in a bucket, and then it happened, the radiator hose broke, so it was in to town to ring Komatsu and start that radiator hose on it’s 3,000 mile trip.

Meanwhile the boys threw the opal in to a cement mixer, tumbled it, classed it and sold it to a Chinese opal buyer. They only got $1,100 for it but at least it was some tucker money for the boys. Whilst arguing over the price of the opal with the buyer, Kent agreed to $1,100 providing he could keep 9 oz. of chips, which he did.

The radiator hose took three and a half days to get there and even then it was a problem Kent had to chase around the town, catch up with the pilot to get the part. It is one thing to get them to fly part into the town, it is another thing to get the part from them.

Anyway just before dark Kent got it, went out, put it on the machine ready for the next day. In the evening as usual I rang Kent and he told me that the machine had lost a lot of power again for a short time, so it still isn’t right. There is talk of some bug in the diesel. He has got something to mix in the tank to try and get rid of the ‘virus’ if it is there. It is news to me, but we are desperate and we will try anything.

The good news of the day was that the machine was stopped for half the day whilst Kent and our partner picked potch and colour and bary out of the face. The boys haven’t tumbled the opal yet but they think they might at least have $1,000 worth.

I am sitting at my desk at 8.30 at night wondering whether I am going to go ahead and continue weighing out opals for you folks, or whether I am going to go up to the mine and try and locate the mother lode. It has got to be there somewhere. We are getting very close to a road at the moment. Kent said he will have to stop when he gets to the road. I said, be buggered boy, go through the road, if there is opal there it is ours, it is in our claim and we will have it. So I can see we might be having an arguement with the Mines Department or someone in the future.

I thought you might enjoy the above. Life as an opal miner isn’t easy. In the past seventeen weeks we would have spent at least $25,000 to find what appears to be $2,100 worth of opal and 9 oz. of chips. Please when ever you get an opal in your hand, take a moment to consider what it has cost to win that opal from the ground. Believe me it has cost more than just money. Many an opal has been sold for much less than it has cost to steal it from mother nature, but one day there might just cough up a million or two from pocket.

Where we are working now, in 1946 they took out opal, skin to skin, up to 30 oz. each. Today that material would be worth at least $4,000 per oz., that would be $120,000 a stone – that is what keeps us going.

Regards, and more later,

More Stories from Murray.