The town of Bourke was bathed in brilliant early morning sunshine but was still quite cold as I went for a walk around the town. It’s great to obtain these little snapshots into the past and present of the thousands of little towns that dot small populations of people right across this huge country. Walking the town is a good way to do this as it allows us to see the information boards of historic places as well as get a “street view” of everyday life.
Many times I find myself wondering how some of the businesses in these towns survive but they do – and some of them very well.
This town used to be a major port. The Darling River runs through the town and a stream of paddle steamers would collect wool and grain from the farms that lined the river and ship it to Bourke from where it would be transported to Adelaide and Melbourne.
An interesting observation was a photograph of activity at the port in 1860 which shows the level of the river exactly the same as it is now – so much for all the propaganda about how we have destroyed the Murray Darling river systems and how we need multiple billions of dollars of taxpayer’s money to make it right.
It also seems that the farms that take irrigation from the river have not changed the level in over 100 years. The age old cycle of dry and wet that is the signature of this country still seems to confuse boffins and self styled “experts”.
There were once 3 wharves in the central area of town, each one with a steam crane to unload the produce from the river boats.
We commenced or journey about mid morning, again captivated by the ever changing landscape, and wound our way through Brewarrina and then Walgett.
We found it sad to see a lot of shops and businesses with boarded and barred windows and wondered what makes some inhabitants of these towns have so little respect for their surroundings.
Eventually we arrived in Lightning Ridge and after a quick drive around the town headed for the Opal Caravan Park where we would base ourselves for the next couple of days.
We then took a couple of self drive “Car Door” tours around the town.
These are routes marked by car doors, each one with a number denoting a place of interest. There’s a blue, green, red and yellow tour. One tour took us to The Big Opal where we descended deep into the shaft of a working opal mine. We were able to explore the many shafts and tunnels on our own and we could see the immense amount of work that went into digging opal out of the ground here.
It was fascinating to be 30 feet below the surface in a cacoon of ancient sediment that would have once been a sea bed alive with living creatures. Little cracks and voids formed in this sediment by natural faults or decomposing fossils after whatever cataclysmic disruption took place to bury it and remove the sea forever. These little pockets produced opal from a solution of silicon dioxide and water. The water ran down through the earth and picked up silica from sandstone, and then carried this silica-rich solution into the cracks and voids. As the water evaporated, it left behind a silica deposit which eventually formed the precious Black Opal that Lightning Ridge is famous for.
The fascinating “Lunatic Hill” was another stop we made and friendly local was happy to chat to us and give us the history of this place and huge hole that we were looking over.
In the late 1800’s this hill was not mined. Opal was being extracted from mines much nearer ground level and the locals knew that much more digging would need to be done to get from the top of the hill to where the pockets of opal lay. However in the 1930’s some miners tried and they were hence known as Bloody Lunatics. The hill did in fact reward many of those who mined it even though much more work was required. In the 1960’s the hill became unsafe for mines. There were three miners still holding leases at the time so they pooled their leases together and got the mines department to give them an open cut license. The license required a 5000 pound deposit from each miner for repatriation work after the mine was finished with.
These three characters ended up taking $100,000,000 dollars worth of opal from the open cut and into the bargain found the Halley’s Comet Opal, the largest uncut black opal in the world. It is so named because it was unearthed in 1986, a year when Halley’s Comet could be seen from Earth. It is the third largest gem grade black opal ever recorded, the largest one extant, and the largest specimen ever found in its region.
We took a 100 kilometre drive out to Glengarry where we heard we could fossick or “noodle” for opal. There are three pubs out here in the absolute middle of nowhere, the Glengarry Hilton, The Sheepyard and the Garwin Opal Miners Club.
We loved driving around the rough dirt roads that crisscross the area, and taking in the extraordinary collection of humpys and all manner of weird and wonderful structures built to house the hardy souls that were there for one reason – OPAL.
We spotted two large hills of the white clay sediment that seems to send out a message – “OPAL COULD BE HERE”!
These hills contain thousands of tonnes of the white clay, dumped here after being removed from the many mines hereabouts. Many people come here to fossick through this huge hill to find opal that still remains in the dumpings and there certainly IS opal here.
A Jeweler in town told us about a recent visitor to his shop that came in to get a piece of opal that he had found in this hill valued. The Jeweler valued it at $6000 but told the owner to get it cut as it would be worth a lot more. The owner did this, returning some days later to show the Jeweler. It now had a wholesale value of $20,000 but could retail for as much as $50,000.
It’s these stories that seem to intoxicate the noodler into spending hours, days, weeks or even years in the search for the precious opal.
We began to fossick with a few others amidst the white clay feeling that sense of handling the remains of an ancient seabed. Kerrie asked a couple of the others what exactly we should be looking for and as usual the people were friendly and helpful. They showed us the opal they had found just in the last hour and how it was imbedded in the black “Poch”, a substance that is technically opal but without the fiery colour of the silica molecules that makes it valuable. They even gave us some opal bearing clay with the tiny flecks of brilliant colour that were traces of opal.
I think if we’d have stayed much longer we would’ve caught the Opal Bug. It’s fascinating knowing that at any time, and in any piece of clay could lay a substantial fortune.
We went back and had a delightful lunch at the Glengarry Hilton before heading back the 100 km to Lightning Ridge.
Back at “The Ridge” we went into the John Murray’s art gallery.
This was a truly fascinating experience. John Murray is an artist who came to Lightning Ridge many years ago and stayed. His paintings are unique and they exquisitely capture the spirit of the outback using humour and whimsical characterisation.
There are a couple of paintings in this gallery that we would love to hang in our future home – wherever that may be.
Lightning Ridge had the same effect on us as Coober Pedy.
It epitomises the randomness and lack of organised order that comes with freedom. True freedom is seldom tidy and neat. The Ridge and Coober Pedy are probably one of the last vestiges of freedom left even though the ever extending hand of government is well entrenched here as well. You get the feeling that the locals distain the intervention into every aspect of life that signifies today’s governments.
We needed to get away from Lightning Ridge by 4:00am if we had any chance of getting to Brisbane to watch the second State Of Origin match with Jennie, Ashley, Lish, Riley and Emily, something we looked forward to immensely.
Leaving at this time of the morning means playing dodgems with kangaroos. There are multiplied thousands of them casually and unconcernedly dicing with death as they bounce across the road in front of the traffic. The second one we hit, a big bugger, actually bent the bull bar and the front guard.
We saw the sun rise as we stopped for fuel in St George before heading the 120 km to Koramba Farm. We made the farm at about 8:30am. It was good to see the farm again; in fact it was a bit like coming home in some ways. We parked and unhooked the Aussie Wide where we would leave it for four days while we travelled the 5 – 6 hours to Brisbane to catch up with precious family and friends. We would return here Sunday to take up work for the next couple of months or so while I try to get this backlog of work completed.