Australia wasn’t always as it is today. A short 65 million years ago, this continent was attached to Antarctica and located 7200km south of where it sits now, before tectonic forces triggered our continental drift to the north. In a world that was generally warmer than today, temperatures in the south of our embryonic land mass were generally much cooler, with what would become Victoria pretty similar climatically to northern Alaska today. Sea levels globally were as much as 168m higher than present and as a consequence there was a vast arm of the sea stretching down from what is now the Gulf of Carpentaria into the centre of the continent.
This inland sea was home to a range of marine reptiles, the skies were populated by leathery winged creatures, and along its shores stalked dinosaurs typical of the last great era of their reptilian dominance. Rivers carried sand and fine mud from the uplands around, forming thick layers of what would become the sandstone and shales that underlie the centre of our nation.
It was a very different world from that which we recognise, but it would leave Australia with a valuable gift which would one day attract a unique group of people and support outback towns and economies: opal.
Opal is a silicate rich in water. It is formed where slow moving ground water leaves silica deposits in cracks and fissures in the rock, or dissolves and replaces bone, shell or woody tissue of dead animals and plants deposited in the rock. The crystalline structure of the silica with its hydrated compound refracts light and provides the bright sparkling flashes of all the colours of the rainbow embedded in pure white or black ‘glass’.
It’s a gem that is highly valued anywhere in the world and is thus highly priced. Opals sell for anywhere between $200 and $15,000 per carat. Some opal is so valuable there are fake and doctored opals starting to appear on the market. Australia, which supplies between 80 and 90 per cent of the world’s opal, is rich in these gems, and townships where they dig for it are some of the greatest destinations on this continent.
The opal fields lie in a great arc of outback countryside, from central Queensland down through northern and western New South Wales and across South Australia, marking out the shallow edges of that ancient inland seaway. Almost all of these centres are easily reached, even by 2WD vehicles, and can offer a wealth of interesting things to see and do. Ticking them off a bucket list can give you a string of travel destinations that will keep you going for quite a while.
Some of the richest opal fields are found in South Australia in a line running north-westward from Andamooka in the south to Mintabie and Lambia in the north. This state produces white or milky white opal principally and has the richest fields in the country.
The first SA opal was found in Coober Pedy in 1915 when the son of a gold prospector stumbled on some surface pieces in the desert. The development of the deposits had to await the end of World War I. The Depression and World War II placed a heavy hand on the opal mines until a local woman, Tottie Bryant, made some sensational finds in 1946 and a new rush began that is still underway.
Like all opal fields, Coober Pedy attracted a large number of eccentric characters. One of these was Jim Shaw, who in 1920 pushed his wheelbarrow loaded with supplies and tools 240km across gibbers and sand from Tarcoola to reach the new workings. When an observer claimed that he was just putting a horse out of a job, Shaw reportedly replied, with a certain jaunty logic, “A man can’t call himself a horse till he can crap walking along, and I haven’t been able to do that yet.” Shaw never had much luck as a miner but paid his way by betting on tests of strength against other miners.
Today Coober Pedy sits on the well-asphalted Stuart Highway and is probably amongst the most developed opal fields in the nation. There are a number of opal buyers and sellers in the shopping centre, and you can wander through the underground hotel and shopping arcade, past walls cut directly from the underlying rock. It’s like a Westfield shopping centre with chisel marks.
Like many opal mining centres, much of the town life is conducted underground where it’s a steady year-round 23 degrees — a practice believed to have been introduced by returned WWI diggers used to trench life. At Coober Pedy as much as half the town’s population lives an underground life. Until recently there was no planning approval required to simply tunnel into the side of a hill and establish your home, nor to expand your living area by digging out an extra room — probably finding enough opal along the way to pay for the additions — but the increasing occurrence of someone punching a hole through into their neighbour’s bedroom or similar has caused some measure of control to be introduced. Usually, the only sign externally of an underground residence is the presence of a chimney on the ground or a TV aerial on the rocks.
There are subterranean homes which are open for tours as well as a number of mine tours, and usually piles of discarded mine detritus where you can noodle away to find scraps of opal, though stay off staked mine claims as miners retain their rights to those discarded piles and will take a very dim view of you deciding to dig through. Always seek permission first, or, better still, ask at the Department of Mines and Energy for recommended areas where you can ‘noodle’. Visit the Breakaways, a desert ‘moonscape’ of brightly coloured rock, or there are five underground churches which are open to visitors.
There are camping options for those who want or need the facilities, including one (Riba’s Underground Camping and Caravan Park) where you can tent camp underground, or rent an underground room for the night. There is also a designated free camp area and though it has no facilities the town centre is only three minutes away where there are public toilets and water is available at the rate of a dollar per 30L. There are at least 10 free campsites listed within 90 minutes’ drive of the town, and since much of the surrounding terrain is open desert, finding other sites for a night’s rest would not be difficult, though care should be taken to avoid pegged mining claims and/or abandoned claims with open shafts dropping sheer down into the ground. This is something that should be kept in mind at all opal fields, especially if you have children with you.
Travellers to Coober Pedy have the option to use it as a base for checking out William Creek and the nearby Lake Eyre to the east, the Painted Desert and Oodnadatta to the north-east, many attractions along the Oodnadatta Track which travels south and east from the latter settlement, and the Flinders Ranges and Wilpena Pound.
Andamooka is another easily accessible opal field. It is situated 280km north of Port Augusta and just 30km east of the large mining centre of Roxby Downs and close to the salty expanse of Lake Torrens. All roads into the town are these days asphalted, though this was a remote and difficult to access area when opal was first discovered in 1930.
Andamooka remains much as it was in the 1930s and 1940s, with some of the earliest shanties preserved for free open inspection. Much of the population lives above ground, but in that free-wheeling style so typical of opal towns, construction grades from the latest fashionable architecture through to whatever will resist gravity and provide shade and shelter. In keeping with the post-World War II boom era for the town the population’s origins vary from Australian to eastern European to Indigenous, and it is a true melting pot of cultures.
The opal deposits at Andamooka are quite shallow compared to most other deposits, but the opal is also more widely spread. Quality is very variable compared with opal from elsewhere.
After rain is a good time for wildflowers in the area and there is plenty of birdlife to admire in this region. Travellers can take in the wild loneliness of Lake Torrens (along a few kilometres of dirt track), nearby Roxby Downs, or the days when Australia led the world in rocketry from Woomera (80km south). There is a campground on the edge of town and again, being out in the desert makes for plenty of lonely spots for a free camp for the self-sufficient.
The local shops are limited but Roxby Downs has a modern set of supermarkets, restaurants, and shops.
A 1918 report on the future of the Mintabie field estimated that there was another $4 billion worth of opals left in the ground at the SA township, enough to keep the field a viable producer for another 400 years. However, a government enquiry found that the town was a centre for violence and drug-related crime which was highly harmful to local Indigenous settlements and the town was shut down at the end of 2019 and has been handed back to its Indigenous owners. The field’s future remains uncertain.
New South Wales
There are two major opal mining centres in NSW: White Cliffs and Lightning Ridge.
The former is a typically scrappy settlement 280km north-east of Broken Hill. It was one of the first opal fields to be developed after a kangaroo hunter found a ‘pretty stone’ in 1884 and he and some associates filed a gold mining claim, since the gem was not listed as a commercial mining target at the time. The road south to Wilcannia (for those coming from the east) is a good asphalt drive while a more direct route to Broken Hill (for those from the west) via Mutawintji National Park is more scenic, though it’s gravel and bulldust all the way.
The majority of the town lives underground and, like most other opal towns has its underground hotels and a smattering of opal dealers and mine tours, as well as a red stony golf course and Australia’s first solar farm (built in 1981). Most of the opal is in a white base material but the true value lies with the unique opal ‘pineapples’ which are highly valued.
Travellers to the area can also take in the amazing Broken Hill with its history of mining; nearby Silverton, the scene of much of the Mad Max movies; the Aboriginal heritage sites at Mutawintji; the wetlands that form at Menindee Lakes when full; the decaying history of Wilcannia; or extend a trip into the Darling River run and its farm stays to the north-west.
There is a campground with all the basic facilities right in town, there are several stations offering camp sites around waterholes and creeks and several listed free camping spots in the area. There is basic shopping in the White Cliffs town centre, but more elaborate shopping would have to be done in Broken Hill.
The other major NSW opal centre is Lightning Ridge, on the Queensland border to the north. This is in many ways a very different experience to the previously discussed opal centres. This isn’t open desert; there are trees, and a thriving shopping centre, with a number of motels and asphalted roads and multiple options for campgrounds.
We preferred the Opal Caravan Park, which is fairly new and almost right across the road from the artesian baths, which are free and open 24/7 (just be very careful of the temperature, which can be quite hot, and if you’ve just checked in after a long day on the road, make sure you have a quick shower in the provided facilities first to get the sweat and grime off before you plunge into the warm water and run the risk of introducing bugs into the facilities). There are also several station options and free camps in the area.
Lightning Ridge is known for its black opal, where the ground mass is a pitch black silicate which provides a dramatic backdrop to the brilliant flashes of colour. This can be among the most valuable of opal and ensures a regular small army of diggers burrowing beneath the surface.
Lightning Ridge, like all opal towns, is home to a truly eclectic group of people. Nobody can really tell you how many people live in town — census figures vary by up to 50 per cent, depending on who’s willing to admit that they live here. Tracks leading into the scrub have warning signs threatening violence to anyone entering and no trespassing signs abound. This isn’t to say that Lightning Ridge is an unfriendly place — quite the contrary — but there are firm boundary lines drawn and don’t assume it’ll be okay to go wherever you want.
There’s plenty to see and do aside from the usual opal mine tours and perusing the shelves of glittering gems in the shops. Take in the bizarre structures built by locals, from a genuine full sized castle to a huge amphitheatre and the ubiquitous bottle houses, noodle around abandoned claims (do not touch active claims), take the car door tour (following numbered old car doors hung on trees using the guide from the tourist centre), or attend the unique Black Queen in-house theatre.
There are plenty of things to do in and around Lightning Ridge, and nearby there’s the truly unique Brewarrina fish traps, touted to be the oldest man-made structures in the world, and all the great towns across northern NSW — Moree, Walgett, Bourke, Narrabri — that each have their own fascinating stories to tell.
Similar deposits of black opal continue from Lightning Ridge through the southern fringe of Queensland, creating a diverse range of fields extending for over 1000km across towns such as Quilpie, Eulo, Yowah, Toompine, Eromanga, and further north and west past Longreach and Winton along the border with the Northern Territory. Here the product is typically what is known as boulder opal, with narrows bands of opal with ironstone deposits forming part of an extensive deposit known as the Winton Formation.
Travellers here have many alternative options, from heading along the Development Road to Birdsville, sampling some great national parks in a region rich in birdlife, or the great tourist attractions of Longreach (Stockman’s Hall of Fame, Qantas Museum, and much more) and Winton (dinosaur quarry and more).
Next time you’re lost for where you should be targeting your next big trip, give some thought to the colour and uniqueness of Australia’s opal fields. There is plenty to see when you’re in each centre, and along the way you’ll find some of the most intriguing and truly Australian emblems of the outback.