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Maurice: An immigrant opal miner in Australia

Marijan Babic (also known as Maurice) is an opal miner of Croatian origin who was born in 1939. He has been mining in Lightning Ridge for over 53 years since his first arrival in 1968. Maurice’ passion for opal mining did not happen instantly, but it was his curiosity that led him to Lightning Ridge – a place he now calls home. During his extensive time in Lightning Ridge, Maurice experienced the excitement of opal mining first-hand in the late 60s and was also there to witness the significant changes that occurred in the opal mining industry since then. During our interview, Maurice has recounted his memories of Lightning Ridge vividly, as if he is still living through those moments again. Similarly, his fond memories of growing up in Croatia as a teenage boy were also shared.

Maurice’ life was not easy growing up in communist *Yugoslavia during Tito’s dictatorship (President of Yugoslavia 1945 - 1980). During those times, the majority of the rural population was living off the land as it was the only available means of income. At the age of 14, Maurice was already working full-time from dawn to dusk subsistence farming in a few orchards near his hometown. However, working off the land did not last long due to his wavering interest. This is partly due to his adventure seeking personality and eagerness to seek new experiences. As a result, he packed his bag and looked for work elsewhere.

He came upon a seasonal job in forestry in Slovenia near the Austrian border. During this period, the border was heavily guarded by military personnel to ensure Yugoslavian nationals do not attempt to cross the border illegally to Austria. However, many people from Yugoslavia still risked their lives to do so. Due to his curiosity, he quickly found out where the military posts were located and where people try to escape. When the forestry job was about to finish, he decided to go over the border. At that time, he was unaware of the dangers of his actions.

After crossing the border, he knew that he needed to stay away from the populated city areas to not get caught by police officials. He came upon a village in Austria where he coincidentally met a lady who spoke in his native Croatian language. She offered to help him by exchanging his Dinars (Yugoslavian Currency) to Shillings (Austrian currency during 1945 – 1999) and drove him to the nearest train station.

Thanks to the generosity of the Croatian lady and having money in the local currency made it easier for him to travel from one location to another. From Austria, Maurice decided to make his way to Germany. However, travelling to Germany without any identification (apart from a Yugoslavian Id) proved more difficult for him to pass security checks. As a young gentleman, he did not perceive his lack of identification as a setback to his travels, but rather an opportunity for him to get creative on planning how to cross the German border. To his luck, he spotted a doorway where goods were taken in and out of the train station. He managed to get into the platform through the doorway and caught a train to Germany. It was unknown to him at the time, but his adventurous escapade to cross the Austrian border was his first step into getting into Australia.

With no knowledge of refugee camps or immigration, and nowhere to stay in Germany, his adventurous escapade came to an end. Maurice eventually turned himself into the German police station and told them he was a refugee from Yugoslavia. Consequently, he was locked up in a temporary holding cell for a month in Munich until the German government was able to organise his papers and admit him as a genuine refugee.

From being admitted as a refugee in Germany, Maurice was taken to Nümberg refugee camp where he spent nine months working in various jobs to remain active and supplement his income. A couple of months later, Maurice was given an opportunity to either remain permanently in Germany to work or to immigrate to one of the four countries on offer, which were Canada, United States, South Africa or Australia. He submitted his request to immigrate to either United States or Australia. Fortunately, he was given an offer to travel to Australia and at the age of 19, Maurice immigrated to Australia.

Maurice’s journey in Australia began in 1959 where he was transported to a refugee camp near Albury-Wodonga in Victoria. He stayed in the camp for a month and met some new friends. Maurice quickly adjusted his new life here in Australia and took an opportunity to move to Melbourne with his new-found friends. From there, Maurice applied to numerous jobs, but it proved difficult as he did not have any particular set of skills. He later landed an apprenticeship in upholstery where he made beds, sofa beds and covers. Maurice spent about six months in his apprenticeship until he realised that he could find jobs that pay a lot more money. Over the years, Maurice worked in various jobs from a factory worker to boning meat. He later moved to Sydney to seek an opportunity for adventure and subsequently, got a job at a butchery.

Fast-forward to two years later, during his travels around Australia, he stumbled upon a magazine that mentioned the story of people picking up opal worth thousands of dollars in the streets of Lightning Ridge. He was unaware of at the time, but it was this story that sparked his interest in Lightning Ridge. He too, was enticed by the idea of striking it rich and becoming successful.

Maurice officially moved to Lightning Ridge on 15 January 1968 due to his growing interest about opals and hoping to stumble upon miner’s luck for himself. When he first arrived in Lightning Ridge, he spotted a gentleman winding up a winch to bring the bucket up from the mining hole. He politely asked if he could look around and saw another gentleman inside the mining hole as small as an ant. His first thought was “You will never get me down there!” After a couple more days of exploring Lightning Ridge, he was invited by one of the miners he met in town to mine with him. Oddly enough, Maurice managed to spend half day in a mining hole without any worries in the world. From then on, his interest in opal grew exponentially and his passion for opal mining soon began.

From that life-changing experience, Maurice began his quest for opal mining. During the late 60s, people in Lightning Ridge were very friendly and the information about opals was freely shared with everyone in town. As a result, it gave Maurice the confidence to register his own claim despite having very little knowledge about opal mining. He was motivated by the idea of working for himself and having the freedom to do anything without the thought of following orders from a superior. His hard work from mining did not come without any struggles or self-doubt if he had made the right choice. It was only after a few solid months of mining that his efforts were rewarded by his first opal find. It was a eureka moment for him. He was astonished by the beautiful colours of the opal, and he finally understood the meaning of catching the opal fever. From then on, he knew that this is something that he will be doing for a long time.

Between 1968 – 1972, Lightning Ridge was still an unpopular mining location for many people with the population only reaching approximately 1 000 people. Miners in the area were not in a rush to strike it rich and majority of them were seasonal shearers to earn extra income. Due to the small population, opal mining claims were abundant in Lightning Ridge. In addition, owning multi-claims were not a regular practice during the early 70s, unlike today. However, it was very common for people to mine unregistered claims as it was not heavily regulated during those times.

The opal craze began in Lightning Ridge during the discovery of Millionaire’s Gully in Glengarry in 1972. Significant changes occurred during these times as “new miners” started to flock the town. Miners became more secretive about their opal find and discoveries. As a result, opal information was no longer freely shared with everyone, and miners became more competitive with one another. It was only about a year after the discovery of Millionaire’s Gully that people understood how lucrative the opal mining industry is. According to Maurice, majority of the opal found in Millionaire’s Gully were of low-grade quality in comparison to Lightning Ridge opal. However, there were an abundance of it, hence the location was named as Millionaire’s Gully. As a result, a whole new market for low-grade quality opal emerged as the supply increases. During the opal rush, majority of the opal bought by gem dealers were cut stones because buying rough stones were still uncommon. This is partly due to the level of knowledge and expertise needed to cut and polish opal. If done incorrectly, dealers could polish thousands of dollars’ worth of opal down the drain. On the contrary, many people today are buying rough opal.

During Maurice’ opal mining career, there were a number of contributions he made in the opal mining industry. One of his contributions occurred during his presidency term in the Lightning Ridge Mining Association (LRMA) in 1984, where he helped set up the opal advising committee that focuses on organising a systematic way to price opal. Prior to the inception of the advising committee, opal pricing was quite subjective and depends upon an experienced miner’s appraisal, which was usually based on how much previous opal they sold. The advising committee led by Maurice paved the way in systematically pricing and grading opal, which was polished and perfected over the years as the knowledge about opal increases. The now widely utilised body tone and brightness scale originated from this time. In addition to setting up the pricing committee, Maurice and other opal miners also fought for their rights against the local council who had the interest of rating the claims in Lightning Ridge. Thanks to the efforts of Maurice and other opal miners, opals can now be priced and valued systematically, and the idea of rating claims faded away.

Today, Maurice is a currently a retired opal miner invested in expanding his vocabulary by attending English classes at his local TAFE school. Despite the aches and pains that come with age, he still enjoys mining as a hobby with his son, Carl, during his free time.

Advice to younger generation: “Do what your heart tells you and do not be afraid to take opportunities.”

Other aspirations if he was not a miner: Open a butcher shop or become a tradesman.

*Note: During Tito’s dictatorship in 1945 – 1980, Croatia was part of Yugoslavian nation which also include Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.