WEDNESDAY 13 MAY LORNE STATION
Having plans for an outing today, we both made a reasonably early start to the day.
In town, we refuelled, and bought a newspaper, in order to see details of yesterday’s federal budget. It did not look as if we would be affected in any great way by its measures.
Whilst in town, John received a phone message, telling him that he had been elected to the Selection Committee of our local bowls club. He was pleased. So was I – maybe thinking about that would take his mind off buying a claim?
Our destination was the Grawin opal fields, some 66kms by road from Lightning Ridge.
The sealed road went to the hamlet of Cumborah, through grazing country with some lovely areas of cypress pines. Cumborah was sad, a nearly dead settlement. North of there, the road became gravel. We had no trouble finding the turnoff to the Grawin, about 10kms north from Cumborah.
The Grawin area began to be mined for opal at a similar time to Lightning Ridge – about 1900. It consists of three parts, really: Grawin to the north, Glengarry in the middle and Sheepyard Flat to the south of the mining area. The Glengarry section really got going in the 1970’s, and the Sheepyard from the mid 80’s.
Like most Australian opal fields, the level of activity waxed and waned depending on the value of opal, and external circumstances like World Wars. Changing technology also affected the extent of mining. Today’s equipment, whilst it might seem a bit makeshift and primitive to we observers, is far advanced on the original pickaxes for digging and candles for lighting underground.
Our first stop was at the first manifestation of the fields that we came to – the “Club in the Scrub”.
This was the clubhouse and licensed premises for a nine hole dirt “green” golf course and general watering hole. The club was very quaint and quirky. Rough logs and corrugated iron featured prominently in the construction. After a bit of a browse around, including at the displayed notices, I bought a fridge magnet and a mud map of the fields, made by a local, and laminated. For this, I donated $5 to their SES. The lady behind the bar assured me that we would still get lost!
It was definitely not that easy to navigate around the diggings, even with map. We eventually got sort-of oriented, and able to guess at which was the main track amongst the myriad that went every which way. The surface was all the white claystone that typified the opal areas here.
We passed lots of claims, some with structures on, some just marked by the assorted apparatus that lifts the dirt from the shafts below. Much of the gear on the claims was improvised – typical of opal fields. There was little effort to put any barriers around some of the holes – it certainly was not an area one would want to wander about on a dark night. I wondered how many diggers, staggering home after imbibing too much with their neighbours, had done a disappearing act down an unguarded shaft.
The meandering track brought us to two huge waste dumps where it was obvious, from parked cars and people around, that there were several “noodlers” in action. Noodling is digging in waste dirt discarded by the miners, in search of opal they may have missed. In some mining areas, doing this on the waste deposited beside individual mines is likely to provoke a very unfriendly reaction from the miner, but here the big waste dumps were communal and noodling appeared to be tolerated.
After we ate our packed lunch sandwiches, sitting in Truck and watching the activity from afar, John decided to join the noodlers and walked up to the top of the pile. He was immediately offered a collection of opal pieces in a jar, by one noodler – and bought the jar! For $100. I didn’t know whether or not he was conned – there were some bits in there with flashy colours. But, on balance of probability, I reckon the guy picked him straight off as a soft touch. He reckoned there was a month;s worth of work in that jar. If that was the case, then he was hardly going to be living the high life on the proceeds.
Two trucks churned their way up the dirt ramp to the top of the heap, to dump their dirt. One was immediately set upon by the majority of the noodlers, as the waste came out of the tipper. They said it was the “right colour”, plus, I was sure, they knew whose dirt it was and that the fields’ grapevine had them “onto colour”.
I picked up more terminology out there today, than opal. When I joined John at scratching in the dirt, I did find a few pieces of potch – opaque opal-like stone without any flashing colour in it. It might be useful for John to practice on, if he ever decided to try cutting himself.
As we dug around in the heaps, not really knowing what we were doing, got talking to a young man nearby, doing the same. He told us to look for the pale white heaps (which they mostly all looked to me) or, best of all, the “biscuit” colour and structure. This was the layer down there, adjacent to the opal bearing one, and sometimes contained missed opal. He found a very nice chunk in the same heap as we were digging in, while we were there. He also told us that the newest area of diggings – a rich one – was just near this dump heap. I guessed that made it attractive to the full time noodlers.
After an unproductive couple of hours of this, we moved on around the tour route on our mud map of the fields.
At Sheepyard Flat we admired the War Memorial – very nicely done. I was to find that there were a number of Vietnam War veterans on these fields. The Sheepyard Inn was another unique place – casual the order of the day. We partook of a ginger beer each – cost $5 each, though!
Continuing on we passed, but did not stop at, the third of the licensed premises in this area, the Glengarry Hilton, so called. Three drinking places in a relatively small area – maybe there were a lot more miners living out here than was immediately evident?
In our time out there, we only saw a handful of people who appeared to be tourists like ourselves. It certainly was not over run with visitors. This might have been due to the unsealed roads, but maybe also because tourists were satisfied with their experiences at Lightning Ridge and assumed the Grawin was more of the same. We did not find this to be the case, and would tell our friends coming this way that they must make time for a day trip out to the Grawin.
We got back to camp about 4.30pm, after stopping by the roadside to collect firewood.
Tea was soup and salads, after which we sat round our campfire, mulling over the day and agreeing that it had been most interesting and enjoyable.