The uneventful trip in to Lightning Ridge was a blessed relief from the dramas of the previous few days. The car ran smoothly and towed The NinkyNonk (caravan) like a boss – no hiccoughs. Dusk is my favourite time of day and one of the main reasons is that temperatures start to drop and with it relief from the heat. Dusk at Lightning Ridge was not like that.
We headed to the Opal Caravan Park which had been recommended with an important “must have” being a swimming pool. We understand the outback is hot and arid and we also know we don’t ‘do’ extreme heat well, the pool was a non-negotiable. It was the correct choice of campgrounds as the amenities are the best we have seen. At last, an architect who understood the basic need to keep one’s clothing and toiletries dry while showering.
The ground was so hard we set camp without securing the annex with tent pegs and then settled in to enjoy happy hour with a few wines. Our sense of satisfaction was short lived as the fly population found us: fresh meat. The locals told us the fly problem was particularly bad for this time of year; the rains three months ago brought on the fly breeding season.
The main pests are female bush flies looking for protein from our tears, spit, nasal mucous. This protein helps their ovaries to mature and make eggs. Where there are females flies (or any species) there will be male flies hoping to gain a spot in the breeding stakes. But the flies have been a problem long before we ever set foot in the town, in fact explorers in 1838 found that;
“The flies are at you all day, crawling into your eyes, up your nostrils and down your throat… and no sooner do they, from sheer exhaustion, or the loss of daylight, give up the attack, than they are relieved by the mosquitoes.” – Lieutenant John Lort Stokes, R.N
One of the first things that struck us were the abandoned mines and mining machinery that is pretty much left where it was last used. It gives the area an impermanence that is part of its distinctive character; a large transient population.
There is a small population of permanent residents in Lightning Ridge and mainly these homes look worn by desperation of struggle and bad luck. Mining is hard graft and even if the ground was amenable to cultivate anything other than crops people would have no energy at day’s end to be wanting to be outside in the heat.
However, a few enterprising souls have poured creativity and energy in to building unique and fascinating houses that have become tourist attractions. The collage below shows two houses that intrigued me: the one is a home made mostly of bottles gathered from local pubs and locals (the builders did not drink); the other home is Amigo’s Castle built on his own and in stone.
‘We don’t ask anyone’s surname or what they are doing hereabouts. There’s many come here to fly under the radar of the law, and they are safe here because no one talks.” While some may arrive to escape whatever hounds them many come to Lightning Ridge to try their hand at specking, or noodling (shifting through the dirt of the mullock heaps (left over sifted and broken down rock) hoping to find opal missed by miners.
After a hundred years of opal mining the region is a maze of sun baked mullock heaps, discarded mining shafts and open cuts. In recent times prospectors are responsible to rehabilitate the land (to what I’m not sure as the untouched areas look like a moonscape), whereas in previous times miners simply walked off their claim and started another one elsewhere.
There were miles of spare ground in which to start a hole, anywhere underfoot might lie a small fortune. Almost certainly there would be nothing but hard work. The only way to find out was to try. I sank duffer after duffer. A thousand men were toiling like that, just to ‘bottom’. Slogging down through the sandstone to break through the steel-band on to the opal dirt – the bottom, where opal would or would not be.