White Cliffs opal hunters find riches below ground, fame above

Treasure hunters Jaymin Sullivan and James 'JC' Caruana in their White Cliffs opal mine. Picture: Dion Georgopolous
Treasure hunters Jaymin Sullivan and James 'JC' Caruana in their White Cliffs opal mine. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

The flashlight pauses on a rounded stone that stands out in the mine roof metres underground. "These are glacial stones," explains Jaymin Sullivan. "Millions of years ago, when things were still moving around, they would have floated over to Australia in the bottom of icebergs."

Those icebergs melted, dropping their cargo to the bottom of what was once a vast sea. Millennia later, they're buried and can offer up vast riches.

"You can find opal that has pooled around them or stuck to them. They're called a Painted Lady specimen, which are pretty cool. We found one right where you're standing."

Jaymin and his mate James Caruana, who prefers to be called JC, are showing us through their workplace - an opal mine deep under the pockmarked landscape of the White Cliffs opal field in far western NSW.

A rare and extremely valuable Pineapple specimen. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

A rare and extremely valuable Pineapple specimen. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

They may live in a town of old-timers where young people are as scarce as water but Jaymin and JC are very much grounded in the 21st century. Finding fortune underground, they're also finding fame via social media with a 164,000-strong Tik Tok following and 6640 YouTube subscribers.

Their 215 Tik Tok videos - found under younggunsopalhunters - are vignettes of life underground and their search for riches as well as explanations of what makes a great opal find. Their YouTube stories are slickly produced journeys into their world, taking viewers down the mine, capturing the moments when they strike opal. It's hard not to get excited.

As we descend further into the labyrinth with Jaymin and JC, there's a moment of misgiving. Not only are there millions of tonnes of rock above our heads but there's the echo of an Aboriginal story. According to the Baarkindji people of the Darling River, the opals buried here are the droppings of the Naatji, or Rainbow Serpent, which came to rest here. They abide by a strict code which says they should never handle opals.

It might seem like an unusual place to find two men in their mid-20s. While their peers are embarking on careers in relative comfort on the coast, this pair are chancing all as modern-day fortune hunters, shifting dirt, as they put it, in search of opals. And they're doing it in one of the harshest environments on earth.

Video: Dion Georgopoulos and Emma Horn

In summer, it's fearfully hot; in winter, the cold wind cuts like a knife.

A third generation opal miner, Jaymin is accustomed to the extremes. When he wasn't at boarding school in Broken Hill or doing Year 12 on the NSW Central Coast, he was out on the opal field. His parents own one of the five remaining commercial operations in White Cliffs. At the peak of the 1880s opal rush, the town had a population of 5000. Now, only 200 hardy souls live there.

For JC, who grew up on the coast, it was a whole new ball game.

Home is a tin shack, which bakes in summer and is frigid in winter and a magnet for pests.

"We live with a lot of pets," JC quips. "We have a lot of pet mice, a lot of pet flies, a lot of pet mosquitoes."

JC searches for telltale flashes of colour which indicate the presence of precious opal. Picture: Dion Georgoplous

JC searches for telltale flashes of colour which indicate the presence of precious opal. Picture: Dion Georgoplous

In winter, it's sleeping with layers of thermal underwear, jumpers, blankets and whatever else comes to hand. In summer, with no underground or dugout home to retreat to, the heat forces the young miners back to the coast.

"Around mid-November, we go back to the coast," JC says. They return to White Cliffs in March.

"During summertime, if you have a dugout, it's not too bad. Dugouts stay at about 22 degrees all year long without any heating or cooling," Jaymin says.

It's a different story in the tin shack.

"You pour bottles of water on yourself and you still won't be able to fall asleep. But we're young, happy to do it, just living that adventure vibe."

Dawn rises over White Cliffs. Picture: John Hanscombe

Dawn rises over White Cliffs. Picture: John Hanscombe

It's that hunger for adventure - and the possibility of quick riches - that convinced JC, at Jaymin's suggestion, to up stumps and head west two and a half years ago. Another friend, Noah McDonough who's not around today, also ventured out.

"It didn't take much," JC says.

"He sold it pretty well. 'We're going to be millionaires really quickly.'"

Jaymin Sullivan's parents operate this mine, showroom and cafe in White Cliffs. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

Jaymin Sullivan's parents operate this mine, showroom and cafe in White Cliffs. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

For Jaymin, a steady job in a hardware store on the coast just didn't cut it.

"I got sick of paying rent and mortgage and thought I've just got to do something different. I was talking to Dad and at the time Dad was doing really well and I thought, 'Why not give it a shot?' I quit my job, moved out here, borrowed some of my Dad's mining equipment, set up a mine and got started."

It didn't take long for opal fever to take hold.

Third-generation opal miner Jaymin Sullivan investigates a seam with business partner James Caruana. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

Third-generation opal miner Jaymin Sullivan investigates a seam with business partner James Caruana. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

"We had a really good find when we were first here," says JC. "That was surreal. We stayed out on the field until 2 o'clock in the morning and we had to leave here at six to make the public transport to get back to the coast. That definitely did it."

However, opal mining can be a fickle business. The pair talk about the random finds worth many thousands of dollars - including an opal formed inside a shell fossil found in the driveway - and the days of hard graft that yield nothing. The heart races, they say, when the eye catches a flash of colour below ground. Sometimes it leads to a haul worth thousands of dollars; other times, it can be a discarded lolly wrapper.

A rock with flashes of colour shows promise. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

A rock with flashes of colour shows promise. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

"There is no guarantee in opal mining," Jaymin says. "You can find nothing all year long and then, in the space of an afternoon, you could pull out a million dollars or a whole year's wages, which is the allure of it.

There is no guarantee in opal mining. You can find nothing all year long and then, in the space of an afternoon, you could pull out a million dollars or a whole year's wages, which is the allure of it.

Jaymin Sullivan

"It is treasure hunting as a job, which is pretty fun. You do have to get to get creative to keep you afloat during the times when you're not finding anything.

They follow a simple calculus.

"The key in White Cliffs is if you keep shifting dirt, you will find something". That's why they've reinvested in their operation. They started out with two $450 jackhammers and now have about $100,000 worth of mining equipment, all paid for by opals they've unearthed.

Jaymin says they hope to hit the millions in the next year or two and have set their opal sights beyond the White Cliffs field.

"We want to get out there, find new opal deposits away from White Cliffs and try to pioneer new opal fields. We would love to get out and explore new areas that haven't properly been looked at.

The White Cliffs opal field. Picture: John Hanscombe

The White Cliffs opal field. Picture: John Hanscombe

"If we were to get out there and explore, which is our ultimate goal at the moment, it would be a lot more rough living. We'd be camp style, pioneer lifestyle, just out there in the scrub."

The prospect of rougher conditions than those they already endure in the hunt for treasure doesn't faze JC in the slightest.

"I reckon it's the most exciting thing ever, that you could be the one to find it," JC says.

Rare finds. A World War II era Chevrolet truck repurposed for mining. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

Rare finds. A World War II era Chevrolet truck repurposed for mining. Picture: Dion Georgopolous

"All it takes is a little rough living. You've just got to push through."

Time will tell if their adventures broadcast on social media prompt a new generation of fortune hunters to head west in search of treasure.

Listen to the full story, and another tale from White Cliffs on our podcast. Search Voice of Real Australia on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast app. You can also listen on our web player above.

This story Fortune hunters find their riches below first appeared on The Canberra Times.