It’s the last weekend in July. Can that even be possible? If it is indeed true then the middle of next week will be August. Glaaarrrgh!
But if it IS the last weekend in July, then that would explain the stupidly bigly number of cars on Morilla Street, and the depleted shelves at Khan’s, and the fact that Walgett Shire Council sent up a road crew to kick some dirt around the busted pavement edges and roadsides.
Yes! It’s Opal Festival time! And that of course means … Opal Queen!
I didn’t make it last year due to circumstances that I can’t remember. Maybe I just didn’t want to go. But this year I was determined to go! Yes! Exclamation marks!!!
Friday night was the annual gala dinner of the appallingly acronymed IOJDAA, which stands for something to do with opals. It was $100 a ticket and themed “Great Gatsby” so I went to the pub instead, which was a good move as I won a meat tray in the raffles and swapped it for beer tokens. I knew from that moment on that this was going to be a most excellent weekend.
Saturday was a hive of activity. The local junior rugby league team, the Tigers, were playing Saint George, so the area around Spider Brown Oval was already choked. Add a few dozen market stalls and you have instant bedlam.
City folk will of course scoff at this definition of congestion but it’s all relative. There were lots of elderly drivers in hats struggling to navigate the side streets; kids ran – unfettered and willy-nilly – between moving cars; people parked at alarming angles wherever they felt like. But once inside the area marked off for stalls a kind of calm resumed, the calm of familiarity that you feel when you walk around these sorts of things. There was jam and chutney and balsamic vinegar.
There was salami.
There were olde timey Aussie bush signs. I really did fancy the one about pigging. Should I go back and get it?
These gentlemen want a minning truck. I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or if “minning” is a thing.
I went to Urban Dictionary and found out that it most definitely is a thing:
A foriegner, who acts very gay to another man, then blaming his gay actions on the “fact” that’s how they act in their home country.
(foriegner grabs a guy’s butt suggestively)
Minning Victim: “Hey man! What’s with that?!?”
Minner: “huh huh, that’s how they do it in Korea!”
Bystander: “Man, that guy is Minning all over the place.”
I live, I learn.
Earlier this year I blogged about drinking in the Pub in the Club, a strange other-worldly venue nestled within the Bowlo. This cavernous place only comes to life once a year, and this is its weekend to shine. The interior was packed with opal sellers.
They’re not just Lightning Ridge opal sellers of course; some have come from White Cliffs, Coober Pedy, Queensland – all over.
But the best location in the house is always reserved for one very, very important organisation: the Lightning Ridge Historical Society. Yet again the stall was held together by a team of volunteers led by the redoubtable, the indomitable Barb! Barb is out of hospital having had joint replacement surgery, and only just off her sticks, and yet there she is, selling raffle tickets, calling out to old-timers and locals, answering dozens of questions to baffled tourists. What a woman!
If there are opal sellers then there are also sure to be opal buyers. These guys rock into town every now and then, rent a room at the pub or the motel, and stick out their shingle.
It all seems a bit dubious but people who know about this stuff assure me that it’s legit. I wouldn’t like to be the one driving around these outback roads, alone, with a car full of cash and opals though. I bet they can tell some stories.
All this talk of cash and opals reminds me to go back to the story. Every second year the IJODOAJA, or whatever it’s called, holds a competition for the best opal jewellery design. The entries were displayed in the upstairs function room at the Bowlo but, due to photography restrictions, I can’t show you any of them. You’ll have to trust me that they were very, very good. As was the humungous blue opal necklace that Serena Williams once wore. Jeepers.
I wandered back outside for a bit to eat. The sausage sizzle trailer run by the Men’s Shed was out of sausages but I did get a magnificent steak and onion sanger. The number of food stalls was a bit down this year, which might explain the extra-long queue for the curly, battered spuds on a stick. It felt like pure greed to get one straight after a steak sandwich, but blow me down I think I’ll go back Sunday for a “mad feed” (as the kids say) of battery potatoey goodness.
After that it was home to admire my booty: caramelised strawberry balsamic vinegar; lemon, lime and ginger marmalade; wild boar salami; a tin of Kiwi Dave’s leather balsam; and a cutting board decorated by supa-talented Ridge art teacher Priscilla Martinez. All in all, not a bad morning. And still time for a nanna nap before the Big Night.
Well, that was satisfying. I never used to be a napper but now that I’m older than Methuselah I rather enjoy an afternoon lied down. Where was I? Yes! Opal Queen!
I headed into town around half seven. On my way I passed the community church, which had this sign out the front. Is it just me or does that not sound like the kind of club you want to join?
I bumped into E in the car park. E organises the primary school’s dance troupe, which apparently kicks off the show every year. This year they did Rock Around The Clock. It was exceedingly very cute.
I had no idea what was going to happen, but luckily there were plenty of people who knew the drill. It goes like this: arrive on time and sit around for ages waiting for something to happen; little kids do dance (see above); Opal Queen parade; winner announced; band comes on and everyone gets drunk and the whole thing gets loose and shapeless.
That sounded like a plan I could work with. The whole premise of women parading themselves for group approval sounds a bit medieval and there’s a time in my life (say, the first fifty years) when I would have moaned on about it being as bad as living in a Taliban caliphate or something, but from the lofty vantage point of late middle age I can just do a little nod and go, “Yeah, Opal Queen. I’m cool with that.”
There were ten entrants in total. Each of them fills out a form saying what they do in the community but, thankfully, they don’t have to read this out or anything. One by one they’re escorted across the dancefloor, do a wee curtsy to the judges (John and Leanne: opal traders from Winton), then up onto the stage. No swimsuits, no declarations of wishing for world peace, no Donald Trump. All in all, very tasteful.
In true Ridge style the entire event was devoid of pretension. As the hopefuls cruised past the judges the MC read out snippets of backstory: “K enjoys cooking and helping her dad fix his mining equipment” and “When she’s not working, T relaxes by pig hunting” were two that stuck in my mind.
L was there, looking extremely dapper. He showed me how to fill in my People’s Choice card, but I must have done it wrong because someone else won. Or maybe more than one people gets to vote?
When the winner was announced a throne was brought onto the stage. I had a sudden and cold clammy feeling at the back of my knees. I knew that throne!
I may even have sat in it!
That night at the Pub in the Club: it all came rushing at me like a Nam flashback.
Luckily L bought me two vodkas (two because he thought I’d drink one too quickly and it saves queuing). I bolted one for medicinal purposes and nursed the other back to my seat. (The ordinary one, not the throne.)
The band came on; they were called Crawfish Soup. Or Stew. They were a three-piece and the bassist had a six-string. I know it’s in the job description for bass players to look bored and disengaged but he looked so SO bored that I thought he might actually fall face-forward at any moment. They were ok, and I had a few dances with J. Here’s a thing (more learning time). I have an English friend whose sister came to Australia. She likes swing dancing and she pointed out that in Australia dancers twirl in the opposite direction to northern hemisphere swing dancers. I’d kind of doubted this but when J and I were twirling we found out that it was actually true! It had nothing to do with the medicinal vodka.
Here’s another thing I learnt.: there is a product called “finishing spray”. After you’ve put your makeup on you spray it on your face to “finish” everything off. I guess it’s like a resin or varnish, but maybe not as harmful. Maybe. There is also something called “volume powder” which you put on your head if you want to get “effortless ‘French Girl‘ hair”. I’ve never had effortless French girl hair and, sadly, never will, but I do like the idea of volume powder. And effortless French girls.
And yet another thing! (All this learning!) There is a phenomenon called “straw lips”. That might not be the actual name for it, but it describes the wrinkles that ladies get on the part of their face between their top lip and their nose and it comes from drinking drinks from straws. Or smoking. Or both. M claimed it was actually “a thing” and challenged me to Google it. I did. M: I could not find it. I photographed my lips to see if I had this condition but we were outside in the smokers’ area where it’s dark so I couldn’t tell. What do you think?
It was indeed getting very loose and shapeless by this point. I was at the bar with L when the newly crowned opal queen popped by. L insisted that I have my photograph taken with her. I was very reluctant, possibly even more reluctant than she was, but L is quite formidable and, when he has his mind set on something, it happens.
He also insisted that I include this picture, his favourite, “the one where she’s laughing and you have this really dumb blank expression”.
He also demanded executive producer credits. Blimey.
I’m not sure what time it all finished up. Someone said that someone said there was a stoush in the ladies toilets, which is par for the course at this kind of affair. I left the young folk to it and toddled off down the Three Mile for an early night. I have a job of work to do tomorrow. Those curly battered spuds on sticks won’t eat themselves.
Executive producer: Mr Leon Allen
PS: What is it all for? The Opal Queen, and Opal Festival, raises funds for the Australian National Opal Centre. To find out more, visit their website.