'You’ll get it in your veins'

The black-opal hunters of outback Australia

A photo of a road in sunset.
The sun sets over the road to Lightning Ridge [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]
The sun sets over the road to Lightning Ridge [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

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Sebastian Deisenberger leaned over the table in his garden, at his home on the edge of the Australian outback, his eyes glistening. He was explaining his obsession with rare black opals and why he uprooted his life in Germany to mine them.

Finding opals is “one of the best feelings you can get,” he said. “It took a hundred million years to form and come to that stage and then you’re the first one who sees that."

Deisenberger is one of a few hundred full-time miners in Lightning Ridge, Australia, home to the black opal, one of the most sought-after gemstones in the world. They are only found in two places: this remote corner of the world and Ethiopia. And they can fetch a lot of money.

The most valuable one ever found, the Aurora Australis discovered in 1938, is worth about $1m today. But even less famous black opals have a spell-binding allure. Some stones contain just a few of the gem's potential colours - peacock blue, soft, feathery white, shards of green or deep blood-red. Others ripple with all the hues of the rainbow, and all against a jet-black base.

A photo of Sebastian points to a book he published.
Deisenberger points to a book he published that explains the mining process [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

The opals formed in sandstone and mudstones anywhere between 145 and 35 million years ago. Weathering of these sedimentary rocks released silica into groundwater which then flowed into cracks and crevasses. The mixture then slowly hardened, forming the gemstones.

It’s impossible to know how much a black opal will fetch until it’s cut and set. But for miners in Lightning Ridge, the search is just as alluring as the stone itself.

They base themselves 720 kilometres (447 miles) northwest of Sydney in Lightning Ridge, an oasis of tarmac and weatherboard houses bordering the desert in New South Wales. The town is home to 2,284 official residents. But because people migrate to and from the Ridge with the seasons – many coming to mine in the cooler months and leaving when the weather gets too hot – the actual population can number far higher.

People come from all over the world to mine in the Ridge. The lifestyle is addictive, miners say. The hunt is intoxicating. The stone itself, enchanting.

A photo of Coopers Cottage with a sign next to a chair that says "Coopers Cottage 1916".
Coopers Cottage, a derelict attraction of Lightning Ridge [Alex Kitanov/Al Jazeera]
Coopers Cottage, a derelict attraction of Lightning Ridge [Alex Kitanov/Al Jazeera]

'Pretty similar to the Gold Rush'

Deisenberger first came to Australia from Germany in 1988 on a 10-week holiday. He and his wife Hanna arrived in Sydney and bought a VW Kombi van to drive around the East Coast of Australia.

Eventually, they ended up in the Ridge and obtained a souvenir, a little vial of opal chips. When the couple returned to Germany, they kept ruminating about the stones and the prospect of adventure.

“I realised, 'Oh something like this, it’s pretty similar to the Gold Rush,'” he explained. “And it never went out of my head.”

Five years later, in 1993, the pair returned to Lightning Ridge, set up a caravan on a mining claim, and started to dig. Now the Deisenbergers and their 28-year-old daughter live in a simple house that they built themselves on the outskirts of the town.

Having a background in engineering, Deisenberger began fabricating his own equipment, and the family’s sprawling back yard is scattered with rusting mining implements, trucks and motors, which wait to be repurposed.

A photo of Sebastian in his workshop, out the back of his house.
Deisenberger in his workshop, where he fixes and builds his machinery [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]
Deisenberger in his workshop, where he fixes and builds his machinery [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

Deisenberger, a man with salt-and-pepper hair, and a rough beard and moustache, explained the mining process to Al Jazeera.

It all begins with a lease of up to 500 hectares (5sq km) for 28 days, which provides the sole right to drill there. After that, a miner can stake a claim on a 50sq-metre plot. Other miners then race in to pick parcels in the rest of the area.

Deisenberger is president of the Lightning Ridge Mining Association, a cooperative that helps resolve disputes over stakes and facilitates negotiations with other landholders. The organisation has around 1,000 members.

Some are hobby miners who travel from Victoria, 870km (541 miles) south, to winter in these warmer parts. Some miners work part-time in the Ridge, while others are die-hard full-timers.

Mines come in two forms: subterranean, descending through a shaft to a series of interconnected, man-made caverns or open-cut mines in which a miner excavates the earth to form a quarry. Deisenberger’s lie underground. The shafts are typically 40 to 60 feet deep.

Once Deisenberger drills a hole, he bolts ladders to the walls, hanging them off one another, one by one until they reach the bottom. Then he jackhammers a space at the bottom of the hole to fit other machinery down, like a digger to scrape away at the walls and a “blower” - a long tube that sucks the mined rock out to the surface so the miners don’t have to hoist it up by hand.

A photo of Sebastian demonstrating how to cut and polish and opal.
Deisenberger demonstrates how to cut and polish an opal [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

It’s long and arduous work and very much a game of chance. You could have a profitable dig from one area but no idea when the next one will come.

“I got one stone and ... I got $100,000 for it. I took another 50 truckloads from that area, and it was all crap materials,” he said.

Nevertheless, finding that one exquisite specimen was incredible, Deisenberger recalled.

“You lock it up properly straight away, then you look at it again and then you study it.

“This is one of the best feelings you can get.”

A photo of a house in the distance.
Kelly Tishler's house, captured across an expanse of outback scrub [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]
Kelly Tishler's house, captured across an expanse of outback scrub [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

'A visceral, ethereal connection'

Kelly Tishler, another miner in the Lightning Ridge area, carries many of her opals in elaborate rings on her fingers.

“It's a visceral, ethereal connection that you get when you see it [in the mine],” she said. “It'll bring a grown man basically [to] tears.”

She chatted and joked as she drove her four-wheel-drive down dirt roads, heading out of Lightning Ridge town. Gnarled trees, bush and scrub covered the flat landscape.

Tishler, a sun-bronzed miner with infectious vitality, grew up in a mining family, where money was often an issue, as for many others in Lightning Ridge. They had dirt floors, no electricity and no running water.

A photo of Kelly Tishler.
Kelly Tishler [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

Now, she lives with her husband and one of her three kids in a weatherboard house outside town.

It was not easy to achieve that stability. Sometimes, she worked three or four odd jobs to pay for fuel for the drill. “You basically live off the smell of an oily rag,” she said.

They went eight years “without nothing” until she finally had luck.

Yet she wouldn’t change a thing. “There’s something beautiful where you get up every morning ... and you work for yourself and then you’ve got a chance to go and find a million dollars,” she said. “That sort of puts a spring in your step.”

Tishler has a total of 18 claims in a partnership with other miners. They use her equipment to extract the gemstones.

A photo of a repurposed cement mixer used to wash clay from nodules.
Tishler's agitator, a repurposed cement mixer used to wash clay from nodules [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

As we spoke, she stopped at the top of a ramp overlooking a silt bay, circled by an array of agitators or “agies” for short. These are repurposed cement mixer barrels powered by old tractor motors. Each one of them washes truckloads of earth to reveal nodules of opals, with the excess draining into the bay below.

It can take up to 16 hours for one load of dirt to completely wash down. The remaining rocks, or “tailings”, are then ejected into a metal chute for the miners to pick through.

The next stage in the mining process is to try to get a good price for what was found. This could be with buyers from town or middlemen who come from elsewhere.

Mining is a game of chance, she said. “We are the lunatic fringe of the gambling community.” But at the end of the day, “I love what I do,” she said, “I always have.”

A photo of Pete Cooke sitting on rocks.
Pete Cooke [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]
Pete Cooke [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

'Hopefully it’s a nice day, but usually it’s stinking hot'

Many miners are so consumed with the trade that they put everything they have into it.

Dressed in khaki and mud-caked mining boots, a single opal around his neck, Pete Cooke sat in the pit of his open-cut mine, a moonscape quarry of just carved earth. He gestured to the crumbled stone around him.

“Do you want to know the secret to leaving Lightning Ridge with a small fortune? Come here with a large one,” he said, chuckling.

Cooke has been coming to Lightning Ridge for “well over 30 years”. He is now based in town with his partner.

For the first 15 years, mining was just a hobby but now he does it full-time with a number of properties elsewhere in Australia providing passive income to support his opal mining “habit.”

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he said.

A photo of conveyor belts for loading excavated earth onto trucks.
Conveyor belts for loading excavated earth onto trucks [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

Cooke’s open-cut mine is spread over 15 claims where an old drilled mine from 1904 still exists under the ground,

Open-cut mines involve more bulk and dirt than subterranean mines, he said. Sandstone and other earth get mixed in with the opal dirt.

According to miners, regulations mandate that the land should be backfilled after mining. No shaft or quarry is supposed to be left unfilled.

“Eventually a bit of grass will grow back out. You might run a few goats or a couple of sheep or something, but it's not really productive ground that we're destroying,” he said. “Especially an old field like this, it would have looked like this for 100 years.”

Traditional mining methods can be slow and arduous, he said, so he redesigned the typical setup. Conveyor belts form an apparatus that allows the agitators to be loaded in succession by rotating on an axis, depositing the dirt into each.

His truck dumps earth onto a trough covered by a steel grille, which feeds onto the belts, freeing the truck to be returned to the mine instead of waiting to be unloaded.

A photo of two of Pete’s four agitators.
Two of Cooke's four agitators [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

He also developed a method of sorting the opal "tailings" after they have been discharged from the agitators that avoids toiling under the sweltering sun.

“Hopefully it’s a nice day, but usually it's stinking hot, and the flies, and then cloud will come over the sun and you can't see,” he said. “So that's why I developed the technique of bringing the stuff into town and processing it at my leisure in my [air-conditioned] processing room.”

For Cooke, this innovation is part of a mining “journey.”

“No boss, no one telling me what to do, when to do it,” Cooke said.

“And then when you're under[ground]... if you just hit that little bit of colour…the hairs on your arms will stand up. And this is what it's all about.”

Even at 61 years old, Cooke doesn’t let the rigours stop him. He recently sustained an injury lifting a can of fuel. “Three tendons tore off the bone. Just wear and tear from the jackhammers,” he said.

A photo of the "Welcome to Lightning Ridge" road sign.
A road sign in Lightning Ridge [Alex Kitanov/Al Jazeera]
A road sign in Lightning Ridge [Alex Kitanov/Al Jazeera]

'A warm, fuzzy feeling'

Many of the opal miners in Lightning Ridge don’t think of retiring. Jack (whose name has been changed for his privacy), is 82 years old and still operates mining equipment, searching for that elusive opal.

He and his business partner Gary (whose name has also been changed), 67, work a subterranean mine, using a digger and a blower to chisel into the stone walls and gradually delve further into the caverns.

Both men are grizzled but their stocky build and muscle belie their age. They have been mining together for three years.

“We met each other just working in that claim there,” said Gary, gesturing to a plot of land nearby. “I was on a jackhammer and thought this is no way ... I’m gonna try something different.”

A photo of two people standing in a mine with mining equipment.
Jack and Gary dig out the walls of their mine, in search of a seam of opal [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

At the same time, Jack was looking to sell his mining equipment, so Gary bought it and the two teamed up.

“We just sort of hit it off pretty well and stayed that way ever since,” said Gary.

The pair say they work together underground for about four hours a day, then carry off their dirt to sort as a team.

It’s a strenuous existence. Gary said he works other jobs such as doing farm work to support himself.

They face risks each time they go underground.

“[Cave-ins have] happened in areas,” said Gary. “I have heard of people being killed ... but most people get killed on the buckets.”

This happens when people climb up the mine shaft directly under a suspended load.

“The last two people have been killed, the actual bucket has got caught, and one bloke was poking it with a stick and it fell,” Gary explained.

A photo of Andrew holding a handful of rough opal stone.
Rough opal stones [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

Then there are thieves. If you’re unlucky, you may lose all your stones before you even get to them.

Miners call them “ratters”, robbers who sneak into unoccupied mines, usually under cover of darkness. Most recently, ratters stole a composite of stone from one of the key pillars holding up Gary and Jack’s mine.

“You don't notice it, you sort of go down,” said Gary, and all of a sudden [you say] ‘Oh, that was there.’ You get a shock.”

But it’s all part of the Lightning Ridge lifestyle. “Have you ever been in a place where you don’t get phone service?” No one knows where you are,“ he said. “It gives you this freedom.”

Aside from enjoying the off-the-grid experience, Gary marvels at the sediment that contains fossils of shellfish from millions of years ago. When the light hits an opal for the first time, he gets “a warm fuzzy feeling” as he’s confronted with its antiquity.

“You come across a mussel or something like that, and that mussel hasn’t changed in millions of years,” he said. “Imagine what the earth was like then.”

A photo of two plates, one with rubbed back opals, which are blue or green, and the other with rough opals that have been sprayed with water.
Rubbed back and rough opal that have been sprayed with water to bring out the colour [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]
Rubbed back and rough opal that have been sprayed with water to bring out the colour [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

'It stirs my creative heart'

This same respect for the opal’s ancient history underpins what Vicki Bokros and her husband Andrew Kemeny do, in their Lightning Ridge shop, Down to Earth Opals.

The couple work together to buy, cut, set and sell opals as jewellery. Bokros has operated the business since she established it in 1991. She outlasted pressures of camp life for 13 years, experiencing the complete mining process first hand - a far cry from her life as retail staff at a Gold Coast store.

The shop is now situated on the main road of the town among a handful of other black-opal showrooms. Display cases exhibit tiers of delicate necklaces, pendants, earrings and stand-alone stones enclosed within.

The jewellers say they want to pay miners a fair price. But the process can be a gamble because it’s not always easy to determine the value of an opal before it’s been processed.

“Let's just hypothetically say a miner walks in with this parcel, and says, ‘I want $10,000 bucks for it,’” said Kemeny, holding out a tray of rough stones. “The first thing that we do is we will sort through it dry, and then we will sort through it wet. Wet just brings out the colour and shows us a little bit more of the stone.”

If a miner rejects their offer, the couple might suggest removing imperfections such as a ceramic layer that forms with the opal. "That can increase the level of certainty from 20 percent to 80 percent,” Kemeny said.

A photo of Vicki and Andrew standing side by side.
Vicki Bokros and Andrew Kemeny [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

Once they buy an opal, Bokros and Kemeny cut and polish it with grinders that remove scratches. Each abrasive diamond-impregnated wheel costs hundreds of dollars to replace and the jewellers go through several each year. For fine cuts, they use a Dremel – a precise hand tool for small-scale work.

If the stones are easy to cut, with few impurities, Kemeny can process 30 to 40 per day. Other stones require many hours of work. “You can see this particular piece of crystal opal,” he said, holding up an oddly shaped stone with an undulating surface. “We cannot cut a stone out of that. If we tried to put that on the wheel, there would be absolutely nothing left. It would be ground to dust.”

From there, Bokros designs and transforms the polished opals into set pieces, many fetching tens of thousands of dollars.

“It stirs my creative heart,” she said. “And that’s the magic.”

A photo of an opal part-way through the cutting process.
An opal part-way through the cutting process [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]
An opal part-way through the cutting process [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera