Minnie Berrington - Life at Andamooka

25 October 2013 by Johno

Categories: Opal Fields Characters | Opal Fields History | Australian Opal

This post continues Minnie Berrington's story as told in her book " Stones Of Fire". The previous post relating to her story told of her life in Coober Pedy and this one relates to her life at Andamooka, now a small town located approximately 120 km from the Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia.

You will recall that we left Minnie Berrington still mining at Coober Pedy but only finding small traces of opal now and then despite putting in a lot of hard work. For some time there had been rumours that a new opal field had been found but no-one had any details. Just before Christmas in 1930 the rumours flared up again and the miners narrowed the area of the find to a location somewhere near Pimba, far south of Coober Pedy. This was further narrowed to a location on the Andamooka Station, not far from Pimba. Pimba was on the Ghan Railway line to Alice Springs.

One of Mac's friends managed to get the full story but could not leave Coober Pedy so he told Minnie and Mac the location. They were both eager to go and so began to make preparations as it is only very rarely that a person gets to know of a new field having just been discovered. They knew there would be many problems with food and water being hard to come by. The area of the find was in desert country and surrounded by large sandhills thus making access very difficult so they had to be well prepared. They enlisted the aid of a Mr Frank Woodlock who had a large truck and was eager to try his luck with them. Another digger named Northvale also decided to come. The information they had indicated they would be the only miners on the field if they left straight away and so off they went.

The distance from Coober Pedy to Andamooka was over three hundred and fifty miles (over five hundred km) with only sandy tracks to follow for much of it. The closer they got to Andamooka the more the track deteriorated. Often they were travelling over gibbers and even large slabs of flat rock and remember this was in 1930 and their vehicles were quite primitive and certainly not like today's four wheel drives. They also had to traverse washed out creeks, steep hills covered in gibber stones, deep gutters in the existing tracks and severe sand drifts but these did not deter them. They eventually reached the Andamooka homestead and were met by the Manager who was quite happy for them to travel through his property and to work at the diggings. He explained that a fair amount of work had already been done there.. He also said that two other men had arrived by camel the week before and were working there.The next day, accompanied by the Manager, they travelled the 25 miles to the field. The road was horrific but they eventually made it.

The first people they met were Mr and Mrs Westaway and their two children. Mr Westaway was a contract water borer looking for water for the Station Manager. They moved on up the small dry creek and located a site to pitch their tents. Minnie was eager to peg a claim and start digging but was pursuaded to set up a proper camp first as they expected to be there for a while. After setting up camp they settled down to a meal of kangaroo tail stew after Mac had managed to shoot a kangaroo.. They had brought some water with them but quickly realised that water supply was going to be one of their main problems. There was a small well near the dry creek but this only held a small amount of water.

The next morning Mr Westacott came to their camp, flashing a bright smile with a coloured opal tooth he had cut, and told them he had located water in a bore near the well. They were very happy to hear this. They then set off to peg claims, each of them going their separate ways. They knew most of the opal found to date had come from the first of three hills in the area and so they set off there. Minnie was also keen to search for "floaters", pieces of opal that broken out of the opal layer and were laying on the surface. These were useful in locating areas most suitable for prospecting if they could track back to where they had come from. A lot of digging had been done and they picked up quite a few chips of opal the other miners had left. Frank Woodlock picked up a large piece of rock with veins of brilliant opal through it. Nothing like this had been found at Coober Pedy. Mac then found a large piece of rock which had been split and the whole face was covered in a thin covering of opal. It looked like it was painted on and was very beautiful We now call these "Painted Ladies". ( see another post on this website about painted ladies). Minnie and Mac pegged claims on the first hill but Frank selected a location on the second hill some distance away.

That afternoon they met up with the other two miners on the field, Ted Lawton and Steve Cartwright. Minnie had met Ted at Coober Pedy and knew of Steve. They were already onto good traces of opal and showed Minnie some of the "colour" they had found. The three of them were now keen to start digging and quickly started three new shafts. Digging at this new site was a great delight. There were only five of them there and the views of the country side was clear of mounds of opal dirt, very unlike Coober Pedy. Of course this would change later as more miners arrived. Also firewood was easily obtainable and this was a real bonus.

They quickly realised stores and supplies were going to be a problem as they were a long way from anywhere. The mailman, who carried anything ordered by anyone, only came as far as Pimba. The Manager of Andamooka Station was happy to pick up supplies from Pimba and bring them to the Station but they would have to collect them there and also place orders for the next delivery. This meant a trip to the station every three weeks over the tortuous track. This arrangement with the Manager was on condition they did not let others know of the field as the Manager did not want a lot more diggers to arrive.

For the next six weeks they continued digging with all of them finding small quantities of opl but not enough to get excited about. During this time more diggers began to arrive and there were now twelve people on the field. Two of these were the Burton brothers from Coober Pedy and it was they who discovered a number of floaters on another hill about one mile from the first discoveries. Seeing these they all moved to this site and set up claims except for Minnie who was on 'colour" at the first hill.

Some time later some of them had moved back to the first hill and it was common for them to move about a bit try new ground. No one knew where opal was to be found and it was just luck when they chanced on it. On this particular day Minnie was talking to Steve Cartwright and he asked did she want any blasting done today on her drive. It was common to use explosives to shatter the rock to make the digging easier. Up to this time the men had done the blasting for Minnie. Minnie now asked would he teach her how to do it herself and he agreed. He was a bit concerned as he considered it a man's job but Minnie was determined. She bored a hole to take the charge. Steve measured the hole and calculated the amount of gelignite needed. Minnie had to measure the length of fuse and crimp on the detonator under Seve's supervision. She then packed wadding into the hole. She then had to put a "spit" of gelignite onto the end of the fuse. This would ensure when you lit it, that the fuse was truly burning. She lit the spit and when she heard it had taken she bolted up the shaft to get out before it blew. She was shaking like a leaf because this was quite a dangerous practice and it was the first time she had done it. After a couple of minutes she heard the "crump" of the explosion and knew it was a success. She now knew she could do all that was required to mine opal.

As the numbers on the field increased, so too did the problems associated with water supply. The miners all got together and decided to deepen the well to improve the supply. Minnie's job was to measure the well to ensure it was dug squarely so that the timbers put in to stop the walls falling in, would fit. While not a tiring job it was quite important and she felt she was contributing. The well sinking was tiring work as the rock was very hard and as water started seeping in it was also very dirty work. After many days work it was finished and they all admired the result. Their water supply had now been improved greatly but they often had to bail water fom a sump at the bottom of the well as it only seeped through the rock very slowly. This was Minnie's job as she was the smallest person there and she quite enjoyed being lowered down on a sling to do the bailing especially when it was really hot.

One day while baking bread, she looked up and saw that the sky had turned chocolate brown and looked like a thick wall. There was also an ever increasing roar. A huge storm was descending on them. They all huddled under the shelter of the stongest bough shelter in the camp and waited. They were then engulfed with hailstones the size of table tennis balls. Anyone in the open would have been killed or badly injured if hit by them. Luckily they weren't and the storm passed quickly. The ground was strewn with half melted hailstones and the creek was flowing a hundred yards wide. The tents were leaning badly with Ted Lawtons tent being blown up a tree. After cleaning up she went to sleep to the sound of water flowing in the creek. A very unusual sound for Andamooka.

Work on the claims was now impossible for a while. When the mining mullock gets wet it is a horrible sticky mess and you have to wait until it is dry before even walking on it. And so the miners took advatage of the flowing water and organised a great wash up. All their clothing was thrown into the buckets and everything was well and truly scrubbed. Their water problems were now over for several months with all the soaks now filled.

The next morning there was a new sound. The sound of frogs. Within twenty four hours frogs had come out of deep tunnels they had dug as is common in these desert areas and the air was filled with the noise of their croaking.

The field soon settled down and the miners returned to work. They usually worked from ealy in the morning until it got too hot. The storm convinced the three of them that if they were to stay there they would need a more permanent structure to stay in. They decided to go shares in a roofed kitchen. They constructed a roof of rough pine beams layered with canegrass and the whole lot covered with wheat bags sewn together. When finished it was quite an attraction for other miners who gathered to "make a cuppa", that is, make a cup of tea.

After this two of the diggers put in semi-dugouts. They were open cuts to the height of the walls and were then roofed in a similar fashion to the kitchen. They were cool in hot weather but not too good to sleep in because of the damp ground.

Later on a Mr and Mrs Anderson settled on the field. Mrs Anderson was a very able miner as well as a good housekeeper making her dugout very homely and comfotable. She also took on responsibility fo the mailbag on the rapidly developing field as well as looking after sick diggers. She provided a very valuable service for the diggers.

Whenever the miners found opal they had to send it interstate to a buyer and then wait a considerable time for payment. It was a great moment for the miners when an opal buyer arrived at Andamooka. The buyer liked Andamooka opal. The crystal was hard and the colours were brilliant. and it wasn't long before more buyers arrived.

Minnie continued mining and even learnt how to sharpen her picks. Even though they didn't look as good as those the men sharpened they still performed well so she was satisfied. Another skill learned. She shovelled the opal dirt into rawhide buckets made by Mac from bullock hides obtained from the Andamooka Station. They were lighter and easier to handle than the metal buckets and could be dropped down the shaft without damage. Sinking a shaft was the hardest for Minnie. She only worked on half a floor at a time and then emptied that material before digging out the other half of the floor. The material had to be shovelled into the rawhide bucket and then Minnie had to climb up the shaft via steps in the side. She then connected the rope to the windlass and wound the loaded bucket to the top where she had to drag it sideways and empty it on the mullock heap. It was very tiresome work especially the climbing up and down of shafts often over tweve feet deep.

The first shaft she sank over sixteen feet was a bit of a disaster. The bottom finished up almost at right angles to the top. In other words she was spiralling as she dug deeper. This was apparently a common fault with new miners. It is caused by miners hitting harder in one direction than in the other. This can be a problem as the miner may start driving in completely the wrong direction.

Minnie would often dig for up to seven hours a day and by then she was quite tired and looking forward to a break. If ever a digger worked longer he was usually "on opal". The evenings were spent listening to the radio, playing cards or just yarning. (Telling stories).

Minnie also tried her hand at growing vegetables. The standard fare for the miners was bread and meat. Vegetables were hard to come by and didn't travel well especially in the heat. She built a small garden and planted some lettuce seeds and covered it with netting to keep the animals out. Mac then bet Minnie he could grow better lettuces and the race was on. Minnie won because she had secretly added some blood and bone to her garden. She then tried tomatoes and almost succeeded only to find a large lizard had beaten her to eat the only ripe tomatoes she had been succesful with.

One day an opal miner found a small black opal. It was cut into a small, but beautiful stone and Minnie's heart was now set on finding a parcel of this beautiful, but rare, black opal. She was still finding traces of opal but no black opal.

Time went on and Andamooka expanded. New buyers arrived, a store was built and a post office established. A school was even set up. Minnie eventually left Andamooka and went back to typing. She doesn't give any detail but she always followed what was happening at Coober Pedy and Andamooka.

Minnie's book gives us glimpses of her life on the two fields. She obviously loved being there and was not afraid of hard work. She made many friends but does not talk of any relationships in her life on the opal fields. Minnie died at the age of 103 so obviously the hard work did her no harm.

Minnie Berrington was a very special person. To be the first woman opal miner at a remote location like Andamooka with no creature comforts at all must have taken great courage and determination and to last for many years carrying out the arduous task of digging through tough rock in all sorts of weather conditions meant she was a tough person.


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