New South Wales: Mining town steals hearts of dreamers

By Kara Segedin

Lightning Ridge draws many who hope to find precious opal, writes Kara Segedin.

It's not the flying, bloodsucking insects visitors need to be wary of in Lightning Ridge but a bug of a different kind - the opal bug.

Everyone in this lonely Outback New South Wales town has been bitten by the bug at some stage and never left.

Whether they came as miners seeking the famous black opal, or were drawn to the freedom of the Ridge's lifestyle, they're now trapped, proud to call it home.

You know you're in the right place when you see the sign: "Lightning Ridge: Population ?"

The number of miners in town is anybody's guess, opal miners being notoriously tight-lipped, with many sites registered to first names only, faithful family pets or false names, including a few famous cartoon character residents.

That's no great surprise. What was a surprise was that, thanks to rainstorms across the border in Queensland, the dry landscape I expected was surprisingly lush, and some of the roads north of the Ridge were flooded.

But that didn't stop us making our way to the Australian Opal Centre to find out what this precious stone means to the area.

Palaeontologist Jenni Brammall fell in love with the Ridge during a university field trip and now manages the centre, which holds an impressive collection of opal and opalised fossils including those of dinosaurs, early mammals and marine life.

But the most famous piece in the exhibit is a set of opal dentures that belonged to Harold Hodges, a well-known local opal seller and buyer in 1960s and 70s. Fed up with people asking him to smile, Harold cemented the teeth into the wall of the local pub where they stayed until after his death.

For now, the collection is housed in town, but in the next few years it will move to a state-of-the-art, underground, two-story building on the historic Three Mile opal field.

A different aspect of opal mining is on display at the Dig Inn on Bald Hill.

Husband-and-wife mining and cooking team Alan and Rynn Bair took over the business in Easter 2008 and their camp-tucker soon became famous on the opal fields. Now every evening 10-15 miners show up for dinner.

The outdoor dining area is beautifully rustic, lit by fairy lights, lamps and the bright night sky. While Alan puts the finishing touches on the beef, pork, chicken, soup and veges slowly cooking on an open fire, Rynn shares stories of long days out on the claim.

As with all miners, they keep tales of riches close to their chest - any word that you're on opal could lead to a late night visit from ratters, local thieves who head down shafts and strip them of their wealth - but that doesn't stop the yarns from rolling.

Our second day in opal country starts early when we are collected from our motel by Black Opal Tours' mini-van and guided around the Ridge. It's the sort of place where a guide is welcome because of the idiosyncratic system of directions that operates here. Dotted around in what seems to be the middle of nowhere are brightly-painted and numbered car doors that act as road signs to the main sights. Each colour represents a different route and free maps are available at the visitors' centre.

In fact, cars and doors are much in demand round here. The bumpy roads are littered with the remains of burned-out cars that have been picked over for parts. Here and there we spy makeshift miners' homes made out of whatever the owners could get their hands on.

However, what we were after was the chance to fossick for opal.

Tales of big wins can make opal mining an addictive pursuit, so no matter how much they find, miners keep going back in hope of the next big hit.

Only a few years ago, a lucky tourist picked up a $20,000 stone in the mullock heap outside the visitors' centre. And then there's One-Bucket Bob, who found a million dollars' worth of opal in the first bucket of dirt he pulled out of his mine, only to spend it quick, and come back to find another million in the next bucket.

I was certain this was going to be my lucky day as our group scrummaged through white piles of scrap looking for the gleam of an elusive opal. Unfortunately, the closest I came to opal was a few specks in some rocks - nobbies - and a couple of pieces of quartz.

But even if you don't find opal there's still plenty to see, including mining-related sights such as Fred Bodel's Camp and Lunatic Hill, and magnificently eccentric works of art such as Astronomer's Monument, Amigo's Castle, Bevan's Black Opal and Cactus Nursery, the Black Queen and Chambers of the Black Hands.

Astronomer's Monument was built by Polish immigrant Alex Szperlak, who retired to the Ridge as the "second Robinson Crusoe" after years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Another artistic sight is found 11.2m underground in the 100-year-old mine named Chambers of the Black Hand. Miner Ron Canlin started carving animals and pillars into the walls and, as his ideas and skills grew, the works became larger and more detailed.

Decked out in coloured hardhats, we climb down into this magical world where tunnels open into vast chambers filled with paintings and sculptures. With so much to see and so many characters to meet, I truly have the Lightning Ridge bug - oh, and a few mozzie bites as well.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Lightning Ridge is 750km northwest of Sydney and accessible by a sealed road, rail and bus, and air.

The nearest airport is at Dubbo, about 355km south. Qantas and Rex have daily flights between Sydney and Dubbo.

Countrylink provides a daily train service from Sydney to Dubbo and a coach continues to Lightning Ridge.

Kynoch coach services to and from Brisbane operate throughout the week.

Further information: Outback NSW is has a webpage.

The Lightning Ridge Visitor Information Centre is also online.

Kara Segedin was a guest of Tourism NSW.

- NZ Herald

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