It was around March last year when I first came up to the Ridge to check out the school. I stopped at the Crocodile Caravan Park (which did, apparently, once have a little croc in its pool) and rented a caravan with a weedy aircon jammed into the window. It was the end of summer and climbing on the mattress in that caravan was like lying on a soft, hot brick.


The winter that followed was long, cold and wet, but here and now – on the first of February – that seems like a distant memory.


As I type this (at 3.26pm, with the swampy churning away in the background) there is a maintenance guy working on the roof above me, fixing the neighbour’s aircon. Respect.

I took the bike for a run down the Colly road, past the few hardy souls dipping themselves in the bore baths (obviously they’re not hot enough and need a boost). The wide, flat fields on the southern side of the road have been sown following last year’s big harvests. Surface dust spins across the chocolate-brown soil. Road kill desiccates by the bitumen.


I dawdled back into town and stopped at Morillas for a coffee. Some blokes prepping us for the NBN were there, whinging (in a good natured way) about the heat. One thing that the heat does is to give us something to talk about as a community, something other than Donald Trump or Beyonce’s twins. Everyone joined in with either “Oh my God, I know, this is hell!” but, mostly, “Pfft. This is nothing.”

I’m with the latter group. It’s easy to think that this is as hot as it’ll get, but the northern hemisphere label “summer” fails to understand the Australian inland. It can, and probably will, still be in the 40s at the end of March. The bitumen clings to the soles of my thongs when I walk down the road and my car’s tyres make a peculiar singing sound from the heat. The water that comes out of the cold tap is almost too hot to bathe in and so people turn the water heater off and get the cold water from the hot tap.

I was thinking about the early opal miners in Ion Idriess’s book. Christ, it must have been murderous back in the day. But it’s February, “summer”. It’ll be here for a while more yet.

Uncle Wal’s Album

Late last year my mother-in-law passed away, and The Wife was burdened with the task of emptying the family home in preparation for its sale. The house was the end-point for several generations of people’s stuff: porcelain ornaments, glassware, books, bric-a-brac. There were many gems among the potch, including a collection of photo albums kept by great-uncle Wal.

Of particular interest was the Pioneer Tour that Wal and a few friends undertook to the north-west in June 1946.


There’s a great view of the Imperial Hotel, which I guess was the forerunner of the Diggers Rest (or one of its many incarnations). I showed the photos to a few folk and Ron identified the Tree of Knowledge (bottom photo).


I wonder who these three old gentlemen are. Are their descendants still living and working around the Ridge? The bottom photo shows what I’m guessing to be the junction of the Castlereagh Highway and the road into the Ridge, in flood.



If anyone has any information on any of these pictures, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

Drawing 001

As if with learning to teach, learning a new town, learning to play the bass guitar and learning to speak Yuwaalaraay I didn’t have enough on my plate, I’ve decided to learn how to draw. My subject will be the buildings of Lightning Ridge and surrounds and, in typically unrealistic and optimistic style, I’ve numbered this first drawing “001”. There may or may not be another 998 drawings, I’m just leaving it open …

Anyway, the first building to get the MacLean treatment is the Miners Co-operative Store. I don’t know anything about its history or what it was for or even if it operates any more. But I do love its homemade feel.


I can just imagine all the working bees that went into making this, the contributions of materials and the fundraisers at the pub.

So this is my version of it.


I’ve got a ways to go but it’s fun. Watercolours are a bugger, that much I’ve found out.

Thank you to Christine Bruderlin, Trevor Dickinson and Isobel MacLean for the tips!

Ion Idriess

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.

Food Safari 6: Griffin’s biscuits

I’ve got a friend who has an on-site van at the Sunset Caravan Park in Woolgoolga, the town the locals call “Woopie”.

Woopie is famous for its Sikhs and for its massive Sikh temple and its frozen berry industry, but when I think of Woopie I think of one thing. You know Jatz crackers? They don’t call them Jatz crackers there – they call them “Savoys”. Savoys! I know!! A savoy is a fucking sausage!!!


Why such a small thing should affect my sense of balance in such a way is totally baffling, but affect me but it does. If I’d bought a box that was packaged completely differently and they were called Bazookas or something and then when I opened them up and found they were just plain old Jatz I’d’ve been a bit meh. I’d have gotten over it. But when everything else is just how you expect it to be yet there’s this wee tweak, it sets a man back on his heels.

Nearly all the big brands that you can get at Coles and Woolworths back in Big Town you can get at Khan’s IGA, Lightning Ridge. But there is something you should know: the Ridge is differently biscuited.


Griffin’s Biscuits, to be precise. When I first saw them on the shelf I was a bit like woah! What do we have here? I do not know you.

From whence do they come, these Griffin’s biscuit people? I’ve never heard of them, and I’ve lived in Australia for 30 years.

To my credit, I steadied myself and accepted the challenge. I picked a packet from the shelf and set to the job of working my way through their moderately extensive range, a packet per week for however many weeks it might take.

First up was the “Chit Chat” (note jolly quote marks), which appears to be the freckly love-child of a TimTam and an English Penguin biscuit. It was alright, but I must admit to feeling slightly underwhelmed. The biscuit part was fine but the chocolate had that plasticky taste about it, if you know what I mean.

chit chat

Next up was the Afghans (no cheerful quote marks for these guys). The picture on the packet doesn’t do them justice; in a remarkable visual pun each biscuit actually looks like a tiny turban! How cute is that?


I realise that this is the kind of comment that would have my kids rolling their eyes and accusing me of racism, but (like many racists) I don’t mean to be. Hopefully it’s the benign non-aggressive form of racism that, as Louis CK points out, we all caught simply by growing up in the Seventies. Sorry, Afghans!

Anyway, Afghans (the biscuity type) are (again) alright. I think I’d built my hopes up and – for no good reason, it’s not on the label – expected maybe some toffee in there underneath the turbany bit, but no luck.

The other Saturday I found myself caught between the Squiggles, the Mallow Puffs and the Krispie, but none of them were doing it for me. When I was a lad, the term “top shelf” was usually reserved for the row of nudie magazines at the paper shop, and so anything where I have to make an effort and reach up high has always made me think it’s a bit wahey, a bit sexually charged. Even biscuits. It reminds me of the thrill of pretending to leaf through this month’s Electronics Now! or Trout Angler while peaking longingly at Readers’ Wives and Penthouse.

So top shelf it was: Jaffa Thins. Phwoar.


Well, I’m sad to report that the Jaffa Thin is … alright. As a biscuit it’s, well, thin. And vaguely jaffa-ery. But you have to eat about a dozen of them to get the same feeling of one Scotch Finger.

I did some research. Where are they from, these Griffin’s biscuits? Mount Isa? Gullargambone? Tennant Creek?

Noooooo! Griffin’s are actually a Kiwi company! Could it really be true that, as their website claims:

Our biscuit factory is located in Papakura and a savoury/wrapped snacks factory in Wiri.

I was set back on my heels again. With this devastating news I decided that I could no longer support Griffin’s Biscuits. Just think of the food miles to get a packet of Afghans from Wiri to the Ridge! I’ll stick to Arnotts from now on as I do have standards.

“Alright” is simply not all right.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


We took photos of holes.

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


Some didn’t.


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


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.

Green Car Door Tour

If you go to Trip Advisor and check out “things to do in Lightning Ridge” there is a list of 19 attractions. This is worrying as I’ve already done numbers 1 (Chambers of the Black Hand), 2 (bore baths) and 3 (John Murray Gallery). Am I tearing through the attractions too quickly? What will I do once I’ve visited all 19 of the Ridge’s attractions? Disappointment  and long, empty days loom ahead.

But life is short. I might be struck down by a comet tomorrow having held off from visiting the other attractions and so I might die having never visited Amigo’s Castle or Bevans Black Opal and Cactus Nursery. With this new-found carpe diem spirit I leapt up from the settee, turned off the telly before the sport section had even finished and headed out to the Green Car Door Tour (Trip Advisor’s #4 attraction).


Twenty past seven in the evening was a bit late to be starting such a significant journey. I’d heard that this car door tour was good for sunset views but the sun sets at around ten to eight at this time of year. A better organised person would have thought about the timing of the visit more closely and maybe not lay slumped in front of the telly thinking about carpe-ing the diem without actually carpe-ing it for a good half hour. Typical.


For those who don’t know, the car door tours are short self-guided tours of Lightning Ridge and surrounds. There’s a red one, a blue one, a black one, and this — the green one. You can see a little video about it.


Apart from the sunset views the main reason for heading out on the Green Car Door Tour is to see the Historic Monument that marks the site of the very first opal shaft, sunk in 1902 by Charlie Nettleton.

There are other significant monuments. I like the use of surplus objects for mail drops and signage that you get around here.


The nighttime trips in the courtesy buses from the pub and bowlo will often wheel and skirt around the camps that fringe town. In winter the bus’s lights pan across mulga and sandalwood scrub occasionally lighting up car bonnets with people’s names on them marking their homes. Sometimes it’s just a picture or caricature. When you’ve have a few (and why else would you be on the courtesy bus?) it can be weirdly stimulating, like watching some strange psychedelic documentary from the pre-regulation days of the LSD revolution.


Or maybe that’s just me.

Once you’re off the road you quickly hit the hard, white shincracker rock that overlays the opal-bearing dirt beneath. After the huge, industrial-scale opencast mining of the Grawin these wee domestic shafts and windlasses seem cute and homespun. Which, I’m guessing, are adjectives that the tough folk who actually operate the darned things have never used about them.


The sun was getting low and the white piles of waste and tailings were coloured a range of pinks and reds and oranges.


I was still nowhere near the sunset viewing place but, when I turned around, the sun was setting. Does it still count as a sunset viewing if there isn’t a sign nearby telling you that that’s what you’re looking at?


Hiding my bitter disappointment at having seen the sun set in the Wrong Place, I chose to carry on, following the green car doors and the variously coloured other bits of cars that littered the side of the road.


One of the things I’ve decided to do while I’m in the Ridge is learn to draw. There are loads of great things to draw here. This Aussie Bake van, operating a little windlass, is begging to be drawn. I hope I can do it justice.


But the thing about sunsets is that, afterwards, it gets dark. I had to get a wriggle on (or is it “wiggle on”?), not hang around taking pictures of stuff.

At any other time I’d have been seduced by this hectic array of signs and dropped in for some fossicking and healing or to see the big milkman or the sharkadile. The video had told me that there was an opal tree on this tour and a beer-can house and a gigantic milkman made out of milk crates! My laziness in front of the telly was coming back to haunt me.


I finally made it to the place where I was supposed to have looked at the sun. I think it would have been very impressive from here. There were other people wandering around, other people who’d set off at the right time and so had experienced the full sunset experience at the location of the first shaft. Fortunately they were distracted by their small children running towards open shafts and so I don’t think they noticed me sneaking in late.


I went over to the monument, the monument that marks the location of Charlie Nettleton’s first shaft.

But what’s this?! The plaque says that the monument is actually in the “vicinity of” the first shaft. So this might just be any old shaft! Pah! Not only had I watched the sun go down in the Wrong Place, and missed out on seeing the Big Milkman, I now found myself standing not at Charlie Nettleton’s first shaft but in its “vicinity”!!!!


There will be other days and other sunsets, I get that. And, unless Khan’s mounts a retrieval mission for its crates, the Big Milkman will be around for a while. And who cares about the exact location of Charlie’s first shaft.


I’ll be fine. Life is full of disappointment. But next time I carpe diem I shall carpe it a bit earlier.