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Lightning Ridge

blog-0486815001396692010.jpgLightning Ridge is an opal mining area. Opals were first discovered in the early 1900’s and mining has been going on ever since. The opals are different from those found in many other areas. These opals are known as black opals. They are dark with the colors familiar in other opals. They are beautiful and quite expensive. Just as in a gold rush, the discovery of opals in the area caused a boom in population. Mining camps sprung up near the hot spots for opals and towns developed near the camps. The town of Lightning Ridge is a combination of several towns and is a thriving town. Part of the success comes from the continued opal mining and part from the tourist trade. Lightning Ridge is also a popular winter hangout for Aussies. The park where we stayed was a very large park and was almost empty. Their busy season starts after Easter. Once the holidays pass, people come to Lightning Ridge for the winter. This is of course the opposite of what happens in the northern hemisphere where the Christmas/New Year holidays mark the march of the penguins south from Canada and the northern tier of US states to southern climes.

We viewed the DVD provided by the RV Park and enjoyed it. We had already reserved a guided tour of the town and the mining area. We were picked up by our tour guide at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday Morning. Chuck greeted us and took our names and our intended method of payment. He collected the cash, those of us paying with credit card would pay at the office later. The bus seated about 20 people and we grabbed front seats so as to hear all the commentary. The tour through town was interesting. The town has some amazing facilities for a small community. There is a Bowling Club which had a magnificent lawn bowling field. It also had a restaurant that was highly regarded by the locals. These athletic clubs are also gambling parlors. We ate in one in Eden and they had slot machines and betting on sports, horse and dog racing.

One of the most amazing facilities in Lightning Ridge, far from any large population center and in the Australian Outback, was the aquatic center. It features a swimming pool with a wave pool since the children there are far from the ocean and don’t get to see ocean waves. There is a full size Olympic pool and an Olympic diving pool. Chuck touted the success of local swimmer and divers.

Then the tour took us to the mining areas. First we were driven to a castle built by an Italian immigrant. He is an artist and built with his own hands a castle. It has no roof, it is clearly built by simple means. It is his contribution to the world. It is also now a historic building and as such is preserved. We met Amigo when we arrived. He was putting some shellac on the doors to his castle. Inside he had an art gallery with works by his daughter. We toured the castle, part concrete, faced with stone, it was an amazing amount of work for a single person. Clearly he was persistent.

Next on the tour was the Astronomers Monument. This was the creation of a man who had been imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. When released from prison he had come to Lightning Ridge and started building a monument to Copernicus. Being of Polish heritage, he wanted to honor Copernicus with his monument. Built of concrete and inscribed with many facts and information about Copernicus and the personal history of the builder. His love of astronomy had come from his first reading book when he was an adult and learning to read. It was a book on astronomy and this had been his life’s passion. He was killed several years ago in a gas explosion and the monument is now also a historic building and can’t be altered.

Then we began our tour of the mines. Mine plots here were usually a single person or two, sometimes a family. Mining consisted of digging a shaft down through the surface dirt and then through a layer of sandstone about 20 feet thick. Below the sandstone was the layer which contained the opals. They would then remove as much of the layer as they could, bringing the ore to the surface by a variety of means. Early miners did this by hand. Later machines were built to accomplish this task faster and with less effort by the miners. The ore which was a weak shale was then washed to expose the opals. Opal is a variety of quartz. Washing the ore can remove the chunks of quartz but not all are opal and not all opals are valuable, only those with colored inclusions have value.

The mining camps did not have electric power and still don’t today. Miners used engines from cars, tractors, any engine they could get their hands on to drive their machinery. Old vehicles were abandoned where they died and used for spare parts. The rear end from a car or truck could be used to drive belts or wind a cable. This was a world built by those who could improvise whatever they needed.

Miners lived on their claim. Many still do. The miners shack was a simple dwelling built from native rock, corrugated tin and wood. Rainwater was collected from the roof for their water supply. Their existence was a lonely one but it developed a culture of brotherhood among the miners. They came to town and shared stories and experiences and got to know one another. We visited one miners cabin, Fred Bodel - an early miner in the area, it was a very simple existence (see photo). Fred lived in this camp until his death. This characterizes the inhabitants of Lightning Ridge today. There some really strange characters still living there and they are independent and sometimes just a little bit strange to those of us who have lived and worked in the everyday life of big cities. These people are living on the frontier and they love it.

During our stay in Lightning Ridge, we visited the bore baths, shopped for opals and browsed the Sunday flea market. We thought a visit to Lightning Ridge was an interesting experience and would recommend it to everyone. A place to see at least once in a lifetime.



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