TUESDAY 23 MAY WINTON
We got up at a respectable hour, and after breakfast, drove across the road to the Caltex fuel depot, to top up Truck. Diesel was 83cpl here. The man said he was getting low on diesel, and waiting on the tanker to be able to come down the road from Hughenden – currently closed due to recent rains.
We left about 10.30, to head south to Opalton. Took the Jundah Road, initially, for 15kms, then turned onto the unsealed Opalton road. This skirted the edge of the Bladensburg National Park, on my list of places to visit, here. Its low jump ups – or flat topped hills – looked interesting.
After Bladensburg we were into flat grasslands, but with enough trees and scrubland to keep it interesting. There were good fat cattle about, and some sheep. Roos and emus were also plentiful.
We saw a flock of cockatiels and a number of black faced wood swallows.
It was not too hard to find our way, despite the lack of signs. The man at the gem shop had given us useful information about that.
We got to Opalton about midday, and went to the bush store – the Opalton Outpost – that the shop man had told us about. As this was one of the few structures about the place, it was pretty obvious. It was very rough – a sort of pole construction with brush roofing and lots of gaps to the open air. The shelf stock was very sparse, dust covered, and – I suspected – very out of date. Several chooks wandered in and out and one of their kind – stuffed – had pride of place on a shelf. I had a feeling that the poultry might roost on the shelves at night!
A rather scruffy looking guy – L – was looking after the store. He showed us a piece of the boulder opal that they find in these parts. It was really pretty, perhaps resembling the cooked matrix opal we’d seen at Andamooka last year, but with lots more fire and large patches of colour. L directed us to go to the bush camp area – it surprised us that this existed – where, he said, 76 year old M would tell us all about it and show us what to do to fossick.
M was lovely – very talkative. She had a huge blue, rough surfaced sapphire on a chain round her neck. She found it near Sapphire a couple of years ago.
After we’d eaten our packed lunch, M took us out noodling on the mullock heaps of the old mine pits. There was a large area, just behind the bush camp area, that had been mined about a hundred years ago. The miners dug shafts and the mullock heaps were piled up around these. M explained that often they were seeking large and spectacular pieces of opal and didn’t bother with small bits. So it was remarkably easy to find little pieces on the heaps, or rocks that might have opal in.
The opal fields here were developed from the 1880’s. At one stage there were about 600 people on the field, with the attendant small town that grew up to meet their needs. Life was tough, with lack of water being an issue, though, ironically, ground water filling into the shafts was a big problem. A bigger problem was the decline in the demand for opal in the early 1900’s, that affected all the then existing opal fields in Australia. Some say that the diamond mining companies of South Africa felt that their product was so threatened by opal that they managed to circulate the idea that opal was unlucky – this persisted for decades.
So opal mining, and Opalton, declined and the place was virtually abandoned by the 1920’s, and crumbled away. However, a revival in recent times has seen miners using machines take up claims in the area. The central part of old Opalton was designated as a fossicking area and thus protected from machine mining. All very interesting and nothing we’d known about, previously.
John had already decided, before we went noodling with M, that he wanted to come out here with the van and stay at the bush camp for a while. I liked the place and the “away from it all” nature of it. So, we arranged with M to return here to camp.
M and her husband caretake the Bush Camp and stay here for several months over winter.
We inspected M’s gem trees, which she sells for $20. These were small tree shapes made from wire, with 42 small pieces of opal on the branches – all glued to a polished piece of rock. I found them quirky and very attractive, and selected one to be put aside for me to buy when we return here. I thought I might buy a second one as a Xmas present for P and K. There was some really good colour in the chips she uses.
We left Opalton at 4pm, after a much more interesting time than I had anticipated.
There were many kangaroos and emus to dodge on the drive back! We drove 261kms today.
Tea was leek and onion soup, steak for John and salad for me.
We had planned to have some bills from home – rates and the like – that would be due for payment, catch up with us at a town, soon. I suggested that we could phone and find out details and pay by phone – and that would solve that impediment to our going “out bush” for a while.
What is really noticeable at Winton is the number of vans that come in late in the day and leave again early next morning. They don’t know what they are missing in some of these outback towns.