This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.


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2009 Travels May 16

SATURDAY 16 MAY     LORNE STATION

We managed a reasonably early start.

In town, bought the papers. Went to the tyre place, where the tyre and its tube were patched. This was a relief, as we were envisaging the expense of a new tyre, which would probably have to be brought in from somewhere else, at even greater cost.

We went car door touring, and did the two tours on the western side of town.

The extent of the Lightning Ridge opal diggings. First diggings were NE of town; Three Mile SW of it

The Green Tour took us to the first area that was mined, which was on an ironstone ridge that tended to attract lightning. Local lore had it that, way back, a shepherd and some of his flock were fried by a lightning strike in that area – hence the name of the town.

Original diggings

The local indigenous people clearly knew of the opal to be found in the area, as they have a Dreamtime legend that explains it as a rainbow that was trapped in the scales of a dying ancestral crocodile creature.

Random finds on the pastoral runs of the late 1800’s led to the first rush, in the early 1900’s, mostly by miners from the White Cliffs fields, attracted by this dark opal, and promoted by the man regarded as the father of opal mining in the Ridge, Charlie Nettleton.

The Green Tour went to that first mining area, and the first shaft, hand sunk by Charlie Nettleton.

I did find it interesting that the wild orange tree is supposed to be an indicator of underlying opal. Obviously, the larger trees grow along fault lines because the roots can get down more easily to water – and opal is associated with fault lines. But there was no explanation of why the wild orange is a better indicator than other trees.

Green car door by Wild Orange tree

Out there, we also saw where some (more modern) person had begun to build a hut out of empty beer cans. It wasn’t finished; we had a bit of fun speculating why this might be so.

Did they just get sick of doing it, or…….?

There was much more of interest on the Yellow Tour. This mostly took in the larger Three Mile diggings.

A novelty there was the Lunatic Hill open cut.

Open cuts were not normally used for opal mining here because of its unpredictable and patchy occurrence. Particularly in the earlier times, before the use of modern machinery like bulldozers, the effort involved in making an open cut was not proportionally  rewarded. Two possible reasons why the Lunatic Hill cut was made was because the ground was very unstable for shafts, and the opal there rich enough to justify it.

Ventilation shafts for underground mines

The tour route wound through the mining area, past lots of shacks – works of art and ingenuity in themselves. I particularly liked one where the roofing iron was held down by large rocks on it.

Rocks are cheaper than nails around here – and maybe easier to get in the early days….
A trap for the unwary explorer….

We came upon a church structure made of sheets of corrugated iron – spooky, gothic, incongruous.

 But it wasn’t really a church, having been part of a set for an art house film “Goddess of 1967”. I had never heard of it, but later found out that it was made in 2000, the goddess of the title was a 1967 car, and the dark and gloomy film won some awards in overseas film festivals.

It looked realistic enough…..

It was late lunchtime by the time we finished exploring along the Yellow Tour route. Back in town, John decided to buy a cooked chook. We had to go back to camp so he could eat some of it then store the leftovers in the fridge.

Then we backtracked into town for the other two tours, which were the shorter ones to the eastern areas.

The highlight of the Blue Tour was the Cactus Garden. The entry fee here was $5 a person, but it was well worth it.

I had no idea there were so many different cacti, ranging from tall ones more than twice my height, to tiny ones.

Ever read “Day of the Triffids”?

Some had fearsome spikes, others were almost soft. Some looked like they might suddenly come alive and chase you.

The gardens were extensive and very neat, tidy, with clear explanatory notes about some of the plants. Obviously a huge amount of work had gone into establishing and maintaining the gardens. I did hope, though, that the Hudson Pear had originally not been an escapee from here!

I nearly bought a very pretty, small cactus, but then decided that it might not travel too well, there might be quarantine issues – and it wasn’t a very friendly house plant to keep in a small van, either.

On the Red Tour route, there were two unusual structures. Amigo’s Castle was built of ironstone. There were mine tunnels under it, but one could only tour it with the organized, paying, district tour. This was not for us, being herded around like cattle, straining to hear some semi-audible commentary, and cooling our heels whilst some attention seeking type asks questions no-one else is interested in the answers to.  

Apparently, there was a full Plesiosaurus (?) fossil down there – that would have been interesting.

We also saw a really strange, cement, “Astronomers’ Monument” structure – a bit castle like. It was not open to look at though. I found it a shame  a feature like this that could attract tourists, was closed off.

One heavily publicized local attraction was the Theatre of the Black Queen, featuring a house built from coloured bottles, lots of old lamps, and a one-woman dramatic act/presentation. This was another Ridge experience we decided to pass on – just didn’t come across as our sort of thing.

Back at camp, John had the remaining chook and some salad for tea. I had a fire-baked potato, and salad.

That was an interesting and varied day of being a tourist.


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2009 Travels May 15

FRIDAY 15 MAY     LORNE STATION

This morning, I managed to sew a complete patch before John was up and about – and there were five pieces of varying sized material in a six inch square patch, to be hand sewn together, with tiny stitches, so it wasn’t done quickly.

We left at 11am, for the Grawin. Took the back way – the gravel road from town that came out to Lorne, then continued on to meet the highway opposite the Cumborah road. It was the short way to go for us.

The drive out to the Grawin was pleasant enough for it not to matter that we were doing it so soon again. I found myself looking at the farmland – and the bush – that we passed, and wondering if there was opal to be found under there? Given the history of subsequent fresh finds in these parts, it could be possible that there were new fields yet to be unearthed? But I guess modern geological surveying methods are much more able to detect likely opal bearing areas, so probably the areas ignored were for good reason.

We parked amongst the trees by the Waste Dump. John got out and exclaimed “I’ve got a flat tyre!” The rear diver’s side was leaking – we could hear it going down. It wasn’t totally flat, yet, so it must have just happened. We had hit a couple of gutters in the track a bit hard. We changed it, finding that the air was coming from a fracture in the rubber. This created a discussion about whether the tyres should be deflated a bit on these hard, stony roads. It was not usually our practice – and “expert” opinions differed. I remember Adam Plate, of the Pink Roadhouse at Oodnadatta, telling us the first time we went up that way, not to run tyres softer than usual, except on sand.

Then we finally got up on to the heap. There were lots of other noodlers there today. I got sick of it quickly, and went back down to Truck, for lunch and to read and do some bird spotting.

Noodling on the waste dump, in fresh “biscuit” coloured heap

John came down later. for lunch, then went back. I went up later to take some photos, to find that most of the others had gone. Maybe because it was Friday, to get a head start on the night’s festivities?

John was working alongside a tourist, like ourselves, and a local. The latter was in his 30’s, had been a shearer, did some boxing around the country circuits, then had a stroke. Now, he noodled – and drank. He was doing both together, up there. When we drove away, he was just sitting on the front of his old car, all alone, drinking – a forlorn, sad, picture. I guessed there were a lot of hard luck stories to be found around here.

The tourist was out from the Ridge, for the day, like us. He was new to opals and noodling, and had left his ailing wife back at their van. He was dealing with some big problems and seemed pretty timid. He found a nice piece of opal on the heap and was soooo excited – it was nice to see him happy.

The little pile the men were working on was interesting, so I joined in for a while. I might have found a few small, good bits – I found it hard to tell if they were worthwhile.

We left at 4pm and got back to camp an hour later. The place was yet more crowded. A couple of camper trailers had set up quite close to us, and the Hacienda was still occupied.

Truck parked by the Hacienda cottage at Lorne

I had a bit of a chat with one of the camper trailer men. He was rather into the “I am the greatest travel expert” mode – one of those who had to go one better than anything anyone else said. But credit where it was due, and he had been to some interesting and out of the way places, like Old Doomadgee and Massacre Inlet. I gained some street cred by even knowing where these were, and by having also been to Massacre Inlet and Old Doom. He didn’t have it all his own way!

John had flathead and fries for tea. I only had fries, because the label had come off the fish pack in the freezebox, and when I went to cook it, there was only one piece!

We sat around the campfire after tea, for a while. It was so pleasant not to have TV!


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2009 Travels May 14

THURSDAY 14 MAY     LORNE STATION

It was a fairly usual morning, just taking it easy around camp.

An unusual occurrence was that there was an extra signal bar on our phone – and the Internet dongle was able to work. Email! John emailed our doctor at home, to get him to set up an appointment for later in the year, with the hip replacement surgeon. He had decided it was time to act on this painful hip. Having had the first one done in 1997, this time he knew the ultimate benefit of the surgery.

When I was handwashing a windcheater in the camp laundry, discovered that the gold ring I wore all the time, that had a curved shape with three stones set in it, was missing one of the little stones. It was a gift, many years ago, and I wasn’t sure if the stones were diamonds or cubic zirconia – suspected the latter. I would have to try to get a replacement stone put in at home. I didn’t know if I lost it down the laundry drainhole, or scrabbling around in the dirt yesterday. A noodler might find an unusual stone out there! Despite the levity, I was quite sad at the loss.

Into town for bowls at 2pm. I had not envisaged me doing so much bowls on this trip, but it was keeping the driver happy. I guessed I owed him some bowls credits for the Warrumbungles walks – and the ones we might be doing later, if my plans worked out. It was a good idea to build up the credits in a pleasant bowling environment, I judged.

We both played in different teams. Mine drew the game. John’s lost. No prize money for us today. After a quick afternoon tea at the club, the supermarket was next. They had scotch fillet steak on special – really good value – so I bought a couple of lots; there was a bit of room in my little freezebox.

For the past couple of nights, since the big group left, there had only been three or four other lots of campers at Lorne. But it was now filling up again, with about ten vans in tonight, including another Bushtracker. They were becoming – like Trakmasters – much more commonly seen than was the case when we first set out, eleven years ago. There was a van parked just around the corner from us, tonight, the closest neighbours we’d had, so far, here. The Hacienda cottage, next to us, was also occupied for the first time since we had been here.

The vast unpowered camping area at Lorne

Decided that we would extend our time here by three nights and leave next Monday. That would allow a day for another trip out to the Grawin – John wanted to have another try at the noodling. I wanted a day to play tourist and do the car door tours of the area. And John wanted to play social bowls on Sunday. The timing of that would allow me enough time back at camp to cook us a roast dinner – if we could decide between chook (John’s wish) or lamb (mine).

We paid for the three more nights – $18 per night.

Tea was pasta with sauce based on tuna, capers, tomatoes.

After a few days here, I now had two gripes about this caravan park. One was that the permanent residents, of which there were several, smoked in the amenities. And, at night, there was often a sewerage smell drifting over the area.


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2009 Travels May 13

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.

The Grawin area. Big waste dumps can be seen in centre of photo

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.

The white dirt of the Grawin – and the main road through it

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.

A current mine, with apparatus to raise dirt from below, to dump truck

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.

One of the massive waste dumps, showing ramp that dump truck used to get to the top

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”.

On the top of the waste dump, with truck tipping a new batch of discarded dirt

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.


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2009 Travels May 12

TUESDAY 12 MAY     LORNE STATION

I was up at 8am. John about 10-ish. We both spent the morning just pottering about.

There was some cloud around in the morning, but it was a warm day.

We were in town, after an early lunch, by 1pm, for bowls. I played in the pairs game, with another visitor to town. We came second for the day, and each claimed $10 prize money. I quite enjoyed the game – it helps to do well!

John enjoyed his game but did not do so well. L tried out his bowls. afterwards, then we all reapaired inside for drinks.

I had to call into the supermarket, for some Baygon. There were ants at camp! Any caravanner will tell you that ants are the bane of their existence.

I made salads to go with left over rissoles, for tea.

John was still pursuing the dream of opal mining, helped along by drinks after bowls, and some more imbibing back at camp. He made some phone calls. He had to climb up the ladder on the back of Truck, and onto the roof rack, to get a sufficiently strong signal. The man was determined. However, he did not succeed in interesting the couple of friends he phoned, in investing in a claim. I hadn’t been too worried – except maybe about him falling off the roof rack – because I figured the men had too much common sense to be taken in by pipe dreams.

The sky was really clear at night – lots and lots of brilliant stars. But that meant the night was colder.


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2009 Travels May 11

MONDAY 11 MAY      LORNE STATION

There was considerable cloud cover today, but it was still warm.

Usual morning start – me up early, had my breakfast outside in the fresh air, sewed until the other half of the establishment was ready to take on the day.

The Trakmaster group pulled out about 9am. Their destination for today was Narran Lake, not all that far to the SW from here, but reached by dirt tracks. It was not a place we had been, so I tucked it away in the mind for future research.

John was still pursuing his expected parcel, so we drove into town. There, we did some shop browsing, during which I bought a good stainless steel kettle for the van, to be used on the gas stove when we were not hooked into external power. The old one, which we’d had since 1991,  had expired of a holey bottom.

John became very exasperated with the youth manning the counter at the Post Office. He was not very good at explaining their rules. Sorted out eventually, what he was trying to tell us was that parcels and mail could only be collected from the side window, either before the mail truck arrived – at some unspecified time in the morning, or else after 3pm. But no parcel right now!

Security Lightning Ridge style – would you touch that tool box?

We meandered through an art gallery that was totally uninspiring.

Then John decided we should go on a hunt for the Mines Department, which we did not find, much to my relief. John was still pursuing the idea of becoming an opal miner! A couple of the locals we got casually chatting to said “No way – too expensive to operate”. There was also the slight problem – hitherto ignored – that neither John nor I like being underground – and that is where opal comes from. In my case, it is a total no-go area.

On the way back to the van for lunch, we drove by the artesian bore baths to have a look. I didn’t find them all that attractive looking, certainly felt no urge to sample same at any future time.

To date, I was finding Lightning Ridge a much more pleasant town than any of the other opal towns we had visited over the years: Coober Pedy, Mintabie, Andamooka, White Cliffs, Yowah. There was more substance, a greater sense of permanence and pride in the place, and more order. This might be due to being in a less arid area. Anyway, I did really like it. That did not, in any way, imply that I wanted to own or lease any of it, though!

It was back to town at 3pm, for mail. The parcel was there: a new lock for the Treg hitch, sent by Hardings, to replace the one that John thought was getting too worn. There was also a bag of mail from home that contained little of interest, apart from a magazine from Birds Australia.

We visited an opal shop that we hadn’t noticed before, away from the cluster at the other end of the main street. It had only been open for two months. I really liked that they sold only Lightning Ridge solid opal, from their own mines – an older one at Jacks Hill and a newer one out Grawin way. Their made up opal jewellery items were mostly individual designed items, fashioned to suit the particular stone, as opposed to precast settings where a stone has to be cut to fit the setting, regardless of its unique characteristics. Silver was more featured than gold, and I found the designs nicely understated, compared to some of the over-the-top stuff one sees that, in my view, detracts from the innate beauty of the stones. I thought the dark opal of Lightning Ridge went well with this minimalist approach.

Well, I’d found MY source of opal. No need for a mine! No need to look any further – or scrabble around in the dust. There was a wonderful, irregularly shaped opal in that shop, set in a thin silver framing, with brilliant greeny flashes in its dark depths – a simple pendant on a silver chain. It was just screaming out to become my 2009 birthday present.

John looked at some bags of uncut opal pieces they had for sale. The sales lady was also the cutter, the men of the family did the mining. She had been taught cutting by the local opal expert – the man who wrote the “Black Opal” book. She took time to point out to John how certain pieces of opal should be cut, and told him that the key quality that makes a good cutter is the ability to “feel” the stone.

We went back to camp to ponder all that.

Lorne Station; buildings around the clay area of the campground; old opal diggings at left

I sat outside and sewed some patchwork. John fitted his new hitch lock. The old one went into the dark cave that was the van boot, probably never to be found again, should it be needed!

Tea was rissoles and vegetables.


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2009 Travels May 10

SUNDAY 10 MAY     LORNE STATION

It was another normal morning at our establishment, with one of us sleeping much later than the other, and one of us reading and sewing outside the van, in the morning sun.

I received a Mothers Day text from daughter.

We drove into town, in time for lunch at 12 at the Bowls Club, resplendent in our “whites”.

The dining room was very crowded. The lunch event was obviously popular. I guessed there were not a whole lot of dining options in town. However, no other bowlers were evident. You know that feeling of being the odd ones out, and wondering if you have made some sort of mistake?

The $15 lunch was a buffet. There was a variety of salads, most heavily mayo’ed. The grain bread was excellent. There were some casseroles; I passed on those, which may have been pre-cooked then reheated. My gut doesn’t handle reheated protein well. There were desserts too – pavlova, mud cake, fruit salad. I had never seen chocolate mousses disappear so fast!

After lunch we made our way out to the bowls greens. Aha! THAT was where all the bowlers were. Given their absence at the lunch, I wondered what they knew about the food that we didn’t? But, to be fair, the final games of a big weekend tournament were in progress, occupying many of them.

Our social bowls started nearer to 2pm than the supposed 1pm. The game was meant to be a fun event, with winners decided by the  draw of the results cards afterwards, not by actual scores. The entry was free – and with dinner thrown in! So that’s what the other bowlers knew. Meal after the game. …

Some of the other participants had not played before, which made things “interesting” but light hearted.

After the game, we went inside for drinks. We sat with L and W, who were good fun. L was a jeweller’s widow. She used to be an excellent opal cutter, before her hands clawed. Like many on the opal fields, she was of European origin, with a fascinating French accent.

Opal cutting is a valued skill. Anyone can learn the basic techniques, but it takes real skill to work out the best way to sand off unwanted surrounding rock and potch, to bring out the best colour in the stone, without shattering the opal.

Opal that has been cleaned up but not yet cut for gems

We also met P, who was a psychologist with the area health service; he had “owned” a claim since he was nine years old! He lived out on it, but was too busy to do much mining.

We sat through the “market night”. One bought a range of tickets; then numbers were drawn. If your number was drawn, you went out and chose from a very impressive array of prizes, lined up on tables at the front. There were items like an electric BBQ, a heater, electric blanket – substantial stuff. Presumably local businesses had been generous in supporting the cause. I think they must have drawn about forty numbers in all. We didn’t win anything, but L got a toaster and jug package.

We then moved into the dining room for dinner, which was roast lamb and vegies, followed by sticky date pudding. It was very good – we hadn’t eaten so well in one day for ages.

All the women present were given a box of chocolates and a raffle type ticket.

L’s team won the bowls card draw – she received a bottle of port for that. In the free raffle, I won a potted chrysanthemum. I am not really into travelling with plants, and was able to swap it for L’s port – she said she had lots of the latter at home. Apparently it was a usual bowls prize. That alone said something about the nature of Lightning Ridge!

We made an arrangement with L to meet at the social bowls day on Tuesday, so she could try out John’s bowls. She was looking for a new set and his were the modern variety starting to be adopted.

John got talking to a man who currently worked a claim. He told us that the opal fields immediately around Lightning Ridge were pretty well worked out, and that most of the currently operating claims were now in the out of town areas like the Grawin, Glengarry, Sheepyard Flat and Coocoran. He told John we absolutely must go and look at these outer areas.

Sat view of the Lightning Ridge area.Light patches are opal diggings.The Grawin is NW of Cumborah; Coocoran to the west of the Lake

John also talked to another man, who told him about picking up abandoned claims for $2000. I could tell that John was about to become hell bent on becoming an opal miner! I was going to have to have stern words along the lines of: Hey. Stop. Think. WHY are these claims abandoned? Could it be something to do with having no opal left? Maybe also a reminder that he does not like underground….

He chatted with a couple who came from Victoria’s Goulburn Valley – almost “home”. They spent half of each year – the cooler months – on their claim here, and summer at home. Best of both worlds. I got the impression they were not really miners – it was more a lifestyle thing, like a holiday house. Now that I could understand.

All in all, it was a great day and evening, much better than I had expected. We had never before encountered such hospitality at a Bowls Club. It was a huge club – a typical NSW one with lots of poker machines. They hold  big tournaments here, through the year, with thousands of dollars in prize moneys. There was a similar free dinner and fun event for Fathers Day.

Son had texted whilst I was bowling, then phoned when we were back at the van, about 8pm. So i’d had contact from both my children. Just about a perfect Mothers Day, after all.


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2009 Travels May 9

SATURDAY 9 MAY     LORNE STATION

I got up about 8am. The somewhat warmer night and early morning was very welcome. The day turned into a lovely one of about 25 degrees.

Trakmasters all in a row – well, mostly

John slept late, as he had been playing computer games until the early hours. By the time he was up and going, it was too late for the promised opal lesson from T, who was busy cleaning the amenities.

After all breakfasted, we drove into town because John was expecting a parcel to be collected from the Post Office. Predictably, it was closed.

We looked in some of the several opal sales shops, including the largest and most tourist-geared one, that had a real assortment off all sorts of stuff: clothing, postcards, lots of the cheaper end souvenir items. The bulk of the opal items on display seemed to be the cheaper doublet and triplet ones (thin slivers of opal glued to potch) rather than solid opal.

Lightning Ridge is best known for its black opal, which isn’t really black but dark, which makes the colour flashes of the opal much brighter. It looks very different to. say, Coober Pedy opal, which is a light colour.

Light potch background of Coober Pedy opal compared to “black” Lightning Ridge opal

We did see some lovely jewellery in some of the shops, but of course the nicest items were not cheap. Or maybe I just have costly tastes. There was also quite a bit of depressingly ugly stuff. Most shops seemed to have more opal from other parts of Australia, rather than here. I guessed that was because the Lightning Ridge black opal was the most expensive – and possibly less available?

John bought a book on cutting opal from raw stone into finished gems. We got the Saturday papers.

A visit to the Information Centre was in order. As well as the usual local information, postcards and the like, this was unusual in having, in the grounds, a heap of fossicking dirt that visitors could scratch through. It was replenished from local diggings – after it had been sorted by the miner for the best material. But it provided an easy opal “noodling” experience for tourists, and maybe there was always the hope that the donor had missed a good bit!

I bought a fridge magnet and a guide to the Car Door Tours. These self-drive tours were a special feature of The Ridge. There were four routes: red, green, blue, yellow. One navigated via old car doors painted the appropriate colours. The concept was quirky, typical of the ingenuity of such places, where old “stuff” is re-used as much as possible. It was also clever, in an area of opal diggings where tracks were un-named and went every which way.

John called in to the Bowls Club to get the details about tomorrow’s event, purportedly. He was really hoping to sneak in a practice session today, but there looked to be proper games happening. Anyway, he found out it would be lunch at midday, followed by bowls and a cost of $15 each.

We drove back to camp for a late lunch.

Was rather wet, here, not that long ago….

Later in the afternoon we went for a walk, out into the Lorne scrub, following wheel tracks. Found a spot where there seemed to be a variety of birds – to be returned to another day, with the binoculars, which we hadn’t taken today.

Seen on our walk – no longer in use?

When we’d checked in yesterday, the manageress had warned us to be very careful of the truly nasty Hudson Pear, which grew in spots about the property. It was a super-prickly cactus type plant; she said the spines would  pierce shoes and even vehicle tyres. Yikes. Well, we saw some of the species on today’s walk. I believed everything said about the spines – long and strong. An introduced feral pest, of course, not native. It was brought to the Lightning Ridge area as a garden plant and got away. Its nasty spines have made large areas of this part of NSW useless for grazing.

Hudson Pear

Up by the office there was a “speccing” heap  – a pile of opal bearing local white dirt, put there for campers to dig through, looking for opal. Being the cynic from way back, I tended to doubt whether whoever donated it really thought there was much of value in there! Anyway, for form’s sake, we went and did a bit of scrabbling around in it – finding nothing.

Had happy hour again by our fire ring. Took photos of the full moon rising over the trees. Very full and dramatic it was, too.

It was a great atmosphere, with us able to tell ourselves we were out in the bush, watching the moonrise.

We had steak, with green beans and mushrooms, for tea. John cooked the potatoes in the fire coals. They got to be rather on the well-done side!

Being Saturday, it was entertainment night at Lorne. Manager B had been setting up a sort of stage and sound system for it, this afternoon. It kicked off about 8pm. Seemed like it was singing and some dancing, maybe karaoke style? We did not need to go across to the entertainment area, as it could be heard all over the campground!

I wrote letters on postcard folders to the grandchildren. John computed until late, again.


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2009 Travels May 8

FRIDAY 8 MAY     COONABARABRAN TO LORNE STATION   310kms

We both slept in until nearly 9am – naturally, since this was a day for pack up and move!

When John went to do his outside packing up, he found the source of last night’s loud bang.

Note the iced up element

We keep the Chescold camping fridge outside, as a drinks fridge. This avoided a lot of “discussion” over the relative merits of food Vs beverage, in the limited interior fridge space. On these freezing nights, John had been turning off the Chescold, but he forgot to do this last night. Partially frozen Zero certainly had great penetrative power in a small space! Interestingly, the beer cans were intact.

They certainly went bang in the night!

While John cleaned up the mess in the fridge, from two exploded cans, I had a chat with the lady from the broken down rig. Their needed car parts still had not arrived; they were booked to be elsewhere by now, but their arrangements were all disrupted. They were certainly not going to be positive referees for that make of 4WD.

Despite these distractions, we still managed to leave at 10.15am.

The drive back to Baradine was a really pretty one, initially passing the flank of the Warrumbungles. The road from there to Coonamble was better quality bitumen than I’d expected. We travelled through farming country, seeing cattle and some crops.

The road was, in part, a designated route for travelling stock, with wide unfenced areas each side of the road, and with dams at regular intervals on that roadside area. At one point, we proceeded – slowly – through a large mob of cattle. With a thin aluminium skin on both Truck and the van, it was a good idea to avoid close encounters with large, horned beasts like those. It was an even better idea to avoid transferring what they had deposited on the road – in copious amounts – to the surfaces of said Truck and van! It was a very smelly section of road.

There were a couple of stock “camps” beside this road, with vans, horses and dogs. In these drought times, there was a lot of stock travelling stock routes like these, where there was slightly better grazing to be had than on their home properties.

A passing ute threw up a stone that took a chunk out of the windscreen, in front of me. It was not the first, by any means. Judging by the punishment ours had received over the years, Defender windscreens were really tough. I wondered if that was because they were actually flat, rather than curved.

We also went through several swarms of locusts, a goodly number of which remained plastered to the front of Truck. That was going to be a tedious cleaning task, some day soon.

Coonamble was a fair sized town, and looked as if it would be an adequate place to overnight, if we came this way again. Here, we crossed the Castlereagh River again and paralleled it much of the way north to Walgett. It joined the Barwon River, east of Walgett, with the waters eventually flowing into the Darling River, well to the west. It was rather awe inspiring to think that, ever since coming over the Dividing Range between Yea and Yarra Glen, over a fortnight ago, we had been driving in the Murray Darling River system catchment area. I wondered when we would eventually leave it?

I was surprised at how much surface water there was near Coonamble, and between there and Walgett. I knew there had been a lot of rain in the area at Easter, but much of it looked to be more permanent. There was one swamp area, south of Walgett, with lots of different water birds evident there, but we did not stop to do any bird spotting.

We did stop briefly at a rest area on the southern edge of Walgett.  It had good shade trees, tables, shelters – and a distinctly odorous pit toilet. Unfortunately, the morons had been busy – fastener missing from the toilet door, water basin partly demolished. So, despite the overall attractiveness, I concluded that it might be a dubious spot for overnighting – too close to Walgett?

Large rest area near Walgett

Walgett was a sad looking town. It reminded me in some ways of Bourke – vandalized empty shops, heavy duty mesh screens on house and shop windows, strong iron fences and gates around hotels and motels. It was fairly obvious that it had a similar demography and issues to Bourke.

There were signs of cotton crop movement in these parts: the white fluffy bits on the roadsides that looked like a giant had made merry with bags of cotton balls.

We passed through another herd of travelling cattle – another layer of crap, literally, for the undersides of the rig.

The town of Lightning Ridge was some 6kms along a side road from the highway: the Bill O’Brien Way. (I never did find out who he was, to be so immortalized). The approach to town, and the place itself, was very different to the other opal mining settlements we’d visited, over the years. To begin with, the surrounding country was less arid, so it just seemed a normal grazing area. The occasional distant  mound of earth provided a clue that this was not just another small country town, as did opal-related roadside signs. But the town was both more substantial and much more “normal” country town than I had expected.

As we drove into town, John was very pleased to see a very prominent bowls club! He was not so pleased when he realized that Lorne Station, where we were booked in, was “a bit” out of town, like 5kms. Then came his crucial question – had I asked if they had TV reception? Well, no – I just don’t think TV, not in my priority sights, I’m afraid. I gave the unhappy one the option of turning around and going back to find somewhere else to stay, in town. He declined, thereby removing any further grounds for complaint, as far as I was concerned!

As we left the town area, heading south, the opal mining rationale of the place became much more evident. By the turn off to the airport (airstrip?), was the older area known as Kangaroo Hill. Here were the mounds of white clay earth and the quirky, innovative dwellings that typify the fields. We passed a dwelling made from an old red railway carriage. Beyond the airport turnoff the road turned to gravel and dirt.

We were welcomed at Lorne by a gregarious couple who had run the camp ground, for the owners, for the last four years. Our powered site cost $100 for the week – very reasonable.

The place was nothing flash, or groomed. The ground was mostly bare, with scattered clumps of saplings. The main area of powered sites – maybe 14 or 16 of those – was fairly standard drive through places, fairly close together with no screening or definition. When we arrived, most of these were occupied by – of all things – a group of 11 Trakmaster caravans! Shades of 2007, at William Creek! I had been told, when I’d phoned to book, that they were expecting a large group in, but it hadn’t occurred to me they might be Trakmasters. There was a range of the vans, from the small Perentie, up to the large ones. They were on the annual E-W trek, from Byron Bay in NSW, to Steep Point in WA, where they would be by July 4, so they would not be stopping for long, anywhere!

Clones….

There were a few other campers, and vans on power, and some scattered more widely over the large area, away from power, including a Bushtracker van. The more distant reaches of the area were criss crossed by vehicle tracks in dried mud – guess it rained over Easter here, too. There were odd cabins/small houses, and row of backpacker cabins. Presumably, most of these structures were originally station worker accommodation.

We did not have many options about where to park. There was a powered site, very exposed, close to a traffic route, next to a Trakkie van, just dirt and a power pole. Or we could have one away from the herd, next to a fence around an (empty) cottage. This had a little fire ring and a small clump of saplings, and we chose it – pronto! Our power and water connections were on the side of the cottage. We had no threat of ultra close neighbours. Not that we are anti-social, just…….?

The anti-social Trakmaster…

The amenity block, though a bit rough, like the rest of the place, was clean. An effort had been made to pretty up inside the Ladies, with flowers.

We set up, being thankful that our power lead and water hose were loooong.

I had a brief chat with a couple of the Trakkie people, mostly about the brand. Because the annual trek was escorted by experienced leaders, those new to inland, outback and rough road travel could learn with a degree of security. Others just enjoyed the group camaraderie.

An opal miner – T – came by, with a couple of dogs. He told me he was born 100kms from here and had lived all his life in the area. He had been a permanent dweller here for twelve years and lived in a small house on the other side of the camp area. He showed us a small jar of opal pieces – it was the usual act of making a beeline for the new arrivals! He let us know – fairly subtly – that he sold opals. I had noticed a sign up in the office saying that no responsibility was taken for opals NOT bought at the office! Fairly pointed, I thought. Buyer be very beware. He did offer to show John how to clean up opal chips, tomorrow, so John might go learn how to do that. He would probably have to withstand another sales pitch, though – at which he isn’t all that good where opal is concerned. T was very talkative. I hoped he didn’t get to be a pest, as can sometimes happen.

We drove back into town. Naturally, the Defender made a beeline for the Bowls Club, where John arranged to play on Sunday, in association with a Mothers Day meal. So that was BOTH of us to play – and in formal uniform too. Just what I always wanted on Mothers Day – not!

On the drive back, we collected some wood. John lit a fire and we had our happy hour by our fire ring.

Although this was a commercial camping operation, it did have some of the feel of being camped in the bush. I had decided already that I liked Lightning Ridge and liked being out here.

As far as John was concerned it WAS the bush as there was only one or two bars on our phone and no internet. He had erected the TV aerial on its usual pole at the front of the van, but just to get it out of the way – there was no TV.

I made vegie patties for tea. John did not like the idea of these at all – the clue was in the word vegie! But I noticed that he did go back for seconds.

The night got down to about 5 degrees – much better than where we had been.


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2009 Travels May 7

THURSDAY 7 MAY     COONABARABRAN

It was a one degree night. The new heater was much appreciated in the morning – turned it on and scurried back to bed to let the van warm up before venturing out again.

Got going, complete with sandwiches for lunch, mid-morning.

A local attraction was the Newcastle Hats factory and shop, out in the industrial area. It was heartening to find this type of industry in a country town. We supported it by buying John  a new hat for bowls, in a style he had wanted for a while, but which wasn’t available in his local bowls shop. It was very reasonably priced. I bought a pretty, pale blue, soft cotton hat, with a fairly narrow brim, for $6.

My “to do” list had, for years, included exploring the Pilliga Scrub, and that was today’s plan.

The Pilliga is the largest inland native forest in NSW, and really significant in terms of its biodiversity. For a long time, it was logged for cypress pine and ironbark, but that ceased in more recent years. That history meant that many tracks criss-cross the area and several tourist drives had been created using such tracks. They would be major fire trails too, as the Scrub is prone to nasty bushfires.

We drove out towards Baradine, on a sealed road, then turned right and onto dirt tracks to drive the Butlers Lane Bird Route, a circular drive that eventually brought us back to the Baradine road.

Track in the Pilliga Scrub

It was a stop-start drive, as we went for short wanders, looking for birds. Did not see as many as we’d hoped – it was so dry – but did spot a “new” honeyeater, the yellow tufted honeyeater, which is a variant of the helmeted honeyeater, a special local bird of our area at home.

Although light on birds, the forest itself was interesting, with black and white cypress pines, different eucalypts. It would be wonderful to see after a decent rain spell, and in spring.

We had lunch by a small creek, partway round the circuit. It was a very pleasant few hours in the bush, during which we saw no other vehicles.

Back onto the bitumen and to Baradine, to look at their new Forest Information Centre. This was an impressive structure, featuring interior pole uprights of the local timber, and with interesting displays. We were the only ones there, and we spent over an hour browsing.

From Baradine, took the unsealed No 1 Break Track, due east, to the Newell Highway 51kms north of Coonabarabran, and thence back to town. That took us through more of the Pilliga Scrub country, as well as through farmland closer to Baradine.

Then we did a sizeable shop, not being sure of the shopping facilities where we were going, but certain that goods would be more expensive there.

I phoned and booked us into the camping ground at Lorne Station, Lightning Ridge, for a week from tomorrow. This would be a totally new area for us to explore and I assumed we would need at least that long there. From perusal of tourist information, and snippets  previously stored away in my mind from articles and online material, I thought Lorne sounded more interesting and perhaps a slightly higher standard than the available options in town, at that time.

Not exactly crowded out by neighbours, here…..

Bought fish and chips for tea, not planning to be near a take away tomorrow night. The flake was the worst I had ever had – wafer thin, yet really tough, soggy batter.

While we were occupied on our laptops, after tea, there was a really loud bang, from outside, but close. We thought a bird or bat might have flown into the van, but a quick look around, in the dark, didn’t show any distressed critter. Things do go thump in the night, sometimes.