Craig Haxton is an Australian opal miner, living and working full-time at his claim in Grawin. It’s certainly not the lifestyle for everyone, yet residing in a remote and unforgiving outback town in dry hot and dusty conditions is a life that he loves.
Craig has been an opal miner for over seven years, full-time for four years. He calls his mine a ‘bread and butter’ claim with no huge finds so far, nevertheless it has been paying its way and is a lifestyle he enjoys. At 100 square metres and over three levels, his opal mine is a good size, and is a three person operation with Craig working full-time, his mining partner part-time, and an assistant helping to sell his opals.
We caught up with Craig to ask him a few questions about how he got into outback opal mining, why he does it, and what the future holds.
How did you get into opal mining? “I’m a plumber and gas fitter by trade and did FIFO mining in W.A. in the Pilbara region with oil, gas, and iron ore. On my way back from Perth one time I stopped at White Cliffs opal fields to do some fossicking.” It was here he discovered his first ever opal (or ‘colour’ as Craig calls it) and was immediately hooked. “I wanted to investigate opal mining further, and heard the best quality opal was in Lightning Ridge, so I headed there and spent three months with an ‘old timer’ (miner) to learn the ropes.” It was soon after that he began leasing his own claim in Grawin.
So what does a typical week involve as an outback opal miner? “As a miner you can work your own hours, but the more effort you put-in, the more chance you have of finding something.” Craig does the hard yards and works 4 - 5 days each week underground. He sees it as a job, not a hobby. When he’s not mining, it’s usually a trip into town to stock up on necessities, and maybe he’ll take a dip at the hot pools. “It doesn’t have to be an isolated lifestyle. There are three pubs in the area when you feel like being sociable, or you can just enjoy a quiet night around the fire with your mining mates.”
Is opal mining a lucrative business? Craig usually returns each year to Western Australia to do a short stint of trade work to top up his finances, however for the past four years he has not left Grawin. Financially he has managed by trading his opals, however the expenses incurred with opal mining have peaked at an all-time high, and it’s the huge increase in fuel prices that has been crippling miners. “The only thing that will stop opal miners are the prices of diesel. With the recent price hike in 2022, fuel expenses can cost up to $2,000 each week. Some miners have now had to ditch their machinery and go back to using hand held equipment”. Vehicle breakdowns and blowouts are another major expense, occurring often on outback roads which show no mercy to suspensions and tyres.
So why do you do it Craig? “Well first off, I just love opal. You can’t compare its beauty to anything else. It’s amazing. Secondly, I love the adventure of finding opal. When you’re underground and under the lights and you suddenly see that colour, there’s no other feeling like it in the world. It’s like an addiction moment, the feeling that Indiana Jones probably had when he found the Crystal Skull. Lastly, I like the off-grid lifestyle and getting away from it all”. The only downside for Craig is being away from his family. Living in a remote area means not seeing his kids and grandkids as often as he’d like.
Is opal running out and how do you see the future of Australian opal mining? “There is so much undiscovered opal in Australia, it’s just up to the government to release land. The demand for opal is high. People love it. There are only two things that will put an end to opal mining, the global economy and bureaucratic legislation. Tourism has also been affected by the government being so preoccupied with health and safety. Visitors used to come to Lightning Ridge to go specking through the dump sites to see if they could find colour themselves. Nowadays there are ‘No Trespassing’ signs and security cameras watching them. It’s the same with opal sales. Back in the ‘80’s opal miners used to take a bucket of opal to Lightning Ridge and sit on the side of the road selling to tourists. Nowadays if you tried that you would be moved on. Only a few shops there are allowed to sell it. Bureaucracy has taken over, and what was a tourist lifestyle is no longer allowed. It’s taken the fun and the authenticity away.”
What advice would you give someone who is thinking of being an opal miner? Get ready for big ups and big downs. Life as an opal miner brings great elation and great disappointment. You have to be ready emotionally to deal with that. You have to treat it as a business, but don’t expect that you’ll find a fortune straight away. It might take 6 months before you find anything, so you have to have money to fall back on”.
It really was an honour and an education to meet Craig, a passionate and hard-working opal miner. Without people like him we wouldn’t be able to bring you these magnificent precious gemstones. To see samples of Australian opals from the mining fields of Grawin and Lightning Ridge, take a look at our collection.