This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.

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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.