Gem of a town

By Australian Geographic June 22, 2020
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White Cliffs, NSW, is the place to be if you’ve opals in your eyes.

When Graeme Dowton speaks he spins wild tales of underground tunnels and glittering jewels.

“I liken the place to a giant treasure chest,” he says. “I have seen $20,000 stones pulled out of the ground here.”

“Here” is White Cliffs in north-western NSW, and according to Graeme, it’s the only place in the country where you can freely sift around old mines for opals.

“White Cliffs is a place where you can come and freely fossick if you’re not on anybody’s registered claim,” he says.

Mullock heaps of White Cliffs.

The ochre-and-white mullock heaps that dot the barren landscape here are a testament to more than 100 years of opal mining, and the gemstones contained within are spectacular. White Cliffs, Lightning Ridge and the region’s other opal fields are also a dazzling key to our mysterious past – buried in the Australian opal fields are fossils of dinosaurs and other creatures that lived 110 million years ago, in Early Cretaceous times.

These fossils are literally gems: teeth, bones, shells and pinecones that have turned to solid opal. Australia is the only country where opalised animal fossils are found.

“There are definitely gems to be found here,” Graeme says. “Where Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy had later booms, ours was the 1890s. Today it has a very small population of dedicated, friendly and happy people fossicking here. It’s not if you’ll find opals, it’s when.”

What also sets White Cliffs apart is its pineapple opals – it’s the only location in the world to produce this type of opalised mineral, making it a highly sought-after treasure.

“The White Cliffs pineapple opals were originally given the name by the old-time miners in the 1890s because, well, they looked like the top of a pineapple,” Graeme says. “Today we know it as a double psuedomorph [a crystal made up of one mineral but taking the form of another] ikaite [which tends to form very steep or spiky pyramidal crystals] formed under glacial conditions.

“It’s hard to believe this is the case when White Cliffs is located within one of Australia’s hottest, driest and most remote landscapes.”

You can see some of these exquisite opals at Red Earth Opal Gallery, Bar & Coffee House. Built by Graeme in 2008 it’s situated within the Historic White Cliffs Opal Field that dates back to the 1890s.

Heading underground.

If you want to see how opals are mined and try your hand at it, your best bet is to take an Opal Mine Tour with Graeme. You’ll walk down a ramp from the surface, carved through the multiple levels of diggings, to reach a depth of 13m. It’s here that you’ll see the demonstration of the mining equipment and even have a chance to dig on the mine face yourself.

For more more information head to Red Earth Opals.