There's a reason why Lightning Ridge, one of the most famous opal fields in Australia, is known as the "Black Opal Capital of the World". Lightning Ridge opals are thought to be one of the rarest and most valuable gemstones in the world. The sheer volume of black opal that has come out of Lightning Ridge is staggering. While millions of dollars worth of Lightning Ridge opals have been mined since the field was founded in 1901, black opals are becoming harder and harder to find, making them all the more incredibly sought after.
The unparalleled, compelling nature of black opals has secured Lightning Ridge's spot as one of the most famous mining sites in the world. Every year tens of thousands of tourists flock to Lightning Ridge to tour the opal fields, while rookie and veteran miners alike return to "The Ridge" in the winter, bringing along hopes of finding the mystifying and elusive black opal with flashes of red.
The field of White Cliffs, located in western New South Wales, was first discovered in 1889. Four men hunting a kangaroo quite literally stumbled upon a jackpot of brilliant fire opals. The jackpot was taken to Adelaide to be appraised by famed opal expert Tullie Wollaston. The opals were of such incredible quality that Wollaston immediately made the journey out to White Cliffs himself. It wasn't long before a plethora of opal miners followed. This was the birth of the opal industry in New South Wales.
White Cliffs was named for the white sandstone dunes that dotted the desolate landscape. Beneath these mounds were incredible treasures including fossils, opal pineapples, and dinosaur bones. At its peak, in the early 1900s, nearly 5,000 people lived at White Cliffs. Unfortunately, the field's fame and prosperity was short-lived. With the arrival of World War I, the field became abandoned. Few miners survived fighting on the front lines, and those who did went to try their hand at digging in Queensland or South Australia.
In modern times, White Cliffs is once again an active mine. As the only place in the world where the incredible opal pineapples are found, a small population of adventurous miners continue living in the underground caves, hoping that they'll be the next to strike it rich by digging up one of the highly valuable specimens.
Andamooka is the second largest of South Australia's opal fields. Opal was first mined here in 1930. The field is known for it's "Painted Ladies" as well as for being the field that produced the 203 carat Andamooka Opal, one of the finest gemstones that the world has ever seen. Like many Australian opal fields, Andamooka had its heyday in the 60s and 70s. Over 3,000 people lived in the town permanently and the quality and amount of opal being mined was neck in neck with the gems that were coming out of Coober Pedy.
In the last decade, the population of Andamooka has fallen to about 500 residents. Uranium mining has overtaken opal mining as the area's most profitable industry. This is due in part to Coober Pedy's meteoric rise in fame as an epicentre of opal mining. Regardless, Andamooka maintains an unparalleled historical value and is still considered to be one of the most formidable Australian opal fields.
Since 1915, Coober Pedy has been a powerhouse of the opal mining industry. Nearly almost all of the light opal in the world comes just from this South Australian field. In the mining boom that occurred during the 70s and 80s, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of opal was being discovered, cut, and dealt by nearly 10,000 permanent inhabitants, With immigrants from over 50 countries, it was one of the most diverse places in all of Australia.
Nowadays, the town's population hovers at around 3,000, but those still mining are producing large quantities of the world's finest white opal. In addition to opal mining, Coober Pedy is famous for its underground homes, hotels, churches, beauty salons, and pubs, To escape the sweltering heat, the subterranean lifestyle was an absolute necessity. Coober Pedy has also been nicknamed the "Hollywood of the Outback" because of it's notoriety as a popular filming location for blockbuster movies. All of this has lead to the town becoming a tourist hotspot, especially for those making the trip of the highway from Adelaide to Alice Springs.
270 kilometres away from Coober Pedy is the rugged and remote opal field of Mintabie. Mintabie had a late arrival to the opal mining boom. It wasn't until 1978 that gem quality black opal was unearthed at the field by Croatian miners visiting from Coober Pedy. Millions of dollars worth of opal was subsequently mined at Mintabie by the early 1980s, drawing in a population of nearly 1,500. The opal found at Mintabie was durable, and was allegedly strong enough to scratch agate.
Because of Native Land Title, opal mining in Mintabie has become severely limited. The town itself was recently torn down, leaven nothing behind but a meagre few former residents and their memories. Many of the remaining Mintabie miners have now defected to Lambina and other nearby South Australian opal fields.
The Queensland opal fields are world famous for being the only place in the world where boulder opals are mined. Well-known Queensland opal fields include Cunnamulla, Koroit, Opalton, Yowah, and Quilpie. The first recorded opal find in Queensland was 1872. By 1895, the five major fields and thousands of miners were in operation along the Winton Formation in western Queensland. At the turn of the century, however. the mining boom wsas cut short by a devastating drought that went on for nearly a decade. By the time the mining industry in Queensland was able to recover, most miners had long abandoned the state to try their hand at digging in New South Wales.
The Great Depression and World Wars further contributed to the decline of mining in the Queensland fields. Things did not truly take a turn until the 1970s, when there was an economic boom that surged the value of opal significantly. There was also an incredible demand from overseas buyers from Australian opals. Despite ups and downs in the profitability of the mining industry, Queensland mines have continuously been in production. Boulder opal has recently become more popular than ever due to its durability and similarities to black opal. Because of this, it is particularly sought after for everyday jewellery pieces like weddings and engagement rings.
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