SUNDAY 30 MAY MARLA
John wanted to drive out to Mintabie, today. This is an opal mining settlement, some 33kms west of Marla. It is little-known, compared to places like Coober Pedy or White Cliffs, but actually produces extremely high quality dark opal.
John loves these mining settlements, and he also thought he might be able to buy some opal from miners out there.
From what we’d read, a permit was needed to go to Mintabie, because it is on aboriginal lands, but they told us in the Marla Roadhouse that due to some sort of administrative hiccup, no one has bothered, for months, about getting permits to go out there, so we didn’t either.
I was really pleased to find I could buy both the Weekend Australian and the Melbourne Age newspapers here – what a luxury!
It was a pleasant drive, on a dirt road, out to Mintabie. We crossed the “new” Ghan train line, soon after turning off the highway. The country was almost flat, and scrubby. Could tell we were approaching Mintabie, by the appearance of white hills in the distance – the huge dump heaps from mining.
The Mintabie diggings were quite extensive, stretching for kms along a low ridge line. They use machinery, seeming to dig shafts into the sides of deep bulldozed pits.
We encountered a man driving an opal mining machine, as we cruised around town, trying to work the place out, and John got out and stopped him. He showed John some opal, but did not want to sell any.
The settlement is small – general store, pub, school, caravan park – which does not look too bad. Had John known that was here, he would probably have insisted we brought the van out! There was the general air of scruffiness that we have found in other mining camp townships, where the land is basically leased. Lots of derelict and old cars around. Stone shacks, a few more substantial. The hotel was built from stone. The store was a large building.
There were several aboriginal women sitting about outside the store; they looked rather derelict and spaced out. Apparently, they were trying to get money from the shopkeeper – there is a bank agency in the shop. He told one that she’d had $200 only yesterday. I don’t know whether the issue was that there was no more money in the account, or whether he felt she would be better off without another big lot of cash to drink away or have taken off her.
John obtained directions from the store keeper to find someone who might sell him some opal. We have no map of the township, of course. I doubt one exists. Because it is not a place that tourists normally visit, there is no such thing as an information centre. Likewise, there is no place for the amateur visitor to fossick about for opal themselves.
After much difficulty in the maze of tracks that is Mintabie, we found the place the storekeeper meant. And there John was enlightened! The local miners sell only to professional buyers and do not worry about the occasional tourist, because the opal is such high quality that batches begin at $10,000 and go to over a million. That was the end of that idea!
We drove around a bit more and found a place to eat our packed lunch. Saw a nankeen kestrel. Then went back to Marla.
Spent the rest of the afternoon reading the papers and having a cook up – a batch of barley and vegie soup, rock cakes, and some tuna and rice patties for tea – they were alright but needed spicing up somehow. Chilli sauce helped.
The caravan park was chaotically busy again this afternoon, but with a fresh set of travellers.
There was a full moon at night, but it seemed unusually small.