When I dropped into the Lightning Ridge Historical Society I picked up a copy of Lightning Ridge: The Land of Black Opals, written by Ion L. Idriess and first published in 1940 by Angus & Robertson.
Idriess is roughly contemporaneous with Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson but, unlike his Bulletin colleagues, Idriess is overlooked these days, a titan whose time as passed. Idriess specialised in the rollicking yarn, with chums getting in and out of various scrapes, with a cheery, back-slapping “My oath!” at the end of it, and Lightning Ridge is very much of that style.
This edition is a facsimile, reprinted in 2009 by the Historical Society to celebrate the centenary of Idriess’s time as a miner in the nascent township.
The first third of the book deals with Idriess’s youth and young adulthood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It really is a time long gone, and yet much of the Ridge part of the book feels strangely contemporary. Some of the best opals were being dug from the earth at this time and fortunes were made – and lost – in a matter of days. Strikes were celebrated but, from the get-go, ratters would rob a mine in a night. Vigilante groups formed around the Three Mile but no ratters were ever caught.
It was a male-dominated society, and the few females that are mentioned are usually done so for the purpose of a hilarious yarn, such as the time the formidable Cobar Mary has a miner cowering at the bottom of his mine shaft until he’s paid a debt. You get a feel for this man’s world in the picture below, which is captioned “Old Matt Watson’s Camp” (Idriess is fifth from the left).
It was here that Idriess, encouraged by his camp mates, first submitted writing to the “Abo. Column” of The Bulletin. After endless rejections Idriess finally sees his name in print and likens the thrill to that of a successful day’s “gouging”. (Most of the miners are described as “gougers” rather than “diggers”; indeed, one of Idriess’s early pen names was Gouger.) Having been on the sharp end of plenty of rejections myself, but also having seen my name in print, I could immediately identify with the punter’s joy he describes.
I also got to thinking when Idriess described the first motorbike to hit the Ridge: “It startled the bush with explosions; poisoned it with smells and puffs of horrid smoke”. Writing 30 years later, Idriess wonders:
Who in that not-so-long-ago imagined fleets of aeroplanes, moving pictures and wireless? What on earth will the world be like, what inventions will there be, in another hundred years from now?
The world is different, but not that different. I think Idriess would recognise the Ridge in 2017. I think he’d be at home down the Three Mile or over at the Grawin among the weather-beaten guys with their long, white beards, faded singlets and trousers spattered with white dirt. It’s still a place for the romantic, the gambler, the runaway. Always will be.