Pineapple opals: White Cliffs, NSW is the only place in the world you can find them

Pineapples grow underground at White Cliffs. Not the spiky tropical fruit variety utterly unsuited to the scarred, arid landscaped of these parts, but rare opals shaped uncannily like the tops of the fruit and which sell for juicily lucrative prices.

In isolated White Cliffs, 1018 kilometres north-west of Sydney, opal miner Graeme Dowton is the closest you'll get to a pineapple purveyor. This town, where they count the population in the dozens not the scores, is the only place on the planet (and White Cliffs sure feels like another universe) where pineapple opals occur.

These precious finds can fetch up to $US500,000 ($A700,000) in the premier US market. Thus far Mr Dowton's personal sales record for a pineapple opal, which can appear in double and even triple formations, is $US320,000.

Pineapple opals are a double pseudomorph, a mineral compound that appears in an atypically-shaped formation, after Ikaite crystals form under glacial conditions in White Cliffs, which is, paradoxically, one of Australia's hottest, driest and most remote places.

Few miners have been lucky enough to have unearthed high-quality opal pineapples, and the overwhelming majority of them that do exist have probably already been found, says Dowton.

After another opal-rich nation, Ethiopia, renowned for its black opals, briefly challenged Australia's status as the dominant force in opals, local miners have emerged as unwitting beneficiaries of the pandemic.

It seems there's been a revival in interest in the precious stones, because, Dowton believes, people spending more time at home have turned to jewellery design and so have begun sourcing opals.

Adding to this is the success of Outback Opal Hunters, an Australian-made pay television documentaries series which has sparked interest after being screened around the world.

But COVID-19, of course, always has a flipside. Graeme Dowton's planned visit to the US next February to sell his opals at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in Arizona has had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.

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"The opal is still an affordable stone compared to diamonds," he says "and it's full of colour, light and life. I don't dream of opals but when I sit and spend up to 40 hours cleaning a pineapple opal it's a joy to see what's inside them."

Together, Dowton, 48, and his wife, Sacha Sullivan, 46, operate Red Earth Opal, a tourism and mining venture. Typical of White Cliffs residents, the couple reside underground as a way to combat the scorching summer heat.

Such is the volume of tourists these days - mostly from Sydney - who vie for a room at the famed Underground Motel in White Cliffs, Dowton has been operating "unprecedented" three daily, 90-minute guided tours.

The hard-hat tours occur inside the cool of his opal diggings, 14 metres below the surface, and where, in one section of mine wall, he has left evidence of a pineapple opal so visitors can be sure they're not a myth.

Despite White Cliffs having a photogenic and forbidding landscape that resembles a conspiracy theorist's fake lunar landing site, it has tended to exist in the shadows of its "neighbour" Lightning Ridge, near the Queensland border, 447 kilometres north-west of Sydney.

Dowton and Sullivan wouldn't live anywhere but White Cliffs, even though they own a holiday house on the coast where they escape the intense summer heat when daily maximums average in the mid-30s.

Dowton says that while White Cliffs is "20 years behind Lightning Ridge" in terms of tourism recognition it's "20 years ahead" in that "we're not as commercial as it is, we're still a nice place to live". In fact White Cliffs, he says, could be "the Sedona of Australia [the Arizona tourism hub] one day."

"We've been really hammered by the number of tourists visiting here recently. It's been great but it's sure taken them a long time to discover us."

Anthony Dennis and James Brickwood travelled courtesy of Destination NSW. See visitnsw.com

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