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
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
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
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
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
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
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
You must shop to find a million-dollar strike.
Copyright © Dennis