Inspiration for Spark of Opal

Coober Pedy

In March 1967, Mavis set off to spend several months in Coober Pedy with her brother Bob, a recent widower.

In the early days of Coober Pedy, where temperatures can exceed 120°F, all residents lived underground in "dugouts" - homes literally dug out of the ground. As the family expanded, another room was excavated.

By 1967 air-conditioning and desalination of artesian water had improved the living conditions in Coober Pedy and the population had soared. Above-ground homes had begun to appear and tourism was beginning to boom.

Mavis and Bob made their home in a tin shed, the size of a garage. There was no roof and the warped door refused to close. A grey blanket separated the stretcher beds - Mavis read at night by kerosene lamp.

Being eight years younger, Mavis deferred to her brother:

"It was now decided by Bob that the box of 100 sticks of gelignite would be placed under my bed because beneath it was the most empty floor space available. I did not object. I did not doubt that my brother, as an amateur gem hunter, knew the vagaries of gelignite. But it seemed that an amateur gem hunter is not an opal miner. For nights I slept with that box of gelignite under my body, until someone told us what gelignite could do if it sweated."

- Trust the Dream (1999) page 198.

Even in this harsh land of temperature extremes and isolation, Mavis found beauty.

"On the flat were the mounds and bubbles of abandoned workings. Most of these clustered together wherever there had been a strike. A few, scattered and lonely, were evidence of a man's hope and disappointment. They were painted in soft pastels: pinks, mauves, yellows. In the distance the Breakaways looked blue, sometimes purple, the sky varied from pale wash to a wash-bag blue, or was as opal-like as the gem. Even the dust at morning and evening raised by the men's vehicles driving to and from work added to the natural beauty. If the air was still, delicate waves of dust, like coloured ribbon, lay across the flat. There was no harshness at this time of the year, just a gentleness of colour. But there was one colour missing in the Coober Pedy landscape; it was the colour green..."

- Trust the Dream (1999) pages 195-196.

"A hole or a shaft may be put down where a miner choses, provided that the spot has not already been pegged out by someone else. We chose a spot. We worked with spade and pick and crowbar..."

- Trust the Dream (1999) page 198.

"Many holes were dug; there was much sweat and toil. We learnt from our experiences about the ways of mining opal; but only enough colour was found to lure us on."

- Trust the Dream (1999) page 199.

"Bob said it was time to blast the hole deeper. A plug of gelignite was put in the centre of the hole and one at each corner. The metre-long fuse was lit, the fuse igniting with a hiss that sounded malevolent. We sprinted to a safe distance.

"Count your charges - make sure all go off," an old-timer had warned. One...two...three...four... But no fifth. No fifth! We waited. No fifth... My brother said: "I'll have to find it...those Aborigines..."

Yes, the charge had to be found. A small group of Aborigines, five or so, had shown interest in our doings, even offered to lead us to a more likely area in which to sink our hole. They were not in sight at this moment, but they could return...or anyone...and walk into that hidden trap."

- Trust the Dream (1999) pages 198-199.

See also Spark of Opal, first published in 1968.

Flat-topped hills of yellow or white earth.

The Breakaways, 30 miles north of Coober Pedy.

Undergound home with dirt walls, decorated with aboriginal artifacts.

Mavis inside a Coober Pedy "dugout", 1967.

Two ladies drinking tea at a kitchen table.

Mavis (right) and local lady, Mrs Kyall, inside the kitchen of a Coober Pedy dugout, 1967.

Landrover on a gibber plain, tyre tracks can be seen.

Mavis (right) with her brother, Bob, during their opal-digging expedition in 1967.

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Mavis in a hole to thigh height, shovelling soil.

Mavis works in "the first hole" - Coober Pedy, 1967.

Mavis in a hole to neck depth, small pick in hand.

Mavis "down opal hole" - Coober Pedy, 1967.

Small gelignite explosion in the distance.

The dust from a gelignite blast.

An Aboriginal woman and five children sit in the dust.

Aboriginal family sitting amid the rubble of the Coober Pedy opal fields, 1967.

Mavis sitting amongst the stones tapping with a miners' hammer.

Mavis digging for opal, 1967.

Bob down a hole to the depth of his neck.

Bob working their "claim", 1967.

Mavis, tin shed and old car.

Mavis stands in the doorway of the tin shed where she lived with brother Bob for several months in 1967.

Box of explosives.

Gelignite, fuses and fuse wire, 1967.

Bob sitting at a small desk in their shed, reading.

Camp stretcher and desk inside the small shed which was "home" for Mavis and Bob for several months in 1967.

Huge pile of rock rubble built up around a mine.

Coober Pedy mine with mullock heap and winch, 1967.