I had heard of Lightning Ridge, but am not sure I knew anything about the place before we got there. Perhaps in my mind I confused it with Longreach. Arriving in the late afternoon, the first thing we do was stop at the visitors’ centre for a map and information about how to make the most of the few hours we had at our disposal.
We find a simple self-contained cabin for the night, dump our bags and set out for a recce. The walk through the town reminds me of the small mining town where my sister lives. Single story buildings and homes, many tired, others for lease or for sale.
In many yards, people have spread stones in front of their homes instead of lawn. The hot and inhospitable environment means that growing grass takes time, energy and lots of water. Some people though, do manage to create an oasis of grass and plants. There are a few eating places and simple stores. And, something new to me – places where found opals are bought and sold.
Lightning Ridge is opal country. It is hot and dusty and besides a mineral spring there’s not much else. The lure of opals brings people to Lightning Ridge. Many have been here for years. They seem to live simply, some in town, others on their opal claims in anything including makeshift shelters, tents and old caravans.
Lightning Ridge Bowling Club
Dinner is in the Lightning Ridge Bowling Club. Locals greet each other and share a yarn. Some join the weekly poker session. As I sip my drink, I wonder about the people around me and the stories they have to tell. Who comes to live in Lightning Ridge and who stays? Why?
Self Drive Tour
The next morning, having decided against a tour, I take a look at the map of Lightning Ridge. Four different coloured boxes catch my eye. Red, blue, green and yellow, they indicated self-drive “car door” routes of twenty to forty-five minutes driving time.
Decision made, we look for the strategically placed blue car doors, and enter another world. A rough dirt road takes us past piles of discarded white stone, signs to camps, rusted old cars and small trucks already baking in the 30 plus degree heat.
Dust is everywhere, but not a sole to be seen. Where is everyone? Already searching for the ‘big one’ or are these abandoned claims? Those questions remain unanswered. I need much more time than I have to get even a limited understanding of how things work in Lightning Ridge.
At the walk-in- mine, on the blue route, I don a hard hat, and step into an underground mine. There I learn more about opals and the people who mine them from a short video.
At the time the video was made, eight out of ten miners were born outside of Australia. That explains the number of European accents I heard at the club last night. People come to Lightning Ridge to follow a dream of making it big. But it’s a gamble. Most don’t – make it big that is. They scrape a living, but stay on, content with the lifestyle and the people.
Lightning Ridge is famous for the black opal. Brad, who runs the walk-in mine, explains to me how to recognise a black opal and describes how the value of stones is determined. Visitors can fossick in a dump of tailings from his mine. Apparently the tailings are added to regularly.
I decide to try my luck. After a few minutes of breaking pieces of rock with a mattock, my shoulder starts to ache and I feel the beginnings of a blister. Fossicking is not for the faint hearted. The story Brad tells about paying a visitor $5000 for a stone found while fossicking on his dump isn’t enough to keep me interested.
We follow a couple more car door routes, stopping to take photos and chat to the one person we come across. John is an old timer who came to Lightning Ridge over forty years ago. He lives in town and drives out to his claim in his battered van with a yappy dog for company. He’s happy to chat as he works on repairs to a motor.
He tells me that he’s too old for this business now and scoffs at the $5000 story. Perhaps it’s best not to believe everything you’re told in Lightning Ridge.
I am glad we stopped in Lightning Ridge. It has opened my eyes to another world. One day perhaps I’ll spend more time there and hear some of the stories.