August 5 - 11, 2018: Issue 370


Opal field showing excavated spoil where shafts have been dug.

By George Repin 

White Cliffs is a small town in the Central Darling Shire of outback New South Wales about 255 Kms. northeast of Broken Hill and 93 Kms north of Wilcannia.  Its population at the 2011 census was 103.

Opal field with prospector’s shelter.

As Australia’s first commercial opal field White Cliffs has a spectacular historical background – a contrast of great wealth and stark poverty – of lavish living and survival by handouts from friends.

The first opal was found by kangaroo shooters on Momba Station in 1889. When Tullie Wollaston, who had worked in the Surveyor-General’s Department in Adelaide, saw samples of the opal, within two days he was on his way to White Cliffs to investigate the discovery. Within a year he had White Cliffs opals on markets in Britain, on the Continent and the USA. German gem manufacturers quickly recognised the outstanding quality and their demand turned White Cliffs into the world’s first opal boom town.

Although the first mining lease was taken out in March 1990 severe drought held up mining until 1893. Then, after news of two rich “pockets” hit the headlines in July, the population quickly grew within six months from 30 to around 500.  By 1899 there were over 4,000 people in the town.  With the prospectors came buyers and traders, and a variety of businesses, including five hotels, opened up. Guest houses, restaurants and clubs were quickly established to serve the community.

The good times did not last.  Recurring droughts peaked in 1902.  Lack of water and supplies drove many away.  Quality opal became scarce, prices were low and news of a new field at Wallangulla (now better known as Lightning Ridge) drew hopeful prospectors away.  

Very few international buyers came after 1904 and by 1914 there were only 30 diggers in White Cliffs.

Conditions were very hard for unsuccessful prospectors, for the poor and for their families. Children were born and died young – often from infectious diseases.  Poignant grave stones tell something of the heartbreak that some families suffered.  It is hard to hold back tears when looking at the dates on the grave stone erected for their children by Joseph and Mary Barrett, a photograph of which is included in this article.  

Charlotte Annie Died September 11, 1900
Alexandra Died September 17, 1900
Maud Alice Born September 11, 1900
        Died January 15, 1900

Lonely graves.

Headstone of the daughters of Joseph and Mary Barrett.

With average summer temperatures above 35C (96.5F) many residents live underground using mining equipment to dig extensive homes in the hillside to avoid the intense heat outside.

Entrance to an underground dwelling.

Living room underground.

Kitchen area underground.

The White Cliffs Hotel, with some basic accommodation, services the town and surrounding areas, while a more upmarket underground motel is available for visitors to the town.

The White Cliffs Hotel.

In 1979 the NSW Government commissioned ANU to construct Australia’s first experimental solar thermal power station. The power station was designed to provide up to 25 kW of electrical power to the White Cliffs township coming into operation on 30 November, 1983.  The station consists of fourteen parabolic dish concentrating collectors, each five meters in diameter, mounted on sun-tracking pedestals set in concrete.

Parabolic dish concentrating collectors of the first experimental solar thermal power station.

White Cliffs today
There are now two underground motels – The White Cliffs Underground and PJ’s Bed and Breakfast, as the town is becoming more dependent on tourism.

The White Cliffs Solar Power Station was upgraded in 1996 and now produces 45 kW using the same collector dishes but better technology. 

Fossicking for opal pieces.

Getting out of White Cliffs during the “big wet” with the road virtually impassable.

(Photographs taken by George Repin in May, 1990)

Previous Reflections by George Repin 

The Nineteen Thirties  Remembering Rowe Street  The Sydney Push  Saturday Night at the Movies  Shooting Through Like A Bondi Tram  A Stop On The Road To Canberra  City Department Stores - Gone and Mostly Forgotten  An Australian Icon - thanks to Billy Hughes  Crossing The Pacific in the 1930s  Hill End  The Paragon at Katoomba  Seafood In Sydney  How Far From Sydney?  Cockatoo Island Over The Years  The Seagull at the Melbourne Festival in 1991  Busby's Bore  The Trocadero In Sydney  Cahill's restaurants  Medical Pioneers in Australian Wine Making  Pedal Power and the Royal Flying Doctor Service  Pambula and the Charles Darwin Connection  Gloucester and the Barrington Tops  A Millenium Apart  Have You Stopped to Look?  Gulgong  Il Porcellino  Olympia  Durham Hall  Sargent's Tea Rooms Pie Shops and Street Photographers The Ballet Russes and Their Friends in Australia  Hotels at Bondi  Alma Ata Conference - 1978 Keukenhof - 1954 The Lands Department Building and Yellowblock Sandstone  The Goroka Show - 1958  A Gem On The Quay  Staffa  The Matson Line and Keepsake Menus Kokeshi Dolls  The Coal Mine At Balmain  The Hyde Park Barracks  The Changing Faces Of Sydney From Pounds and Pence to Dollars and Cents Nell Tritton and Alexander Kerensky  Making A Difference In Ethiopia William Balmain  J C Bendrodt and Princes Restaurant Azzalin Orlando Romano and Romano's Restaurant  Waldheim  Alcohol in Restaurants Before 1955  King Island Kelp  The Mercury Theatre   Around Angkor - 1963   Angkor Wat 1963  Costumes From the Ballets Russe Clifton at Kirribilli  Chairman Mao's Personal Physician  The Toby Tavern The MoKa at Kings Cross  The Oceaographic  Museum  in Monaco  The Island of Elba  Russian Fairy Tale Plates  Meteora  Souda Bay War Cemetery Barrow, Alaska  Cloisonné  Tripitaka Koreana Minshuku The Third Man Photographs and Memories  Not A Chagall!  Did You Listen? Did You Ask?  Napier (Ahuriri, Maori) New Zealand  Borobudur  Ggantija Temples Plumes and Pearlshells  Murano  University of Padua  Ancient Puebloe Peoples - The Anasazi   Pula  The Gondolas of Venice Cinque Terre  Visiting the Iban David The Living Desert Bryce Canyon National Park   Aphrodisias   The Divine Comedy Caodaism  Sapa and local Hill People  A Few Children  Cappadocia  Symi Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre   Aboriginal Rock Art on Bigge Island    ANZAC Cove (Ari Burnu) 25 April, 1997  Hotere Garden Oputae  Children of the Trobriand Islands  Page Park Market - Rabaul  Rabual   Kotor, Montenegro   Galleries of Photographs I   Lascaux  Galleries of Photographs II   The Cathedral of St. James – Šibenik, Croatia  Ivan Meštrović  - Sculptor   Delphi   Gallery of Photographs III  The Handicrafts of Chiang Mai Raft Point  San Simeon - "Hearst Castle"  Floriade - The Netherlands - 1982  Russian New Year  Mycenae  "Flightseeing" Out Of Anchorage Alaska  The White Pass and Yukon Route  Totem Poles  Tivkin Cemetery  Krka National Park - Croatia   Tavistock Square and the BMA  Orthodox Easter  Wieliczka Salt Mine  A Walk on Santorini  Indonesian Snapshots Ephesus - The Library of Celsus  Ephesus - Some Places Of Interest  Waimea Canyon and the Kalalau Valley United Nations Headquarters 1958  A Miscellany of Flower Images  Gardens  Bath St. David's In Wales   Zion National Park Nicholas Himona - Artist  Kraków  Lilianfels  Collonges-La-Rouge  Gingerbread Houses   Cape Sounion   Delos  Wroclaw  Colonial Williamsburg  Gruyères   Strasbourg  Coventry Cathedral  The Roman Theatre at Aspendos  Turkish Carpets The Duomo of Orvieto  Rovinj  The City Walls of Dubrovnik Monaco - Snapshots   Bonifacio, Corsica  Autumn in New England USA  The Great Ocean Road  Pompeii  Didyma  Lawrence Hargrave 1850-1915  The Corinth Canal  Malta  Snapshots of Amsterdam Café Central - Vienna  The Forbidden City - Beijing, China  A Ride on the Jungfrau Railway - 1954   Snapshots in the Highlands of Scotland 1954  Must See Sights in Paris - 1954  Corfu Reflections On the Nineteen Thirties The Gold Souk in Dubai  Stromboli Lake Argyle The Bungle Bungle Range Langgi Inlet, W.A.

Copyright George Repin 2018. All Rights Reserved.