Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tuesday Voice: Coober Pedy (Part 4)

A miner's tale

By George Kountouris

[Sequel to "Down in the mines"]

[Foreword from Vic Midyett: We met George in his retail store in Coober Pedy, which he opens in the afternoons after spending the morning at his mine site. His wife and kids live in Adelaide, where they have another retail store. The Kountouris' website is called "Opal Now"; it is still under construction, with more product pictures coming soon.
    In his earlier working life one of the things George did was serve as curator for an art gallery in London. After a series of white-collar jobs he found his passion, and for the past many years, he's had no desire to do anything but mine opals.
All mining leases in Coober Pedy are independently owned. There are no companies or corporations doing mining. I believe it has always been that way. The dimensions of each leased site are 100 meters x 50 meters, and a lease lasts one year. Each year the miners either move to another location or stay with the same one for a fee of $225. George "open-cut mines." He told us he hates being inside tunnels.]

As a second-generation opal miner, the reality of pursuing and capturing this elusive gem is constantly on your mind. Is this a curse bestowed on me by my father and uncles, or have I the best job in the world. 50°C [122°F] in summer, 5°C [41°F] in winter, mining open-cut with a bulldozer and excavator you are exposed to all the elements. Then there are the flies, the wind, and the potch (colourless opal), not to mention the hard physicality of digging the opal-bearing level by hand pick.
    Coober Pedy has only a handful of miners who work everyday or as a profession. In the 1970s and 1980s there were five thousand active miners. That was when we labelled ourselves the "opal mining capital of the world."

    Opal is extremely difficult to find, and good-quality opal is impossible. But some of us love the impossibility of life, a challenge an adventure - for most of us it isn't the value of opan as a commercial product that drives us. Nor do I get excited when my pick scrapes an opal pocket and I realise this is worth digging out very carefully, for there are so many days that I go home with nothing. So, I have trained my emotions to sit like an obedient dog.

Many times you go down the hole and see the glistening of the shiny gem, so you rush ahead, you surmise this is a good pocket, but a cold sweat envelops you in the searing heat. It has no colour. You scramble quickly. Maybe some will have colour. You lick every piece you find, hoping there will be a few stones, feeling your expectations descend by the second...Murphy's Law in play once again, ounces and ounces of 120-million-year-old nothing. You pick yourself up and dig again.

I have been known to call the opal god some terrible names as I rev up the machine and start scraping, still with a shard of hope as I excavate the ancient sandstone.
    Many opal miners recall their finds in dollar value. I remember the colour, who I was with when I found it, and the circumstances. I rarely repeat these stories.
    Sure, there are many who brag and fabricate completely the size of the find and its value. But, for me, humility is a key.
    Over time I have heard every good & bad luck story in town...ten times over. I am privileged because I have given up the thought that luck exists, and by doing so I can think more clearly about the job that needs to be done.
    Many of the large number of European miners in the past brought all their superstitions with them, lucky omens in mining partners, in travelling to the mine always in the same manner and at the same time...The mind does some weird things under the extremity of the conditions in Coober Pedy.

Opal is a form of silica, chemically similar to quartz but containing a variable amount of water within the mineral structure. The formula can be expressed as SiO2.nH2O. Water content varies between 2% and 20%.Precious opal generally contains from 6 to 10% water.
    Precious opals are composed of small spheres of amorphous silica arranged in a regular pattern. Partial cementation of the silica spheres entraps water, probably in vapour form, within the voids. Fractures may develop, and the opal crazes and turns white if it dries too quickly or is heated excessively.
    The silica spheres are considered to have been deposited from a colloidal suspension due to evaporation and/or filtration and to have accumulated in regular horizontal layers, predominantly in a cubic closed-packed structure.
In a geological sense, the term opal is used for all forms of the mineral, but opal miners restrict the word opal to the precious variety. Other forms with little or no colour are referred to as "potch."

[Afterword from Vic: I love the photo of George at the top. It has nothing to do with mining. It's of him doing typical Aussie BBQ over a coal or wood 55-gallon drum that has been cut in half lengthwise. A very common thing to do here.
    Well, I hope you have enjoyed our series on Coober Pedy.

Copyright © 2014 by George Kountouris & Vic Midyett


  1. Vic enlisted an actual opal miner to tell the tale of it from the inside out. Thank you Vic, thank you George Kountouris!

  2. Vic you know more about Coober Pedy than this Aussie

  3. I'd always wondered about Coober Pedy. Now I know, very vividly. Thanks, Vic.

  4. You are all most welcome! I enjoyed putting it together too. And after 44 years in this country, I finally went there to look for myself. A good decision and filled with memories forever.

  5. Chuck, from a construction point of view, you would be really interested in their design process of working from the top down.