By Melissa Keogh
Larrikin hobby miners Justin Lang and Daniel Becker are 30m below ground in an abandoned mine shaft and if it weren’t for their head torches they’d be in total darkness.
The two mates are 870km from their homes in the small Adelaide Hills town of Hahndorf, Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement, but are under the spell of the opal, the queen of gemstones.
They say their playground – the deep, narrow and dusty mine shafts in Coober Pedy – is no place for those fearful of spiders, scorpions or centipedes.
Nor is it a place for those lacking the patience required to withstand ‘opal fever’, something Justin and Daniel say they have been infected with beyond return.
“When you find something, it’s pure excitement, there are screams, swear words, all sorts,” says Daniel.
“But then there’s the big question of ‘is there more?’ and you just keep digging.
“You hope you hit the jackpot, which can be a little jackpot but also a lifechanging jackpot worth a million dollars.”
This year, the highs and lows of Justin and Daniel’s opal mining hobby have made it onto TV screens worldwide.
In 2017 they spent nine months filming for a Discovery Channel TV series, Outback Opal Hunters, which has not only been broadcast around Australia but also across Europe, South Africa and Asia.
The pair say plans are also afoot for it to show on 7mate in several months’ time.
The show, which is currently filming season two, follows mining crews around Australian mining towns in the pursuit of finding a fortune.
Justin and Daniel – who were labelled ‘The Rookies’ on the show – had a goal of finding $100,000 worth of opal – and they did it.
Since appearing on the series, the pair have received much media attention, including stints on national television, including the ABC’s News Breakfast and Channel 9’s The Today Show.
They’ve also used the show to promote Coober Pedy, a place they believe is “underrated” and “not always embraced”.
“We want more people to come to Coober Pedy because it’s such a unique place, anyone can have a crack at opal mining and potentially find a million dollars,” Daniel says.
“You need to do your research and safety is always first, but anyone can do it and that’s uniquely South Australian.
“Cooper Pedy is the biggest opal field and has produced the largest quantity of opal in the world.”
The Hahndorf hobby miners’ careers differ greatly to their underground adventures.
Daniel owns the Aboriginal Art Gallery in Hahndorf’s main street while next door is Justin’s German Village Shop where he handcrafts cuckoo clocks and grandfather clocks.
The pair met about seven years ago as they live next door to each other and quickly bonded over a shared curiosity in fossicking for gold in the Adelaide Hills.
Before long they tried their luck with finding gemstones in Australia’s opal capital, travelling regularly to Coober Pedy in hope of spotting that flicker of colour among the dull sandstone.
They say they’d often be mining for a whole week and find nothing, then boom! Opal.
“When it appears, it’s amazing. It’s this beautiful, colourful stone sitting in the boring sandstone and you know you’re onto something,” says Justin, whose great-grandfather was an opal miner in the APY Lands community of Mintabie.
Justin spent the first year of his life in Coober Pedy as his family had lived there since the 1980s and owned the town’s caravan park before moving to Adelaide.
“I’m not a spiritual person at all, but I feel spiritually connected to that place in a really weird way,” he says.
“Hahndorf is the polar opposite to Coober Pedy, they’re almost 1000km apart but I love both of them.”
Daniel, on the other hand, is originally from Germany, moving to Australia in the late ‘90s to finish studies in anthropology.
During their trips to Coober Pedy, Justin and Daniel became good friends with John Dunstan, a veteran miner of over 50 years who in 2003 discovered the Rainbow Virgin Opal valued at more than $1m.
One day John told the pair that the Discovery Channel was snooping around town.
“Johnny said, ‘no one in Coober Pedy wants to be on camera but do you boys want to do it?’” Daniel says.
“We looked at each other and thought, ‘that sounds interesting’.”
The adventures on Outback Opal Hunters are fair dinkum, the pair say.
“Some people say it’s staged and it’s not real, but that’s ridiculous,” Daniel says.
“When we pull out real opal out of the wall, that’s what it is, it’s happening for real.”
Justin says opal mining – and even noodling (sifting through disposed dirt) – is anyone’s chance at finding a million bucks.
“It’s one big adventure,” he says.
“It’s one of the last places for a free man to try his luck at finding a million dollars.”
The next series of Outback Opal Hunters is expected to air in 2019.
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