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White Cliffs, NSW

An opal mining town so hot in summer most of its residents live underground.

There are four significant opal mining settlements in Australia. Coober Pedy (popular with backpackers and tourists because of its closeness to the Stuart Highway), Andamooka (still like the Wild West), Lightning Ridge (quite sophisticated and suburban) and White Cliffs, which seems to have just the right balance between wildness and civilisation.

Of course to outsiders all opal mining towns, where miners dig endless holes looking for seams of opal-bearing rocks, possess a certain level of craziness. 'The largest unfenced loony bin in Australia,' is how one person in Broken Hill described the town.

To the objective observer White Cliffs is really a single purpose town. Miners started coming here (the local Aborigines found it far too hot for permanent settlement and occasionally visited the place as they travelled to and from the Darling River) in the 1880s and, apart from its minor function as a service centre for the surrounding properties, it remains a town driven by opals.

The summer temperatures, typically over 40°C, forced the miners underground. The 100 million year old sandstone conglomerate in which the opal seams were buried carried two advantages. It was remarkably stable (no one has ever died from a mine collapse in White Cliffs) and it was relatively easy to dig. By around 1900 miners were burrowing into the hills in an attempt to find opals and escape from the heat. The real way to see White Cliffs is from the air. It appears like a strange moonscape with an estimated 50,000 disused diggings.

Surprisingly, the town has many attractions apart from opals and opal mining. There is the fascinating experiment known as the "solar dish concentrator power plant" (a precursor to solar panels); the wonderful Bill O'Reilly Oval with not a blade of grass; the unusual underground accommodation; the amazing night skies sparkling with billions of stars and far removed from any urban pollution; and the various shops where opals are sold by the people who mined them. Beyond that it is an unruly town with dusty, unsealed roads; houses and dugouts hastily constructed by miners; and a very basic pub and general store.

Location

White Cliffs is located 1,041 km north-west of Sydney via Dubbo and Wilcannia. It is 93 km north of Willcannia and 122 m above sea level. It has an annual rainfall of just 234 mm.

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Origin of Name

White Cliffs is another example of the bleeding obvious. It was named around 1890 as a simple description of the white shale which the miners were having to dig through in their search for opals. There's never been a suggestion that it had anything to do with England's White Cliffs of Dover.

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Things to See and Do

Exploring the Town
Like most opal mining towns, White Cliffs doesn't have neat sealed roads, curb and guttering or even street names - with the amusing exception of Struggle Street. The best, in fact the only, way to explore the town is to download the excellent Mud Map (http://www.whitecliffsopalfield.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/dl_12pbro_98mm-jan13-6-7.pdf) which identifies all the main attractions - accommodation, shops selling opals, the main mining areas, the cemetery and the tour company. Once you have studied the map it is very easy to find your way around.

Heritage Trail
There are a dozen durable information signs at key points which enhance an appreciation of the town's history. A free Heritage Trail pamphlet is available from most of the businesses in town. Make sure you visit:

Bill O'Reilly Oval
The great cricketer Bill 'Tiger' O'Reilly was born in White Cliffs in 1905. At the time his father was the first teacher to be employed in the town. O'Reilly is recognised as one of the game's greatest spin bowlers and after the infamous 1938 Ashes Tour of England he was described as "emphatically one of the greatest bowlers of all time". The town has honoured him with the Bill O'Reilly Oval (turn right at the pub) but, being White Cliffs, it is nothing but hard red dirt. It is a typical outback, desert cricket pitch.

St Mary's Anglican Church
St Mary's Anglican Church in Church Street is a typical small and simple stone building which is notable as one of the few solid, above ground, structures in the town.

White Cliffs Solar Power Station
The Institute of Engineers Australia have put a plaque beside the unique White Cliffs Solar Power Station which reads: "Australian National University engineers designed and built this station in 1981 with $1.9 million from the NSW Government. Fourteen tracking parabolic dishes of 5 metres diameter concentrated the sun onto thermal absorbers to heat water. The resulting steam powered an engine and generator. The electricity was sold to the local community making this arguably the world's first commercial solar power station. In 1997 the station was converted to a photovoltaic system producing 50 KW. It ceased generating in January 2005."

For years White Cliffs was justifiably proud that it was the first town to utilise solar power to provide a small part of the town's electricity needs. The 14 parabolic dish collectors followed the sun and collected the energy which was converted by a newly-installed photovoltaic cell. In 1999 the 3000 mirrors were resurfaced and the station capacity rose to 70 KW. There is a series of very detailed signs beside the dishes. Some of the particularly interesting information includes "Each year the sun provides 17,000 times more energy than world demand ... Solar Systems' technology concentrates sunlight by 500 times ... By 2006 there were 40 such dishes across Australia powering remote communities including Hermannsburg, Yuendumu and Lakamanu."

"The 14 m wide solar dish tracks the sun from sunrise until sunset, optimising orientation every few seconds for maximum power output. Each dish tracks on two axes and is capable of operating independently. 112 highly reflective, curved mirrors concentrate sunlight by 500 times to a focal point at the receiver ... 500 times concentration is intense enough to melt steel."

Post Office
The White Cliffs Post Office is one of those amusing idiosyncrasies - a building which does not make a great deal of sense. It was completed on 25 March 1900 at a time when, because of the intense summer heat, everyone in town was building shelters underground. Instead of underground the Post Office was built above ground ... and of corrugated iron.

Pioneer Children's Cemetery
The Pioneer Children's Cemetery (1890-92) is a reminder of the harshness of the desert conditions. Although the cemetery only operated for a short time there are five graves of children who died from typhoid and other diseases which were the inevitable byproducts of the heat and the impossibility of maintaining proper sanitary standards in a primitive mining town. The graves of the children are thought to be those of the Richardson family. Alfred Richardson was one of the kangaroo shooting party which first discovered opals at White Cliffs.

Historic Dugouts - The Blocks
As early as 1894 miners, realising the summer temperatures were unbearable, started living underground. Near the Pioneer Cemetery some of the town's first historic dugouts are located in the walls of the hill near the Red Earth Opal Cafe. These "residences" are remnants of the original underground houses and are known as 'The Blocks".

Opalised Fossils
While visiting the shops and galleries ask to inspect some opalised fossils. During the Cretaceous period the area was under the sea and consequently fossils of  Plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs, Crinoids, Belemnites, Brachiopods and Gastropods have all been found in the area.

White Cliffs Pineapples
White Cliffs is famous for its "pineapples" - not the fruit but rather a pseudomorph of Glauberite or Ikaite crystal clusters which is replaced by pure opal. These opalised pineapples have only ever been found in White Cliffs and are available for sale in the local galleries and shops.

Fossicking at White Cliffs
Under the Mining Act of 1992 everyone has the right to fossick anywhere on the White Cliffs Reserve and no licence is required. However many miners have registered claims and those registered claims, which are easily identified, need to be respected. They are 50 m x 50 m in size with a wooden or steel post at each corner. On the north-east post is a board which contains the details of the claim holder. There is a vast amount of unregistered ground on the town's Historic Mining Reserve.

Other Attractions and Opal Showrooms
Macca's Opal Sales
Located beyond 'The Blocks' Macca's Opal Sales is open through the winter months and sells opal pineapples, cut and rough stones and fossil pendants, tel: 0403 178 730.

Opalhead Camp Gallery
The Opalhead Camp Gallery is located in Struggle Street on Sullivans Hill and is open only be appointment. tel: 0427 835 320 or 0424 627 959.

Brian Moore's Opal Showroom
Located at Lot 6, Opal Drive, Brian Moore's Opal Showroom sells locally mined crystal opals, rough and polished stones as well as jewellery and ornaments. It is open most days.

Red Earth Opal Cafe and Showroom
The Red Earth Opal Cafe combines a cafe with a Cave Cottage (a two bedroom underground cave) which can be rented . It offers coffee, tourist information, light meals, an opal pineapple display, opal jewellery and a working opal mine tour which runs daily at 3.00 pm and lasts for an hour. tel: 0437 725 999 or (08) 8091 6900

The Cathedral Gallery
Claiming to be the biggest opal gallery in town and located at Dugout 75 on Turley's Hill, the Cathedral Gallery offers rough and polished opals as well as silver jewellery and gem trees, tel: (08) 8091 6990.

Aussie Southern Cross Opals
Aussie Southern Cross Opals specialises in opal jewellery as well as polished and rough specimen stones. For more information tel: (08) 8091 6707.

Jock's Place 
Jock's Place is an underground dugout home, museum and old mine with an opal seam in the wall. It is open 9.00 am - 5.00 pm daily, tel: (08) 8091 6753. It also offers tours of the town.

The Stubbie House
The Stubbie House is a house built from over 50,000 beer bottles. It has been a tourist attraction for decades and today has a fine display of White Cliffs crystal opal in gold and silver rings, bracelets and pendants. It is open daily, tel: (08) 8091 6642.

Donna-Lee and Ron's Top Level Opals
Donna-Lee and Ron's Top Level Opals is an underground showroom which is open 9.00 am - 3.00 pm, Monday to Saturday, tel: (08) 8091 6623. Ron has been mining since 1971 and is happy to give informative talks about opals and mining. He also cuts, polishes and set opals in high quality Rhonan Jewellery.

Opal Mine Tours
The Opal Mine Tour is attached to the Red Earth Opal Cafe and involves a visit to an underground working opal mine. The tour runs daily at 3.00 pm and lasts for an hour. tel: (08) 8091 6900.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the local Wandjiwalgu Aborigines had been moving through the area for around 40,000 years. It is a comment on the heat and unpleasantness of the desert that they never used White Cliffs as a reliable or permanent settlement.

* As early as 1884 it was known that there were opals in the White Cliffs area but there was little interest. It wasn't until 1889 that miners began to recognise the potential of the field. It is now recognised that White Cliffs was the first commercial opal field in Australia.

* There was a severe drought in 1889 and the Momba Pastoral Company hired four kangaroo shooters to reduce the numbers so the sheep would have something left to eat. The shooters found some opals and, suspecting they were valuable, sent samples to Adelaide for valuation by a geologist named Tullie Cornthwaite Wollaston.

Wollaston was impressed. He later wrote: "I at once made a trip to the spot. There were two tents and a bough shed, and the party of kangaroo shooters who had found the stones were, on my arrival, discussing the advisability of pitching them in the nearest pot-hole and continuing their search for the merry marsupial. I was asked to make an offer for the parcel, and I named £140, prepared to spring £10, but my bid was promptly snapped. That was the first purchase of White Cliffs opals, and it started the field." Wollaston saw the value and he subsequently promoted the mining site by selling White Cliffs opals in Europe and the USA.

* In March, 1890 the first opal mining lease was taken out in the area.

* By 1890 a small settlement had come into existence. From March 1890-1893 the town was patrolled by police from Wilcannia.

* In 1892 William Johnstone arrived and established the first store and hotel.

* By 1893 news of lucrative finds drew miners to the area. The increase in population led to the development of the town's infrastructure. In that year a police constable was sent to White Cliffs. He set up in a tent on Kerara Road.

* By around 1894, miners started converting their old shafts into homes. The hills were sandstone and consequently the dugouts were in no danger of collapsing.

* By 1897 there were around 1000 people living in White Cliffs.

* A police station opened in early 1898. The police remained in White Cliffs until 1947 after which it returned to being controlled from Wilcannia.

* By 1900 the town's population had risen to around 5,000 in the winter months.

* In 1902 opals worth £140,000 were extracted from the mines around the town.

* It has been estimated that by 1915, with miners heading off to war, the town's population was reduced to around 30 people.

* Today the permanent population of White Cliffs is 225 and this doubles in winter when gem seekers come from the south. There are around 140 underground residences.

* As recently as 1976 the opalised remains of a plesiosaur, which was nearly 2 metres long and is believed to be around 100 million years old, were discovered.

* In 1987 the production of opals from the White Cliffs fields was estimated to be $150 million.

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Visitor Information

White Cliffs Outback Store & Visitor Information, tel: (08) 8091 6611 and Paroo-Darling National Park Visitor Centre, tel: (08) 8083 7900.

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Useful Websites

The website but http://whitecliffsopal.com is useful if you are interested in the history of opal mining in the area and http://www.centraldarling.nsw.gov.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=486558:white-cliffs&catid=848&Itemid=2035 has useful downloadable brochures.

 

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Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

5 suggestions
  • My grandparents, William Joseph Twist and Sarah Alice Sullivan were married on 19 December 1905 in White Cliffs. They were miners there before moving to Cobar. Sarah Alice Sullivan was born in Milparinka in 1889 and William Joseph Twist was born in Boorowa, NSW.

    dorothy duke
  • A number of these Opal Tourist venues are no longer current or operating.
    Brian Moore’s Opal Showroom, The Cathedral Gallery, Donna Lee & Ron’s Top Level Opals, PJ’s Undergroung B & B, Jock’s Place and The Opalhead Camp Gallery are no longer functioning.
    However some new enterprises have emerged to continue tourist visitor interest – such as The Fossickers Den (Brad & Hailey Atkins) in the old Brian Moore’s site at the east end of ‘The Blocks’, White Cliffs.

    Richard Allen
    • Thanks enormously to Richard. I have visited White Cliffs about five times over the past 20 years and things do change. It is very difficult to sell a business and so they simply close down. I would take this as the most up to date information at the beginning of 2017. Thanks again. Bruce Elder

      Bruce Elder
  • Hello–X opal miner–would you have a contact Phone number or the postal address for Brian Moore

    -Thank you

    Ron Adam