Chambers of the Black Hand

When I was about to move up to the Ridge I went in to Telstra to get my internet sorted out. The young lass who worked there got all excited when I mentioned where I was going, pulled out her phone and started showing me all these photos of her holiday in Lightning Ridge. (She also showed me lots of pictures of her dog. Lots of pictures.) One of the places she raved about was the Chambers of the Black Hand.

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I looked at the pictures and thought, yeah. That looks … awesome. An underground carving of the Simpsons. And the Last Supper. Can’t wait.

It’s not like I’m some world-weary cynic. I have a fondness for dull regional museums, the ones with dusty gas masks donated by returned servicemen, displays of agricultural tools that no one knows how to use anymore, a framed portrait of some whiskery old dude who was once the Biggest Cheese in Nowhereville. But this looked a bit … meh.

I am a person of open mind though and so, one Sunday, I hopped on my bike and went down the Three Mile Road out for a look. It was closed. So the next Sunday I went a bit earlier.

At the top of the shaft a hidden loudspeaker crackled into life and a disembodied voice told me to put on a hard hat and read the safety drill. Yes sir! Then it’s down the steps, all 153 of them. (I didn’t really count them.)

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The person behind it all is Ron Canlin, a Pommie ex-serviceman who settled in Queensland, then washed up in the Ridge in the 90s. It’s gone from a hobby to a big business: I was staggered at the number of people down there, and the number of people employed to show us around. The day prior they’d had 150 visitors and I’m guessing that on this Sunday there were more.

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At the first level there’s a signing in and paying place, and an opal shop. Here’s the great deal for locals: YOU DO NOT PAY! Yes, it’s $35 to out-of-towners but locals get in for zero dollars. Woo hoo!

We set off with our guide, occasionally squeezing against the walls of narrow corridors to let other groups past. The man told us about the mining process: once you’ve got your claim you dig down then, using a compass, head towards your claim boundary. Once there you link your tunnel to a neighbour’s tunnel; this gives you both a second point of exit if there’s a cave in. Ingenious.

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There was a small forest of supports. Apparently they’re made from cypress pine and cost $12 a pop. Miners only pay out for them once they’ve hit a seam and are making money. Being a small town, everyone notices everything and so if you start buying cypress pine then you must be doing all right down there. That’s when the “ratting” starts: the illegal break-ins and stealing of opal-bearing dirt. I wouldn’t want to be a ratter down there that gets caught by Ron Canlin!

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The lower chambers are filled with wall after wall of the most elaborate – and often bizarre – carvings in the sandstone walls. If you know your art then I think a lot of them reference famous paintings and sculptures. I don’t.

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The Egyptian room is pure kitsch. And yet, like the whole place, it’s strangely attractive. Is it the thought of this life’s work that makes you suspend your critical faculties and just enjoy the ride? The more I went around the more I liked it. It’s just so utterly bonkers. How can you not like it?

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The bits that have been painted are even madder than the straightforward carved bits.

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I took loads of pictures bit it is one of those crazy experiences you have to undergo yourself. One minute you’re looking at sculptures that reference Greek and Roman mythology …

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… the next you’re looking at a pig in red wellies.

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Or Gene Simmons’s tongue.

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And occasionally the mythological crashes into the fantastical. It’s all utterly mad.

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When I finished, one of the blokes behind the opal counter asked me how I liked it. I said, “It’s very impressive”. He looked slightly insulted but I meant it: it really is very bloody impressive indeed.

There was a little hot water urn with foam cups, tea bags and biscuits, and signage with bits of local history, shaggy dog stories and snippets of random stuff. I do wish I’d met Mrs Wilby-Wilby, she sounds formidable.

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Mrs. Wilby-Wilby was renowned throughout the back country in the pioneering days. one description. “A big, powerful, good looking, attractive style of a woman. A second description “She was about the hardest case of a woman you could strike. A big strong buxom woman.” A third description: “Big powerful woman, thin when old.” A fourth description: “A good natured, generous woman, when sober.” Popular because of her capacity for versatile entertainment. Feared for her quick and violent temper.

I love the caution in the description “attractive style of a woman”. As in, not actually attractive, but I’m too scared to say so in case she catches me. And who wouldn’t want to be renowned by a “capacity for versatile entertainment”. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

If you’re holidaying in Lightning Ridge, go. It’s well worth the $35. And if you’re from in town you’re mad if you don’t go down for free for an hour. Well done, Ron Cranlin. The world needs bonkers visionaries like you.

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