Birthplace of the Australian Opal Industry
The Queensland Opal fields are spread over a belt 300-400km wide with a 1000km strike. Trending in a north-westerly direction from the New South Wales border at Hungerford up to Kynuna and stretching west of Cunnamulla, Blackall and Winton out to Noccundra, Palparrara and Hamilton. Opaline silica is common throughout this deeply weathered section of the Winton Formation which consists of sedimentary sandstone, siltstone and mudstone. Ironstone concretions or 'boulders' are also widely distributed throughout these Cretaceous sediments and may be randomly distributed or confined to definite 'levels'.
Seemingly untouched by man since the beginning of time, the vast, rugged landscape of the western region of the state has a rich history. More than 25 Aboriginal tribes roamed the country before the arrival of the pioneer pastoralists and Opal miners in the mid to late 1800's. Today huge sheep and cattle stations, mineral deposits, oil and gas fields contrast with the lifestyle of the nomadic Opal miner.
Precious Australian Opal was first found in Queensland where it occurs over of an area in excess of 100,000 square kilometres, in a multitude of forms and varieties. Making South-west Queensland the greatest region of Opalisation in the world and the most prospective in the new millennium.
Lady Brassey in her book "The Last Voyage, to India & Australia, in the 'Sunbeam'" mentions that a piece of Opal was found in Queensland by the overseer at Blackall Station on Listowel Downs, in 1869.
The beautiful fragment stood on the mantelpiece for several years before it was thought to be of any value, but at the time of the greatest mining fever attention was attracted to the specimen, and it was sent to a mineralogist, who pronounced it to be valuable Opal. - Lady Anna Brassey
The Opal encrusted ironstone boulders discovered on the jump ups of the Barcoo district by early miners Berkelman and Lambert attracted great interest at the Queensland Annexe of the 1873 International Exhibition in London and became known internationally as 'Barcoo Opal'.
Following the discovery of deposits hundreds of kilometres southwest in the Kyabra hills entrepreneur Herbert Bond took up leases at Aladdin, Scotchman and Cunnavalla. In 1879 Bond's syndicate floated in London, raising £2500, with the intention of marketing Queensland Boulder Opal to the world. The company's operation would last two decades. The next decade brought a steady rush of miners to the Kyabra fields just north-west of Eromanga and to the south of Windorah on the Cobb & Co. stage coach route.
By the mid 1880s, pioneer miner Joe Bridel had successfully recovered new forms of precious Opal at Stoney Creek in Kyabra. It was the solid seams, 'pipes' and nodules of precious Opal in sandstone that the pioneering Opal exporter Tullie Cornthwaite Wollaston took to London in 1890 which was familiar yet superior in quality to any Opal the world had known hitherto and helped initiate the Australian Opal industry.
Two World Wars and droughts slowed the progress of Boulder Opal realizing its full potential on the world stage. Although mining on a small scale continued it was relatively dormant. It was not until 1967, when Des Burton, a pharmacist from Quilpie, became involved with Boulder Opal, [that the industry was revitalized]. In the 1970's he introduced modern open cut mining techniques which revolutionized the opal mining industry. - Len Cram
Today Queensland's Opal miners are above all in search of Boulder Opal, this 'heavenly marriage of ironstone and Opal' is widely regarded as one of the planet's most stirringly beautiful gemstones, particularly amongst the cognoscenti. Despite this and an apparent abundance of the resource in Queensland, Boulder Opal constitutes less than one fifth of total Australian Opal production.
Opal mining activity has declined markedly over the last two decades due to ever increasing bureaucratic red-tape and illconsidered mining legislation skewed towards larger corporate operations. Add to this the 'tyranny of distance' and technical difficulty in the economic extraction and cutting of this most brilliant of gemstones.
We honour the determination of the early miners who overcame all challenges as we celebrate 140 years of the Queensland Boulder Opal Industry and indeed the birth of Australia's National Gemstone.
Sources & Image Credits:
A JOURNEY WITH COLOUR Vol I, A HISTORY OF QUEENSLAND, Len Cram, 1998.
BEAUTIFUL OPALS - AUSTRALIAS NATIONAL GEM - SPECIAL 2000 COMMEMORATIVE EDITION, Len Cram, 1999.
Opal Cutter Winton - November 1901, Photo courtesy of: Queensland Department of Mines & Energy.
Opaline Collection, (Red Boulder Splits, Yowah conglomerate)
SWEAT, TEARS AND BLOOD RED OPAL, Ron McKenzie, 2000.
THE LAST VOYAGE TO INDIA & AUSTRALIA, in the 'Sunbeam' 1886 - 1887, Anna Brassey, 1st Ed. 1889.
WINTON by Bruce Hutchinson - Photographer, 2006.
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