Last week we spent my birthday at a caravan park in Lightning Ridge – some 400 kilometres ‘up the road’. Of course, it wasn’t quite the same as Batam Island where we spent Nigel’s birthday but surely ran a close second! This is not your usual outback town and driving around, you might be forgiven for thinking you’d entered some kind of parallel universe.
No one knows for sure what the population of the Ridge is – which seems to have something to do with the fact that there are quite a few residents hiding out from ex-wives and/or the law etc.
A large percentage of residents are miners – in search of the elusive black opal, for which the town is famous. According to the odds, it’s a massive gamble because one in ten miners will actually find opals and of that group, one in ten will make any money out it and in that group (you guessed it!) one in ten will get rich from it.
However, if you talk to a miner you’ll discover that they love it and will willingly spend a great deal of time, energy and resources down a mine shaft listening for the sharp tap when the pick hits opal. This happy addiction is fed by the knowledge that a good black opal (with a degree of red through it) can fetch around $10,000 per carat!
For anyone interested, you can purchase an annual mining licence, that will entitle you to stake a claim 50metres by 50metres. Here’s the ‘dirt’: Opals are found under a layer of sandstone, which contains voids left by decayed vegetation, fossils etc. When water seeps through these cavities, it leaches the silica from the sandstone and deposits it further down under the sandstone where it builds up (think millions of years). As the water continues on its way, it leaves behind the silicone deposits which, under pressure (think more millions of years) crystalise and become opals.
The first thing you’ll notice as you approach Lightning Ridge is Stanley, the 18 metre metal emu built by local artist John Murray. His body is actually made up of two car bodies and his eyes are satellite dishes so you really can’t miss him. The next thing you’ll notice is that there are seemingly no building regulations regarding the ‘homes’ which have been erected on the claim sites dotted throughout the opal fields.
The Ridge has quite a lot to offer tourists including art galleries, fossicking heaps and opal mines open to the public. We were lucky to be allowed to take the Bear down one of the mines – although, to be honest he didn’t try very hard to hide his discomfort and was obviously relieved when we were back above ground. There’s also a sidewalk restaurant that sells Italian fare, a pub, Bowling Club, Aquatic Centre (we were jealous) plus a huge community artesian spa pool (we were very jealous). Then there’s the weird and wacky Amigo’s Castle, Bottle House and Astronomer’s Monument as well as (apparently) the largest collection of succulents in the Southern Hemisphere.
The people might be eccentric (car doors strung from trees advertise anything from self-guided tours to the ‘Nudies Camp’) but they’re friendly and welcoming and with perfect winter weather we had a lot of fun. In fact, the only place we were sorry to miss was the Chambers of the Black Hand http://www.chambersoftheblackhand.com.au/ (underground mine and tourist attraction) with its many carvings and sculptures but unfortunately no Bears were allowed.
We finished the holiday with a visit to John Murray’s Art Gallery with the intention of passing on regards from Anne and exited with a stunning print (my birthday present) titled Where the Wild Dogs Roam. It so reminds me of outback skies that I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it. If you’re interested, you should find it here.