Tullie Wollaston - Epic journey to seek opal

29 April 2013 by Johno

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

It was all very good finding opal in the early days but if no-one wanted to buy it, then there was little use risking your life trying to find it. Still this did not deter the brave souls who ventured into the harsh environment of central Australia to chase opal. In the 1880's opal had been found in Queensland and miners had established themselves in various areas where opal had been found. At that time they realised they had found a valuable and rare gem but there was no-one to buy it. Miners would hoard the best quality opal and throw away the more inferior material. There are records of miners with sugar bags full of top quality opal but it was of no use to them in outback Queensland.

This is where Tully Cornthwaite Wollaston came to the fore. Born in Port Lincoln in 1863 and growing up at Lake Hamilton on his fathers station, he developed a great love for the outdoor life in Australia. Being brought up on a station (a large farm) he would have learnt to live in very harsh conditions as well as how to care for animals. He obviously learnt to ride horses and to care for them. Life on these stations was quite primitive compared to today. This life prepared him for what was to come later.

He married Emma Sara Manthorpe and they eventually had 11 children. Early on he worked on surveys but left to become involved in the marketing of saphires and other gemstones. This early involvement was to help him to become Australia's leading buyer of opal and one of the main people responsible for marketing opal overseas.

Before discussing Tullie Wollaston's epic trip to purchase opal in Queensland in 1888 it is important to set the scene of what life was like at that time. We must remember that this was before there were cars and everyone got around by walking, riding in a cart pulled by a horse or by riding horses. There were few trains especially around Adelaide. Construction of the Ghan Railway, which was to connect Adelaide to Alice Springs eventually, only commenced in 1878, reached Hergott Springs (now called Marree) in 1884 and reached Oodnadatta in 1891. See South Australian History for more detailed information on the Ghan Railway.

Times were quite tough in those days with few jobs and many young men, and older ones too, were forced to roam great distances in search for work on the very isolated cattle and sheep stations. Many others were lured to the gold bearing areas throughout Australa, often located in some of the harshest places in this country. As they had very little money they would be forced to walk long distances through very rough and dangerous terrain, and having to carry with them the basic essentials for survival, namely water, flour, tea,tobacco and firearms. They would then survive by killing kangaroos , birds or other mammals and catching fish.

The area north of Adelaide is very rugged with many mountains and north of Marree there are large expanses of desert with no water for vast distances, so travel in this country was not to be taken lightly. There are many accounts of people dying due to lack of water and not really understanding the dangers.

Another interesting fact is that opal had only recently been discovered in Queensland. There are records of boulder opal being found in 1872 by a man called O'Brien and in 1873 near Thargomindah and soon after in the Kyabra hills. Apparently claims were pegged on the Kyabra field by H Bond of Toowoomba in 1875. ( This is recorded in Frank Leechman's "The Opal Book" and in P Vin Wake's book "Opal Men.) None had been found in the other states at this stage. White Cliffs was not discovered until the 1890's, Andamooka in 1930, Coober Pedy in 1915 and Lightning Ridge about 1901. It is reported that Tullie Wollaston had seen a specimen of Queensland boulder opal and was obviously very excited by what he had seen because when he heard of a large gem opal find in Kyabra in south western Queensland he wasted little time in making preparations to travel there to see for himself what the miners had found. This meant facing an 1100 km trip through some of the toughest country in Australia. To make matters worse this part of Australia was in one of the worst droughts in memory with temperatures of well over 110 degrees fahrenheit, (over 40 degrees centigrade) almost every day.

This story is mainly about this trip by Tullie Wollaston and his party and I hope it gives you some insight into the drive of people who faced insurmountable odds in the desire to mine, purchase and market Australian opal. Tullie's own account of his trip can be found in his book "Opal, the gem of the Never Never" published in 1924. I have not read this at the time of writing this post. Most of my information comes from P Vin Wakes Book "Opal Men" and Frank Leechman's book "The Opal Book" which are very good reads.

Having heard of the opal find by a Joe Bridle in Kyabra, Tullie sought financial backers for his long trip to South Queensland. According to E F Murphy, who became an opal buyer for Tullie later on, Tullie entered into a partnership with David Morton Tweedie, a solicitor in Adelaide and together they would pioneer the opal industry in Australia. (David Tweedie came over from Scotland in 1891. He was a solicitor but had a great interest in gold and gemstones, especially opal. He later became a priest in the old Cayholic Church of Australia and eventually rose to the rank of Bishop in 1932. He died in 1941.)

Despite the fact that his wife had just given birth to a daughter 6 weeks prior, Tullie contacted Herbert Buttfield, who had apparently worked with Joe Bridle, whom they were going to visit and arranged for him to go with him. They also engaged a young aboriginal lad called Tomtit to accompany them and to look after the camels they were to take.

On 23rd November 1888 they set off on the Ghan to Hergott Springs where they hoped to lease some camels and purchase supplies. Hergott Springs was named by McDoull Stuart after D D Hergott, a German botanist and artist. When they arrived they found that none were available because of the drought so had to backtrack to Lyndhurst, another rail station on the Ghan Line. This is around 150 km south of Lake Eyre which would have been a large salt pan with no water at that time. Here they hired two camels but then had to backtrack further to Lyndhust to obtain a third camel. On the 27 November they joined a string of camels bound for Innaminka. Temperatures at this time were around 110 degrees Farenheit (well above 40 degrees centigrade) in the shade. Imagine what it was like out in the open sun.

On December 1 they reached Blanchewater, which is on the Strezlecki Track, about level in latitude to Marree but well northeast of it. There were a series of waterholes here at Blanchewater and the trio enjoyed a day of rest feasting on ducks and fish and enjoying a swim and a rare wash of clothing. The terrain in this area consists mainly of sandhills and stony desert with very sparse ground cover and little, if any, food for the camels.

By December 4 they had covered a further 25 miles only under a blazing sun. At a place called Monte Collena, not far from Mt Hopeless (how appropriate) they found water in the well salty and unfit to drink with all sorts of dead animals around it. The heat now was now almost unbearable and of course, with this heat, came the flies. If you have ever experienced the agony caused by these small creatures when they completely envelope you , getting into your eyes, nose and mouth and nearly driving you insane , you will have some idea of what this trio had to put up with. If you haven't experienced it then you are very fortunate. You cannot escape them and they are with you from dawn to dusk when the magically just disappear.


The above photograph is typical of some of the country they travelled through.

Stoically they journeyed on in the heat with all of the daily chores of hobbling the camels, ensuring they were fed and watered, saddling them up each morning and often having to walk along side them in the blisteringly hot sand under the glare of the desert sun. Apart from the sandhills they also had to walk through "gibber deserts". Gibbers are small rounded brown stones which literally cover every part of the ground making walking very difficult for both man and camels. Gibber country looks like the photograph below.


This they did and reached Innaminka on December 14. Innaminka is on the Coopers Creek and is famous because of the Bourke and Wills expedition which ended in tragedy near this area.

A quote from P Vin Wake's book is that the twenty three days taken to get from Lyndhurst to Innaminka seemed like 23 years. Such were the harsh conditions through which they had travelled. Here they rested, sent letters home and prepared for the next stage of the trip.

On December 18 they reached Nappa Merri station, about 5 miles past the "Dig Tree" on Coopers Creek. They were met by John Conrick, who was the original owner of the station having arrived from Warrnambool, Victoria in 1873. John welcomed them and they were able to get feed and water for their camels to help them on the next stages.

The next day was extremely bad. Tullie's camel fell three times as they crossed sandhills and porcupine grass country. He was badly bruised and not feeling well at all when they arrived at Baryulah Station on December 19. Baryulah station is due east of Innaminka on the Cooper Creek which they were still following. Even though he was sore they had to continue on as their stores were low and they could not afford to stay in any one place for too long. On the 21st December they came across more gibber country and the camels feeet became so sore they had to dismount and walk alongside the camels. In addition the flies were more dreadful than usual so they had a very miserable time, but still moved on.

On December 24 they reached Tarquoh waterhole. They were now riding in a northerly direction along Coopers Creek which is really just a series of intermittant waterholes most of the time until it floods and then it is kilometres wide and the country impassable. At least the drought was making thir passage possible. At Tarquoh they met a party of aboriginals and traded some flour and tobacco for some large fish the aboriginals had caught. They were so hungry for real food they ate as much as they could, especially as they couldn't take it with them, as it would go bad very quickly in the hot weather.

The next day was Christmas day and luckily for them it was a little cooler, although still very hot. They couldn't pass up having Christmas Dinner but all they could find was a tin of cowheel. Sounds really appertising. On opening it they found it had turned into a jellied mess with froth on top due to the jolting from being in the saddlebags on the camels. It took all their mental strength to eat it.

At this stage Tullie was experiencing the symptoms of heatstroke and sent Herbert ahead while he came on more slowly with Tomtit. He was so sick he had to cling to the saddle at times and was quite delirious most of that day.

On December 28 they arrived at Tambar, about 130 km from Windorah. The Hendersons, who managed the station gave them a warm welcome. Here Tullie left his camel and Tomtit behind for a rest and together with Herbert he headed off toward Windorah with instructions for Tomtit to follow in a weeks time. Tullie and Herbert reached Windorah on December 30 and were very thankful until they realised it was the the time of the annual race carnival. These outback races bring together many people from surrounding areas and large amounts of alcohol are consumed which results in very loud and raucous behaviour. Tullie couldn't stand this in his current condition and both he and Herbert camped well away out in the bush to escape the noise.

On January 1 they left Windorah late in the afternoon but were enveloped in a huge thunderstorm and incessant rain. This further added to their woes as they now had to deal with the wet and muddy conditions. They came to a bush pub, but it was full and so had to camp out in the rain. Of course they were not prepared for this and spent a miserable time huddled under whatever shelter they could muster.

On January they arrived at Tenham, about 60 km southeast of Windorah and the McGeorges put them up, giving them shelter from the rain and from the myriads of insects that had hatched out following the rain. They were now very close to the area where Joe Bridle was reputed to have found opal but they did not know exacly where his camp was. They engaged a local by the name of "Old Stanley" who was supposed to be a canny bushman to lead them to the camp and set off full off hope. Old Stanley proved to be quite a dud and they became hopelessly bushed before dark that night. Disgusted, they sent Old Stanley off on his own with instructions to look for the camp and bring them back some water when he found it. The didn't think he would return and believed he would make his way back to the Tally Ho Hotel where he spent a lot of his time. They were right. He didn't return and now they were very short of water. Tullie noticed some zebra finches flying past and knew they would lead him to water. They did and so they camped that night next to a waterhole where they filled up. The next day they noticed horse tracks around the waterhole and followed them until at last they stumbled on Joe Bridles camp.

Joe accepted them but was obviously a bit suspicious when they asked to see his opal. He brought out a tin with some pale opal full of sand to show them. Tullie was devastated, having travelled over 1,100 km to be presented with such poor quality opal and immediately wondered what his backers would think, having paid for this trip. Joe then took them for a look over his diggings and they were'nt impressed until Tullie found a small piece of brilliantly coloured opal in the floor of the drive. Joe finally relented and showed them his first quality opal. It was amazing and Tullie and Herbert were now really excited as their trip was worth all of the suffering they had gone through.

They didn't buy Joe's opal but instead went for a trip around the area to meet some of the other miners. Tullie records that he bought his first parcel from Charles Whitehead from Breakfast Creek. It was 61 pieces of top quality gem opal. This started him off as an opal buyer and he was to become one of the greatest and most respected opal buyers in Australia. He was to travel the world later on, convincing opal dealers in London and Europe to take Australia's opal. It was mainly due to his work aand dedication that Australia opal was recognized as the best in the world. But that is another story.

Together with Herbert and Tomtit, who had now caught up with them, he pegged 4 claims for the syndicate. and left Herbert and Tomtit behind to manage the claims using local labour. He headed off back to Adelaide on horseback via Brisbane and taking the train from Brisbane to Adelaide. It sounds easy but was again quite an epic journey in those days. On arriving back in Adelaide and reporting his finds he received the bad news that Herbert Buttfield had died. It was a huge shock and Tullie returned to Kyabra but that too is another story.

This was the story of Tullie Wollaston's first epic journey across some of the harshest country in Australia at the worst time of the year for desert travel and in the worst drought in Australia's short history to find a miner who he heard had found gem opal. It really does show what remarkable risks some people will take to follow a dream.


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