No stone left unturned

Don Townshend fossicks at White Cliffs, talks pineapples, plesiosaurs and other back-country bounty.

According to Jock, the veteran miner, opal mining is an addiction. Jock never made his fortune digging opal from beneath the red crust of outback White Cliffs. "People dream of making millions but I've never met anyone who did. It's like playing the pokies. It's a mug's game."

Would-be miners hooked on the romance of opal should steer well clear of Jock's Place. In fact, by the time you finish touring Jock's former opal mine-cum-museum and home, you'll feel sorry for anyone afflicted with opalmania.

Or is Jock really suffering from a dose of sour grapes? "Not likely," he says. "Most opal 'round here was dug out before the First World War so if anyone tells you they're getting rich, they're having you on, mate."

Despite Jock's counsel, mining still continues at White Cliffs, in NSW's north west. But establishing just how much opal is being extracted is another matter. Said another local: "No miner's going to tell you how much opal he's finding 'cause he won't want people sniffing around his lease."

Some say opals worth millions of dollars have emerged from White Cliffs during the past decade. Others say such figures are fantasy. Whichever, there's no doubt about the recent discovery of rare opal "pineapples" unique to White Cliffs. Many are oval, fit in the palm of a hand and have sharp, richly hued opalised spikes.

Old-time miners sold them to gem-cutters for jewellery but today the best are offered intact to collectors.

Macca the Miner, a former Victorian police officer who retired to White Cliffs almost 10 years ago, is one of a few miners to recently unearth pineapples.

I asked him what one was worth. "A top-quality specimen is worth around 80,000 bucks," says Macca. "But I've got one that looks like a fantastic space station and is worth about 150 grand. It's got long opalised spikes and is the size of a dinner plate. There's nothing like it in the world."

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White Cliffs also hit the news back in the 1970s when the opalised skeleton of a two-metre-long creature called a plesiosaur was discovered in the old diggings. Miner Ken Harris says he "knocked back over $1 million for it some years ago".

Not surprisingly, reports of pineapples and plesiosaurs fan interest in opal mining and spur the entry of new miners as well as tourists. Many visitors try their luck fossicking for overlooked opal (called noodling) within the old diggings. Says Macca: "From time to time, some of them pick up some good opal."

Established as an opal field in the 1890s, White Cliffs boomed around the 1900s when large quantities were exported to Germany. Then, despite the harsh conditions, the population ballooned to 5000. Today the population is estimated at 200, with most locals inhabiting purpose-built underground "dugouts" or, like Jock, living in old mines. Certainly moving in with the opals is a smart decision in a town where sizzling summer temperatures are an average 37 degrees. In contrast, the temperature underground is 19-23 degrees year-round.

After staying in the White Cliffs Underground Motel, I can appreciate the attraction of subterranean living. Although it was cold and windy above ground, inside the hill it was remarkably cosy. My room, painted white and hacked from the 60-million-year-old seabed, was the size of an apartment bedroom with a rough-hewn, domed ceiling and a vertical light-cum-ventilation shaft spearing up to the surface. In bed I felt like a snug troglodyte.

White Cliffs, incidentally, has no visible connection with the famous White Cliffs of Dover that stand tall and chalky along the English Channel. Rather, the town earned its moniker from the parched, bleached outcrops that distinguish the locality.

Today, the heart of this quirky little town is the above-ground White Cliffs Hotel-Motel, the adjacent General Store and the National Park Visitor Centre. That's it. As the pub's intimate bar is the only watering hole for many square kilometres, it's deservedly popular.

Despite its focus on opals and tourism, locals still find time to wield a bat and swing a club on the distinctive cricket ground and golf course just behind the pub.

The former is a stony arena named after cricketing great Bill O'Reilly, who was born in White Cliffs during its boom years. But as Bill's family moved on when he was three, it's a fair bet he never bowled a ball here.

As for the golf course, it's even more forbidding, interspersed as it is with bare "greens" and crusty fairways fostering low shrub and saltbush. I loved the sign reading: "All greens must be raked after use". You get the feeling this course might bring Tiger Woods back to the pack.

Bordering the golf course is the town's most unusual innovation, the nation's first but now-defunct solar power station. Visible from the main road, it's a collection of large parabolic dishes upturned to the heavens. Built in 1981 by the Australian National University, its solar energy initially powered a steam engine that fed the town with electricity. Later the dishes were modified to channel power into the state grid.

As for the rest of White Cliffs, it's mostly buried under a few undulating hills. Two of these hills, Smith's Hill and Turley's Hill, support a motel, a bed-and-breakfast and various dugouts selling opal jewellery and outback souvenirs.

Just beyond the Underground Motel on Smith's Hill, photographer Otto Rogge, formerly of Melbourne, has established an impressive studio with stunning opal, wildlife and outback photographs. Nearby is opal jewellery outlet Outback Treasures, where German-born artisan Barbara Gasch creates and sells a range of distinctive opal jewellery. Gasch stumbled upon White Cliffs during a world tour a couple of decades ago, fell in love with the town and is now married to a local miner. Most people here hail from out of town.

After lunch in the general store (there's nowhere else) we headed for the opal fields via Turley's Hill, which is topped by a couple of communication towers. We drove to popular PJ's Underground Bed and Breakfast, which is located in a 100-year-old mine, has six underground guest rooms and an inviting lush-green garden-patio.

A sign indicated it was for sale. "Fancy a sea change?" I asked my wife. "Can I get back to you?" she replied.

It's not far from Turley's to the historic opal fields where thousands of mullock heaps and mine shafts stud the landscape like a wasteland of diminutive pyramids and craters.

All up, an estimated 50,000 old mine shafts honeycomb the fields that bear names such as Golden Gully, The Londoner and Everybody's.

We didn't drive far before we encountered a few active mine sites where opal mining machinery was hacking into the sandstone. We delved deeper into the field and stopped when we came upon a parked tourist van. Beyond it, amid the diggings, we could see a few noodlers picking through a hillock of ochre-colored mullock. "Never know," said my wife, "with a bit of luck they might end up with the rough end of a pineapple."

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

White Cliffs is about 1050 kilometres from Sydney and an easy one-hour drive from Wilcannia. From Broken Hill it's a three-hour drive on the Barrier Highway.

Staying there

The White Cliffs Underground Motel offers snug underground rooms, an underground dining room and a bar. Entry is at ground level. There's also an underground stairway leading to the top of the hill (a great spot for star gazing) and an above-ground pool. Double room $99. Three-course dinner $35. Phone (08) 8091 6677 or see undergroundmotel.com.au.

Touring there

Jock's Place is entertaining and educational. Open 9am-5pm daily, entry fee $5 a person.

Opal noodling tours are operated by local miner Bill Hoskins. Ask for Bill in the pub or general store.

Tri State Safaris operates four-wheel-drive tours to White Cliffs from Broken Hill. Phone (08) 8088 2389, see tristate.com.au.

For opal purchases, Macca the Miner has pineapples as well as cut and rough stones. Phone 0403 178 730. Other outlets also market a range of opals and jewellery. See whitecliffsopalfield.com.

Further information

See visitoutbacknsw.com.au, visitbrokenhill.com.au.

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