Lunatic Hill

I left school at 16 to become an electrician. I did an apprenticeship and learned all kinds of things, but I have to admit that – deep down – electricity is still a mystery to me. I know that when I connect wires to each other, stuff happens and lights go on and off but I don’t really get the whole electrons and protons bit of it. I just have to believe it’s a thing, like God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Australia’s Got Talent.

The creation of opal falls into this category of Processes I Don’t Get.

I read on a sign about the Griman Creek Formation, which was formed:

… during the Early Cretaceous period, 100–120 million years ago, when freshwater rivers and streams deposited layers and sand and fine silt that turned into sandstone and claystone. Much later, cavities in these rock layers filled with a silica solution that turned into opal.

Well, okay. If you say so.

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The sign’s at Lunatic Hill, which was apparently the site of the first mining settlement that eventually became Lightning Ridge. There’s a video of the indefatigable Barb Mortiz explaining the town’s different locations over time.

I went to Lunatic Hill one day when it wasn’t super hot but the air and the light had that eye hurtingly-bright quality to it.

The historical society has preserved all kinds of olden-times machinery and bits and bobs from the early days of mining. I’m not sure what part this BMX bike played in the establishment of the town, but I guess that even hardened miners have to let off steam after hard day down a shaft.

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This mini agitator is brilliant. I can say that because I’ve never spent a week chiselling dirt from a rock face, bucketing it to the surface with a hand-operated windlass and then churning the bugger of a thing for zero return. To me it’s just an artefact: cute and rustic.

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Lunatic Hill itself is neither cute nor rustic. What it is is a bloody massive hole in the Earth, the first industrial-scale attempt to get opals out of the ground. Having seen how tiny some of the most valuable opals are I could only wonder at the nature of the people that mine for a living. How many fifty thousand dollar opals get overlooked when a ton of wet slurry’s broiling out of a massive agi? God, it must be heart-breaking.

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I went with a mate from Newcastle, the artist Trevor Dickinson. He draws places, which I appreciate isn’t a very thoughtful description of what he does as lots of artists draw places. He wasn’t all that impressed with the faded agricultural service towns that string the Castlereagh Highway but he did like the Ridge, with its crazy ramshackle buildings and the general punter-focused nuttiness of the place.

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We took photos of holes.

Some of the holes had lids on and little fences around them.

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Some didn’t.

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And we took photos of bits of metal that used to trucks and cars.

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Even with sunglasses on our eyes hurt from the bright sun, the clear air and the white shincracker rock. I can understand how working out here would make you crazy. It’s illogical and unbelievable that this inhospitable patch of dirt should yield the incredibly beautiful opals that I see in the shops.

Like electricity, it’s beyond my ability to understand how some things exist: they just are.

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