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opal fever
By Dennis Batchelder 17 March 2002

On Saturday, Irina and I drove the 150 miles of back roads from Broken Hill to White Cliffs. We bumped over rocks and dips and crests, fish-tailed through sand and gravel and dust, and hit the brakes each time an emu or kangaroo or sheep or cow decided to risk its life by crossing in front of us. We arrived safe and sound and sore.

White Cliffs is deep in the Australian Outback. The town started in the 1880’s, when two guys hunting kangaroos found shiny opals on the ground. In a few years, White Cliffs grew to a thriving city of 4,000 people infected with the same disease: opal fever. Only about 100 people reside in White Cliffs today, but they’re still infected.

Most residents live underground in “dugouts”, which they build as they dig for opals. These houses get pretty elaborate with rooms heading off in different directions at different levels. The dugouts are cool, unlike on the surface, where temperatures are between 90 and 130 degrees.

We stayed at the Underground Motel, built by Leon and his son as two dugouts. They thought there might be opals on one hill, and they dug deep. The dugouts grew, but the opals didn’t: the hill was barren. So Leon drilled an extra connecting tunnel to his son’s dugout, added some extra bathrooms and a swimming pool, and opened the 30-room Underground Motel.

Anyway, Leon told us that he was selling the motel next month. I asked Leon what he was going to do next, and he replied, “Dig for opal, of course.” Leon said, “I’ve never treated digging for opal as a business. But this time I’m really going move a lot of dirt, and we’re going to find a million dollar claim.”

Leon is investing $1 million into land, wages, and equipment, in the hopes of finding $1 million of opals. Either Leon has opal fever, or he’s using fuzzy math.

Doug and Barbara also have opal fever. Doug digs opals from his claim, and Barbara makes jewelry out of them. They sell the jewelry at their dugout store. They also sell postcards, and one of these has a picture of a 3-foot by 8-foot piece of opal. I asked Doug about it, and he said, “She’s from my claim.” I asked if we could see it, and he said, “Nope, she’s hidden away safe in my claim.” Why isn’t he carving it up and selling it? “She’s my retirement fund.” And why doesn’t he put his retirement fund in the bank? “I don’t trust banks.” When you have opal fever, it’s better to hold on to the opal than to cash in.

Joe has been infected with opal fever for the last 49 years. His “Opal Showroom - Closing Down Prices” sign has faded with age. Inside the showroom, Joe showed us various opals that he dug out, cut, and polished over the years. Why haven’t they sold? Joe is too attached to his opals. He takes them out, rubs and polishes them, talks to them. Joe knows the date that he pulled each opal out of his mines: he showed us some nice crystal opals he dug 28 years ago, and others 40 years ago. His prices were outrageous: he wanted twice as much for his opals than anybody else in White Cliffs. With opal fever, your opals become priceless children.

With opal fever germs in the air, it’s no wonder that Irina and I caught it. We had to go opal fossicking (that’s what opal mining is called), and we headed up to the old minefield. Fifty thousand shafts occupy a square mile of land, and any area not marked by a claim sign is free for the public’s use. We knew that with a little bit of work, we’d find a million-dollar strike.

We drove around in the minefield, looking for the perfect spot. It all looked the same to us: piles of gravel and sand next to deep shafts. Some areas had big operations going, with tractors, cranes, and dump trucks. We saw abandoned equipment, rusted hand winches, broken ladders. Where was the perfect spot? Irina didn’t care, and I wanted a place that was off the beaten path. Irina said that the whole town looked pretty beaten, and one place was as good as another, so I parked the car next to a pile of rocks and we got out and started to fossick.

Not that we knew how to fossick. But we walked around kicking at the rocks, hoping to uncover some opal. None there. We peered into some shafts, and nothing glinted back at us. I was going to climb down one shaft, but it looked treacherous. It was hot and we were sweating after just a few minutes. You must sweat before you find a million-dollar strike.

Irina started picking up rocks, and I started smashing them, looking for opals inside. Neither of us had hats, and our heads were getting pretty warm. We were both wearing sandals, and sharp stones worked their way in. You must hurt before you find a million-dollar strike.

I scrambled up a large pile to see if any opals were resting on top, but they were too fast for me, and ran away before I made it up. Then Irina started screaming and laughing, “I found an opal!” I slipped down the hill, filled my sandals with more rocks and dead cactus parts, and limped over to her. You must limp before you find a million-dollar strike.

Sure enough, Irina found an opal attached to a rock. It was purple, shiny, and big enough to see if you squinted your eyes just right - maybe as large as the head of a pin. But an opal is an opal, and knowing they were there energized us to keep looking. You must have energy to find a million-dollar strike.

Maybe Leon was right: we had to do was to move more dirt. And smash more rocks. And get more cactus parts in our feet. Irina and I started talking about going back to town and getting some picks and shovels. Or better yet, we could rent a bulldozer for the afternoon. Claims only cost $90 each year: while we were in town, we could file a claim and come back on vacations and keep digging. We could always live in the dugout. You must invest to find a million-dollar strike.

I think the sun was getting to us. We grew hotter, but couldn’t stop fossicking. We just knew that the next rock was going to contain the big one. There was no time to think; there was only time to collect and smash more rocks. You must be desperate to find a million-dollar strike.

Finally Irina said she was going to collapse if we didn’t take a break. We got back in the car and drank a couple of liters of water. Then we drove out of the minefields, stopping every couple of minutes to run out and smash a couple more rocks. You must persist to find a million-dollar strike.

Did we find the million-dollar strike? Absolutely. We went back to Doug and Barbara’s, and found the opals sparkling in their gold and silver settings inside a nice glass display. We were so excited by our find that we brought part of the strike home: a beautiful black opal mounted in a silver ring, plus some matching earrings from Joe’s Opal Showroom.

You must shop to find a million-dollar strike.
opal fever - australia