Koroit is situated on the Humeburn road 100 kilometres north-west of Cunnamulla. Opal was first discovered there in 1897 by Lawrence Rostron, the manager of Tilboroo station, Eulo. A syndicate comprising eight members was formed. The Koroit field has been relatively quiet in comparison to other Australian fields.
Little work was carried on until 1925, when a number of miners set up camps along the creek. The largest one was the Christmas Camp, with its own cook. All opal found was pooled and the profits evenly distributed.
It was a tight-knit affair, a type of brotherhood, with no room for strangers. Many of the men had pasts which they rarely spoke about. Their only association with two other camps, which were further down the creek, was to bring each other’s mail and stores out from Cunnamulla. They were finding good seam opal in small pockets among large sheets of potch under a thin ironstone band, at the base of the sandstone. There was little interest in the matrix or boulder higher up in the sandstone; they were selling their better grade opal for 10 per ounce in Brisbane.
A little interest was taken in the field after the Second World War, but it soon faded. In 1972, a small number of men moved onto the field, among them Mike Bennent who was still there in 1997.
The date of opal discovery at Yowah is not known. There are a number of versions as to how it was discovered, all tied up with local folklore, the most popular being gold prospectors when the country was first opened up. E.F. Murphy, the famous opal buyer, said opal was found by Mr Rossiter, the original manager of The Southern Cross Mine.
There is only one record lease in the archives dating back to the 1880s for this remarkable little field, the rest appear to have been lost. In 1900, Warden G.H. Newman, stationed nearby, was directed by the Government to report on the Yowah:
I have the honour to inform you that in accordance with your telegram of the 2nd October, I proceeded from Eulo to the Yowah opal field on Friday the 5th, returned to Eulo on the 8th. During that period I also visited Mount Blankeny – the scene of a reported gold discovery on Dynevor Downs – situated some five miles south-west of Evans’ Great Extended Opal Mine at the Yowah.
The country from Eulo to the opal field is uninteresting in the extreme, not a blade of grass or patch of herbage being seen on the whole journey. So severe is the drought in this locality that even the birds seem to have migrated. Permanent water is scarce, the nearest to the opal workings is at Sheep Station Creek, some five miles from The Great Extended Mine. Water has to be carted to the miners from the dam at this place, which conveys some idea of the disadvantages under which they labour.
The Southern Cross Mine – from which Bond and party a few years back took many thousands of pounds worth of opal – was the first place visited. There was no work in progress at the time, nor did I see any signs of habitation in the vicinity. An air of gloom hung over the old workings – silent and deserted, and the solitary grave of the first English manager, Mr Rossiter, roughly fenced in with a bendee tree at the head, stood out clear and defined in the very centre of the abandoned shafts and countless heaps of mullock.
Under his grave – he was buried in a shaft which he himself sunk – a band of rich opal is said to have been found, but before it could all be brought to the surface, the shaft caved in, and the working party with the loss of their tools, had a narrow escape from being entombed. The Great Extended was one of the original mines which had only been worked to a shallow depth and abandoned. It was later taken up as a lease by Mr Evans, who sank one of the shafts to a greater depth, bottoming on the richest patch of opal so far discovered.
The Great Extended mine is in line with, but about one and a half miles from, the Southern Cross. The mine covers an area of 2 acres and has been proved to carry good opal throughout. A number of shafts have been bottomed and the claim has been opened up by drives from end to end. The sinking, which average about 32 feet, is through soft desert sandstone. I descended the principal shaft and followed several of the drives.
The opal is found in a pipeclay band, varying in thickness from 6 inches to 2 feet. The gem is found in small ironstone boulders, thickly embedded in the pipeclay band, varying in thickness from 6 inches to 2 feet. The gem is found in small ironstone boulders, thickly embedded in the pipeclay. It is in the breaking of these opals, either by a tomahawk, or on the head of a pick, that many stones become flawed and greatly diminished in size, and consequently value.
I was shown a number of parcels of opal, being held for market, and amongst them were some beautiful pieces. Several varieties of the gem are found in the boulders, the most valuable being known as “Pinfire”, “Flash” and “Noble” opal. But the black opal also occurs in this mine, and the lessee – Mr W.O.F. Evans, an old Victorian miner – has on hand a good specimen of rare gem. At present, work is not being carried on very vigorously, owing to the scarcity of water and the fact that the miner is practically at the mercy of the buyer, who visits the field at long intervals and places his own value on the stones.
The lessee has contented himself with stripping the opal bearing band, and leaving it to when a better market offers. In the meantime he is disposing of small parcels – mostly to a buyer in South Australia – to meet current necessities. Besides work done on the mine, the lessee has erected a substantial four-room hut, with detached kitchen, for the convenience of himself and family. There are several other miners and their families nearby, and although all are on more r less payable opal, nothing is being found to equal in quantity, or quality, the stone found on Evans’ lease. The population is about 20 persons.
It’s not known when opal was first discovered west of Jundah, but it did develop a reputation for quality and was highly prized by the buyers. The country began to settle in the late 1860s, and in 1869 Harry Redford, famous for the legend of Captain Starlight, took up a selection called Wombandary, north-west of the present town. It wasn’t until September 1872, with the arrival of the Tozer family, that the district became established. Shortly afterwards, a native police out-station was set up, which, by 1876, was acting also as a receiving and dispatching depot for mail. Although Jundah was steadily growing, the police presence in 1881 was one white office and six black trackers.
The original community which sprang up became known as Opalville. Although there were numerous mines scattered throughout the hills, there were basically only two main fields. The Old Field, known as the Top Flat, and the famous Black Mine, which joined it half a kilometre to the east. Opal from these two areas became legendary; it was the highest quality, surpassing all Queensland fields with the possible exception of Duck Creek.
Jundah opal came in two forms, as nodules and cylindrical pipes in the band at the junction of the sandstone and clay. They ranged in size from that of a small pencil to 2 metres in length. Many were more than 10 centimetres diameter. The boulder opal above in the sandstone was of little interest until it was rediscovered in the 1970s. Many of the larger pipes were filled with potch and hard red brick-like material, occasionally carrying a little colour.
They were so numerous the miners nicknamed them brick pipes. It was a rare pipe which was full of colour. Most of the better pipes contained at least 90% potch, the remainder being high-quality opal in isolated patches throughout the potch. The Black Mine of Jundah was Australia’s first black opal mine and is of great historical significance. It was 10 years before the discovery of Lightning Ridge. In 1901, it accounted for almost the total production of the field. During the 1960s, two young miners arrived at my home with a magnificent parcel of black pipe opal from Jundah for sale. I found it hard to believe that such opal could come from anywhere except Lightning Ridge, yet here was the evidence. What further amazed me was the intense density of the chaff-like pattern and colour.
No wonder buyers once drooled over Jundah opal! B.J.R. Rayment, known to his friends as Bob, in his book “My Towri” gives a graphic description of life on the fields over 100 years ago: In the days of the Jundah opal fields, some station owners were as unreasonable and just as bullying as the wharfies of today. In 1900 there were several hundred men idle in Jundah during the drought. With no other prospects started gouging. The land was an undeveloped part of the cattle section of a large station. The livestock as well as the miners had to get their water from a spring five miles away from the actual mine.
The spring was a good one and trickled about half a mile. The miners carted the water – the most up-to-date in drums on bicycles with neither tyres nor tubes. Some of the men carried the water Chinaman fashion on yokes, others used home made wheelbarrows. The miners took it in turns to camp at certain pools to protect the water. The station next charged that the local Jundah butcher would not sell meat to them. This naturally forced the miners to kill the station stock for meat. In the next move the station arranged for a police constable and black tracker to camp in the locality.
The men, however, had to eat, so the cattle continued to be killed discreetly. The constable must have felt for the miners because he could have caught scores of men killing, but he contented himself with warning everyone that he would arrest any man who wasted beef. In one of the camps there were two big bullies who were foolish enough to think the constable was afraid of them. One night while he was within hearing distance, they talked of what they would do to him if he caught them killing. I was only a lad and they would not listen to my warning, but I new the constable, George Phew, a good bushman with a ton of guts.
At their next killing, from the same mob, Phew walked out of the nearby scrub, put the brands and ear-marks in his shirt and took his four prisoners by foot through the rough country, 25 miles to Jundah. They paid dearly for trying the bluff.
The above information and images are an excerpt from “A Journey with Colour” by Len Cram.