Travel to the glittering outback for gems (including opals)

Margaret McKay has journeyed into the fiery desert heart of Australia, where the sunsets blaze like the opals that are mined in some of the quirkiest bush towns you’ll find. Discover the captivating tales of opal mining.

By Margaret McKay

Opals: vibrant treasures from the earth

We’re talking about opals as the beautiful pieces of stone that Australia is famous for — not the National Women’s Basketball team of the same name. (Though both are exquisite, highly prized, and appreciated.)

Opals are:

·  Australia’s national gemstone

·  the official birthstone for October, according to the International Gem Society

·  often gifted as a 14th anniversary keepsake

·  rarer than diamonds, according to the Australian Opal Centre.

These stunning gems - which are found mostly in Australia -  form as silica-rich liquid seeps into fissures and cracks in (usually sedimentary) rock and then compresses over millions of years.

Coober Pedy is an opal mining town in outback South Australia

The word ‘opal’ is thought to be derived from the Sanskrit word upala (jewel), the Greek derivative opállios, or the Latin opalus (precious stone).

Precious opals – as opposed to common opals that don’t have the vibrant colour – display fantastic variations in colour, as light is diffracted by the thousands of minute silica spheres within them.

This play of colour is the key attribute that makes opals so appealing - and valuable. The black opal is the most prized, though, there is a complex art to valuing the gemstone.

Are opals only found in Australia?

Australia provides around 95-97% of the world’s opals, although opals are also found in Ethiopia, Mexico, USA, Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

Only Australian opals include opalised animal and plant fossils, probably because Australia once had a huge inland sea.

Opal values are based on their fiery colours and qualities

Life on Mars?

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover found opal deposits on the martian surface, and since opals are formed with silicon enriched water, it raised questions as to whether Mars once hosted life, even if in some basic microbial form.

Australian opals – world class

Australian opals are as colourful and varied as the eclectic collection of characters who spend years devoted to their never-ending search for opal perfection.

Black opals are the most valuable

White and crystal opals – South Australia

White opals are not actually white but comprise softer and lighter tones and include any stones that are transparent or semi-transparent. 

Found in the South Australian desert areas of Andamooka, Coober Pedy, Mintabie and Lambina are beautiful stones that generally fit these descriptors, and while Andamooka is a major supplier, it is Coober Pedy that’s gained world renown.

While the town was not established until around 1915, Aboriginal people have a long association with the area, including the Arabana, Kokatha, and Yankunytjatjara people.

The name itself seems to derive from the Kokatha kupa piti (whitefella – hole in the ground), or guba bidi (white man’s holes).

Summer temperatures in all opal fields are extreme, and while daytime averages range from 30-32C, numbers in the high 40s are not uncommon. 

While opal mining necessitates working underground, miners quickly realised that the more comfortable and stable temperatures meant that living below ground was a lot more manageable, both in the hot summer days, and the cold winter nights.

The town of Coober Pedy is host to numerous underground motels, hotels, accommodation, churches, opal showrooms, and of course, the mines themselves.

A local was heard to say, ‘You don’t have to be crazy, but it helps,’ and this is evident in the local golf course, which contains no grass at all – despite the Keep off the Grass sign – and players carry their own piece of artificial turf to tee-off from.

Nowadays, tourism is a major component of Coober Pedy’s success, and opportunities abound to enjoy tours of the mines and opal showrooms.

Boulder opals – Queensland

These stones are so named because they are found attached to a host rock – often ironstone – and are unique to the Queensland opal belt

The Winton Formation extends for about 1000km from close to the New South Wales border at Hungerford, to the Kynuna field just to the north-west of Winton, and includes many mining areas.

In contrast to the underground shaft mining typical of the South Australian and New South Wales opal fields, much of the Queensland  mining is done by the open cut method.

Pineapples and black opals – New South Wales 

White Cliffs, the opal field near Wilcannia in western NSW, is the only place in the world that is home to the incredible pineapple opal, formed in a unique set of conditions, which includes ground temperature.

While a much smaller area than Lightning Ridge, White Cliffs is an extremely unique place that’s well worth a visit. And extreme it can be in summer, with White Cliff temperatures reaching in the mid-40s in summer.

Just as white opals are not white, black opals are not black (though they are the most valuable). Black opals have increased levels of carbon and iron oxide trace elements that mean they have extra darkness that makes the colours really stand out. 

The black opals from Lightning Ridge are the most highly prized of all, and gem quality examples can fetch up to AUD15,000 per carat.

Lightning Ridge has loads of interesting tours, including a half-day bus tour that’s great for getting your bearings quick smart, before booking some of the fascinating underground tours.

Australian opals and Australian opal miners – both colourful gems worth getting to know.

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