Tag Archives: mining

Lightning Ridge

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.

Lightning Ridge Truck

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.

Richard and Atlas Fab Four

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.

Opal fields

The Bourke bakery’s range of apple cream cakes, pies and turnovers is impressive.   It’s too much of a temptation not to buy a few for morning tea.  A trip to the historic Bourke port and we’ll be off.

This was once the largest inland port in the world, shipping wool on the Darling River.  Little remains, but a timber wharf that stands high above the current river flow.   People of Bourke’s great days would not have believed that the busy port could become almost a backwater.   In the 21st century, river transport has all but ended and the timber structures that were once a hive of industry support only the feet of curious tourists and day trippers.

Leaving the old port, we drive alongside the Barwon River and stop at Brewarinna for morning tea and Bourke’s apple cream cakes.   This Barwon is not our familiar Victorian river, but a longer water course, extending 700 km through New South Wales.   Here at Brewarinna it contains aboriginal stone fish traps that are reported to be more than 30 thousand years old, perhaps the oldest man made structure in the world.   The fish traps were so successful the town was an important aboriginal meeting place in times gone by.

Turning away from the Barwon River, we head to Walgett and then to Lightning Ridge.  We are in opal country.   Olive has heard of an interesting little mining town off the main track, and we take a detour through cypress pine plantations to the tiny town of Cumborah.  It is littered with fascinating old trucks, cars and houses, most of them for sale.


Soon after the town, we take a turn off the road and on to a dirt track, signposted “opal fields”.  Little do we know, but we are about to enter another world.   Opal miners live here.  They lease small parcels of land from the Department of Mines for exploration and excavation.  They are seeking the black opal and their fortunes.

It is a world apart.   Our first stop is the Grawin “Club in the Scrub”.  A golf club, but not like any we have seen before.   Rocky fairways lead to red sandy greens.  The club house is timber and tin.   The club members are like extras from Mad Max – but on their day off, enjoying a social drink and a chook raffle with friends.

Club in scrub

Howard, Beryl and Suzanne strike up a conversation with a friendly type in the car park.   We are soon off on an ad hoc tour of the mines and the local community.   Bernie, our new friend and guide, leads us into a maze of narrow rocky roads.

Opal fields road

This is a world away from mainstream Australian life.   Old machinery comes here to die.   Beneath the ground, the area is honeycombed with old mine workings as miners follow the opal seams looking for their fortunes.

The chalky white rock dug up from underground mine excavation litters the landscape.   The world turns white and dusty.  A moonscape marked by quirky handmade signposts.  “Cars with brakes give way”.

We drive between tin shacks and old machinery.  If there are millionaires here, they are disguised well.  This is a handmade, manmade world without the restrictions of suburban life.   It feels post-apocalyptic.   Forget modern technology, here it is man, rock and the diesel engine.  If they can repair, make do or recycle they will.


Bernie proudly takes us home to show us his prize opal, worth 100 or at least 50 thousand dollars.  Cut and set in a gold pendant for his wife, his eyes twinkle when he opens the velvet covered box to display it.   “She loves it, but you can have it for fifty, I need to upgrade the rig”.  He’s got the bug.  Introduced to opal mining by his father at fifteen, he’s itching to dig into a new lease and who knows, maybe find the seam that will add his name to the list of opal millionaires.

We feel honoured to be taken into his confidence and his home.   It’s a relief nonetheless to emerge from that chalky underworld and make our way to set up for the night at Lightning Ridge.

Thanks Bernie, I hope you find the big one, you deserve it.