Lightning Ridge presents a more sanitised version of opal mining than we were shown in Bernie’s opal fields tour. The scent and taste of chalk dust remains. There are just as many old Bedford trucks rusting the last days of their lives away here. But in this town, the experience has been packaged for us. We are guided by a map, with old car doors marking the way to the main tourist attractions. Each “car door tour” is coloured. The yellow tour marked with car doors painted yellow, and so on. The tours take the sightseer around the town to take in all Lightning Ridge has to offer, and to spend some tourist dollars.
Those of us who had not visited before choose to visit the Chambers of the Black Hand. A colourful name for an old worked opal mine that has been turned into an underground sculpture gallery. Hard hats on, we descend into the depths. Around the first corner we see indigenous animals carved into the wall. Around the second we see Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. Every section of the walls has been carved. It’s an eclectic mix. Jesus and his twelve apostles sit at the Last Supper opposite a giant Buddha. Ghandi is here and so are The Beatles.
The artist, an ex opal miner, has indulged his love of art and used it to make more money from his old opal mine than he ever made out of the opals he found there. All cultures are represented, from Egyptian mummies to Spider-Man. It is a remarkable feat and the gallery is fascinating to tour around.
The lower level of the mine has been kept as it was when he was still looking for opals. We walk down into the depths to learn more about how the opal miner works the rock. We peer into dark tunnels held up by tree trunks and listen to stories of the opal that was almost lost and of course the mythical opal millionaire.
Although my forefathers were Cornish tin miners, I feel a little claustrophobic as we wander further into the catacombs. There is no doubt that the opal is a beautiful stone with colours from across the spectrum, but I make no purchase at the little shop at the end of our tour. Heather spots some dainty earrings and after some expert haggling comes away with an excellent bargain. Everyone is happy.
After Lightning Ridge we drive further north and across the border into Queensland. Almost immediately it feels warmer. “You can stop travelling now, you’re here”, says the shopkeeper at Hebel. She’s a Queensland patriot.
This country is in drought. We learn that there has been no real rain in four years. 10 mm in the last few days barely wets the dust and is not enough to break a drought. Local industries are feeling the strain, and all they can do is eke out an existence until it rains. Farmers have to choose between buying in feed for their stock or selling now and building up again when the rains come. Some will go to the wall.
It is hard to predict drought. Rainfall is a capricious creature. It will drop more than 100mm in one area while leaving neighbouring towns bone dry. While some parts of Queensland are flooded by typhoons, others wither away. It takes a certain rugged resilience to hold out for four years without rain, ever hopeful that this month will be different. This month the break will come.
It has not come yet for Hebel.