This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.

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2015 Travels August 4


The Grawin is the name given to a series of opal fields some 70kms west of Lightning Ridge by road. They were mostly developed slightly later than the fields around the Ridge.

There are actually four general opal fields of The Grawin, though each has localities within it: the Grawin and Glengarry which have been mined almost as long as Lightning Ridge; Sheepyard which dates from about 1985 and is the most southerly; and Mulga Rush, the newest, dating from 1999. The best of the black opal is found out there. One piece, about the size of a fist, was named “The Light of the World”.

Some say that the Grawin area is like Lightning Ridge used to be, back in the “old days”. That comment is usually made quite nostalgically.

There are three drinking establishments at the Grawin fields: the Club in the Scrub, which is adjacent to the very rough golf course, hence the “Club”. There is the Glengarry Hilton, ironically named. The Sheepyard Inn is the most distant of the three.

There is a small general store, of sorts, at the Grawin. And that’s about it – apart from lots of holes in the ground, many miner’s camps which are mostly ramshackle affairs, some very large dumps of waste dirt from the mining process, and a maze of tracks connecting the camps and diggings. There are none of the modern amenities or services of Lightning Ridge – nor any formal law enforcers – and it seems that those who live out here like it that way.

We headed out of town to the highway. Stopped at the highway corner to inspect the tarted-up “agi” that is the feature of the welcome signs. An agi is an old cement mixer, used to wash the opal dirt and so make separating out any opal bearing rock easier. There are lots of these on the fields.

Noticed a little informal memorial around the back. Very much Lightning Ridge style…


It was only a few kms down the highway to our next stop – Stanley the emu. This is a very large sculpted emu, the creation of artist John Murray, whose gallery is in town and whose iconic works often features stylized emus. Stanley is a true creature of Lightning Ridge, being crafted from “stuff” found about the place, including car doors.

Over the road from Stanley is the modern rest stop and free camping area.

Rest stop and free camp area

Then we turned onto the Cumborah road. The country was quite green, the dams were full, and there was quite a bit of surface water lying around. Someone had earlier told us that the green of the country was deceptive – that some earlier rain had caused the weeds to grow and there was not a great deal of proper feed yet – in that sense, the drought is still on.

By one stock grid was a sign saying “farmed goats” – presumably to stop some people thinking the goats were feral, and shooting them. Could see the any tree foliage in the goat paddocks was cut off  in a neat, dead-straight line, at about reaching height for a goat.

Travelled through a variety of landscapes: grazing land, crop land, cypress pine woodland, mulga country. It is a varied and interesting drive.

Cumborah village appeared a battling little township that consisted of some occupied houses and a few farm related services. We turned to the north here and some 13kms later came to the turnoff to the Grawin. The sealed road ended at this point.

A few kms along the dirt road we turned off to follow a track through the golf course to the Club in the Scrub.

Golf course at the Grawin

Browsed about in the building, reading  notices and looking at old photos.

The Club in the Scrub

John saw a man leaving with a box of freshly cooked chips that smelled great, so we ordered a $6 box. Lunch! I paid $10 for a laminated mud map of the fields, produced by a local guy called Duck. The man behind the bar was careful to tell me that the route it showed through the fields was not accurate, that some left turns should be right ones. I couldn’t quite follow his explanation, but figured that any map was better than none. According to the GPS unit in the Terios, we were driving through featureless paddocks out here!

On the Grawin weather rock

While we waited for our chips, watched a handful of local ladies playing bingo.

Sign points to the through road

A noticeable feature of some claims beside the track through the Grawin was the vacuum pumps positioned above the shafts – to suck up the dirt from below, as opposed to loading it onto some sort of hoisting machine. High tech on the fields!

We stopped at the big waste dumps at Mulga Rush.

Mulga Rush dump heaps

Only dump trucks allowed up there

John walked up to have a bit of a fossick on the heaps up top. I took Couey for a short walk, complete with muzzle, which she hates, but one doesn’t know what might be around out here.

View from the top

Then she went back into the car and I walked up to the top of the current dump and took some photos.

Noodling on the dumps

There were a few other people – all tourists, I think – scrabbling around up there, too. John did not stay long.

Roads every which way

We drove on towards Sheepyard Flat and stopped at the War Memorial on the way.

War Memorial

It was really well done – just in the scrub, overlooking a small lake which was probably once a washing dam.

The Memorial commemorates all of the conflicts that Australians have fought in.

Continued on to the Sheepyard Inn. This has made itself into rather a commemorative place for Vietnam War veterans. The emphasis on this suggested that a number of vets have fetched up in the mining camps of the area. Inside what is essentially a large shed, there are several large whiteboards where visiting vets record their names and numbers. There was a surprisingly large number of such records posted.

Sheepyard Inn

Having stopped there, we felt the need to patronize the place. John had a beer. I bought a can of Coke and wandered about, taking photos.

Sheepyard Flats

The area was an absolute maze of tracks.

The density of claims and shacks on them, in this area, was quite high.

Some of the vehicles we saw being driven around the tracks here were testament to a relaxed attitude to some laws, in these parts. Roadworthiness or registration were not always a priority, it seemed.

A sign at a track corner “Cars with brakes give way” may well have been intended as more serious than just a joke.

Cars with brakes give way…

We got lost after leaving Sheepyard. Turned left when should have turned right. After about ten minutes driving, realized we were out of the mining area and heading south. U-turned and got ourselves onto the right track after an unintended tour of downtown Sheepyard. There were some mean gutters and ditches across the tracks around Sheepyard. Guess it kept speeds down.

When we were driving through these fields, they all appear flat but they, in fact, follow a long, low, shallow ridge.

We did not go into the Glengarry Hilton. A number of day trippers have lunch there, but we’d had our chips earlier. I was now going to take the sandwiches I’d made for lunch, back to the Bus, to toast for tea.

Back on our 2013 trip here, we had gone out to the Grawin several times for John to fossick on the dumps. Little appeared to have changed in the intervening time. It was still an interesting day out and one I would do again, on any future trip, just because there is so much to look at, and it is so unique.

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2015 Travels August 3


Whilst John was browsing the main stall in the inside building at Opal Fest, he spied two familiar faces at one stall. He waited until they had no customers, then approached and asked if they were still mining at Opalton and if they remembered him – from about five years back? They said he seemed familiar, and they chatted for a while.

John’s sense of time passing is not the greatest. It was actually fifteen years ago that we had encountered these two. Guess time flies when you are living an interesting life!

Back in 2000, when we were still travelling full time, heading NW in Qld, we fetched up in Winton. On an exploring drive, came across Opalton, some 120kms of dirt road to the south. About a hundred years before, it had been the humming centre of a big opal rush. When interest in opal waned, in the twentieth century, Opalton became almost a ghost settlement. What buildings there had been crumbled away.

Opalton historic area

But in recent times, there had been a resurgence of interest in mining the distinctive boulder opal that is found in the area. The section of the old diggings where there were lots of mullock heaps, was declared a fossicking area – only to be explored with hand tools. The old shafts in there had filled with water.

When we came across Opalton, there was a store of sorts, called The Outpost, a telephone box, and a rough camping area by the mullock heaps, being caretaken by an elderly pair of fossickers. We loved the area and the atmosphere of the camp and so decided to move the van out there for a week or two.

Opalton Bush Camp

In preparation, John, who had seen a dam and creek in the area, was in the Winton butchers. When he asked if the butcher had any scraps he could use for yabby bait, another customer – a rather glamorous lady – asked where he was going yabbying. He replied “Opalton”. She told him that she and her partner had a claim out that way, at Debbil Debbil. John arranged with her to visit them at the claim while they were camped out there, and that visit duly happened.

Open cut opal mining at Debbil Debbil

We spent a great afternoon with L and J, at their camp and claim. Watched how they were open cut mining, and learned to use a wire to divine for fault lines in the rock, with which opal was often associated. At their camp, saw a huge piece of boulder opal that the miner who shared their camp had found that afternoon – worth upwards of $35,000, he thought.

Divining for faults

That was only the second season on the claim for L and J. They hadn’t done any mining to speak of, before coming out here. The season extended over the cooler months. In summer, it was too hot and water was too limited so they retreated back to their home on the coast.

To date, they had not found any opal, but were hopeful still, We thought it was damned hard work for no return.

A year or two later, we heard that they were still digging at Debbil Debbil, but still had not found opal. Occasionally after that, we wondered what had become of them.

The semi-arid country around Opalton

Here they were! With a great stall, selling Queensland boulder opal, much of which they had mined themselves. There was also some very nice jewellery featuring same, which they designed and had made up for them. As with the best opal jewellery in Lightning Ridge, the stone was cut to bring out its best, then the setting designed for just that stone.

They told us that they still had some claims in the Opalton area, which they would dig at some future date, but were currently mining some 100kms west of Winton, off the Boulia road. They still spent only the winter months at their claims, then took their finds back to their Gold Coast base, where they cut and rubbed them and did the jewellery design, plus attending markets all over the place.

The boulder opal stall of our friends. Unusual boulder opal occurrence in rock

They were set up at a caravan park in town that had seemed convenient for the Fest, but were not happy there. They did not like it that some locals – non-campers – kept coming in, wandering around, using the amenities, leaving a mess, then begging users of the laundry for money to wash their clothes.

After they had packed up, on the Sunday afternoon, they came out to visit us at our park, and then immediately booked themselves into a site here for next year’s Opal Fest time.

We spent several hours over afternoon tea that turned into Happy Hour, over drinks and nibbles. L and J relaxed after the long hours spent at the stall. They were happy with the event, obviously, since they planned to return in 2016. It was a brief respite for them as they had to leave early the next morning to go back to the Gold Coast for a big opal Expo there.

The Queensland boulder opal is quite different from the classic opal of places like Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy. Here, the best opal is found in seams that are thick enough for solid opal to be cut and shaped. The Queensland boulder opal colour occurs in ironstone and can’t really be separated from it. The best boulder opal stones have the opal surface on top of the sandstone base, but other stones just have the opal flashes in the ironstone – small flashes of absolutely brilliant colour, in amongst the brown of the parent rock. There can be wonderful variety of colours, too, in boulder opal. In many ways, I prefer it to the usual opal.

Boulder opal ring

L and J have a website that features their boulder opals at:  This tells their story, gives information about opal, and features some of their product.

It was great to see these two again – and to know that their efforts and patience finally were rewarded.

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2015 Travels July 31


Opal Fest is held in Lightning Ridge every year. Every second year this is combined with the International Opal Jewellery Design Awards and it becomes a really big event. There is always a gala Ball held featuring that year’s Opal Queen.

To quote from the promotional material: “Jewellers, buyers, wholesalers, miners, rock hounds, lapidary enthusiasts and tourists are invited to experience the best Lightning Ridge has to offer with this culmination of information, spectacular jewellery, collectibles, great deals and fantastic networking opportunities.

The LR Opal Festival boasts over 150 stalls with a huge range of products including gemstones, tools, lapidary supplies and lifestyle products.”

Caravan park still a bit damp

The setting up for this year’s event began on Wednesday 29 July. Exhibitors and stallholders dismantled their wares on the afternoon of Sunday 31 July.

There were three sections of stall holders/exhibitors. Upstairs in the Bowling Club building was the exhibition section associated with the Design Awards. A $5 entry fee was charged to go look at these exhibitions, which included an opal with a price tag of $500,000. Yes, a cool half million dollars.

Downstairs is the large, undercover, beer garden section of the Club. There were over a hundred stalls set up here, selling opal, jewellery, specimen pieces, tools associated with opal cutting and jewellery making. There were also stalls with things like preserves and fudges.

Outside, along the wall by the beer garden entry were more opal sellers and food stalls.

Across the road in a large yard area was a section that was more the style of the Sunday markets, with a variety of stalls, perhaps best described as the lower end of the price scale.

After the set up on Wednesday, the whole shebang opened on Thursday. This was the day when the big buyers, mostly from overseas, swooped and did their buying. We were told that there is increased Chinese interest in opal, now.

Friday night saw the Design Awards Gala Dinner – $100 per person, dress formal. Not quite our scene! We were told later that a special feature of this year’s dinner was the presentation to Len Cram of the OAM he had been awarded for services to the opal industry.

Saturday night the Opal Queen Ball was held. $25 a ticket. Dress – black tie. Again – not of interest to us. The prizes for the lady chosen as the 2015 Opal Queen were certainly worthwhile and in keeping with her role as an ambassador for the opal industry at events like the Australian Opal Exhibition on the Gold Coast, and the Black Opal Racing Carnival in Canberra.

We went to the Bowls Club area on Wednesday, to have a look at the setting up and browse the stalls already in place in the outdoor market area. John spent some time at a large stall of tools. Not opal related, just general tools. He bought a tyre fitting that he thought would make it easier to access the inner Bus wheels to check air pressure and inflate them. I was surprised at the extent of stalls of clothing and the like. It is obviously worth their while to come a considerable distance, as many of these were not local. Must be more money in that sort of thing than I thought. Maybe the locals stock up at this annual event?

Bruno’s Pizza – a local café – had a van set up, selling woodfired pizzas. Another van was selling curly chips – something new to me.

John went to Opal Fest on Thursday for several hours. He came back quite awed by the upstairs, quality, exhibits in particular. He had seen the half million dollar opal – displayed by my favourite opal gallery in town, which sells only opals the family dig up themselves.

I found out that the single lady in the caravan on the next site to us was here assisting her sister – in the caravan beyond that – who had a stall at the Fest. Sister made and was selling dichroic glass jewellery. Over the four days they did quite well, it seemed.

John went back for another look around on the Friday and had a very pleasant surprise encounter, which I will explain in a later entry.

Stanley the Emu welcomes visitors to Lightning Ridge

By the weekend, the park was totally packed. All normal sites were full as was the unpowered dirt and gravel section. There were lots of campers set up in the “bush” section. The performers at Happy Hour – in a grassed area by the camp kitchen – were really attracting a good crowd. The place was humming and the atmosphere in general was a festive one.

John persuaded me to go back to Opal Fest on Saturday for a final look around. The local “football” match was at home so there were crowds of locals at the sports ground adjacent to the Bowls Club. This made parking even more chaotic than usual.

As we wandered the stalls in the undercover area, I noticed that the Aracic family had a stall featuring the books written by Steve Aracic about opals in Australia and opal mining. We had a couple of his excellent books at home.

A stall that caught my attention was that of Mudgeeraba Chutneys. A long way from their Gold Coast base…They had an extensive range of Indian style chutneys and a tasting set up. I succumbed, and after tasting some, bought three bottles of different chutneys. I received a recipe leaflet for an eggplant dip, that they served up in a pappadum crisp with a dollop of their chutney on top. Was really yummy and would make a great “nibbly” to pass around with drinks. I love eggplant, though John does not share that taste.

From what we heard about the place, the 2015 Opal Fest was a great success. We certainly found it interesting. It is a good time for tourists to visit the Ridge – providing they have booked their accommodation in advance … well in advance.


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2015 Travels July 26


Every Sunday morning the markets are held in an area beside the Visitor Information Centre.

By the time the stalls have set up, along both sides of an old paved road area, there is not much parking space left for customers, so cars tend to park alongside both sides of the main road, fairly haphazardly. If an event like this was held at home, there would have to be traffic control units and marshals wearing high-vis gear. It is quite refreshing in a funny sort of way, to have to just fend for oneself, without the intrusions of the nanny state.

Sunday Markets in full swing

The main focus of the stalls is, of course, opal. Some of the stall holders are miners who offer material they have found themselves, usually in the rough as found, or as “rubs”, where just enough potch and surrounding material has been taken off to give some idea of the opal colour within. Some material is as loose pieces – usually the better quality stuff. Some is filled into bottles and jars and sold as bulk. This latter can be quite tempting, because there may be a couple of really attractive looking bits, in amongst a whole lot of not so good pieces.

Other opal stalls are maintained by those who are middle men – they buy from miners who can’t be bothered selling what they mine, or who are desperate for a cash flow. Some have a mix of their own and others’ material. Generally, there has been a sort of natural filtering effect here, in that these middle men have purchased only stones they think they can profit from, so their offerings are fair quality. But one usually pays more for this, too.

Typical stalls

Then, there are some opal jewellery stalls. Given the general nature of such markets, with cheap overheads, the product here tends to be opal cut to be fitted into pre-cast settings. Often it is doublet or triplet (not solid opal) which is cheap enough to appeal to market patrons – tourists who think they are getting a bargain, and those who do not know that not all “opal” is the same. Some of these stalls do not show on their labelling what is doublet, triplet or solid, and if you do not know to ask, or check for yourself, will not tell you. By comparison, most of the gallery shops in town have signs in their display cases saying what is contained within, or in some cases, state that they sell solid opal only.

Solid opal is, an indicated, a piece of solid stone with opal flashing colour within. There is a grading system for the base or background colour of opal, ranging from the really dark “black” of the best Lightning Ridge opal, through a whole gradation, to the milky white background colour of Coober Pedy opal. The Lightning Ridge black opal is regarded as the best opal and is the most valuable.

A doublet opal is where a thin piece of opal is mounted on top of an uncoloured piece of potch/stone. A triplet contains an even thinner shaving of opal, sandwiched between a dark stone background and a clear cover – quartz or plastic. These are layman’s definitions, not technical ones. As these contain less opal, they are less valuable. A rule of thumb we were told, this trip, was that a doublet stone is about ten percent of the value of a solid of similar size and colour; a triplet about four per cent.

Down there is my favourite cake stall…

Unlike gemstones such as diamonds, sapphires etc, which are uniform enough within themselves to be faceted to a geometric shape, each piece of opal is different. Its best presentation is where the stone is shaped to bring out the colour show. Where opal is cut to fit the cheaper, pre-cast settings, the true colour may not be best brought out. So, often, it is not the best opal that is used for such jewellery. As with most things, one pays a premium for quality – of both stone and setting.

Most of the opal galleries in the town are not represented at the markets.

In amongst the opal stalls are a variety of others. There was a good second-hand book stall, where the books were arranged by author, rather than at random. A few stalls sell an array of used goods – everything from second-hand solar panels to rusty metal of indeterminate purpose. There are the usual market type stalls selling sarong style clothing, knotted scarves, baby booties and the like. One extensive stall sold fresh fruit and vegies – both good quality and good value, I thought. There were a couple of preserves stalls – jams, sauces and chutneys. I saw a plant seller too.

Market stalls with main road across to the left

My favourite stall was that of a lady who sold cakes, slices and the best boiled fruit cake – by the half or whole cake. We gladly parted with $6.50 for a half cake that was so yummy.

On our first Sunday in town, we went to the markets. I wanted to buy cake, John wanted to be tempted by bottles of opal. We came home with cake, some very nice truss tomatoes and other assorted vegetable matter – about which John could not get excited. There was a small jar of chutney to flavour that night’s pork loin roast dinner. It was a good morning’s work, because our loot consisted of what was needed, not multiple impulse purchases of local stone.

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2015 Travels May 18


The morning was blue sky, warm, sunny, some high cloud. Last night had been warm – almost too hot to have the doona on.

I really appreciated the wonderful shower in our en-suite and not having to do battle with a flappy shower curtain. Pretty roomy space as these things go, too. Given the contortions needed to go through getting a waterproof covering onto my bandaged leg, that was a bonus.

Our neighbours of the disgruntlement, who moved in the day before yesterday, have to move again. Their third move within the park! Their friends who were on the other side of us were a day late arriving, so they thought the friends were not coming and cancelled a day of the planned stay. Now, of course, they want that day back but too late, the en-suite has been booked on, so it is musical sites. Now they are even more disgruntled… Of course, it is not their fault, but that of park management, who should have been able to meet their several changes of plans, or maybe even have been able to read their minds and predict the future.

Our next lot of new neighbours came in later in the day. They have friends on the site adjacent to them – much better organized and much better communications.

Apart from dog exercise, we lazed about in the morning. Well, John slept in for much of it.

After lunch, went off to be tourists for a little while.

Plenty of opal mining areas to be toured…

First, drove out the road past Ando’s claim and went out to Lorne Station, where we stayed in their caravan and camp area when here in 2009. We just went up the drive to the Reception/Camp Manager’s cottage area, turned around and drove out again. It did not look to have changed any. Before coming up here this time, we had debated between staying at Lorne, with its “bush” ambience, or trying out the Opal for the first time. I was pleased we’d chosen the Opal.

Then took the Green Door tour route.

The four self-drive tours around Lightning Ridge and its vicinity are marked by painted old car doors – great way to recycle junk. These doors both show the way through what is often a maze of small tracks, and mark features of note, which were explained in the notes I had purchased.

The main point of the Green Tour was to go to the area where opal mining first began here, on an area called Ironstone Ridge. It may be that this formation does attract lightning strikes? The  story is that the place gained its name back in the 1870’s, decades before opal was found; the area was used for grazing, when travellers passing through found the bodies of a farmer, his dog and a couple of hundred sheep that had been incinerated by lightning.

We drove back out the main road towards the highway, then turned north at the first green sign. The narrow, winding, semi-rough track followed a low ridge through the Ironstone Ridge area, to Nettleton’s first shaft.

Along the way we noted various claims and camps and the wild orange tree, that is regarded as a signal for likely opal below. The roots of this tree go deep along fault lines and it is along faults that opal may have formed.

Wild orange tree – sign of possible opal below

Around Lightning Ridge, opal is mostly found on low ridges that were once river and creek beds. So the ridges wander around. Back then, there was a lot of silica in the silt of these waterways, which eventually formed into opal. Over time, the surrounding country has weathered down, leaving the low ridges exposed, with opal underlying them in parts.

When opal mining began here in the early 1900’s, if a miner sank a shaft – all done by hand with pick and shovel – and it did not bottom on opal, he abandoned it and went and dug a new one. There was no tunnelling outwards, as happens now.

The Ironstone Ridge opal field

From the vantage point at Nettleton’s Lookout one looks across the flat black soil plains towards the newer Coocoran fields to the northwest. They are not really visible though. I had an idea they were not on ridges like around the Ridge, but maybe more on flattish sedimentary country, like out at the Grawin fields to the west.

Outlook to the flat plains of the west

A large rock carried an inscription/explanation of the role of Charles Nettleton in the start of the black opal mining industry here. Nettleton had been a gold miner and was travelling through the area, when some people he was camped with picked up some fiery black stones and showed him. Seems he wasn’t really sure what they were, but his miner’s interest was aroused and…

Black opal is so called because the background is dark, not necessarily black. It is the most valuable and prized of the several varieties of opal, and the Lightning Ridge area is the main world source of it.

Nettleton’s original shaft

Apparently there is now some debate about the actual formation of opal, and it may not have been the same in all places. That could be something to research at home? Len Cram wrote that there were at least four different ways that opal formed, that he knows of.

Apart from the early Nettleton’s shaft, fenced off, with its memorial and inscription, there were lots of shaft holes all around this area. Some of them looked pretty recently worked.

Not a place to wander about on a dark night…

Perhaps newer technology and methods make some of the old areas still worth mining? Whilst wandering about, I found two claim markers made by a man whose address was not far from us at home. They were only pegged in the past couple of years. Wonder if Ando knows him?

There was a “house” out there built from cans and bottles. It was not lived in, but open to look in and had a Visitors Book to sign. The empty beer cans make solid walls; the empty wine and beer bottles, set lying down, make a form of stained glass window. I guess it was a project for someone, who may have really enjoyed the provision of the raw materials? Probably not very practical  building materials though – hot inside all that metal in summer?

Re-purposing is a way of life on opal fields…

A man and dog came walking up the rise from the flats below; he lived on a claim just down the track from the lookout. We had passed signs by the track for opal sales, psychic readings, and “visit the milkman” – the significance of that was lost on me. We chatted briefly.

Retraced the route back to town. The Green Tour route was only a few kms.

Went to the PO to see if our forwarded mail was in yet. Queued for ages. There was one man at the counter, giving advice to a couple who were mailing something and needed help. He dithered about for at least fifteen minutes with them. The other two visible staff were vacuum cleaning and passing back and forth from a back room, but not serving. Eventually, when the queue had grown to several people, one deigned to come to the counter. She told us the parcel pickup was at another location. It would have been useful if the PO had a sign or notice to that effect displayed somewhere. Bloody poor service.

Drove to the parcel pickup place, a couple of blocks away. No mail parcel. Staff said that an Express Mail parcel, sent from Vic late last week, would not get here until at least tomorrow, and probably Wednesday. Wonder how long an ordinary parcel would take?

Back to camp.

This park was so busy. I was not surprised, because of its high standard. The word must get around. The new arrivals started coming in about 10am – from other places in town? Or from the free camp out on the highway? From early afternoon until after 4pm, there were queues at the check in. The drive in lane dedicated to those booking in could take about four or five rigs, but sometimes there were another four or five out in the road. All the powered sites always seemed to be full by night.

Cloud came in later in the afternoon. Looked like there might be a storm brewing, but it dissipated.

Tea was sausages (nice ones from our freezer), mash, wombok coleslaw.

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2009 Travels May 16


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 9


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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2002 Travels May 13


I did the washing.

Did a stock up of food at the supermarket and butcher, as we did not expect to be in a town area again for a while. This included getting some meat to freeze – have to trust the fridge again, sometime, and it seemed to be behaving itself again.

Visited the main opal shop in town. John showed the man there the opal we’d collected at Leopardwood – and was promptly offered $1200 for it! We were stunned. Obviously, we’d done significantly better than we thought. However, decided that, if the offer was $1200, it was probably worth more and thus we decided to keep it all. But John did buy a jar of opal pieces there, to add to the collection.

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2001 Travels October 3


We slept in somewhat. It was too chilly to get up early!

Spent the bulk of the day browsing around White Cliffs. We had been here before, on another school holiday trip. We liked it before, and that was enough reason to detour this way, this time.

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White Cliffs from one of the opal mining ridges

Opal was discovered here in the 1880’s and it became the world’s first commercial opal field. The opal was found in seams and veins that made mining it relatively straightforward. The opal from here features colour flashes in a milky pale background – so it is “white” opal, compared to the “black” opal of Lightning Ridge, to the north east.

The mining here peaked in the early 1900’s, and so too did the size of the township. Although the population has shrunk, it is still a viable small township, and opal mining still continues. It is a spread out place, where mining has occurred on several low hills that surround the centre. The name was due to the white chalky hillsides of the opal bearing areas.

Because of the extremes of temperature here, many people live in dugouts in the hillsides, which maintain an even, pleasant temperature.

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An area of dugout homes cut into the side of the ridge

When we were here last, we got to know a German lady, Barbara Gasch,  who ran a gallery here. She was a master gold and silver smith and did beautiful work featuring opal she and her partner had found. The dugout gallery was adjacent to their dugout home, which she’d showed us round. We’d loved the skylight set into the dugout “roof”, where they could lie in bed and look up at the stars at night.

This time, her gallery was not open and it looked rather as if they may have moved on. I was disappointed, as I’d looked forward to catching up with them again.

We drove out and around some of the diggings areas. Had a bit of a noodle on some mullock heaps, where it did not look as though there was anyone around, or freshly mining, to care about what we were doing. However, we were aware that we may have been on someone’s current claim, so did not stay long at that.

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In one of the opal mining areas of White Cliffs

We drove a little way east out the gravel Mandalay road, where, last trip, we used to ride the bikes out. It was much easier in Truck!

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Typical country surrounding White Cliffs

It was another cold night.

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Dusk over the mining ridge at White Cliffs

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1999 Travels May 30


John wanted to drive out to Mintabie, today. This is an opal mining settlement, some 33kms west of Marla. It is little-known, compared to places like Coober Pedy or White Cliffs, but actually produces extremely high quality dark opal.

John loves these mining settlements, and he also thought he might be able to buy some opal from miners out there.

From what we’d read, a permit was needed to go to Mintabie, because it is on aboriginal lands, but they told us in the Marla Roadhouse that due to some sort of administrative hiccup, no one has bothered, for months, about getting permits to go out there, so we didn’t either.

I was really pleased to find I could buy both the Weekend Australian and the Melbourne Age newspapers here – what a luxury!

It was a pleasant drive, on a dirt road, out to Mintabie. We crossed the “new” Ghan train line, soon after turning off the highway. The country was almost flat, and scrubby. Could tell we were approaching Mintabie, by the appearance of white hills in the distance – the huge dump heaps from mining.

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The white dump heaps of Mintabie in the distance

The Mintabie diggings were quite extensive, stretching for kms along a low ridge line. They use machinery, seeming to dig shafts into the sides of deep bulldozed pits.

05-30-1999 at Mintabie opal fields

White dumped material from opal mining contrasts with surrounding red hills

We encountered a man driving an opal mining machine, as we cruised around town, trying to work the place out, and John got out and stopped him. He showed John some opal, but did not want to sell any.

The settlement is small – general store, pub, school, caravan park – which does not look too bad. Had John known that was here, he would probably have insisted we brought the van out! There was the general air of scruffiness that we have found in other mining camp townships, where the land is basically leased. Lots of derelict and old cars around. Stone shacks, a few more substantial. The hotel was built from stone. The store was a large building.

There were several aboriginal women sitting about outside the store; they looked rather derelict and spaced out. Apparently, they were trying to get money from the shopkeeper – there is a bank agency in the shop. He told one that she’d had $200 only yesterday. I don’t know whether the issue was that there was no more money in the account, or whether he felt she would be better off without another big lot of cash to drink away or have taken off her.

John obtained directions from the store keeper to find someone who might sell him some opal. We have no map of the township, of course. I doubt one exists. Because it is not a place that tourists normally visit, there is no such thing as an information centre. Likewise, there is no place for the amateur visitor to fossick about for opal themselves.

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An opal mining machine on the outskirts of Mintabie

After much difficulty in the maze of tracks that is Mintabie, we found the place the storekeeper meant. And there John was enlightened! The local miners sell only to professional buyers and do not worry about the occasional tourist, because the opal is such high quality that batches begin at $10,000 and go to over a million. That was the end of that idea!

We drove around a bit more and found a place to eat our packed lunch. Saw a nankeen kestrel. Then went back to Marla.

Spent the rest of the afternoon reading the papers and having a cook up – a batch of barley and vegie soup, rock cakes, and some tuna and rice patties for tea – they were alright but needed spicing up somehow. Chilli sauce helped.

The caravan park was chaotically busy again this afternoon, but with a fresh set of travellers.

There was a full moon at night, but it seemed unusually small.