Miner Minnie lived to max

Pioneering Minnie - lover of opals and outback - celebrated in upcoming film

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ADVENTUROUS SPIRIT: Minnie Berrington, pictured learning to ride a camel, was a trailblazer at a time when career options were few for many women.

ADVENTUROUS SPIRIT: Minnie Berrington, pictured learning to ride a camel, was a trailblazer at a time when career options were few for many women.

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Former London secretary became first woman to mine for opals at Andamooka in SA.

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MINNIE Berrington was a 29-year-old former typist not long arrived from London when she found the love of her life on a train in 1926.

"A golden light suffused everything," she wrote. "The air was so clear it seemed to sparkle and the hills were as sharp-cut as the ones that looked so impossible on the stage... The enchantment of that golden serenity was so complete that I knew I would never willingly live in a city again."

Minnie was a passenger on the Afghan Express and had set eyes on the SA outback for the first time. The romance of it and the opals hidden beneath consumed her for the rest of her 103 years.

Minnie, the subject of an upcoming documentary by film-maker Lara Lukich, was the first woman to mine the Andamooka opal field.

She came to Australia with her younger brother Victor. He landed an adventurous job travelling the far reaches of SA with a hawker and "getting to see the true Australia", Lara said.

LIVING THE DREAM: Far from the England of her youth, Minnie described her life in the outback as like "dallying in wonderland".

LIVING THE DREAM: Far from the England of her youth, Minnie described her life in the outback as like "dallying in wonderland".

"Minnie was stuck as a domestic helper in Adelaide, which wasn't very exciting for her.

"So when Victor wrote to her and sent an invitation to come up on the Afghan Express, she told her employers she'd be going for a couple of weeks and never went back.

"I think they were tired of England, the dampness, the weather. And you see the posters from that era, saying come to sunny Australia."

That warmth extended to their arrival in Coober Pedy, where they soon made friends with the miners, who showed them ropes about how to dig for opals. Their life's die was cast.

"Minnie had a passion for these stones and became hooked," Lara said. "I think that was the first time in her life she really realised there was a different way she could live."

Lara says Minnie was like many women of her time and had limited life options. "But here she had sovereignty over her life, which is pretty amazing."

In later life, Minnie wrote an early memoir, Stones of Fire, but she wanted to call it "My Dally in Wonderland", Lara said, "because that was how she actually really saw it".

Not that it was a fantasy. It was hard yakka and one needed to be strong in body and mind. "She was only five foot two but knew how to use a pick and shovel," Lara said.

And Andamooka, where she first arrived after Christmas 1934 when the temperature was around 43 degrees, was no place for a wilting lily.

"She was a gutsy, incredible person," said Lara, herself the daughter of a former opal miner. "And yet when you read her book, she was kind, intelligent, compassionate, warm, humorous and very giving.

"In her book she never puts herself forward as anything special or big-notes herself. She never had a bad word to say about anyone. And nobody had a bad word to say about her."

Later on, Minnie took part in the war effort at home, became Andamooka's postmistress and was a census taker.

Lara and her team have started work on the film and are seeking funds to bring it to completion.

It will include interviews with historians and people who knew her, encounters with modern-day Minnies, and recreations of scenes such as Minnie's first magical train journey.

It will also amalgamate real-life footage and dream-like animation sequences, Lara says, "to illustrate some of the more poetic instances she writes about in the book, where she sees herself as a kind of Alice in Wonderland".

"We want to invite you into the world of Minnie's mind; into the magic of what she saw, and how she experienced the outback."

For more information, go to www.theminnieberringtonproject.com

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