WHO: The Opal Ratter
DESCRIPTION: Sleeps all day spends evenings lurking in the shadows eavesdropping and listing to others stories.
ANSWERS TO: Only himself and the devil
HABITAT: Other peoples mines
Some people in this world are always looking for the next to get rich quick scheme. Sure, we all have wished to win millions at some time or another, but we know that hard work is far more likely to get us where we want to be. For a small group, though, this thinking is what drives them; the easy way.
The opal mining industry is no different, but there is only one way to win; through hard, hard graft. Digging so much dirt, only to find the dirt they have dug and washed amounts to nothing. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “rinse and repeat” – well, that is what opal miners do day after day, week after week and sometimes year after year until they hit the big one.
The backbreaking work is accompanied by mechanical breakdowns, large fuel bills and fraught relationships as everyone tries to make ends meet whilst holding on to the dream of finding opal.
For many, this is reality and some time or another. And then some have found some opal. They hit a patch of the good stuff and happy days. Sometimes the patch is small, and sometimes it’s big. I’ve heard of miners with so much opal that they only mine what they need, leaving the rest to be dug up for the kids’ braces or a holiday. I say I’ve heard these stories because no one in their right mind would confirm them. But, you never know who is lurking around the corner, ready to profit from your hard work.
Enter the ratters
These bottom-dwelling lurkers are known in Lightning Ridge as ratters. This is because they gather their information and then break into peoples mines at night and dig out the opal.
The ratter is a very game and dangerous type of person, and if caught in the act, they may react like a cut snake. They usually work in groups with phones or CB radios. One in town, one at the turnoff and one is digging your opal while you sleep. If you do happen to drive out in the middle of the night, they will radio ahead and be out of there before you even hit the dirt road. They will even use your gear to dig if you leave it for them, and chances are, the next morning, your jackhammer will be missing also.
How we stop them
Successful miners have come up with some pretty innovative ways to stop most ratters from ratting by putting large concrete plugs lifted with a front end loader over the mine shaft so no one can get in, but that hasn’t stopped them all. Some of them take a “Shawshank Redemption approach” and dig a small hole on an angle under the plug and still get in. Some miners protect their claims by greasing up the ladder halfway down. Others have resorted to shotgun shells wired up to blast when a tripwire is touched. I could go on.
In the Cooceran opal field in Lightning Ridge, the is a maze of many old opal mines connecting up underground so ratters can run for kilometres underground if need be. Only a few ratters have been caught over the years and usually get away with it as it’s hard to prove where the rocks came from.
So, the secret to this life in the opal bush is to keep your mouth shut and keep to yourself when you are on opal. Otherwise, watch out!