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First let me Welcome you to our town of Coober Pedy.

OPAL Capital of the WORLD
Australian Opals from Coober Pedy

First of all this was first written in 2000 and has now been rewritten and updated on October - 2006, this is the story about us, Stuart & Patricia Bird and how we came to be here in Coober Pedy and become Opal Miners, you should find some of it interesting, I hope! (can't please everybody "right") and who knows you may want to come here and have a go yourself.

Right my name is Stuart Bird, that's me below trying my luck, more on that later, my wife Patricia who you will get to see later on and I was just passing through Coober Pedy on our way up to Darwin, we had already been and stayed in Darwin for three months and liked it very much so did not mind returning back there again, we had traveled from Perth where we had lived for the last 26 years and raised a family of two boys, now it has turned out that we stayed here for that day or two longer than we should have like most of the opal miners here and got infected with a local disease commonly called Opalitis, that was in 1992 and our trip around Australia came to an abrupt end and my New Life as a Opal Miner was about to start and this in my story and it could also happen to you.

I am now one of the Opal Miners here in Coober Pedy, when I'm not working on this Web Site and later on you will see what our one of our Booth looked like at the Congress St Expo Show in Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A. later on in this article, as we did this Gem Show in Tucson for 5 years in a row and other shows in the Western part of the US, in 97 and 98.

Stuart Mining Underground for Opals

Not to go in to much detail, I was retired (un-financial) due to having a heart attack in 1988 and a heart operation in 1989 and then put on a disability pension also in 1989 and after recovering from that I found that at the time I could not work anymore at my job I was Fitter & Turner by trade and we had to sell our home as we could not afford the mortgage etc, due to being sick and out of work, I am sure a lot of you know the story when you get sick and cannot pay the major bills, even worse today.

So we sold up and paid what we owed and hit the road with a trailer and tent, big tent 17 x 14 feet and this was the first trip from Perth to Darwin and back, we lived in this tent in various places in the West for 18 months and had a great time, then we went back to Perth and sold all of that and bought a 24 foot caravan and after 6 months started out again from Perth so we travel up through the center of Australia to Alice Springs and then onto Darwin again, after that I had no idea what was going to happen, but hey we were in no hurry and we could go and stay anywhere we liked and that was a good life.

The only thing was that I was on a Disability Pension so the income was not great and traveling around the country was great but the fuel  cost money so we had worked it all out on the first trip that the secret was to travel slowly and stay in one place for at least 2 weeks or more and save $50.00 a week for the fuel money and it worked out real well, course that would not go far today.

Anyway we got as far as Coober Pedy and as normal we booked in for the standard 2 weeks, big mistake as it took us 3 years to get from here to Alice Springs some 700 kilometers north of here, what happened was that I arrived here on a Thursday and met this Greek Opal Miner called Alex on the Friday at the Caltex Service Station, (no longer here) bought him a coffee and asked him if I could go down his claim with him and have a look at how it was done and he said yes so I went down his claim on the Saturday and was with him for the next 13 weeks, this is Alex below at work in his claim on Zorba New Field.

Alex the miner

I was interested because I used to work in the mining game many years ago when I was young in Western Australia and just after I first emigrated here in 1966 from England, I used to be a Air Track Driller and Powder Monkey as we called it then, making railways for Hamersley Iron and for a couple other companies, MKMO for one, Thiess Brothers for another, I also worked on a Offshore Oil Rig for a few months and was an offsider on a Diamond Drill, then I went drilling long hole drilling with a Air Track for a company that was exploring for minerals in the North West of Australia, I had also worked for a short time on a Copper Mine, but not underground, but on top as a welder and front end loader operator, I had never been underground before I got here.

So the whole thing here about the Opal Mining interested me and as I was short on funds and this looked like a place I could make some money if I was lucky and worth staying a little longer to explore, so I managed to talk my wife Patricia into it and as I said stayed with Alex doing my apprenticeship for the next 13 weeks learning what I could, but he would not let me drill or pull any dirt with the shovel as I had this heart attack and operation and was afraid that something may happen to me if I did some of the hard work, so as I have plenty of experience with explosives I made the sausages (bombs) with the Ammonium Nitrate.

This is the shaft that I used to go down when I first started here and was at that time the first time I had gone underground, and don't you know how hard I gripped the ladders going down and was scared, shitless I have to  tell you, it is some feeling that you get when you do this for the first time, but the hardest was climbing back up, takes some practice to climb straight up like this, you or I did anyway tend to pull yourself up using the arms instead of using your legs and your arm muscles ache like they are bursting, took a while for me to reach the top, seemed like a long time but was probably only 2 minutes maybe a bit more.

It belongs to the Greek Miner Alex, my mentor, this is what the miners use that do not have winches, Alex was one of the old school and still today does not have or use a winch, these ladders are down some sixty feet and he lets his electric drill  down on the orange rope and the green rope is tied to the 240 volt electric lead that he lets hang down the shaft, and pulls it up and connects it to the generator when starting work before climbing down the shaft, the other rope going down the shaft is a safety rope.

And I have to tell you it takes time to get used to climbing the ladders, I was still having trouble a week after I had started with him, this is the reason that I thought about the A-Fame on the bull bar and using the 12 volt winch, this ladder business was not for me that was for sure.

Shaft with ladders

Course the only thing wrong with this set up is, one you have to be pretty fit which you get with using the ladders on a daily basis, but not for me as I soon found out, that is why I  came up with the A-Frame on the bull bar and used the 12 volt winch and the other problem as I  found out was that the generators in those days only lasted about 4 and a half hours on a tank of gas, which meant that Alex had to quit and find his way out of the claim in the dark ( yep, he had no torch) so when I got this winch set up, it meant that I could go up and fill the generator before it ran out.

This turned out to be a mistake on my part as Alex being one of the old miners here and had at this time been on this claim for the past 15 years, well not just this claim but 4 of them together, making one big claim, Alex's had nothing else to do but mine as he was and is still not married, so me being able to go up and fill the tank on the generator meant he could now work longer during the day, which did not suit me at all, there was other things I wanted to do, also he was using a blower, we will get round to what they are a bit later on.

Anyway Alex used to start his blower up before climbing down the shaft to work for the day, as we or I should say he would drill the shot holes and I would make the bombs, perhaps this is a good time to tell you before we go any further that after going down with Alex that first day, I liked what I saw and found it very interesting and wanted to stay with him a bit longer and as I was here for 2 weeks anyway thought it was good idea at the time and he said that I could stay with him and if I helped I would be on 20% of what he found as that was what partners got that just providing some labor and as we had talked the first day and he knew that I had experience with explosives it seemed like a good deal, or so I thought at the time.

Right back to the story, as I was saying Alex used to drill the shot and you will get to know more about that also later, he would not let me drill because I had a heart attack and operation and said he was frightened that the effort would cause me some problems, this also pertained to the pulling of the dirt (mullock) after the shot with the blower, so my main job was to make the bombs (sausages) and attach the fuses and detonators to them and then I would load them in the drill holes.

I was with this Alex, the Greek Miner for 13 weeks and in that time he did not find any opal that was worth anything to me, he did find a lot of potch, lots of shells but again all potch and a bit of color here and there and that went into what he called the company bag, which he sold and it went into buying diesel or explosives, so I was on 20% of nothing for the whole 13 weeks, so it was time for me to branch out on my own and have a go, I had learned how to drill a shot and how to make the bombs, I already knew how to mix the Ammonium Nitrate

This is how I was set up when I first came here, as I was set up for living off road and I had my own 2.5 kva generator and the 4x4 also had the 12 volt winch on the front, as you can see we did a lot of fishing and I mean a lot, that was we did the most and the plastic pipes on the top of the vehicle hold 14 fishing rods, ranging from 5 foot boat rods to the biggest which is 13.5 feet long, it did not take me long to work out how to make this A-Frame for the front of the vehicle as I did not take to climbing the ladders down and up every day with Alex.

When I first came here

So I went and found the workshop that most of the miners at that time used (less miners now) to get there equipment fixed at and asked the owner, Ross Chatfield if I could build this A-Frame in his workshop to which he said yes and that was the start of a friendship that continues up today, and this was the first A-Frame seen on vehicle in Coober Pedy at that time, there are a few more now and of course I have moved on from this setup to better things, but this is how I really got started in mining.

So in this photo you can see just how easy it is to set-up and get started in the Opal Mining Game and as soon as you find your first little bit of Color, that's it you're Hooked just like the Proverbial Fish, you need to buy a few basic tools, generator for the power which I already had then a elec drill, auger & hand pick and then you are in some sort of business, then you will have to learn a bit about explosives and how to mix it and make the bombs and how to drill and use them, I must admit that the way I am using this 12 volt winch was and still is illegal, but I did have metal ladders down for safety.

As the winch is made for pulling a vehicle or load and not lowering under weight, the way I was using it was called a Dead Mans Switch, my weight would pull out the cable and as the winch was geared it would pull out slowly and it would pick up speed as I went down the shaft, so I would hit the switch to pull the cable in which in fact was the up switch in this case, this would stop me dead in the shaft and then the cable would start to unwind out again, so I would keep pressing the switch about every five or six feet until I reached the bottom and it worked well, but was dangerous without a doubt and I would not do this today, but then, well it was a start to mining, until I could find a few Shekel's and buy better and safer equipment.

As I started in 92

What I am going to do here is called Pillar Bashing, that is you find old claims (mines you will call them) and go down and look for opal or the likes that the previous miner or pillar basher has missed, by the way pillar bashers are not miners but people who rely on miners to miss seeing trace and leave behind something so they can make some money out of it and believe me, we all miss opal downunder, because everybody see things differently and what I may ignore the next person may see as a lead to some opal and chase it in, even leaving potch in the wall may lead to some opal.

And to tell you the truth, there is no bigger thrill than to see the Color of Opal in the wall, no matter how long you have been Opal Mining and not just because this might be your big payday, but because is a real buzz and gets you all excited to just to see it in the wall and I think, I would be talking for all opal miners when I say this, as opal mining is a all consuming once it gets in your blood, so once you have found some opal it is not hard to get stuck here with your dreams of getting rich.

The way I was set up at the time I could go to old places that a normal vehicles could not get to, this is just below and next to my claim at 11 mile, these on the side of the hill are what is called square shafts and were all dug by hand, some feat in those days, a lot of hard work and could take the miner between 2 and 3 weeks just to put the shaft down to the level, there were more then one miner working a claim them most miners formed partnerships of 2 or 3 in what is  called a Company, to share the work load and the expenses.

Here I am checking out the old claims to see if it was worth going back down again, you can see the petrol generator on the ground behind the 4x4, but what I had forgot is that, I was not going to work like they did in the old days with a partner for a start and second I did not have nor would I be using a Hand Winch or a Petrol Winch called a xxxxxx, which  needed 2 or 3 people to work the claim, as 2 of them did a short shift underground, one filled the bucket with dirt and the other run it along the ground on a greased pole to the  shaft and hooked it up to the winch and the man at the top would pull it up and dump it over the edge dump and then send the bucket back down, they would then change over after some time sharing the work load, but I was not going to do this that's for sure, so I had to change my plans and stop checking this type of old claim on the side of hills, they had to be on some what flat ground where a blower could be set up.

As I started in 92

This is my wife and partner Patricia we were married in1963, you will see more and hear more of her later in the issue in action, yes she has been underground with me, but right now this photo was taken on our way round Australia, forget just where but somewhere in Queensland for sure we were staying at for a couple of days, this is one of our Parrots that are found in the wild, in fact this is a Wild Parrot but as this is taken in caravan park they have learned to come down and take food from you, making a good photo, it is called a Rainbow Lorikeet, just full of colors, lots of places in this country when you are traveling that you can meet our wild life face to face.

Patricia my Wife

This picture below is what a lot of the tourist's like to do if they get the chance when they come here, to us here in Coober Pedy it is called Noodling (fossicking) it is a very dirty and dusty job, but if they are Lucky (my favorite word lucky!) they may find a piece of precious opal that they can get cut & polished into a beautiful stone, sounds easy right, its not but it has happened plenty of times over the years that some lucky tourist has found a piece or two of rough opal & had a nice opal stone cut from them, but you have to get down & get dirty, all you need is a sieve, a shovel of sorts, defiantly a dust mask and your back to the wind, oh yes and most important a good dump, which is almost impossible to find today as we have people who do this for a living with noodling machines and they struggle to find opal.


Of course when I took this photo, (set the camera up on a tripod) we did not find anything worth any money but did find some potch, got very dirty with the dust and had to learn very quickly that you have to turn your back to the wind to keep the dust out of your eyes, you also have the flies to contend with during the hot weather, but was a good experience for us to try for a morning before it got to hot, we decided that it was not for us, very hard on the back and not much fun in the windy conditions as the dust swirls around so really having your back to the wind does not solve all of that problem.

This is one of the signs we have out on the highway and it means what it says, we have had a few people killed form falling down shafts and it done not just apply to tourists, we have had miners fall down shafts and as I am re-writing this story (10/27/06) we had just 3 weeks ago a miners wife fall down a 6 foot diameter shaft, the ones that we get drilled to put the tunnel machines down and just 2 weeks ago we had what was advertised as a mining accident where another so called miner fell down a shaft and got killed, again it was 6 foot diameter shaft, but this time it turned out to be some smart arse tourist from just outside of Adelaide who had come up here and gone on the field, with any pegs so he was not legit and had made some sort of home made winch using a Boat Winch with 3 mm cable and had come up with some sort of chair set up for going down the shaft, but what I have been told he used a cable clamp to clamp the cable together after attaching this seat, but not knowing what he was doing did not clamp it tight and in fact if he used one then he should have used 3 of them, anyway he got on the seat and kicked himself away from the top of the shaft and down he went and I mean down he went the cable etc stayed up top, so now he is deceased, sometimes you only get to make a mistake once here and that was his first and last.

Danger Sign

Not to dwell on the subject and not to put the man down anymore as he is not here anymore, but this should be a lesson to anyone else who reads this, if you want to come here and have a go at mining or going underground in general as he was not mining he was going to try and do some pillar bashing, you have to learn some basics about common safety as your life does depend on it, just remember its not just you that can get injured or killed but you put others at risk in trying to save you ass or retrieve it after you have taken the plunge so to speak.

This is our town of Coober Pedy, taken some time ago and has changed some in the last 14 years since I have been here, (came in 92) as you can see from the air it is pretty barren here, not a lot of grass or trees, but plenty of dust and flies during the summer months, this is the town center and does not show the whole district of course as it is spread out over a few square kilometers.

From the Y junction I live not far to the left along that road, that building bottom left of photo that looks like a prison complex is out local hotel which we call a Pub, The Underground Hotel is the complex in the middle of the photo.

Photo of Coober Pedy

This is me in my very first claim, also at 11 mile, this is an old claim that has had water down it for past storms, the water as it runs down the shaft also brings some mud with it and can fill the old claims, this one had mud up to where I am sitting on it, I and my partner at the time had gone down and picked and shoveled the dirt out from beneath the shaft and piled it on the side, we had gone down this claim and done a bit of pillar bashing and had found 11 ounces of grey opal the very first day.

I must tell you the full story here, the guy I got as a partner worked at a local super market part time and as I had quit with this Greek Miner I wanted to go mining with a partner as I was still not fully confidant of going by myself, I did not know enough at this stage and so this guy, Foxy, true to his name I can tell you and not here any more, said he had done quite a bit on mining and would not mind going with me as a partnership, also he could talk the hind legs of a donkey, could say he suffered from verbal diarrhea as he did a bit of reporting for the local newspaper at the time and knew a lot of people around the town, unlike me I knew very few at that time and our wife's did not want us to go mining as my said that we were not miners and did not know what we were doing (she was right) and that we would not find any opal, and this was wrong, because as it turned out we found 11 ounces of grey opal the first day we went out, yep is does happen.

So away we went and I had made a policy with him this cost money and to make sure we had enough for our expense's and as both of our wife's were working we would have to put $125.00 a week into the kitty up front before we went mining and that was to be put in every week regardless of the expense's we had, that way we could build up a bank, which is what we did, but as I have no equipment at the time only my generator and this winch set up he went and borrowed a pick, electric drill and auger and a few small odds and ends I cannot remember now, but enough to get us started in Pillar Bashing.

So it was not long before the person that Foxy had borrowed the auger from wanted it back, understandable as he was a miner, so I told Foxy this would not do borrowing equipment, it meant that we could not do what we wanted because if the miner wanted in back in a short time we could not go and mine, so I bought my first piece of equipment and it was the auger, also this foxy had told me lies he no experience in mining what so ever, all he had done as it turned out was he and his girl friend another lie as he was not married, had messed around in the bottom of an Open Cut for while on weekends, so it turned out that I was the experienced miner, what a joke that was, talk about the blind leading the blind.

Anyway this photo below is our, (my) first claim, we had gone down this old shaft and it turned out it had got water down it over the years from storms and had a about 2 and half feet of dried mud on the floor so we crawled around and had a look here and there, it was did not have a lot of drives down there and there was one drive that was going up on a angle and was full of Alinite in the roof and as some of it had fallen down over the years the floor was also white, looked like snow and the light reflected off it and was hard on the eyes to see anything, and as I was the most experienced (ha) Foxy made me the Boss, so that meant I had the pick and did the looking and picking, made the decisions on what and were we would go etc.

So in this drive I found a small bit of what is called Chalky Potch and I had learned for the Greek Miner that this could turn into opal real quick so it was lead, and worth picking at, so on the first strike of the pick a piece broke off and there was color looking at us, yep first day Opal, turned that I dug out 11 ounces of grey opal out of the wall after it had been cleaned, not much in value but was opal, took it home and stuck under the wife's nose and told her it was easy to find opal, that turned out to be a lie, but too late the bug had got me.

So then Foxy went and found a guy who would lend us a blower on a percentage and that was 20% of what we found, we took this blower out to the claim rather we had it towed out there as the engine in the truck was not working and when we got it there we had to pull the blower sideways to get the pipe over the center of the shaft we were going to put the pipes down and what I an doing in this photo is drilling in the roof near this shaft as I kept banging my head on this lump as we went down and climbed through, so I was making more head room and I blew this lump off after with a couple of bombs.

Stuart Underground

Then we commenced to put the pipes down and clean out some of this dried mud to where we wanted to start drilling and basting, took a while, but we finally got there and started mining for real, but as I had never drilled a shot with the Greek Miner I was lacking in this experience and this Foxy my experienced partner was about as useful as Tits on a Bull, it turned out it was not as easy as I thought, I had not in the 13 weeks I was with this Alex paid enough attention to this when he was drilling the shots and I first got the spacing wrong between the holes which lead to some of our first shots not coming out, so we wasted a few dollars on explosives, but eh we were learning and at least I know how to make the explosives right, so did not take long to learn the rest, just had to keep the mind on the safety part of it, very hard to remember everything when you are learning, so you have to double check everything, I always had to light the shots.

This went on a for a few weeks cannot remember just how long we stayed together, but in the mean time the drill had to go back so I had to buy a new one, that cost $500.00 at the time, Foxy did not like the idea it was then I knew that he had no intentions of doing this mining for any length of time, and I had so I told him that we needed this to continue what we were doing and could not rely on borrowing things to try and make some money, there was time when a miner wanted his drill back and we could not go out on the field for a week, so if you want to become a miner you have to own your equipment, it was alright to borrow until you found some money and then as far as I was concerned you bought your own an so it went on, we did find some more opal in that claim, but not a lot and after a while we broke up and I paid him back his half in what I had bought up to that time, which was only the drill and auger anyway.

So all this above was in the first 12 months we were here and then we moved out of the Caravan Park we had been staying in for the first year we were here, almost to the day and my wife had been cleaning the Ablution Block there for out weekly rent which was only $70.00, think they did not use her, was glad to get out of there, from there we went house sitting which was rent free for a couple from Tasmania that came here to do mining but only for a few months at a time during the year, this suited us nicely, meant we could save some money at last or at least try as at this time we did not intend to stay here for every and wanted to move on to park our butts somewhere near a beach, don't forget that we still had our 24 foot Caravan at this stage so could hit the road at any time, but that was soon to change.

My wife got a job at the Opal Cave ( A shop that sells Opal Jewelry etc ) here in Coober Pedy a few weeks before we left the caravan park and a few months later I bought my Blower which is seen below, was not like this when I got it, I had to do some work on it, although it was in running condition I needed to paint it and to some modifications to it to make it better and stronger on the hopper side of things, but all in all it was and still is a very good blower, cannot remember what field this is when this photo was taken, but I do remember that I did not find much here either.

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