Trip Report 2001 Australia: Back For More Opal

Jun 23 2001Leaving Billings for Oz…

6/23/01:  Before we left our home on the range in Montana, we received a call from Delta Airlines informing us of our flight schedule being 45 minutes late.  Though the call was very considerate, it also meant that our connecting flight in Salt Lake City to LAX would not be made.  In spite of that, we boarded the “late” flight and flew to Salt Lake City.   We looked for the new connecting flight that we were now booked on, and found that it had been cancelled due to mechanical problems.  We were then booked on a 3rd flight!   With a 2 ½ hour layover, we waited patiently until our flight took off (in a dark and cloudy sky).  It was not a problem, as the overseas flight did not leave until close to midnight, and we had plenty of time.  Into LA, a short wait, doing a bit of people watching…always interesting at the LAX International Terminal.   Then we settled into a long, thankfully uneventful, night of flying!  Steve was able to wear a “hero” hat for a while in the terminal too…a young boy of 7-8 was in front of us on an escalator ramp and got his shoelace caught in one of the cracks.  Just before the ramp disappeared to the underside, Steve saw it, and freed the lace.  The remainder of the flight was smooooooth and we were enjoying lovely weather.

Jun 25 2001Back In Oz…

6/24/01:  Gone…to the International Date Line

6/25/01: Passed through customs without a hitch and caught our hop from Sydney to Adelaide.  Into Adelaide, we summoned a taxi and scooted to the car rental business…Skippy Rentals.  You just have to love the name of the business!  Since we had prearranged our rental, the job was smooth, and they offered us a mobile phone to use…we just had to get a pre-paid card for it and a charger, which we did.  We took off for the outback!!!!

The vehicle was narrower than the rig we rented last year, and smaller.  Guess it would be called a minivan-conversion-camper in the USA.  Four cylinder Toyota van, but the engine seemed to move the campervan along fine at highway speeds and was much easier  to drive in the usually busy Adelaide traffic.  It was a better vehicle for us…it had a bug screen up over part of the windshield (windscreen in Oz) and the top bar of it blocked my field of vision…Steve was fine as he is considerably taller than I.  I found that a doubled up pillow to sit on solved the problem.  Traveling north on a gorgeous day…we tried to make it to Port Augusta…but were just too tired!  We did make it to Port Pirie…and along the way saw clouds of swarming bugs around the roadside scrub bushes.  We did not see any kangaroos on this stretch of the road, but did see an emu.  It was getting dark, and we needed to get off the road, both for nocturnal animals and because we could hardly stay awake.  Checked into the first motel we came to, “The John Pirie Motor Inn” and booked a lovely room.  To us, it was absolutely the finest room…lace tablecloth on the little table, and a two-person spa in the bathroom…doesn’t get any better than that!  We shared a four-star meal in the dining room…and then zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.


Jun 26 2001And On To Coober…

6/26/01: We awakened very well rested and enjoyed breakfast at the motel dining room…had “rashers” of bacon…thin sliced bacon about 2-3inches wide…no strips of bacon.  I also noticed breakfast items on the menu such as “homemade baked beans on toast”, and “spaghetti with tomato sauce over toast”.  Almost all breakfast meals are served with a wedge of tomato…some grilled, others uncooked.

Headed for Coober Pedy after a quick stop for fuel and “orange-mango juice” …our favorite!  Picked up a few groceries in PP then back on the road.  We soon discovered that very few businesses accept Travelers Checks, neither in Australian currency or US currency.    Good to see the lovely gum trees again with their bark stripped trunks and narrow pointed treetop greenery, salt brush, acacia (mulga) trees and red dirt with gibbers (walnut to fist sized jasper, hematite and quartzite rocks).  Viewed our first wedge-tailed eagle.  As we neared Pimba, the amount of vegetation had thinned.  There is a long pipeline parallel to the Stuart Highway…I’m not sure if it is for water, or gas.  Remembering a delightful fresh food roadside stand, we kept our eyes peeled, until we found it.  There we picked up some fruit, vegetables and smoked fish.

In a couple of hours, we pulled off the road in one of Australia’s numerous rest stops.  A pull out with a garbage can, picnic table, overhead shelter, but seldom any toilets.  A couple from Victoria (they are safari guides…take 4 people anywhere they want for up to 5 weeks) invited us for a “cuppa”.  We pulled up a chair while they fixed some coffee from their unique homemade trailer (for camping in the bush).   We shared coffee and biscuits (cookies) and, of course, a few jokes.

We took off for Coober Pedy once more.  By the day’s end, we had seen 8 emus.  We checked in at Anne’s Dugout B & B in Coober Pedy, made one phone call, and then out to dinner at Tom and Mary’s.  We went straight to bed.

Jun 27 2001Looking For Opals…

6/27/01:  We awakened quite late, as it is very dark in a dugout room!  We had breakfast at the Camp Oven Kitchen and then found our way to one of our new Aussie friends to check out some parcels.  We bought some, and passed on some of the opal parcels.    We stopped in at “The Opal Cutter” to see the owners Barbara and Piet and we discovered that Len Cram had just left that morning.  He’d been there for a week photographing Coober Pedy for a new book.  Len Cram is a famous photographer of opal…has a number of books on the market.   Steve says, “He’s my hero” when it comes to opal photography.   We visited a bit, and then departed for some lunch at the “New Millennium Café”.  I ordered a vanilla milkshake…and in Australia, that is a frothy milk drink with vanilla flavoring.  There is no ice cream in it at all, different, but tasty.  I understand that if you want ice cream in your shake, you ask for it to be thick.  From the cafe, we ventured to the bank…we seem to be a bit smarter this year in our bank dealings.  We were able to cash travelers checks and withdraw money, all on the same day…and successfully!  But we weren’t smart enough to forego the travelers checks…old habits…

The Big Winch was an attraction we did not get to last year, so hiked up to it today.  On our way down, we side tracked a bit off the beaten track, and did a bit of noodling (looking for over-looked opals on the mine dumps).  We were surprised but pleased to be finding a lot of chips of potch…and color.

After freshening up a bit, we had dinner at the Mud Hut, and then to a home to finalize a parcel, and to meet up with the main opal-cutting instructor (Stuart Jackson) at the TAFE (Technical and Further Education).  Our night became a very full evening, but one worth the while. Upon our return to the dugout, we found a small piece of cake with four candles poked into it, a small box of matches, and a hand written “happy birthday” note for me, as it was my Australian birthday!  Steve softly sang “happy birthday” to me and we shared the cake.

Jun 28 2001About Town In Coober Pedy

6/28/01:  After a restful night, we had breakfast at the “Breakaway Cafe”.  Steve headed upstairs to the coffee shop to meet a miner.  A place and time was set for the viewing of opals (12:00 noon).  We checked out the Laundromat facilities and picked up a few groceries at the store.   Most everyone does their shopping on Thursdays as the produce truck comes in once a week from Adelaide on Thursday morning.    We walked to the TAFE to see about scheduling a 3-hour private class on opal carving for Steve.  The day for the class was set for Monday.  While we were at the TAFE, we were introduced to a miner from Mintabie (DanTucker)…and consequently were invited to see his mining operation, and possibly a parcel or two.  After a quick walk to the dugout (oops, locked ourselves out of the dugout), we hiked back to the coffee shop to meet the miner.  I noticed the interesting decor of the shop.  The room is filled with poker tables, clouds of smoke, and pin-up girl posters.  The shop seemed to be a men’s Croatian social club.  After seeing the parcel, we passed on it.  Soon after, we heard of another parcel for sale, and scheduled a viewing for tomorrow.

We headed out of town a bit, to visit some friends (we had met them last year).   Sharing some good stories and good laughs, we made arrangements to have dinner later in our stay.    We had dinner at Tom and Mary’s again, and were joined by a Yugoslavian man who just wanted to visit.  With a communication problem… and I don’t know which of us understood the least! Oh, my!

Jun 29 2001Laundry Day…

6/29/01:  We were up early for a sunrise walk, of about an hour and a half.  After breakfast at the dugout, we made several calls, and then we were off to the Laundromat to wash clothes.  While the machines did the work, we spent our time in the camper classifying and cataloging our opal purchases.  With the laundry done, we viewed another parcel, no sale.

At the dugout, we made some sandwiches, stopped at a local shop to talk “opals”, bought a didgeridoo, and went noodling.  Feeling quite satisfied, headed to the dugout, via “The Opal Cutter” and I picked out a sweet little gift (what else but opal, hand carved by Piet) from their delightful shop (a birthday present).  Piet and Barb have such a lovely shop…a must see!

We were invited to join 2 couples at the Chinese restaurant for dinner.  After filling ourselves, we declined more entertainment, and retired to the dugout.

Jun 30 2001Opal Mining For A Day With Trevor, Brian and Rose…

Mining with Trevor, Brian and Darlene, Steve was asked to hold 8 ammonium nitrate explosive charges used for opal mining, for a pohoto. The smile is forced. I was honestly a bit nervous.

6/30/01:  We rose at a decent hour, finished cataloging the balance of the opal we had purchased, and headed up to Trevor and Rose Berry’s home…we planned to go mining with them that day.  We rode out with the oldest member of the mining crew, Brian Sparrow.  And heard all the local history on the way, and met the others at the mine site (15-mile field).  The mine was about 60 feet deep, and access to it was with the aid of a winch and sling (powered by the generator mounted on the vehicle).  We donned our hard hats, and were shown how to sit in the sling (really not sitting, but balancing the upper half of your butt on the sling, allowing your feet to hang straight down the mine shaft, one hand holding the switch for up and down, the other arm to hang on to the sling top).  I was second to go down, Steve was third, and the last mine owner was fourth.   Once we were down in the mine, we walked through a tunnel, getting caught up on the details of how areas were mined and the findings.  An extra length of blower pipe had been lowered down the mine for the removal of dirt.  We explored the immediate area, picked a little, and then watched the miners prepare the area for the laying of the blower pipe.  The blower sucked out some existing dirt (men shoveled the dirt into the blower) and prepared the area for some bombing.  Once the pipe was laid, one of the miners drilled holes in the wall (8 of them) about 1 feet deep, 2-3 inches in diameter).


Steve just bottoming out, on his 60ft ride down into the opal mine.  The smile betrays his thoughts: “I think I smell opals”.

We took a break for some sandwiches, coffee, and cake, all the while watching the homemade charges being made.  The casing for the charges is made of newspaper, rolled into a hollow tube about 2” in diameter, one end folded and taped to secure the bottom.   The det cord is inserted into the paper casing allowing 2-3 inches to extend out the upper end.  The paper casing is then filled with a mixture of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel.  It is tapped gently on the outside to allow the mixture to settle and pack into the newspaper casing.  Once filled to satisfaction, the top of the paper bomb is folded down and taped into place.  A blasting cap is crimped onto the det cord and then taped onto a very slow burning fuse.  The blasting charge is now complete.  Steve was a bit nervous when the miner asked him to hold all 8 bombs in his hand.  We watched them place the bombs in the drilled holes, tamp them in place…we backed off of the area and peeked from the assigned place.  The blower was then turned on (to suck the dangerous fumes out of the mine, after the explosions), and the other miner lit the fuses and joined us.  We waited and then as each explosion went off, we counted until we had all 8.  The noise was expected, but the amount of concussion from them was a bit surprising.  We ventured down the tunnel, to inspect the area, quite aware of the amount of explosion gasses we could still smell.  Though the brown explosion gasses were visible in the mine tunnel, we watched as the blower cleared the mine of the fatal gasses.   The odor was strong (at least to us) and smelled much like smokeless powder.  Opal was not to be found at the blasting site.

We continued exploring different tunnels; trace shows being pointed out to us.  Steve did some picking and did find an opalized shell skin, but no color in it.  The day was slipping way, Steve acquired several blisters from picking, and we were ready to go home.

The sling was lowered; one miner, me, Steve, and finally the last miner went up the sling.  As we prepared to leave, Steve noticed the vehicle had a flat tire.  The tire was changed, and we picked up another miner, Louie, who was mining at a claim very near this one.  We rode home, happy and dirty…stopped to look at another parcel (and bought it) before the showers were found.  A marvelous evening meal was shared with our B & B hosts in their home.  We were tired, full, and very happy.

Jul 01 2001Business Paperwork and Opal Buying

7/01/01:  We fixed breakfast at the dugout, and headed for the laundry to wash up our mining clothes.  As they washed and dried, we classified and cataloged some more of our purchases.  Upon returning to the dugout, we began some additional paperwork for our business.

We had heard of a buffet at the Desert Cave that serves from noon to three on Sundays, so off we went.  We met up with a miner that we had done business with last year, and arranged to meet with him and his wife at their home later in the day.  Before attending that date, we had another parcel to look at (no sale).  We walked over for our coffee date at the Dunstan’s (just the next dugout over from the B & B), and had an enjoyable visit.    Needing a walk…understatement…we walked around town a bit and ended up at a restaurant for supper.    While dining, the cell phone rang (modern technology at work in the opal trade), and we had another parcel to look at.  Walked back to the dugout, picked up the vehicle and looked at the parcel…almost bought it…will have to think about it a bit.   I’ve found that it’s best for me to sleep on it, after looking at a parcel, so that the flash and brightness of the opal doesn’t cloud my business judgement.  Our bodies are very tired again, and we needed to catch some sleep.

Jul 02 2001Opal Carving Class At The TAFE

7/02/01:  Up and had breakfast at the dugout.  Steve was off to the TAFE to partake of a short course on opal carving.   While he was learning how to carve opals, I caught up some computer work, packaged some opals, and headed for the post office.  I met Steve at the TAFE after his opal carving class.  He was enthused and excited and appreciated Stuart Jackson’s experienced opal cutting instruction!  We both signed up for carving on Thursday morning.  We had lunch at the New Millennium Cafe, sent an e-mail out, and then headed out of town for a walk along one of the many mining trails in the outback.  Looked for opals along the hike but only picked up a few gypsum specimens which are plentiful around the mullock heaps.  After walking, we stopped at Arnold’s dugout to make dinner plans for Monday night (7:00 Tom and Mary’s).  We had some supper and then home for some sleep.

Jul 03 2001Mintabie!!

Dan Tucker, with his pick over his shoulder, at his mine at the Airport Field in Mintabie. He's smiling, not because we are taking his picture, but because they have found opal!

7/03/01:  We were up fairly early, ready for a trip to Mintabie.  It was another lovely day in the outback.  Breakfast was served ala rest stop, cold cereal, coffee, and juice.  We stopped at Marla for some fuel, and then headed west off of the pavement on the 45km long gravel road to Mintabie.  The road was very rough, with washboards (corrugated, as the Aussies say), and the travel was slow (30-50 kph).    We finally saw some galas (ah, now I’m in Australia), and a big flock of very white cockatoos (Little Corella) and watched them pick paddymelons from the side of the road, fly up over the road and drop the paddymelons exposing the seeds…which they would then eat…pretty ingenuous little guys.  Darlene tasted these cute little melons earlier, and now knows why they are left to the birds!  They are horribly bitter!

We soon came across a vehicle that had broken down, and we gave a lift to a miner from Mintabie, Charlie Butcher, an older Italian gentleman.  Once arriving in Mintabie, we called the Tucker’s and they came and got us and guided us to their camp.   At their abode, we hopped in their vehicle and were taken to the mining site to see the crew in action (open cut mining).  Breaking for lunch, we enjoyed good opal talk and viewed the drilling specimens…they were on opal!  After lunch, we were taken on a tour of the Mintabie mining fields: Old Field, Crystal Valley, and the new Airport Claim.  The ground here is unlike Coober Pedy, in that it is very hard. The opal is formed in hard Mintabie bed sandstone and the opal in Coober is formed in softer weathered Bulldog Shale.


Dan walking behind a D9 Caterpillar checking for opal that may be exposed when the big D9 Caterpillar rips up big pieces of hard Mintabie Bed Sandstone…where the opal is formed in lenticular (lens-like) deposits.  These lenticular occurrences of opal are sometimes called “Mintabie-plate opal” as, at times, they are about the size and shape of large dinner plates.

We were able to visit a neighbor’s mine where the underground mining is accessed through cuts down to the level, and then tunneled into with a bobcat.  The miners were preparing for blasting…drilling holes for the bombs (they needed 12 bombs instead of the 8 at C.P.).

Back to the Tucker’s place to enjoy the birds and gardens, before meeting with a miner who had opal to sell…Max Novelli.  We made a deal with the miner and bought several parcels of hard to find Mintabie opal.  Payment and pickup of the opal will be on Friday, when we will return to Mintabie.  We made the rough drive back to Marla to spend the night at a caravan park in our tiny minivan conversion campervan.

Jul 04 2001Back In Coober…

7/04/01:  After showering and breakfast, we drove back to Coober Pedy.  The birds were showing off nicely this A.M. and we stopped to take pictures often.  We enjoyed lunch with friends, ran some errands, and then picked up the money from the bank to complete the deal we had started last week.   Once the transaction was completed we enjoyed a “cuppa” with Nick and his wife Jane.    We had supper at the Chinese restaurant, stopped to look at a parcel of shells, and then home to bed.

Jul 05 2001Opal Carving Class Part 2…

7/05/01:  We were up and ready…for our class at the TAFE.  We both enjoyed the morning immensely.  We are hooked…Steve will be ordering the rest of the tools for carving once we are home…the good news is, that we already have some of the tools!  We used some inexpensive Lambina opal that we had just purchased for carving.  The pieces that both Darlene and I made turned out very nicely!  Great carving opal parcel.  Our afternoon was spent, packaging opals for mailing home, and some laundry.    We picked up the vehicle (beautiful Toyota Land Cruiser Ute…US$150.00 for a one day rental…not much competition in the outback) to take to Mintabie for the return trip for the opals (the first trip was just too hard on the camper and us…and opted for a vehicle made for the rough roads).  The Carol Arnold prepared a seafood dinner.  Wow, what a meal!  Stuffed, we went home to bed.

Jul 06 2001Back To Mintabie For Opals…

Lovely red escarpment seen on the drive to Mintabie. Tree on the left is an Acacia or they are known in Australia. Mulga is suited for dry hot climates.

7/06/01:  Before we left for Mintabie, we made a couple of phone calls.  The trip was a breeze, compared to our last trip.  We completed the deal on the opals, and then drove to Dan and Patsy’s open cut mine, to see if they had found the big one yet…they are so-o-o close.  After a short visit, we headed back to C.P.  Once back, we fueled up, cleaned it out, and returned it to the rental place, and then discovered we had locked ourselves out of the dugout…again! We hung out on comfortable chairs on the patio of our B & B… then walked to our meeting place for dinner with the Lamont’s.   We enjoyed a lovely visit and strolled up to the Big Winch at night to view the gorgeous southern hemisphere stars and see if we could find the Southern Cross.

Jul 07 2001Toured The Old Timers Mine…

7/07/01:  It was Saturday morning, and we slept in!  We were going to try and take it easy today.  We toured the “Old Timer’s Mine” bought a few books and thoroughly enjoyed the day. The Old Timers Mine is now owned (2013) by our good friend Trevor Berry…good on you mate!  A note from Darlene…we needed to wear hardhats while in the mine…they were lettered on the side as Large, Medium, and Small.  Steve chose Large, I chose Small.  They also had names on the front of the hat…Steve chose Dick.  I can’t remember what I chose.  He was the center of my attention for the remainder of the day!

We had been invited by Trevor Berry (Trevor is also a part time opal cutting instructor at the TAFE) to see how to make doublets…began that, then had to pick up some souvenirs, and then finished the doublet.  Trevor and Rose have a lovely home on a hill overlooking Coober Pedy…beautiful roses and grape vines.  We joined Trevor and Rose at Tom & Mary’s.  Lovely day.

Jul 08 2001Woomera…

7/08/01:  We were getting itchy feet, and were ready to head home.  We tackled the cleaning and packing job, met with Tony, Harley and Meridee, Ed and Sue for a delightful brunch at the Crystal Cafe restaurant in the lovely Desert Cave Hotel, and then headed out of town.    On our way, we saw a couple of kangaroos and a red fox.  We made it to Woomera and stayed at the Woomera Travelers Caravan Park.  It was a starry, starry night in the southern hemisphere and we went for a walk in the dark gazing at the bright desert sky! We were able to find the Southern Cross constellation, seen only in the southern hemisphere. This constellation is seen on both the Australian flag, in a 5 star display, and the New Zealand flag in a 4 star display.

Jul 09 2001Andamooka…

7/09/01:  After our morning ablutions, we headed for Andamooka.  We had been in contact with Peter Taubers, miner and owner of Duke’s Bottlehouse Motel.  
Directly behind the motel, Minnie Barrington’s (one of the first women miners in Coober Pedy and the first post mistress in Andamooka) original dugout was available for our viewing.  We had just read a book she had written (Stones of Fire, published in 1958…if you haven’t read it…it’s fabulous…get a copy on  Peter said that she had just recently passed away (within the last 6 weeks or so).  She was over 100 years old.   Peter graciously toured us around the mining grounds, his included, and pointed out some of the other opal treasures that are available in Andamooka (matrix opal, and honey opal). 

We joined Peter and his wife Margot for a delicious dinner at the Tuckerbox restaurant.  Our accommodations at this motel were top notch.  Peter was able to round up several parcels for us to look at while we were there, and we headed out with some precious Andamooka opal and gorgeous Andamooka matrix opal.

Jul 10 2001Andamooka to Port Pirie

Along the drive from Andamooka to Port Pirie we spotted several emu close to the road.

7/10/01:  Along our drive as we headed toward Port Pirie (our targeted destination for tonight), 5 emus stood very close to the road.  It took me off guard, as most have been much farther removed from the road.  Emu!  Emu!  Emu!  Darlene shouted…she gets excited about wildlife. Pictures were a must!  It was a rainy day, and a good one for traveling.  We stopped in Port Augusta and tried to look up some e-mail acquaintances…but did not have any luck.  By late afternoon, we were in Port Pirie, found accommodations, mailed our last package, and walked along the shore of the bay, picking up a few seashells.  The rain continued throughout the day.  Supper was had, more seafood that we bought at the fresh seafood market right along the pier…and why not! Barramundi if I remember correctly.

Jul 11 2001Last Night in Australia

7/11/01:  This is the last day of our trip.  We drove silently, but happily.  We were ready to go home.  Our navigation through Adelaide went very smooth…Steve had really adapted to driving on the left side of the road and the vehicle…and he didn’t even turn on the wipers in lieu of the turn signals!  Skippy Rentals cleared us of the vehicle, called us a cab to our accommodations at the Adelaide Airport Motel near the airport.

Once settled, we contacted friends for dinner and relaxed.  We enjoyed our last dinner in Australia (and yes we had more seafood…Barramundi for me, and Moreton Bay Bugs for Steve).  We ate at an upscale restaurant just off Jetty Road in the south Adelaide suburb of Glenelg.  This was not far from the Adelaide Airport either.  Might have to stay nearby on next trips last day in Australia, to take advantage of the great eating and shopping in this area!

Jul 12 2001Adelaide to Billings

7/12/01:  We were off to the airport by 7:30 A.M.  Our Qantas flight from Adelaide to Sydney was smooth and uneventful.  The next leg of the flight is the long one (13 ½ hours), intermittently bumpy, loaded with 6th-8th graders, and a couple of elderly folks who were afflicted with horrible colds.  We sat right behind them, but thankfully didn’t pick up their colds.   Didn’t sleep nearly as much as we would have liked, but it’s very difficult to sleep on flights that leave in the afternoon.  We arrived in L.A. on time, slid through customs easily, endured the layover (have already been up almost 24 hours), and were off to Salt Lake City.  At this late we are kind of in a zombie state…not really awake, but not asleep either.  Our flight late getting into Salt Lake and we just barely made the connection to Billings.

Arrived in Billings, home-safe and sound at 6:30 P.M.  Last box of opals safely made it into Billings on 7/18…now we can relax.  So next is the long job of photographing rough Australian opal and website updates begins in earnest.  Brought some great opal home this year and the trip was less stressful and much more productive…loved the opal carving class in Coober Pedy!  When we arrived home and tried to have our photos of Andamooka developed I found that our camera had broken when accidentally dropped.  So there were no photographs of the Andamooka opal-fields.  🙁