Adventures of a female opal miner, as seen in "The Age"

Adventures of a female opal miner, as seen in "The Age"

Hunting for colour: Adventures of a female opal miner

by Jason Bainbridge

If Sue Cooper has a problem with her telephone reception, it is a 10-hour round trip for a Telstra Remote-Area Service technician in a four-wheel drive to fix it. If she needs to refuel? That's a three-hour round trip with a 2000-litre tanker on a dirt track. And if she needs medical attention? Build your own airstrip in order for the Royal Flying Doctor Service to land.

Welcome to Sue Cooper's life, six to seven months of every year, as an opal miner in western Queensland.

One of Sue's mining leases is on Mount Margaret Station, a pastoral lease that operates as a cattle station. Located about 50 kilometres west of the township of Eromanga (Australia's furthest town from the sea), Mount Margaret was once Australia's largest sheep station, occupying 600,000 hectares.

Sue is a relative through marriage, and I visited her mining camp in late 2016.

To give a sense of scale out here, the "bush paddock" containing Sue's small mining lease is a rugged, fenced-off corner of the property comprising 69,000 hectares – roughly the size of Singapore. Often Sue, her partner and her children are the only people out here.

"We're never lonely," says Sue, "because there's a dam near our mine site. So we have lots of wildlife visitors. Brolgas, goannas, kangaroos, emus and mulga snakes (or king browns).

"It's the snakes that give us trouble. Most of the time they're shy and stay out of your way, but during mating season it's not uncommon to have a female chased through the camp by a couple of amorous males. As one of the longest venomous snakes in Australia, at about eight feet [2.5 metres] each, that's a lot of snake to dodge! You just have to be quick and get out of their way."

Even without the snakes, opal mining is as hard as you imagine it to be. There's the remoteness: 350 kilometres can take 6½ hours to travel on bush tracks when only 50 kilometres is bitumen.

There's the dirt, the ironstone mud that gets everywhere and into everything. There's the heat. Out here, the weather "cooling" to 35 degrees means the equipment will start operating. And then there's the physical demands of the work. So what made Sue choose this life?

"A combination of things," she says. "My father was a surveyor, so I developed an early love of the land from him. My mother was a nurse who kept her maiden name after she married, at a time when that wasn't something many women did, so I definitely got my independence from her. And I've always had partners who were miners, who shared the work ethic. 

"But most of all it's that moment when you find 'colour'. It's just such a privilege realising you're the first person on the planet to ever see this naturally occurring treasure. There's just no other feeling like it."

Sue mines along an escarpment face near her camp. Like all opal miners, she's always on the lookout for faults in the belief that they enhance the permeability of rock strata, increasing the potential for opal to form in the associated sandstone. This is open-cut mining, which is how most Australian boulder opal is mined. It can be dangerous, because the ground is unstable when mining near or on faults.  

The top layer of the ochre-coloured mesa is hardened cap rock, resistant to erosion and requiring the use of heavy machinery like an excavator. Sue and her son will alternate between using the "bucket" and the "ripper" attachments on the excavator, partly because of this very hard silicrete rock and partly because the ripper is better at taking out entire boulders without damaging them.

"Yes, it's hard and hot, with lots of flies about," says Sue. "You're always hoping there's some colour there. When using the machinery you can literally hear the teeth of the excavator hit the ironstone boulder, and that puts you on alert. That's when it gets exciting."

There's no guarantee of finding opal. Not all boulders have colour, even when they are next to each other. Those that do can have many different types of opal, ranging from vibrant blues and greens to milky and dark. In all cases, boulders have to be broken open to reveal if there is opal inside. Often they will split open on a natural fault line with the opal occurring in "veins".

Opal miners largely operate in a six- to seven-month window, because It becomes too hot to mine in the summer. But Sue's job doesn't end with the mining. Rehabilitating previously mined areas is also an important requirement under Queensland state law, so part of her time is spent restoring her mining leases to their original condition through reshaping, seeding and planting vegetation.

When she leaves the lease for the months at home, processing the "rough" begins, working with a small team to decide which boulders work best as complete specimens and what stones can be recovered from the veins. Cutting from the rough is full of options, requiring cutters to consider likely "best stones" and "secondary stones" that will then be polished and sold commercially. A skilled cutter in her own right, Sue enjoys this part of the work too, sifting through her labours and making decisions about how the opal will be presented to others.

"I know of only one other female opal miner in Australia,", she says. "But I think being a woman does change the way that you mine. You have an eye for the opal, of course, how it can be worn or displayed. You think about the whole process, from the mining through to the final piece. But more importantly, I think you have a different relationship to the land and the wildlife there.

"We had two red-backed kingfishers take up a nesting site on our mining face. Not being too hard or too soft, the sandstone was perfect for them. I said that was it, we had to stop mining, we had to go to a new spot. It just made sense to me. Our mine was their home for the next 40 days or so, until the juveniles could leave the nest."

They moved away from the kingfishers but kept watch on them. "We saw at least two babies taking their inaugural flights about a month later. It was thrilling. So worth the stopwork and just such a reminder of how lucky we are to be out here.

"Working with my partner, with my children, and that's happening right alongside you – where else could you experience something like that? They're the moments that keep bringing me back to mining."

Jason Bainbridge is Professor of Media and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology.

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