Graphic: Richard Hawkins
Richard is lucky to be alive after his heart stopped five times in the searing summer heat of the South Australian desert.
More than three decades ago, Richard Hawkins moved to the small outback town of Andamooka, switching his allegiance from commercial to small-scale opal mining – and the novelty never wore off.
While mining precious gems has its perks and rewards, Andamooka’s harsh environment, extreme climatic conditions and isolation pose an ongoing challenge to miners and residents.
One summer, Richard was operating his excavator on the outskirts of town, when he fell victim to the harsh heat and collapsed.
“I had consumed far more water than I was supposed to and apparently what happened was I had flushed all my electrolytes out,” he said.
“My brain stopped talking to my heart and my heart stopped.”
Exacerbating the challenges associated with the extreme climate is Andamooka’s aging population and high-rate of health issues – 2021 census data for the town of 250 residents shows it has more than double the rate of arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and lung conditions than the rest of the country.
Richard said the RFDS Andamooka Remote Area Clinic, which also provides primary healthcare appointments to residents, is the only reason the community can survive and thrive.
“Being so far from services is the biggest challenge of living in Andamooka. It’s a harsh place – sun stroke is a real issue here. We regularly get snakebites – it’s a fact of living in the Outback unfortunately,” he said.
“To me, the RFDS is instrumental to the health and wellbeing of our community in Andamooka. If you ever think you’re going to travel through the outback whether it be for camping, for work or whatever, I urge you to donate to help fund the service.”
Fortunately for Richard, the Flying Doctor has a presence in Andamooka – in 2014 the RFDS took over the town’s Remote Area Clinic and is on-call 24/7 in the event of an emergency.
“I actually died twice in that excavator, once more on the way back into town, once in front of the clinic and once again on the table in the clinic – apparently my heart stopped five times,” he said.
“The RFDS stabilised me in Andamooka and then ferried me across to Roxby Downs.
"I just feel if the RFDS wasn’t there to treat me I might not have survived the journey.”
Against the sparse white gravel landscape on the edge of Lake Torrens National Park lies Andamooka – a scattering of shacks among beehive-shaped hillocks, better described as a real-world version of Star Wars’ fictional desert planet, Tatooine.
Ever since 1930, when a thunderstorm led to the discovery of opal floating down what is now Andamooka’s main street, the town has had a unique way of attracting mavericks with a thirst for treasure hunting and a lifestyle off the beaten track.
Richard said the arid land surrounding the town, once an ancient inland sea, is a treasure trove for opalised aquatic dinosaur fossils, which he still digs up today.
“When you’re out night mining in Andamooka, the stars are bright enough to mine underneath,” he said.
“Once you find your first opal, you become hooked for life – it’s a very pleasant way to earn a living.”
Andamooka is literally off the grid – power is generated by a 1650 kW diesel power station that supplies a local mini-grid and until 2005, the community relied on water supplies trucked in from Roxby Downs.
Annual rainfall is only 190 millimetres, summer temperatures soar well into the 40s, and a lack of natural vegetation means natural shade is hard to come by.