The Ridge Has Got Talent

You can’t have yin without yang, or heads without tails, or action without reaction, or Donald Trump without  … well, anyone really. For all that the far west lacks in resources and infrastructure and opportunities, it more than makes up for in vision and zest and can-do attitude.

A prime example of this is the Lightning Ridge Central School’s trip to Nepal, the second of which is planned for 2018. You can imagine how hard it is to organise such a thing from out here, and the risk-averse Department of Education didn’t exactly lay out the red carpet. So the local branch of Rotary stepped in to auspice the trip on the proviso that the students raised the funds themselves. It happened in 2016 and it’s happening again! There are regular car washes and raffles, but the major event on the fundraising calendar is The Ridge Has Got Talent.

As I approached the doors of the bowlo’s main auditorium I could hear the hum of a goodly sized crowd. And, of course, I got hit up straight away for entry fees and donations. Well, what else did I expect? Here’s the glamorous Krystal, ably assisted in money-taking duties by Evey.

For my ten bucks I got an act list and a stubby pencil, the type you find in bookies shops or voting booths on election day. There were 17 acts and I must admit that my heart sank a little. I’ve sat through a fair few of these things for my own kids and I wondered, did I have the stamina to sit through such an affair when it’s someone else’s gorgeousness labouring through Für Elise on a Casio keyboard. And I’m still slightly traumatised by the memory – it was a stinking hot afternoon in maybe 1998 at the Lawrence O’Toole centre in Hamilton North – of three Year 5 girls in leotards and sparkly bowlers dancing energetically to You Can Leave Your Hat On. But no: this would be different.

And it was! Not always in ways that I’d anticipated. The rotten photo below is of The Mystery Piano Player. So mysterious in fact that he can’t be seen, his faced blacked up and his costume blending in with the curtains. Was he even there? If I hadn’t heard him with my own ears I’d have thought he was an optical illusion or a conjuring trick.

Silly man: this was the conjuring trick! We were summoned to the dance floor, where we were told volunteers would be needed. I was a bit late arriving and, honestly, I’m not very good at keeping up with these things, so frankly I had no idea what was happening.

Luckily, Stacey knew exactly what was happening. Three of diamonds! Of course!

There were a few dance troupes. This was Evey and the Barretts. I’d been strong-armed into voting for this mob by Leon, Evey’s dad. He’s not a person to argue with and so I did exactly what was asked, before they’d even performed. When they finished Leon glared around the room and defied anyone not to clap louder and longer, which we all did. Thankfully they were actually quite good and so I didn’t feel too compromised.

Jada and Ava couldn’t make the night, unfortunately, but in true Ridge style a back-up act was rustled together. Barry and Gayle look like they know their way around the stage of a bowling club and I’m guessing this was not the first time they’d stepped into the breach on a talent night. They banged out a fine rendition of a song I’d never heard of which had the slightly alarming (for a school fundraiser) refrain “He drinks tequila / And she talks dirty in Spanish”. I had a brief You Can Leave Your Hat On flashback but everyone took it in good spirit.

(I’ve saved you the effort of Googling. It’s song by Sammy Kershaw and Lorrie Morgan (aka Sammy&Lorrie) and has had over million YouTube views. Seriously, where have I been all these years?)

You’ve got to admire the pluck of these little kids, especially the ones that got up and played or sang solo. This one looked like a little Minnie Mouse in her red polka dot skirt and white face. I’m guessing that’s a mum videoing her daughter’s rendition of Bubbly on the phone. Go, girl!

The senior acts finished off the night, with the Schools Spectacular dancers and a solo number by Penny (I think it was Goo Goo Dolls’ Iris) which eventually took out the pool. Then we got hit up for more raffle tickets and donations. I now have a ticket in the Khan’t trolley dash. 2561 has always been my lucky number and I’m going to start scoping out the aisles in coming weeks.

And so that part of the night ended. I was somewhat disturbed at how much pleasure I got from watching other people’s children perform their song and dance routines. This must surely be a sign that I’m getting old; there was a time I would have sneered at such an event but we all mellow with time.

Certainly my travelling companions were so mellow that they nearly nodded off in the foyer.

Good luck, happy fundraisers. And bring back amazing, life-changing stories from Nepal in 2018. You’ll never be the same again, and neither will the Ridge.

Opal Queen

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.

I’ve drunk in some queer places, but this . . .

The England of my youth had more pubs than New Zealand has sheep. On a Friday night you could have a pint in any one of a dozen boozers and not even scratch the surface of what was on offer.

Times change and people change. Friday night these days means the stark “choice” of the pub or the club, but the urge to wander runs deep.

This Friday I found myself at Lightning Ridge Bowling Club. At the club’s core are the two large rooms devoted to (1) eating and watching the big telly and (2) drinking and watching the monster telly. Room 2 also doubles up as a venue for the occasional live act (think Rodney Rude).

I was sitting at the comfy lounges in Room 2 with the usual crowd but we were twitchy and restless. I took a Year 10 Science class this week and we were looking at how molecules vibrate more quickly when subjected to heat, and maybe the warm weather was causing us to turn from solids to liquids to gas. Either way, the group – already hypersensitive to noise and light – was spooked by a sudden movement near the Kino and rose as one, like a herd of startled wildebeest crossing the serenghetti, and headed towards Room 1. I was finishing a schooner and so I didn’t immediately follow which was lucky because, by the time I’d made it to the bar, the herd was on the move again, this time back through Room 2 and in the direction of the smoking area by the bowling green. Which is where we settled into a distracted stillness.

Our idyll was disturbed by an announcement that, following the meat raffles, everyone would have to leave Room 2. This was not a drill. It was prep for the Big Act of the night: Adam Harvey. (No, me neither.)

With everyone now squished into Room 1 we had to find a new venue, which is how I found myself in one of the queerest places I’ve ever had a beer: the Pub in the Club.

This enormous air hangar is part of the club. I didn’t realise it at first but I had been here before: it’s where they set up the stalls during the Opal Festival.

The feeling now was very different. The late afternoon sun slanted in through the shade cloth, lending an ethereal tint to the light. Sound disappeared into the rafters as the place is so high you could build submarines or airships in there. Although we were right next door to Room 1 we couldn’t hear a thing. The atmosphere was like one of those creepy abandoned Russian theme parks you see on BuzzFeed.

It put me in mind of the sets of Fifties sci-fi flicks about Roswell or Area 51. And yet … it was unnervingly attractive. Perhaps it was the ersatz urbex vibe, like we’d broken into a disused branch of the London underground and found a tube stop that no-one had visited in decades. We could have done anything in there; acid raves were suggested, as was an illegal cock fighting pit. It all seemed entirely possible in the plausibility-free zone of the Pub in the Club.

We ate chips and gravy, wandered around smoking rollies, marvelling at our good fortune.

The decor added to the visual dissonance. John Murray murals sat next to an olde worlde outback-themed bar, with super-low-quality tellies and a pair of speakers repurposed from a 90s hi-fi.

Piles of stuff sat around: kids’ sumo suits, crates that looked like they may contain body parts, cans of cooking oil.

And, of course, a genuine Louis Quatorze throne, of which we availed ourselves.

Even the men’s bogs were extraordinary. Is it just me or is that a big surprised face?

There was some discussion as to whether it looked like the digital animations to Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing video. That seemed possible when trying to remember it while drunk, but when you’re sober the next day and you look at the video it doesn’t. Trust me.

Could I ever go back to the Pub in the Club? I’m not sure I could. It was such a surreal experience that perhaps it’s best left in the realm of one’s past, the kind of thing that one looks back on and wonders: did it actually happen or did I dream it?

Even with pictures I think it was all a strange – a very, very strange – dream.

Rodney Rude at the Bowlo

It’s Thursday, I’m on my way out after work, and Leon catches me at the door and he goes, “Are you coming to Rodney Rude tonight? He’s on at the Bowlo!” Leon looks excited. I look at him as though I’m considering it but in my head I’m like “No fucking way”.

And yet, and yet … When will I ever be in Lightning Ridge when Rodney Rude plays again? He is, as Leon says, an Australian legend. Sure, he’s a lot older than the picture on his Facebook page, which was probably drawn about forty years ago when he last rooted his way across the western districts (his words). But, aw, what the hell. I’m in.

I get to the Bowlo and the first surprise is the ticket: fifty-two bucks fifty. I’d kind of expected it to be about twenty dollars, so maybe I’m living further in the past than Rodney. Okay, deep breath and I’m in.

Rude ticket

There are about a hundred of us. The stage by the dance floor is curtained off and a littler stage has been set up just in front. A pre-recorded message warns us not to take photos or videos, so there won’t be any from here on in. But I do wish I’d thrown caution to the wind and snapped Rodney when he was wearing his gigantic purple foam cardinal’s hat during his “Catholic priest” set. It was strangely mesmerising.

Unlike the show itself, which is, frankly, awful. Leon claimed that I didn’t get it, something to do with my being a Pommie and drinking exotic beers (i.e. not Fourex Gold). He’s right: I don’t get it. The funniest parts are (a) when Rude forgets what he’s talking about and (b) when, midway through yet another rambling set-piece, the Bowlo tannoy barks an announcement to members and guests that the nine o’clock courtesy bus is due to depart. The look on Rude’s face. Now that makes me laugh.

He has quite a show, does Rude. (That’s what he calls himself. I’m not being overly formal.) He has an unfeasibly large number of daft props, some of which must have taken hours to make but only have one gag in them – such as the big mechanical puppet contraption of Rude rooting Pauline Hanson. And there are lots of jokes about people rooting each other, as you’d expect.

I suppose I must be a snob. When did that happen? I used to like those comedians that showed up on British telly in the Seventies. They didn’t swear as much as Rude but they were 11 out of 10 on the scale for racism, sexism, everyism. We’re supposed to feel embarrassed by them but Bernard Manning is still funny. I guess it was drinking all that fancy beer that made me middle class.

The place empties pretty quickly after the end of the show; the words “unseemly haste” spring to mind. There’s something poignant about the rows of grey plastic chairs, scattered where their patrons have fled the room before Rude has a chance to emerge from behind the purple curtain and charge them ten bucks for a selfie.

Rude aftermath

But do I regret it? Not a jot. When, in years to come, folk talk about the night that Rodney Rude played the Bowlo in Lightning Ridge I’ll be able to hold my head high, pull back my shoulders and say, “Trendsetters: I was there.”