The real way to see White Cliffs, if the photographs are to be believed, is from the air. It looks like a strange moonscape with an estimated 50 000 disused diggings, all little like ants nests with neat piles of dirt surrounding holes of optimism dug by miners believing that somewhere below the surface of this inhospitable land lay a hidden fortune in opals.
Most visitors, however, have to drive the 98 km (the road is now almost entirely bitumen with only 5.5km of dirt road which is due to be sealed in 2004) road from Wilcannia (which, in turn, is 974 km northwest of Sydney) through scrubby, semi-desert saltbush plains inhabited by kangaroos and every imported feral pest (cats, rabbits and foxes) known to the Australian bush. White Cliffs is located 122 metres above sea level and has a miserably low average annual rainfall of 234 mm.
Arriving in White Cliffs is like arriving in any opal mining settlement. It is immediately obvious that every regular activity comes a bad last to the one thing which drives the town - seeking a fortune! The pub is dusty and lonely, the general store is small and simple, the roads are rough and unsealed, the settlement is spread in every direction, and the attempts at 'civilisation' are crude and simplistic.White Cliffs housing operates on the iceberg principle with most of the town's 'buildings' being underground. For every building you see on the surface there are as many as ten more underground.
White Cliffs came into existence in the most unusual way. Instead of experiencing a rush it experienced a gradual emergence. It is known that opals were found in the area as early as 1884 but it wasn't until 1889 that any real interest was shown. 1889 was a year of drought and four kangaroo shooters were hired to reduce their numbers on the Momba Pastoral Company Station. The roo shooters found opals and realising their potential value sent them off to Adelaide for valuation by a man with the improbable name of Tullie Cornthwaite Wollaston.
Wollaston was sufficiently impressed with the samples to make the journey from Adelaide to White Cliffs. He subsequently became the town's 'promoter' selling White Cliffs opals in Europe and the USA.
Wollaston later observed: 'I at once made a trip to the spot. There were two tents and a bough shed, and the party of kangaroo shooters who had found the stones were, on my arrival, discussing the advisability of pitching them in the nearest pot-hole and continuing their search for the merry marsupial. I was asked to make an offer for the parcel, and I named £140, prepared to spring £10, but my bid was promptly snapped. That was the first purchase of White Cliffs opal, and started the field.'
By 1890 a small settlement had come into existence. It was around this time that it got the name White Cliffs as a simple description of the white shale which every miner had to dig through to find opals. William Johnstone arrived in 1892 setting up the first store and hotel. The real growth of the town did not occur until 1893 when news of some good finds drew miners to the area precipitating the development of the town's infrastructure. By 1897 White Cliffs had grown to a point where there were about 1000 people.
However, building materials were scarce and expensive and the heat in summer was oppressive. Consequently, around 1894, miners started converting their old shafts into homes. The hills being solid sandstone rather than earth the dugouts were in no danger of collapsing and the temperature was constant. It is proof positive of the growth of the subterranean lifestyle that by 1900 there was an underground bar at the Centennial Hall. Today there are around 140.
The town peaked in 1902 when opals worth about £140 000 were found. The area continued to attract large numbers of miners until about 1914 when the combination of declining opal deposits and the call of war saw the town reduced to the small settlement it is today.
The town's decline continued and there were times when there were only a few people living in the town. However the patronage of the nearby rural workers and property owners ensured that the pub and the General Store survived. Today the permanent population is around 200 and this rises to about 500 in winter when gem seekers come from the south. In 1987 the production of opals from the White Cliffs fields was estimated to be $150 million.
Over the years remarkable opals have been found in White Cliffs. The White Cliffs opal 'pineapples' and opalised shells are commonplace. By far the most unusual was the opalised remains of plesiosaur which was found in 1976. It is nearly 2 metres long and is believed to be around 100 million years old. For years it was on display in White Cliffs but it was recently removed to Sydney. The locals hope the plesiosaur will be once again on display in the near future.
Things to see
A heritage trail has been created to direct you to a dozen significant sites around town where there are durable information signs to enhance an appreciation of the town's history. A free guiding pamphlet (or a book with more detailed information on the sites) is available from numerous outlets. A more general history, also available locally, is Saltbush Rainbow by the late Gwen Rowe. Another way to garner some local history is by taking a guided tour with Bruce Robjohns Opal Wanderer (0428 835 034).
Bill O'Reilly Oval
For cricketing fans the delightful Bill O'Reilly Oval (turn right at the pub) is nothing but hard red dirt. It must be one of the easiest ovals in Australia to score a four on. Bill O'Reilly's father was the town's first school teacher and the great cricketer is the town's most famous son.
St Mary's Anglican Church
There's St Mary's Anglican Church standing forlornly but fittingly on Church Street east of the Post Office. It is not uncommon in the late afternoon to see kangaroos standing opposite as though they are waiting for evensong to commence.
Solar Power Station
The town's one real concession to modernity and sophistication is the experimental solar power station with its huge parabolic disks standing in rows in the harsh landscape. They look like a space station in a 1950s sci-fi television serial. It was designed by the Australian National University as the basic electricity supply for the town and first came into operation in 1981. White Cliffs is justifiably proud of the fact that it was the first town to utilise solar power to furnish at least a small part of the town's electricity needs. The 14 parabolic dish collectors are 5 metres in diameter. They follow the sun and collect the energy which is converted by means of a newly-installed photovoltaic cell. The original model concentrated the sun's energy into steel coils. Boiling water in the coils conveyed steam to a steam engine which produced 25Kw. In 1999 the 3000 mirrors were resurfaced and the station is now capable of producing 70,000 Kw of power a year. It cannot be inspected but can still be photographed. Opal Wanderer has more information.
PJ's Underground Bed and Breakfast
PJ's is a charming underground residence comprising 5 guest rooms, a lounge room, dining room, kitchen, private residential quarters, an underground spa garden, a toilet and shower area, a mine and an underground opal and gift showroom as well as an above-ground garden-barbecue area characterised by numerous potted plants, an ageing dog and a lively and noisy community of green tree frogs.
This classy bed and breakfast destination has defeated the strictures of the NRMA's inflexible star-rating system and currently has 3 1/2 stars which is pretty remarkable given that underground plumbing means shared shower, bath and toilet facilities. If there was a ratings measure for uniqueness it would probably have six stars. It has a gift shop and it is open for inspection.
The White Cliffs Post Office is worth inspecting simply because it baffles common sense. In a place where everyone was digging holes to get out of the heat the Post Office decided to construct an office out of corrugated iron - one of the hottest materials known. It was completed on 25 March 1900.
Opal Pioneer Federation Park
Near the Post Office is the newly constructed Opal Pioneer Federation Park which is near the Pioneer Children's Cemetery.
Pioneer Children's Cemetery
There are a number of local sites of interest including the Pioneer Children's Cemetery (1890-92) - five graves most of which are children who died from typhoid and other diseases which prospered in the mining community because of the difficulties of maintaining proper sanitary standards. There is also the grave of a man who died from thirst. The graves of the children are believed to be those of the Richardson family. Alfred Richardson was a member of the kangaroo shooting party which discovered opals at White Cliffs.
People started living underground as early as 1894 in White Cliffs. From the Pioneer Cemetery it is easy to see the first historic dugouts in the walls of the hill opposite.
Jock's Place, an underground dugout home, museum and old mine with an opal seam in the wall, is open 9.00 a.m. - 5.00 p.m. daily, tel: (08) 8091 6753. Wellington's Underground Art Gallery is open by appointment, tel: (08) 8091 6627. Joe's Stubby Opal Shop is a house built of 54 000 bottles, open daily, tel: (08) 8091 6642. Outback Treasures has opal jewellery, photographs and Aboriginal art of the Barkindji tribe. It is open from 9.00 a.m. - 6.00 p.m. daily, tel: (08) 8091 6634. Top Level Opal is an underground gem display, open 9.30 a.m. - 5.00 p.m. (3.00 p.m. during daylight saving) every day but Sunday, tel: (08) 8091 6623, and PJ's Underground-Dugout Tour is a modern dugout home situated in a 100-year-old opal mine. It offers bed and breakfast and is open from 8.30 daily, tel: (08) 8091 6626.
Remember, the local roads are gravel they can be accessed by conventional 2-wheel vehicles but they can be hazardous or impassable after wet weather. Phone (08) 8091 5155 for an up-to-date report on their condition. For rodeo lovers a gymkhana is held at White Cliffs every May.
White Cliffs General Store (Supplementary Tourist Outlet)
Cnr Johnston St and Keraro Rd
White Cliffs NSW 2836
Telephone: (08) 8091 6611
Facsimile: (08) 8091 6611