Trip Report 2003 Australia: 17 Days In The Opal Trade

Jun 08 2003Off To LAX

June 8 Our flight left Billings as planned.  We enjoyed an uneventful flight to Denver, a layover, and another uneventful flight to LAX.  Here we waited through a 4-hour layover before boarding the plane (11:15 P.M.) headed for Sydney.  .  Off we go…1:30  A.M (slight delay on the runway).  We slept most of the way until the Captain came over the intercom and announced we had to divert around ash from a Pacific volcano, leaving us short of fuel…and so we would be landing in Fiji for fuel.  We were not allowed to get off the plane but viewed a lovely sunrise and palm trees on the beach while we waited.  Lost June 9 to the international dateline.

Jun 10 2003Sydney To Orange NSW

June 10:  We had reserved a small Apollo motor-home (complete with shower and toilet…what a treat) to call “home” and took off out of Sydney and headed through the Blue Mountains.  Once again, we seemed to have hit a national holiday (Queen’s birthday) and had quite a bit of traffic to deal with, along with road construction through the mountains.  The mountains were more like foothills to people from the Rockies of Montana.  The landscape was green and lush, although we understand that this year is the worst drought that this area has experienced in a hundred years.  After some driving time, and narrow curving roads, exhaustion was setting in.  We stopped to make a pot of coffee, and couldn’t get the propane stove in the vehicle to work.  We started up the engine (6 cylinder Mercedes turbo diesel with just enough power to reach 110KPH) and kept going until we reached a rest stop between Bathurst and Orange.  We worked on the propane stove (operator problem, not mechanical…RTFM), fixed supper of spaghetti/coffee/orange-mango juice/ and ½ a candy bar.  With the cool temps today, and tired jet lagged bodies, sleep came early (7:00 P.M.) and easily.

Jun 11 2003Orange to Lightning Ridge…Black Opal Capital

June 11: Woke to a foggy morning, showered in the camper, had a cereal and fruit breakfast, and hit the road by 9:00 A.M. Our goal today will be to get to Lightning Ridge (home of the Black Opal). As we traveled, we began seeing the local flora and fauna; cattle, sheep, goats, a red parrot, black and white small gull-like birds, vineyards, gum trees and road signs depicting our 911 help is 000 here. Fueled up in Orange and bought our first Ginger Beer Soda (Steve’s personal favorite Aussie soft drink). Just outside of town, we stopped at the local fruit stand and visited with the very Italian merchants. As we traveled today, we stopped at rest stops (the toilet-less ones), snapped landscape pictures, and began seeing the barkless gum trees. In Wellington, we stopped at the West-Pac Bank and got some opal buying cash, and some supplies. We also visited a small Aboriginal Cultural Artwork Center run by the Aboriginals. I bought Steve his Father’s Day gift, as he selected an original painting done by the locals. By 2:00 P.M. we began seeing the galahs! The galahs are one of my favorite birds (one of the cockatoo family, gray and bright coral in color), though to the locals they are pests… loud and noisy at sunrise and sunset-as they roost, and very plentiful. The references to people who are “bushel short of a full load” are called a galah also. Stopped at Gilgunda and had an ice cream bar while we fueled. It is looking more like the outback; salt brush, gums, and red dirt. About ½ of the way to Walgett, we saw a small corral full of dogs…and wondered if they were ready to round up the sheep. Some of the sheep are shorn at this time of the year, and some are not. By 4:45 P.M. we sighted our first kangaroo road kill…time to be careful on the road. Lovely sunset in our view, and had to stop and take pictures. Driving is precarious on this road of fair condition. The signs along the road indicate that this is a floodway and the signs are posted with measured marks so travelers can see just how deep the water is over the road…. up to 2 meters in places. The actual floodway is north of Lightning Ridge and flows south through this area. Almost to our destination, we saw live kangaroos in the brush. Once in town, we found our prebooked location at the Crocodile Caravan Park, and had a hot meal at the Bowling Club (of course, Calamari) with the owner of the Caravan Park, and listened to many great stories!

Jun 12 2003At The “Ridge” In the Crocodile Caravan Park

A couple of 'roos posing for a photo op on an old mullock heap on historic Richards Hill opal-field in Grawin.

A couple of 'roos posing for a photo op on an old mullock heap on historic Richards Hill opal-field in Grawin.

June 12: Up and showered…me in the amenities, and Steve in the camper.  Fixed a hot breakfast in the camper (potatoes, eggs, banana bread, coffee, and orange-mango juice…our personal favorite.  While I cleaned up the camper, Steve purchased a cell phone at the Post Office and had a very difficult time getting it to work. Probably missed out on somree nice opal sales because of this.  I wrote post cards to my students (former and future), and put our new mobile phone number on our business cards.  We took a stroll downtown, stopping at a local opal shop, and then to find some Internet contacts of ours, Peter and Lisa.  We had a very good visit, and viewed gorgeous opals.  Lisa introduced us to Len Cram.  We had pre-arranged this meeting with Len through Lisa.  Len is the author/photographer of many publications on opal.  We spent most of today with Len, interviewing, admiring, laughing, and enjoying his company.  In his yard, the Bougainvillea trees were in full bloom, and the honeyeater birds were feasting.  We stocked up on Len’s books, some for us that we did not have in our collection, and some for our business.   Since the big books are limited copies, there will not be more printed.  Len personally signed all of the books we purchased.  We had lunch with Len at the Bogus Service Station.  We stopped at our camper (the caravan park owner had put out a sign saying “Buying Opal, site #4”), and the miners began coming to us.  We looked at parcel after parcel in the sun on a picnic table as various miners brought their material…we did buy some.  Lisa and Peter invited us to join them for “tea” (evening meal) at their camp.  Delightful, self-sufficient, off the grid, abode with no electrical feed from town (Peter has rigged a very large photovoltaic array charging a huge set of Nickel Cadmium batteries which fed an inverter to supply 240 AC…also has a back-up generator), with wood cook stove, covered patio surrounding the rectangular building, with hammocks, gardens, beautiful landscaping in flora and fauna.  While we waited for the meal to be done, the campfire was lit outside, and we sat around it and visited.  Our evening tea consisted of lamb chops, whole roasted leeks, sweet potatoes, fresh beans, and turnips, topped with banana foster served over ice cream.  Visiting and joke telling occupied our time until 10:30 P.M. when we headed for the community bore bath with Peter.  Saw the ‘roos hopping around as we headed for the bore bath.

Jun 13 2003Len Cram

Len Cram showing his array of opals he has created with the actual opal matrix from mines and his concoction of electrolytes.

Len Cram showing his array of opals he has created with the actual opal matrix from mines and his concoction of electrolytes.

June 13:  Up at 6:00 A.M., cold breakfast in the camper and then a good walk around town.  L.R. is a quaint little town and we enjoyed the diversity in buildings.  Saw some “funny and furry” chickens in one yard.  The chickens are called “chucks” in Australia.  Back to the camper, showers, and then I went to the Post Office to meet Len Cram for the mailing of his books back to the states.  Len Cram is  very famous author and his 4 book series “A Journey With Colour” is world famous in the opal trade.  Steve stayed at the camper as another miner had showed up with a parcel for sale.  Len was not at the P.O. yet and since our cell phone was not yet working, I borrowed Lisa’s for a while and took it to Steve.  Back to P.O. where I met with Len to get the books home.  We then went to Len’s home to visit, and to see the “backyard laboratory” where Len houses all of his work on creating opal from opal dirt.   He also took us out to 3-mile opal field where he had dug opal in his younger years.  Before going back to the camper, we stopped at Lisa and Peter’s to settle and check our home e-mail.  At the camper, as we tried to eat lunch, 3 more sets of miners stopped in…bought some, and drooled some (we saw a finished 10 carat blazing red/blue green on black stone that was for sale for only $40,000)!  Finally finished our thrice began lunch at 3:00 P.M.  As I washed 2 loads of laundry, I noticed there were no dryers, so I hung up the wet clothes.  They were not dry in time, and ended up hanging them in the camper.  Meanwhile, Steve looked at more parcels and then gassed up the vehicle.  Walked to the Chinese restaurant to meet Lisa and Peter and one of their friends.  We did not order from the menu, Peter just told the chef to cook us up whatever he felt like.  My, what a feast – 6 different dishes.  We tasted lychee (fruit) with bananas over ice cream.  Another great evening in Lighting Ridge!

Jun 14 2003Lightning Ridge to Wilcania

June 14 : Took off down the road.  We began seeing a number of ‘roos this early in the A.M. along with the wedge-tailed eagles and small green parrots.  We headed cross-country, and somewhere along the way, west of Cobar, we began seeing large longhaired goats of some kind.   They were gray, black, white, brown, and any mixture of that, some with large curled horns and some not.  They were feral goats and not very friendly.  I wish I had been able to get a picture, but no such luck.  Today was a LONG almost brutal, back-breaking drive trying to get as many kilometers under our belt before dusk and the emergence of dangerous kangaroos on the road.  Our final stop for the day was in Wilcannia where we camped.  In town, there was a big fight in the street with police present.  We pulled into the caravan park along the river with huge old bark-less gum trees.   There were 5 small kangaroos near the facilities.  Cute place.   Supper in the camper (calamari rings, rice and green beans).  Off to the showers, and hit the sack by 8:00 P.M.

Jun 15 2003Glendambo…Long Drive!

Trevor Berry giving Darlene a hand as she prepares to descend 60ft down a shaft into an opal mine.

Trevor Berry giving Darlene a hand as she prepares to descend 60ft down a shaft into an opal mine.

June 15:  Up at 6:30, cleaned up, and enjoyed a cold breakfast of cereal and fruit in the camper.  As we left the campground and just entered the highway, we saw 5 kangaroos, and two of them were gently boxing (maybe some kind of mating or territorial display)!  The first time for us to see them box.  As we traveled west, we saw a number of emus in the wild, and of course the wedge-tailed eagles.  Fueled in Broken Hill, and called friend Trevor in Coober Pedy.  On and on (VERY long day of driving), we drove to Glendambo, our night’s destination.  It was dark and driving called for much care…. ‘roos are on the move and a very deadly traffic hazard.  Supper at the petrol convenience store restaurant and spent the night in the Glendambo caravan park.  Bathroom facilities were filthy…something seldom seen in our Australian travels.

Jun 16 2003Coober Pedy: Opal Capital Of The World

Steve looking at a fine parcel of opals in Coober Pedy

Steve looking at a fine parcel of opals in Coober Pedy

June 16:  Checked out the penned emus and ‘roos at the station in Glendambo (petting zoo…’roos have incredibly soft rabbit like fur) after a shower and hot breakfast (scrambled eggs and toast).  Traveled on to Coober Pedy.  It was about noon, so ordered some lunch at the Temptation Café (can heartily recommend this place…great food), while we stopped at a nearby shop to say hello to friends, Piet and Barbara.  After lunch, and purchasing some groceries, we headed to the backyard of friends, Trevor and Rosie where we’ll be parking and living in the camper for the next week or so.  Almost immediately we were looking at opals from local miners (and spending lots of Australian dollars…all transactions are done in cash…could it have something to do with the tax man?).  I’ve heard an Aussie opal miner say:  “only God and I know how much opal I’ve found recently…and Gods not talking”.  By evening, we were ready for a tasty supper at Tom & Mary’s Greek Taverna  with Trev and Rose.   Great food…fresh seafood trucked up from Adelaide once a week and I (Steve) had fresh oysters on the half shell and barramundi.

Jun 17 2003Coober Pedy…Lots Of Opal For Sale

A small sample from a VERY nice parcel of Lambina opal purchased during this trip.

A small sample from a VERY nice parcel of Lambina opal purchased during this trip.

June 17:  After an easy breakfast, we were off to see more opals at Steve and Maggie’s home. Steve saw 2 gorgeous parcels for sale…one was a parcel of top gem belemnites (very rare) and the other was some of the gemmiest opal to come out of the Hans Peak diggings (we were lucky that Maggie was just heading to Greece to see her family, so we were able to negotiate a very good price on both parcels). On the way back, we stopped at Tim and Sam’s establishment (the biggest triplet manufactures in Coober Pedy) to see triplets in the slicing stage.  The stones on the cutter will take 10-20 hours to be sliced…a kind of mud saw that uses many, many thin metal blades and only 600 grit as a cutting abrasive agent…no diamond.  We were able to talk the Lad’s into a very good price on a large mix of calibrated triplet stones to see how well they fare in our inventory and on our website.   We joined Sam, Tim and David, for dinner at Trevor and Rose’s…a wonderful time.  We had been introduced to Rum and Raisin Ice Cream…WOW!

Jun 18 2003Darlene In The Mines

Darlene having "tea" with the miners 60ft down...she's a trooper!

Darlene having "tea" with the miners 60ft down...she's a trooper!

June 18:  After breakfast in the camper, we headed to Tim and Sam’s to check out the completion of the slicing.  Trevor, Rose, Steve and I headed to the claim where Louie was mining.  All but Rose went down in the mine, where Louie was working with the round tunneling machine.  Though the round machine is not particularly fast, it is much faster than digging by hand.  Up the shaft (upstairs) for a tasty lunch provided by Rose, then off to another mine where David and Gregg were working. Coming out of this mine Steve almost lost a finger when reaching up to stabilize himself at the top of the shaft and his finger went into cable pulley.  Luckily there was an emergency shut-off switch installed after just such an accident had occurred previously.   After we dropped down into the mine, they stopped for a bit for some lunch (in the kitchen…see Darlene in the photo having lunch with the miners).  We had quite a tour of this mine with its many tunnels.  The tunneling machine used in this mine was faster.   One man on the machine makes a pass on the wall, and then it is checked for opal traces by the other.  While we watched, a bit of bony potch was exposed.  After chasing it a bit, a very thin bar of color, embedded in the bony potch, was found.  A sample for us!  Rose had arrived to pick us up, so up we went on the winch and back to town.  Rose drove a different route as a nasty car/semi accident had just occurred on the main road.  Showers felt pretty nice after the dirt and dust in the mines.  The Underground Restaurant fixed a lovely meal on this Tuesday evening.

Jun 19 2003Coober: More Opal, Laundry And Friends

While working with Trevor Berry, I observed an opal trace in the wall of his opal mine.  My curiosity got the better of me and, with a pick, decided to dig deeper.  No opal, but lots of blisters on my hands!

While working with Trevor Berry, I observed an opal trace in the wall of his opal mine. My curiosity got the better of me and, with a pick, decided to dig deeper. No opal, but lots of blisters on my hands!

June 19:  Breakfast in the camper came soon enough.  We tried to look up another couple whose website we had seen, and though we located their home, they were not in it.  Stopped at another friend’s home, and they too, were out of town.  The third try to visit friends was successful.  We did get in an hour’s visit with Anne who had just returned from a camel safari with friends and family.   Lunch was eaten on a picnic table in the afternoon sun. The balance of the afternoon provided time to stop at the bank, purchase some opal, do some laundry, pack and ship some opal, visit with our first couple that we had attempted to visit today, stop at the Opal Cutter’s shop to make some dinner plans, and select a birthday gift from Steve to me!   Jim and Jean shared their dugout and conversation with us regarding the “old days” of mining, as Jim has been on the fields for a very long time.  The Mudd Hut provided a tasty meal and ambiance for good conversation.  In bed at 11:00 P.M.

Jun 20 2003More Opals…

Triplet makers Sam and Tim Seekamp in their shop.

Triplet makers Sam and Tim Seekamp in their shop.

June 20:  Breakfast in the camper was soon over, and we looked at parcels most of the morning and interviewed the men with the triplet making business (for a possible article in one of the Gem magazines).  It was quite fascinating and learned more of their family history and Coober Pedy.  Lunch at the Temptations Café and then visited with Dave and Carol, and then to Brian and Judy’s.  The evening hours were spent at the Italian Club where local miners have supper, and making opal connections with other miners for future trips to Oz.  We joined in the fun.  After socializing a bit, the old video “Fire in the Stone” filmed in Coober Pedy (lent to us to view by Brian and Judy) was watched at Trevor and Rose’s.

Jun 21 2003Southern Ocean Tour

A beautiful Parcel of Hans Peak Opal we shipped back from Coober Pedy...spectacular colors!

A beautiful Parcel of Hans Peak Opal we shipped back from Coober Pedy...spectacular colors!

June 21:  Today we sadly leave the Coober Pedy area.  Steve checked out another parcel of top Lambina opals while I finished the laundry.  It would be nice if we had about $500K to spend on opals and it would be very easy to spend.   Filled the vehicle with petrol and headed out of town.  We stopped at Glendambo for a bit of ice cream. Lunch was eaten in the camper at a rest stop.  Port Augusta was our target for the evening.  We had supper in the camper.  As I prepared the loft for sleep, I noticed that some of the opal in bags had leaked some water through the comforters and through the sheets.  I changed the sheets and did the best we could for the night.

The balance of the trip was spent heading back to Adelaide where we will return the vehicle.  But first we took a little trip…headed west along the ocean for a drive (Steaky Bay, Ceduna and The Head of the Bight to see whales) and took in the sights, seashell collecting, and watching the Southern Right Whales.  Each and every night we said goodnight under the cool, and starry sky…gazing at the only constellation in the Southern Hemisphere that we knew…the Southern Cross.

Jun 22 2003Next To Last Day

Outback vegetation: Mulga, gum trees and a few saltbush shrubs.

Outback vegetation: Mulga, gum trees and a few saltbush shrubs.

June 22: Packed and cleaned up the camper thoroughly as today it will be turned back to Apollo in Adelaide.  The weather was a bit drizzly and windy.  The trip was quiet and uneventful, even the maneuvering through the city.  The vehicle was returned, a motel room was secured, and a taxi was hailed for us.  Once into our motel, we secured another taxi to take us to Jetty Road along the coast.  Jetty Road is a shopping and eating paradise along the beach!  Getting there was a bit of a jolt as we narrowly escaped a 4-car accident of which we would have been in the middle of (and probably the cause of).  The taxi ride back was much easier.  Supper at the hotel restaurant, and early to bed.

Jun 23 2003Last Day

Last Day:  Wake up call came at 4:30 A.M. Flight departure at 7:00 A.M.  Arrived in Sydney at 9:00 A.M.  Left Sydney at 2:00 P.M…we were upgraded to Business Class (our seats were double booked) for this leg of the flight (fully reclining seats with personal TV sets, dinners ordered from menus, private toilets with real terry cloth towels and a free constant supply of whatever beverage suits your fancy).  I REALLY like business class!  Arrived in LA 15 hours later, served a 5 hour layover, then on to Denver.  Another layover, and then on the last leg from Denver to Billings.  Arrived at home at 10:15 P.M.  We hit the hay after traveling for 35 brutal hours.