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.

Narran Lake

Lightning Ridge is Yuwaalaraay country. The Yuwaalaraay language is no longer a first language but it’s still spoken around here, and lots of schools in the region teach Yuwaalaraay at primary level or (in high school) as part of the mandatory Languages Other Than English (LOTE) course for students in Year 7 and Year 8.


The school in the Ridge is part of a group of schools involved in the Yuwaalaraay Language Nest, a system borrowed from the Kiwis to support and resource language maintenance. This week I was lucky enough to work with Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay language workers from the Ridge, Walgett, Goodooga, Collarenebri and Dubbo, sharing and developing materials for next year’s study and beyond. Part of the week involved a trip to a site of huge importance to Yuwaalaraay people: the Narran Lake.


The Lake’s about an hour’s drive south-west of the Ridge, down the Cumborah road then south till you hit East Mullane. This former sheep and cattle station must have been super remote back in the day. It’s now the HQ for NSW National Parks & Wildlife Services, and any group that comes to study here.


And there are lots that do. You can’t just drop in to Narran Lake. It’s not a park, it’s a nature reserve, co-managed by Parks and the Yuwaalaraay community. You have to have a reason to come here, usually scientific or cultural. There are people studying birds (the Lake’s on the Ramsar list for migrant birds), water movement, vegetation and – this past couple of weeks – a team of archaeologists from the University of New England.

Among them was Dr Mark Moore, a native of Indiana, USA, and a leading expert in stone tool manufacture, or “knapping”.


Mark and his team were analysing earth ovens when we came across them. What looked like a bunch of rocks was in fact the exposed remains of heated stones used to cook food. We were up on the ridge, near the station, but the team had also examined these ovens down at the Lake and on the flats, though down there generations of livestock had pretty much smashed the evidence.


As is so often the case with archaeology I had no idea what I was looking at until I’d been told. Buncha stones? Nah! This is always sobering for someone with a History degree and a qualification from the NSW Government to teach Ancient History.

The evidence wasn’t just in the stones on the ground; by mapping their location the team had developed patterns of placement, use and movement that offered a glimpse into the way that people from dozens and dozens of generations past had lived and moved on this patch of dirt. Bloody amazing.


There were hundreds of shards of tools too. Again, things that – in my ignorance – I’d have stepped over or kicked aside. Each piece was flagged, recorded and replaced. Nothing was taken away; this is modern archaeology with a focus on the partnership between the academy and the community.


Back at the station, in fact, there were boxes and boxes of previously plundered artefacts that are being repatriated by the university. These artefacts will be stored in a keeping place, probably at the station.


After we left the team we dropped off the ridge and into the Lake proper. Our guides were two Yuwaalaraay men, N (Bubs) and J. These guys were brilliant: they had the extraordinary ability to simultaneously describe the world around us in the language and mindset of the Yuwaalaraay and the scientists, botanists, hydrologists and academics who make their pilgrimage to the Lake.


We crossed a massive, two-kilometre shell midden created from seasonal feasting on freshwater shellfish created by countless generations of Yuwaalaraay people, and the visitors from who knows how many other language groups who met and camped and celebrated here over thousands of years.


While the women took off to do whatever is Yuwaalaraay women do, Bubs and J took me around a series of lunettes recently exposed by wind and rain. The ground was littered with rocks; at least, that’s what they looked like to me. Under their tutelage I began to see hammer tools, spear barbs, axe heads, grinding stones: a whole, industrial-scale manufacturing site for the tools of living in this part of the world.


There were amazingly complex pieces of worked stone. Who was the last person to pick up or use this drilled stone? (Dr Mark, Bubs and J conclude that it may have been used as part of a fire-starting kit.)


The Lake wasn’t full, maybe half full. Black swans, pelicans, plovers, cormorants and shags squawked and wheeled in the sky around us. Against this ancient backdrop, the occasional vapour trail of some invisible passenger jet hauling tourists and business people to Singapore or Dubai scribed its way through the blueness above.


We regathered, men and women, and headed back to the station for a late lunch of salad, and chops barbecued by Bubs and J. We were ravenous and fell on it like we hadn’t seen food in a month. Sated, we lolled around for a little while, before R and D collected some fresh sandalwood leaves, set them afire, and we passed through its aromatic smoke.



It was a magical day. Even the tyre shredded by the brilliant white shincracker road couldn’t put a dent in our enthusiasm.


The Lake was unlike anywhere else I’d been and, without wanting to sound like I’ve been everywhere man, I’ve been fortunate and privileged enough to have visited some quite extraordinary places in my time. I doubt Narran Lake would have had such an impact on me without the company of the Yuwaalaraay people, and Dr Mark and his team.

On Friday night at the pub, the usual group of wise men lamented modern politics and we gnashed our teeth and shredded our garments over the exponential surge in global population and the rise of the Stupid People and wondered, pessimistically, where it would all end. Then we drank some more and solved all those easily solvable problems (global pandemic, anyone?). At least, it appeared to have been solved until Saturday morning, when we woke to find that the Stupids were still in charge and the population was still exploding.

But Narran Lake will still be there, in all its quietness and stillness.