Opal is one of the few minerals that can be extracted economically through small-scale operations. The industry is facing some challenges, but these passionate miners are not afraid of tough times.
Australia produces over 90 per cent of the world’s opal, giving it the rightful title of the country’s national gemstone.
It’s found in the key areas of Lightning Ridge and White Cliffs in New South Wales, Coober Pedy and Andamooka in South Australia, and the Queensland opal fields located within the Winton Formation.
Opal mining is no easy feat, nor is it for the faint of heart. Unlike other types of mining, there is no guaranteeing where opal will be found, how much of it will be found, or when.
Often described as a thrill akin to gambling, opal miners can go weeks, months or even years without finding opal – until they do.
“For someone that’s willing to gamble, the possibility of going out with nothing to their name and coming back with hundreds of thousands of dollars in a little bag is a gamble, and that’s what it’s really about,” White Cliffs Miners Association president Ron Dowton told Australian Mining.
Lightning Ridge in NSW is the world’s leading producer of the rare black opal for which Australia has become famous. Black opal was even declared a state emblem in 2008.
“It’s a risky industry financially, but the attraction for young people – our next generation of opal miners – I would think is to be self-employed, it is to run your own agenda,” National Opal Miners Association secretary and Lightning Ridge Miners Association secretary and manager Maxine O’Brien told Australian Mining.
“You have to be very practical to be able to keep your costs of production down, but it has that element of gambling.
“There is a thrill to it. It’s not like in another type of mine, where you’re working for somebody else and you’re mining things every day with a constant stream of commodity.
“If you discover something when opal mining, it’s incredibly beautiful and you would be the very first person who has ever seen it on Earth.
“Opal fever is real; you just fall in love with the stone.”
The vast majority of opal mining in Lightning Ridge occurs in the Narran-Warrambool Reserve.
Special conditions apply to opal prospecting and mining within the reserve, with 28-day, or in some circumstances three-month, licences available for designated prospecting blocks. There is a restriction of two mineral claims per person, and the claims are 50m x 50m.
“We have a title system, where we already have local prospecting areas created. We’ve got one whole area which is a dedicated mineral claims district, but half of it we don’t have access to as yet,” O’Brien said.
“Our prospecting blocks are predetermined, but they nevertheless need to be mapped out because they have been all over the shop, which has had a bit of an impact on prospecting.
“We only mine on the Cretaceous ridges and the maps were only digitised 10 or 15 years ago and they never quite aligned with the geological features on the ground.”
Keeping small-scale mining going is imperative for places like Lightning Ridge to stay afloat, with the majority of the town made up of self-employed miners.
“The opal mining industry in NSW is probably the last bastion of the country, and it creates a totally different society. It’s small-scale all the way through the distribution chain until it gets to the export,” O’Brien said.
“It’s a pretty important export throughout our community and I think it’s worth preserving in the Australian landscape and culture.”
Over in White Cliffs, the opal industry has run into some regulatory roadblocks.
Negotiations on new land-use agreements for the dugouts have been ongoing since 2016, when NSW Crown Lands realised a native title determination accidentally cancelled out many of the dugout licences.
Resolutions are yet to be made between Crown Lands, White Cliffs locals and the Barkandji Native Title Group Corporation, meaning opal mining is at a standstill.
At this stage, the highest form of tenancy under native title – a permanent lease with the ability to transfer rights to family members – has been offered to dugout owners.
Dowton is confident White Cliffs will return to mining opal in the future.
“One of the things about being an opal miner is you can’t be faint-hearted; the faint-hearted always lose and I certainly don’t want to be a loser. I’ve put 45 years of my life into this,” he said.
North of the border, Queensland opal mining is based on a claim system that has served the industry for a long time and is currently facing proposed changes from the State Government.
The draft plan proposes to remove mining claims from the Mineral Resources Act 1989 entirely.
“It looks like they might be the first state in Australia to eliminate mining claims as a form of mining tenure, and that’s the current battle we’re involved in,” Queensland Opal Miners Association president Rob White told Australian Mining.
“Prior to COVID the opal industry was in a stage of resurgence, but the moratorium of mining claims will increase the cost of the start-up by a lot.
“It’ll mean we have to go back to mining leases.
“It’s such a shame because opal is an iconic product. We call our sporting teams after it, we call our transport cards after it and every tourist that comes to Australia wants to buy a piece of it.”
Queensland Opal Miners Association secretary Kevin Phillips said geologists often find their careers through associations with opal and other gemstones.
“They generally become interested in geology through minerals and gems and gold, through their associations with small-scale mining events that occur in their youth,” he said.
“The opal mining industry deserves support; our own born-and-bred workers, who just want a fair go, and the right to contribute to the community and the economy.
“Supporting small businesses in order to keep regional facilities, agencies and infrastructure within the region is so important.”
Over in South Australia, opal mining has experienced something of a resurgence over the past four years, the Department for Energy and Mining (DEM) told Australian Mining.
Between 2018 and 2022, the DEM has received more than 435 new permit applications and there have been close to 2000 registered claims during that time.
In its prime, Coober Pedy was home to more than 5000 residents, of which around 600 were miners, the DEM said. At the last census, there were approximately 1300 residents in Coober Pedy, of whom 250–280 were miners.
“One person can get one mining claim in South Australia,” Cooper Pedy Miners Association president Justin Freytag said.
“Depending on where that is, it could be anywhere from 15m2 up to 200m x 100m claims. But that’s only in certain areas to try and encourage people to go and work in those areas.”
The Australian opal mining industry is facing some battles ahead, but these miners are no strangers to tough times.
“You don’t find opal on a wage. You find opal when you’re hungry,” Phillips said.
This feature also appears in the March edition of Australian Mining.